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After two years virtual, Sundance returns in person with brands prioritizing experiential marketing

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Filmmakers, film industry execs, actors, industry insiders, film devotees and marketers will return to Park City, Utah this year for the Sundance Film Festival, which is being held in-person for the first time since 2020. The last two years attendees tuned in virtually due to the pandemic. While tuning in online is still an option for attendees, the focus is back on in-person activities and activations for the 39th annual festival, which will run from January 19th to the 29th. 

“We’re back, people are back in full force,” said Mary Sadeghy, head of partnerships and co-director of advancement, Sundance Institute, of the in-person activations that will once again pepper Park City’s Main Street. “We’re not really seeing a lot of engagement around hybrid or purely online [activations]. We have a handful of partners who are doing that but the biggest and most obvious thing we’ve seen is this roar to be back on the mountain and this excitement to be engaging in-person again.” 

There will be 122 brands on the mountain for this year’s festival, per Sadeghy, who added that there will be 18 different partner venues on Main Street that will feature a variety of activations including panels, parties, hot cocoa and even latte art classes, to name a few offerings. Brand marketers rolling out activations at Sundance this year include long-running partnerships like Acura, Adobe and Canon as well as newer additions like Stanley and Stacy’s Pita Chips. 

Over the last two years, sponsors appeared on a virtual version of Main Street offering more talks, panels and content for online viewers to tune into. This year, marketers are prioritizing attendees in-person on the actual Main Street. 

“We’re really excited to be back in person at Sundance 2023,” said Len Musmeci, senior advisor, business strategy, B2B product planning at Canon. “Canon will be in a new space in 2023, taking over the Park City Museum at 528 Main Street. The space is a haven for filmmakers attending the festival. Throughout the day we will host hands-on demonstrations of all of our cinema and video equipment, and provide various shooting stations throughout the space where guests can really test drive all the latest Canon equipment.” 

The brand will be focusing on its in-person experience this year, per Musmeci, who added that sponsoring Sundance allows the brand to offer “support to a community of artists that embrace our equipment for their films and projects,” said Musmeci. “We tailor our space on Main Street specifically for filmmakers, to give them a respite outside the hustle of festival activities.” 

While sponsoring the festival makes sense for brands endemic to filmmaking like Canon and Adobe, others like Acura see Sundance as an opportunity to “engage with a younger, diverse audience,” explained Meliza Humphrey, senior manager at Acura Marketing. “It’s a direct touchpoint to introduce next-gen Acura buyers and new customers to Acura’s full lineup of performance vehicles, throughout the streets of Park City and where festival-goers can learn more about the Acura brand and our challenging spirit.”

With brands focusing on in-person events, attendees and industry execs expect Sundance to be a return to normal. Or at least a return to as normal as an event can be after two years virtual and returning amid the ongoing pandemic.

“My sense is everything will be back to normal,” said David Anderson, agency partner and co-head of talent agency UTA’s entertainment and culture marketing division, adding that his division has been more present at the festival as more brand marketers have. “What we discovered four or five years ago is that more and more marketers were showing up at Sundance. They were showing up with the purpose of wanting to leverage content and storytelling as part of brand marketing initiatives.”

Anderson believes that will continue this year with marketers using the festival to connect via events like UTA’s brand leaders dinner it will host this Friday as well as other activations hosted by brands and agencies.

As for shifting focus back to in-person, while the “desire to partner with broader audiences is there,” noted Sundance’s Sadeghy, “experiences are hard to replicate in full in a digital environment. We have seen a big comeback because people are excited about engaging face-to-face.”

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