SWAG HEAP: GRASS ROOTS MARKETING AT SUNDANCE Image

Once I mention to people that I went to the Sundance Film Festival I know it will be a short time before I hear the question. That question is not the expected “Which stars did you see?” or the popular “What parties did you go to?” and it is not that rare query “What movies did you see?” No, amazingly it’s “What kind of swag did you get?!” is the guaranteed curiosity. Films, celebrities, and soirées always take a backseat to the free junk handed out at this junket. This is a hindrance for me for two reasons. One, I am not a star-gazer by nature so chasing them to functions where these items get distributed often is bypassed. Second is that I am not overly consumed with the acquisition of these items that fascinate so many.
Granted, part of this is a regional affliction. I live in the temperate zone and there is a limit to how many knit caps–the preferred promotional item at the festival–I will ever actually need. Consider also that when I don the head gear I look like an encephalitic longshoreman and you can see why I normally opt to trade these goods for a free refill on draft beer instead. The truth is most of the free items at screenings and parties are easily passed over. Can coolers, glow necklaces, note pads, key chains, mint tins—no wonder you find these same items clogging the shelves at the area gift shops, to the detriment of the local economy.
Anyway, my concern while in town was not for personal acquisition, but for tabulating which films did the best job at self-promotion. It was with interest that I paid attention towards what worked this year at Sundance and/or the ancillary festivals. Getting people to rave about your movie involves getting people to see your movie, and that starts with getting noticed. The thrust of a successful bid at Park City notoriety is based not on what ends up in people’s suitcases, but what films end up on the tongues of people in town.
The primary medium in town is the print campaign. At most of the movie venues you find the long tables with poker-chip-tower stacks of promotional post cards for the movies. This is the “book cover” marketing strategy at work, whereby you don’t want busy, overly descriptive cover art. The key is to grab a patron’s attention so that they will grab your card–flipping it over will allow them to find the synopsis and show times. The second prong of the paper drive is the poster, or handbill. Dotted around the ski resort town are 3-sided plywood message boards standing nearly eight feet tall and coated from top to bottom with every conceivable attempt by filmmakers to get noticed. Second tier marketing comes in the form of trinkets, clothing, and adornments with movie tie-ins that the public will either crave or utilize. The goal here is to have a product that will get the film’s title in the face of those who want to see movies, and it is widely known that there will be hordes of those at Sundance who are more than eager to look goofy wearing these items. By example, there were numerous women who were willing to walk a round with buttons that stated, “I’m Easy”.
The best measure of what actually worked in the bid for recognition is to look back after the proceedings and determine what lingers on the mind. Over the course of the eleven day fest the hands-down winner has to be the documentary Super Size Me. I doubt that a day went by where I did not have a glimpse of that title in one form or another. The team behind this push won the PR contest not by sheer volume, but because just about every step they made in a multi-layered effort worked for them. The film’s logo was a play off of the subject matter employing the red, yellow, and white color scheme of McDonalds in a cartoonish font that was instantly recognized. Their lobby cards featured a photo of director Morgan Spurlock with three dozen French fries crammed into his maw, and it boiled down the essence of the film.
Also working for them was their poster which had a depiction of a corpulent Ronald McDonald with a prominent dollar sign necklace. Once distribution kicks in they will not be able to employ the bastardized corporate logo, but during the festival, when all bets are off for ten days, it was a genius stroke. Even when battling for position on the menu boards around Main Street a partially obscured image of the bloated clown was identifiable. Spurlock’s PR team also handed out “un-happy meals” containing various items with the film logo, and by far they also won with the most ski caps worn around the resort.
But they were not the sole notables. Another documentary, The Corporation, a Canadian film exploring the far-reaching effects of multi-nationals had possibly the best logo (if “logo” is not an inappropriate term for a movie that indicts big business). Hard to ignore was their crisp silhouette of a besuited man in a fedora carrying a valise which then appeared to have graffiti additions of a halo and forked tail. This displayed the crux of the movie perfectly on posters, buttons, and other trinkets.
The Hit & Miss honor would have to go towards the Slamdance title, “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea”. While the movie poster (see it at www.deadtalapia.com) is an interesting collage, it lost something when gathered with a slew of other posters on the boards. The images blended and you lost the effect in the swarm of other movie insignia. Working better were the beach balls that appeared on the boards at the top of Main. The balls sported the movie title as well as an image of a fish skeleton, with the various bones formed by descriptive words from the film. This was a great tie-in.
An equally creative concept was one that many in the audience did not get to see because it was aimed at the media. Dirty Work detailed the careers of those who are employed in vocations many would find repugnant at best: embalmers, bull inseminators, and septic technicians. The film’s press kit reflected this theme as it was contained in a bright red HazMat bag, complete with the caustic warning emblem.
While the Sundance entry “Seven Times Lucky” tried to garner looks by placing the picture of star Kevin Pollack on a seven dollar bill, another smaller picture from an outside festival resorted to borderline bribery. At the base of the occasional poster board you could find CD soundtracks from “Conspiracized”, which played at the Freedom Cinema Festival, and inside the case was a dollar bill emblazoned with the arcane symbols from the title. Throughout the week I would see numerous dollar bills with the markings stapled across town. Even though they were committing a federal crime, the upshot is that they definitively knew what their advertising budget was going to be.
The last memorable effort I can recall was discovered late one evening. Coming out of a party around midnight I was forced to seek refuge in a public bathroom at the middle of Main Street. Peering down I was surprised to see the name of a film looking up at me from the trough. Looking around I could see that this was a concerted effort by a filmmaker as every urinal in the place had a sticker from the movie placed in it. This is certain to get your name out there to a captive audience, but I’m sure this enterprising auteur hadn’t intended on his work to be spotted by the likes of me in this fashion. Lets face it, as a film critic I piss on enough movies; I don’t think you want to set your life’s work up as a target in this way.

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