What's Happening At Sundance Film Festival 2023
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Welcome To This Year's Sundance!
January is always a special time for Park City, Utah. While the town is packed to the snowy rooftops, the slopes are, as always, practically empty – with Hollywood ski aficionados taking breaks from screenings to experience what I am being told is the best snow on the slopes in more than 30 years. It feels like a fairytale land with snow stacked taller than 5 feet (in fact - the snow mountains are taller than me!) and holiday lights still adorning pine trees. The ordinarily sleepy ski town has officially been taken over by film screenings and brand activations day and night.
The Sundance Film Festival is one of the largest and most prestigious festivals in the world, and this year is no different. In this blog, Hollywood Branded shares the rundown of what's happening at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and how brands can take a non-traditional approach to ad sales.
Sundance In 2023
Sundance has always been one of my favorite film festivals, as is the September (warmer) Toronto Independent Film Festival. The primary difference is that TIFF invites more commercial scripted films, filled with A-list actors, to debut and garner press coverage for both the film and the festival itself.
On the other hand, Sundance offers a unique film festival in that it has one of the highest celebrity turnouts and excellent press, featuring prominently independent and art-house scripted films and documentaries. If those are not your jam, then the branded activations by sponsors, including Presenting Sponsors – Acura, AMC+, Chase Sapphire, Adobe; Leadership Sponsors – Audible, DIRECTV, DoorDash, Netflix, XRM Media; Sustaining Sponsors – Canada Goose, Canon, Dropbox, Hyatt, IMDbPro, MACRO, Rabbit Hole Bourbon & Rye, Stacy’s Pita Chips, Stanley, University of Utah Health, and White Claw Hard Seltzer amongst others.
In reality, most debuting films won't become household names or be included in hotly contested award shows. A few will get bidding-war deals negotiated to air on this streamer or that studio distributor. Some films will become critical darlings and be raved about by film aficionados and Hollywood critics. A few have a real chance to become major hits.
The majority of the films, however, ultimately serve as vehicles to help build careers for budding directors and emerging and often underrepresented talent. Independent films allow stories to be crafted with more extreme characters (this is you Fair Play - REALLY, THAT ending? REALLY? come 'on, she's better than THAT.). Or more poetic with very few words spoken (hello, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, which I admit, despite beautiful cinematography, I am still trying to understand a timeline that jumps back, forwards, and sideways over and over again.)
Photo Credit: Rebekah Burgess | Dreamstime.com
A GINORMOUS Thank You To A&E Networks
I want to thank A&E for being such excellent Sundance hosts to me and my husband, Ian Drummond (who is also Hollywood Branded's COO). We were invited to join their team for a five-star stay and experience at the Montage in Deer Valley for Sundance's kick-off weekend events.
I have spoken and written about the power and importance of relationships in Hollywood, and A&E Networks is one of a few of our absolute favorites to work with. I'm not saying this due to the scrumptious treat we just received (of course, yes, they are going to be top of mind for some time - because, come on, I'm being treated to a fantastic trip, and I was brought up with a heavy dose of natural guilt and wanting to please flavoring all my actions), but because of the pure enjoyment of working with a company that genuinely is built with and led by solidly good people who are invested in making sure brands have positive - and innovative - partnerships.
Their team is consistently open to actively brainstorming and working with us to build partnerships for our clients, including brands with budgets of all sizes. Their President of Ad Sales, Peter Olsen, is actively involved in and encouraging his sales teams to think outside the box. As our day-to-day West Coast contacts, Heath Pisarcik and Jennifer Harris are included in my sincere thanks as they make our relationship great and enable fantastic integration partnerships to be built for our clients. They go the extra mile. And they are so darn nice. That is not something I can say of every network by any means.
When you hear "A+E," you may think just of the single cable network, but you would be missing their actual giant international global footprint. Their portfolio has expanded from A&E, History, Lifetime, FYI, Vice TV, Biography, and more to include talent management, custom production, podcasts, and even a DIY home improvement platform. Many of the shows they produce are licensed to air on other networks - including Netflix's Lincoln Lawyer. They create innovative and culturally relevant programming with enough content options to offer excellent fits regardless of the target audience.
Photo Credit: A&E Networks
A Non-Traditional Approach To Ad Sales
A+E holds a special place in my heart for one of my all-time favorite brand partnerships with B2B roofing company GAF and Duck Dynasty we built together almost a decade ago. Even back then, they were a phenomenal team, open to working with an independent product placement agency to build a robust brand integration not based on millions of dollars of committed media. In doing so, they won big, as we ultimately redirected a substantial amount of money to launch the brand partner's first-ever linear and digital ad after the client realized how great the integration indeed was.
The ad sales business is challenging, and cable networks have had a rougher time than most in recent years, despite the continued creation of some of the most popular - and smartest - content on TV. Brands, in general, are all jumping on the streaming bus, jockeying for positions in content that has high costs driven by just the fact the word "Netflix" is uttered in the same breath. And that does not make a successful partnership by any means. There are more options now than ever for brands to spend dollars, and the networks that are staying the same are losing out. There was a time not long ago when a TV network would only consider any level of paid brand integration if a fat media buy accompanied it. Something that is not always doable.
While I have no doubt that is still the preferred option by all - there is money left on the table that the more astute - including both A&E and one of our other favorite partners, AMC - are open to figuring out. We appreciate that.
These two networks want to innovate brand partnerships beyond the traditional :30 spot, leveraging the mutual benefits of co-promotional partnerships, licensing, and product placement integration.
This is a nice deviation from some networks and streamers, where everything is first driven by a 7 figure + media commitment. Many of our clients are either not national advertisers, have earmarked budgets for integrations, or have some test budgets for a specific product launch that may not include adding linear or digital media. More than half of our clients come from other agencies to have us provide access to properties that don't necessarily require a massive spend, and our agencies work in tandem to bring those partnerships to life. At the end of the day, brands still have good 'ole fashioned money to spend, and we greatly appreciate help in making that happen more efficiently with customized branded content solutions that hit the nail on the head and move the needle.
James Brown: Say It Loud Upcoming Documentary You Should See
Photo Credit: Eleftherios Damianidis | Dreamstime.com
As part of the weekend festivities, we were privileged to attend a private screening of select rough cuts from James Brown: Say It Loud, which will be airing as a four-part series later this year on A&E.
The screening included a thoughtful panel discussion with the director, Deborah Riley Draper, and the executive producer, Ahmir 'Questlove' Thompson (who directed the award-winning Summer of Soul). Despite being told that the film was still super rough with time-stamps and no color editing when it was introduced by President & Chairman of A+E Networks Group Paul Buccieri (who is also so incredibly welcoming and nice!), it was one of the best films we have seen so far this week. The roughness of the film in its current state was not a detractor at all - and it will be a stupendous documentary to watch. It makes you think, learn, and connect the dots on how truly revolutionary James Brown was and is still today.
While the film covers many topically and culturally relevant issues, one of my biggest takeaways was James Brown's own constant demand for perfectionism from his team and band members. Something which served both as a positive and negative and followed him his entire career. A single missed note, or a wrinkled stage outfit, would result in a band member being fined. He taught accountability, something more than just a little rare in the music industry. This idea of perfectionism resonated strongly with me. His bottom line was that his brand needed to be impeccable and that he wanted to make a good show that delivered precisely on the nose repeatedly - that was all that mattered. To build a brand that more than met expectations.
The genuinely talented in Hollywood and business still today bear this cross of being honored for their successes and then decried for their need for perfectionism in the next breath. Especially among women and minorities. You've seen this with Oprah and Ellen and so many others. As a female agency owner who knows the importance of the team getting it right to keep the wheels on the bus turning seamlessly without experiencing bumps and breakdowns, I live this myself with incredibly high self-set expectations - because that is how I managed to make it this far.
You do backflips to keep everyone happy, but you need the team to be consistently dialed in with minimal mistakes to ensure client happiness too. It takes work, and it can make enemies of those not up to the challenge.
Other documentaries that were previewed this week to garner PR that you should take the opportunity to watch include:
Michael J. Fox's Doc
Photo Credit: Apple Insider | Malcolm Owen | appleinsider.com
The David Guggenheim-directed Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie will be soon debuting on Apple TV and has so far received some of the absolute best feedback of any film at Sundance. He happened to make a stop at the bar of the hotel we stayed in, which had other agency execs I was with in having a case of celebrity crushdom. What he has accomplished in his life is truly amazing - far beyond his acting, with his own founded Parkinson's non-profit research fund topping more than a billion dollars from his efforts. Michael J. Fox has changed the conversation around Parkinson's single-handedly and may be the primary reason research is finally able to offer a cure.
Did you know Back To The Future was almost a totally different movie, where Marty McFly was cast as someone other than Michael J. Fox? Turns out that Back To The Future's director originally really wanted Fox, but the director of Family Ties, the series Fox was already shooting, was not willing to release him to star in the project.
As a favor, the director of the series finally relented, letting Fox moonlight and shoot the sitcom TV series in the day and the movie all night for two unrelentingly long months after the original actor proved to lack comedic timing. Fox became the king of the big screen, releasing both Teen Wolf and Back To The Future that same summer. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Judy Blume's Forever (Amazon Studios)
Photo Credit: Sundance Film Festival
You'll relate if you grew up like me chanting the words with friends, "We must, we must, we must increase our bust!” Talk about goal setting early in life - that chant (eventually) worked for most of us.
Davino Pardo and Leah Wolchok co-directed Judy Blume's Forever, debuting at Sundance and bringing tears to both men's and women's eyes alike, prompting numerous discussions around the desire to read or re-read both the youth and adult-themed novels. Far above any other writer, Blume impacted my generation, and my own life, by providing radical honesty and relevant stories that answered questions and bridged the unknown by writing about teen sexuality and all that happens when coming of age and the onset of hormones.
As a writer who was oftentimes heralded (or scorned) for being controversial, Blume impacted not only millions of lives of tweens and teens but became the inspiration for other writers who today continue to lead the fight of censorship while creating works of truth-telling around the world.
One thing to note - Lionsgate is bringing the full Judy Blume library they licensed to life - with Dear God, It's Me Marget releasing this April 2023. You'll be hearing that famous bust-building chant that will be the favored phrase of a whole new bunch of Tik-Tokkers (just wait).
Suppose you are a brand interested in targeting tween and teen girls. In that case, you should put these movies on the top of your list for product placement or strategic co-branded promotional media partnerships.
Hulu's Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields
Photo Credit: Hulu
The consensus is that the film is, well... a little long. Or feels that way with some repeat visuals. However, it is super eye-opening too. The good news is that with Hulu releasing it, you can take as many breaks from your couch as you wish. A household name worldwide, Brooke Shields lets down her guard and shares what it was like to be a child model who became a star in the controversial and sexualized film Pretty Baby at age 12.
That film set her on a path of Calvin Klein provocative jean ads that made the brand millions, to roles in films including The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love, which today would not be able to be made in the ultra-sensitive and more enlightened world we live in.
If you are a tennis fan, the reveals around her marriage to Andre Agassi will leave you with new insight into a relationship turned toxic through a lack of trust. You'll also join the conversation on speculations of 'who' the man is that she references from her own unfortunate #metoo experience. It's not like there is only one @$$ in Hollywood. But yes, it could be that same one that seems to be top of mind for many Hollywood actresses and who is already locked in a jail cell. She does not say.
Sundance Brand Partners
With more brands interested in leveraging storytelling and branded content as pillars for brand marketing initiatives, Sundance this year boasts over 120 brand partners with activations lighting up Main Street, sponsoring messaging at the top of film premieres and across digital platforms.
From B2B initiatives targeting creatives in the film industry to more B2C content-driven and experiential activations for general attendee pass holders, branded activations have included private hosted events, branded panel discussions, and Main Street publicly accessible sponsored activations that remain a central focus of the festival. Official Sundance partners have access to 18 different partner venues on Main Street for attendees to mingle.
Stay tuned for next week's blog, where I'll be continuing the Sundance conversation, giving thanks and gratitude some more as my fun at Sundance is far from over, and detailing more about the films that have debuted and the brand activations lining Main Street...
Photo Credit: Kevin Ruck | Dreamstime.com
Eager To Learn More?
Did this post pique your interest in Hollywood film events? Then you'll love these blog posts from our Hollywood Branded team!
- A Look Behind The Sign: The AFI Film Festival
- Indie Films: Product Placement's Hidden Gems
- An Inside Look at Indie Films and Brand Partnerships
- HB Round-up: Event Activations
- The Film Festival Circuit
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