Creativity Brand Strategy

Acura, Aflac & Chase shift spotlight online as Sundance goes virtual during omicron surge

By Shahnaz Mahmud | Freelancer

January 19, 2022 | 8 min read

The Sundance Film Festival was set to open tomorrow, bringing the apres 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 surged, two weeks prior, festival organizers made the decision to turn the event into a fully virtual experience for a second year. This left sponsors hustling to pivot to digital, leaving behind their high tech gear, shot glasses and handshakes.

Sundance, which is known for launching the careers of fledgling filmmakers into super stardom, the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, is a much-anticipated event for brands, too. The festival allows for some of the most fun experiential marketing and brand recognition platforms that exist today. Take the Canon Creative Studio on the main thoroughfare — Main Street, where you can handle state-of-the-art equipment and walk away with a professional head shot within moments. So, the all-encompassing question remains, how do you build connection without a live event?

This year, Acura, which is now in its 12th consecutive year as Official Vehicle and Presenting Sponsor, has created a dedicated site, It's virtual programming includes conversations and activities with entertainment and media partners focused on supporting diversity in film. The automotive brand is also debuting its first anime series introducing Acura’s Type S performance lineup, called Chiaki’s Journey. Acura is also sending hundreds of Acura Watch Party Kits filled with movie passes, snacks and Sundance-themed swag to customers, film students, up-and-coming filmmakers, talent and partners to enjoy the Sundance experience at home.

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Aflac's first film will premier on Twitch and Roku instead of in-person.

“While we were planning for an in-person festival and a live event space to debut our new anime 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 manager of Acura Marketing. “We worked across our teams to ensure we had a virtual space to host partner panels and creative content, and also fun and engaging ways to interact with talent, filmmakers and fans, while also adding some 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, film 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 nonprofit organizations, Outfest and Latino Filmmakers Network, and partnerships with highly anticipated films like 892 starring John Boyega and Connie Britton, as well as an exciting virtual debut of Acura’s first-ever anime 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 all about creating experiences that celebrate the diverse, creative independent film community and through our learnings over the past few years, we have innovated our partnership strategy to connect with film fans beyond Park City. As we evolve our Sundance partnership into the future, being able to connect with new audiences is key for Acura. And by offering unique, creative, and virtual programming that lifts up the independent film community we can further spread the joy of film, while also sharing our products and our story with new fans for Acura.”

Virtual Main Street gets crowded

Brands will continue to take up real estate on Main Street virtually. It’s clear that this year many of them are becoming a greater part of the conversation. In the Festival Village section of the Sundance Film Festival, brands have handled their own programming alongside that of the filmmaking community.

The majority of festival sponsors are providing a sturdy schedule of panels in a pivot to all digital done with relative ease as Sundance always built the 2022 festival as a hybrid option, says Mary Sadeghy, head of partnerships and co-director of advancement at the Sundance Institute. “They’re a critical part of the Festival community and play an important role in creating engaging content and offering audiences opportunities to learn more about the films and the film teams attached to them.”

Presenting sponsor Chase Sapphire and Official Financial Services, has gone down a similar path, partnering with the LA Times for “LA Times Talks,” which brings journalist Mark Olsen together with various film directors, cast and crew of films being shown at the festival daily. It will also offer cardmembers the chance to see nearly sold out 'dinner and a movie' private screenings.

Adobe, also a presenting sponsor and the festival’s Official Editing Solution, is hosting panel guides. For instance, 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 2021 panel discussion, “How To Get Your Film Into Sundance”, seeing filmmakers talk about their journey to successfully premiering at Sundance.

This is a good example of making a presence at the virtual event endemic to the brand, says Neil Carty, events consultant and founder of The Uncommon, a network of innovators and creative incubator. “The more education you provide, the more utility you provide people will spend time inside those virtual areas,” he says.

There are others: Audible, under the Sustaining Sponsors category, has teamed up with Variety to cohost filmmaker interviews. Media sponsor NPR is serving up the NPR Storytelling Lodge, featuring best-loved filmmakers and stories at this year’s event.

Aflac, meanwhile, will air its first ever short film “The Park Bench” on Twitch and Roku. Illustrating what Americans go through when an unexpected medical event happens, it named an official selection to the Brand Storytelling event at Sundance. The film was meant to premier at the in-person event.

Still, Carty says, ”My biggest concern right now around any of these types of things, whether it’s CES or Sundance, is how is the community that really thrives off of the commerce that happens at these events going to fare? Brands have to be asking: how do you solve a better viewing experience?”

Sundance is helping to tackle that. It has also created organic ways to integrate partners into its programming, says Sadeghy. For example, “presented by Acura” will appear on the morning highlight 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 tied to the “Daily Recap,” a recap of the prior day’s highlights and the NEXT Category and Audience Awards.

But what does a pivot like this mean for future festivals and events? Carty acknowledges that there’s always going to be this appetite to connect in person — and that there's no replacement for it. “Events organizers have to create opportunities for meaningful connection,” he says. So the question will be: what role do these tentpole events play in fostering that? For Sundance, it’s to great benefit that “they are actually distributing content where you can experience that content at home or inside a headset.”

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