The Sundance Film Festival was due to open tomorrow, bringing the après-ski glitz and glamor of years past to the film community who had their parkas and boots ready. But Omicron changed that. As the number of Covid cases rose, two weeks earlier festival organizers made the decision to turn the event into a fully virtual experience for a second year. This left sponsors scrambling to go digital, leaving their high-tech gear, shot glasses and handshakes behind.
Sundance, which is known for launching the careers of rookie filmmakers into superstardom, like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, is also a hotly anticipated event for brands. The festival enables some of the funniest experiential marketing and brand recognition platforms in existence today. Take to Canon Creative Studio on the main drag – Main Street, where you can handle state-of-the-art equipment and walk away with a professional portrait in moments. So the overall question remains, how do you establish a connection without a live event?
This year, Acura, now in its 12th consecutive year as an official vehicle and presenting sponsor, created a dedicated site, AcuraWatchParty.com. Its virtual programming includes conversations and activities with entertainment and media partners focused on supporting diversity in filmmaking. The auto brand is also debuting its first animated series showcasing Acura’s Type S performance line, called Chiaki’s Journey. Acura is also sending hundreds of Acura Watch Party kits filled with Sundance-themed movie passes, snacks and gifts to customers, film students, up-and-coming filmmakers, talent and partners to enjoy the Sundance experience at the House.
“While we were planning an in-person festival and live event space to launch our new animated series and to host our partner panels and film premieres, we were also simultaneously planning for a potential virtual pivot due to the pandemic” , says Meliza Humphrey, senior director of Acura Marketing. “We worked with our teams to ensure we had a virtual space to host partner panels and creative content, as well as fun and engaging ways to interact with talent, filmmakers and fans, all adding joy and fun to the Sundance experience for those tuning in from the safety of their homes with our Acura Watch Party Kits.
For the in-person event, Acura had planned panel discussions with IMDb, Outfest, NPR, The Atlantic, and the Latino Filmmaker Network, movie premieres, and Acura Hour events on Main Street.
“Fortunately, we are still able to activate most of our plans, including important conversations with like-minded nonprofits, Outfest and Latino Filmmakers Network, and partnerships with highly anticipated films like 892. with John Boyega and Connie Britton, plus an exciting virtual launch of Acura’s first-ever animated series, Chaiki’s Journey,” says Humphrey.
Virtual programming offers a new dimension and the ability to reach new consumers, says Humphrey. “Our longstanding partnership with Sundance is about creating experiences that celebrate the diverse and creative independent film community and through our learnings over the past few years, we have innovated our partnership strategy to connect with moviegoers beyond of Park City. As we move our Sundance partnership into the future, being able to connect with new audiences is essential for Acura. And by providing unique, creative, virtual programming that elevates the independent film community, we can further spread the joy of filmmaking, while sharing our products and our story with new Acura fans.
The virtual main street is crowded
Brands will continue to occupy real estate on Main Street virtually. It’s clear that this year a lot of them are becoming a bigger part of the conversation. In the Festival Village section of the Sundance Film Festival, the brands managed their own programming alongside that of the film community.
The majority of festival sponsors are providing a solid schedule of panels in a pivot to all-digital achieved with relative ease, as Sundance has always built the 2022 festival as a hybrid option, says Mary Sadeghy, head of partnerships and co-director of the advancement at the Sundance Institute. “They are an essential part of the Festival community and play an important role in creating engaging content and providing audiences with opportunities to learn more about the films and the film crews attached to them.”
Presenting sponsor Chase Sapphire and Official Financial Services have taken a similar route, teaming up with the LA Times for “LA Times Talks,” which reunites journalist Mark Olsen with various directors, actors and film crews screened daily at the festival. . It will also offer cardholders the chance to see nearly sold out private “dinner and movie” screenings.
Adobe, also presenting sponsor and official editing solution of the festival, hosts panel guides. For example, Adobe will bring together established and emerging filmmakers from this year’s festival to discuss how “creativity, connection and collaboration” is a tool for empowerment. The computer software company will also bring back a panel discussion in 2021, “How to get your movie into Sundance,” seeing the filmmakers talk about their journey to a successful Sundance premiere.
It’s a good example of making a brand-endemic virtual event presence, says Neil Carty, event consultant and founder of The Uncommon, a network of innovators and creative incubators. “The more education you provide, the more utility you provide to people who will spend time inside these virtual zones,” he says.
There are others: Audible, in the supporting sponsor category, has partnered with Variety to co-host filmmaker interviews. Media sponsor NPR serves the NPR Storytelling Lodge, showcasing the most beloved filmmakers and stories at this year’s event.
Aflac, meanwhile, will stream his first-ever short film “The Park Bench” on Twitch and Roku. Illustrating what Americans go through when an unexpected medical event occurs, he named an official selection at the Brand Storytelling event at Sundance. The film was set to premiere at the in-person event.
Still, says Carty, “My biggest concern right now with any of these types of things, whether it’s CES or Sundance, is how the community that really thrives off of the commerce that happens at these events going to pull through? Brands need to ask themselves: how do you solve for a better viewing experience?”
Sundance helps solve this problem. It’s also created organic ways to incorporate partners into its programming, Sadeghy says. For example, “presented by Acura” will appear on the morning reel called “The Daily Show” which is hosted by festival director Tabitha Jackson, as well as alongside the US Dramatic and Documentary Competition Audience Awards. The same goes for Adobe, whose name is linked to the “Daily Recap”, a recap of highlights from the day before and the NEXT Category and Audience Awards.
But what does a pivot like this mean for future festivals and events? Carty acknowledges that there will always be that appetite to connect in person – and that there is no replacement. “Event organizers need to create opportunities for meaningful connection,” he says. So the question will be: what role do these flagship events play in promoting this? For Sundance, it’s very beneficial that “they actually distribute content where you can experience that content at home or inside headphones.”