Come for swag, stay for movies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Park City, Utah -- Unless you've been to Sundance, you're probably blissfully unaware that the real action at this indie festival has almost nothing to do with the movies.

The passive act of watching a film in a darkened auditorium can't be called "action" (in any non-cinematic sense of the word). And while closed-door bargaining sessions certainly result in big-ticket acquisitions - such as Fox Searchlight's purchase of Little Miss Sunshine for a record $10.5 million - they usually take place in condominiums, tucked away from public view.

There is no shortage of boisterous open-bar parties. But for the kind of kinetic hustle and flow that has come to characterize Sundance, swag suites are where the action - and most of the celebrities - can be found.

Sealed With a Gift. Stuff We Acquired Gratis. Stuff We All Get. The pursuit of swag - as promotional gifts with some vague, synergistic branding tie-in to a media event have come to be known - is a full-contact sport in Sundance. "I'm going on a swag hunt" is the refrain you hear again and again.

Swag lounges throughout town fete the famous, offering spa treatments, designer booze and valuable goodies. Done correctly, almost any next-big-thing filmmaker, D-list celebrity or one of their savvy hangers-on could easily pull in tens of thousands of dollars of luxury merchandise over the festival's 10-day span.

To get to the truth of the underground Sundance economy, an intrepid reporter - a nobody among somebodies - boldly attempted to discover how much swag one could collect in six hours spread out over two days.

The yield: more than two dozen products and services with a monetary value of $11,326.89. At the conclusion of the experiment, everything was given to charity (or in some cases, eaten or drunk).

First stop: the Philips Simplicity Lounge. Earlier this week, Chazz Palminteri, who appears in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, in competition here, browsed among various baby monitors, flat-screen TVs and home defibrillator kits - yes, the paddle contraption used to jump-start a faltering heart is "branding" at Sundance.

The swag bag included a Norelco Bodygroom - that is, a "manscaping" razor that effectively denuded a kiwi fruit during a demonstration - worth about $28, a Shoqbox portable MP3/WMA player/FM radio ($129.99) and an Aurelle LED candle ($19.95).

Up the street, the Self magazine Ultimate Luxury Lounge & Spa offered a baroque array of conspicuous consumables.

Podfitness.com, a new company selling downloadable exercise regimens from celebrity workout gurus, handed out a three-month subscription (value: $59.85). Pink, a subsidiary line of Victoria's Secret, threw in a pair of Bling PJ Lounger sweatpants with the brand's logo emblazoned across the derriere ($68). And Krull Vodka served chilled cocktails (value: $16 each).

According to Nekeda Newell Hall, director of entertainment marketing for Diesel Footwear, the upside of being the host of a swag suite is that such gift-giving circumvents the need to advertise.

"Our culture is driven by celebrity. Who's wearing what?" she explained from her station at the Fred Segal lounge. "When we come to celebrities on their turf, that's effective brand exposure. What we can accomplish in three or four days here would normally take three or four months."

And with that, she handed out a pair of Pony City Wings Low sneakers ($75).

A publicist who asked not to be named for fear of running afoul of her boss explained one of the unwritten secrets of the swag suite. If the swag hunter is told that "inventory is running low" and the product will be shipped to them later, that should be translated as: "You are not famous enough, so don't hold your breath waiting for freebies."

No such brushoff at the booth for Timberland - a rugged outdoor brand whose presence at Sundance was one of the few that made sense amid 5-foot-high snowdrifts.

A publicist there offered a pair of Kelson waterproof "Chukka" boots ($120) and a pair of men's Yellow Boot gloves ($40), adding that Robert Downey Jr. (who also appears in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) had recently walked off with a Timberland parka.

Companies scramble to find open retail space to set up gift lounges at key locations and then must hire transportation and product display services. "There was a lot of competition to get up here," said Hudson President Peter Kim. "And expensive. Minimum cost is $50,000 to secure the right spot."

Around 5 p.m., most swag suites shut down for the day. It was back at the Philips lounge, where press credentials were being handed out for other Sundance-related events, where a reporter scored perhaps the single most valuable piece of swag booty at the festival.

Inside a white faux-lacquered box the size of a large TV remote, a poker chip from the soon-to-open W Las Vegas Hotel, Casino and Residences with a face value of $10,000 lay in a velvet cushion.

$10,000?!

Turns out the chip was redeemable only as a discount on the purchase of a $475,000 W condominium, the publicist explained apologetically.

The only consolation was to open a $45 box of Godiva chocolates from the Self magazine luxury suite and indulge.

Chris Lee writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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