The ‘new’ Sundance activates its community online, draws first-time sponsors

Each year, the Sundance Film Festival serves as a tentpole event for marketers looking to directly target independent film lovers. Next month, sponsors will look to deepen customer relationships online versus on the slopes of Utah. Here’s a look at what brands are planning.

What do DoorDash, Zoom, AMC, Documentary+ and White Claw have in common? They are five new sponsors of the Sundance Film Festival. Despite the fact that the 120,000-plus people who typically descend upon the festival will be staying home, Sundance and its sponsors are saying the show must go on.

Beginning 28 January, Sundance will be offering an online proprietary platform that will give indie film lovers access to its roster of films, and the chance to sit in on panels with the filmmakers, among other new activations. The aim is to provide one-stop access that offers the participatory element, normally delivered at Park City, Utah, to a global audience. It will also offer independent cinema-goers access to its films in art houses across the country via ‘Satellite Screens.’

Mary Sadeghy, head of corporate partnerships at the Sundance Institute says its 85% sponsor renewal rate remains intact despite the circumstances at hand: “The Festival's rapid evolution, including a nationwide expansion through a network of ‘Satellite Screens,’ has enabled us to continue our longstanding partnerships with the majority of our Festival sponsors,” she says.

“Almost all of our sponsors from prior years have renewed and leaned into the reimagined Festival. They are collaborating closely with our corporate partnerships team on creating and launching activations that will run during the Festival on our new, custom-built online platform to provide digital offerings on our ‘Main Street section.’” Park City’s Main Street is the main drag in where much of the action typically happens: brands leverage the high traffic area to create studios, lounges and parties.

Neil Carty, events consultant and founder of The Uncommon, a network of innovators and creative incubator, says the continued interest “has really proven that the power of community has become paramount to everything else,” he says. Carty says that it’s not about selling product but creating the desire among consumers to actively engage. “[Brands] must embrace those passion areas and bring people together in meaningful ways.”

Acura and Canon’s plans come into focus

Acura, a presenting sponsor and the official vehicle of the festival, now in its 11th year, has embraced the current challenges. “For Acura, our presence at the Festival has always been about creating immersive experiences that celebrate independent thinkers and align with Acura as a challenger brand,” says Greg Dewein, Manager, Acura Regional Marketing.

Part of its sponsorship activation in years past was to create the Acura Festival Village, providing attendees with a place to rest and refuel, and meet and network with others. In 2021, one way the automotive company will seek to fulfill its mission is to bring both virtual and live film premiere events to the masses. With its home base in Southern California and a long-standing relationship with the Tournament of Roses Parade, Acura will be integral to presenting the live drive-in premieres at the Rose Bowl and Mission Tiki Drive-In in Los Angeles, says Dewein.

“This past year has been difficult and challenging for people the world over, so being able to share the joy of film and the creative arts is just one way we can bring some happiness to movie fans, while also supporting the Sundance Film Festival community and the immeasurable opportunities it offers the film community.”

Another longtime sponsor is Canon USA. Its relationship with Sundance began in 2011, and it is planning to leverage the event to connect with cinematographers, operators and others among the below-the-line community.

Canon is intrigued by the great potential that comes with the virtual event. Elizabeth Pratt, director, Canon ISB Marketing, highlights the brand’s ability to reach people it might not otherwise at a physical event: “Film crews often can’t travel to Park City – usually because they are off working on their next projects”, she says. “We’re excited to connect with an even bigger community of creatives, wherever they may be, in this remote world.”

Canon first debuted its dedicated space for the creative community, the Canon Creative Studio, in 2013. Pratt notes that plans are still being finalized for the virtual festival, but the overall goal remains the same. “The connection with our customers, and potential customers, is one of the best parts of our Sundance experience every year,” says Pratt. “We work closely with the festival to identify the camera gear that was used on Sundance projects so we can deepen our relationships with the below-the-line community. That will continue to be the primary focus of our activities in 2021.”

Overall, Canon’s Pratt emphasizes the need for marketers to focus on putting customers first and finding ways to deepen their connections with their community, especially under Covid-19. “As a company founded in expanding human creativity and helping people understand the world around them through imaging technology, we are listening closely to our customers on social media and through direct channels, and learning about their priorities.”