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Swag, Booze and One Utter Cooze: The Sundance Party Scene

Park City at night. Swag city!
by Chris Parry

There are a lot of levels of access at the Sundance Film Festival. For most people, you buy you tickets to four or five films, generally not the ones you wanted to see (because they’re sold out), but you don’t care because you’re at Sundance, and being at Sundance rules all. The next level up is the domain of people who are in the business – they buy a pass for a few thousand bucks, see probably the same number of movies (because they’re busy talking on their cellphones), and make it to a couple of swanky ‘invitation only’ affairs. The stinky old press is at the next level up, seeing a whole swathe of movies (because it’s their job), getting to precious few parties (because we’re not the ‘beautiful’ people), and scampering off to the press suite for free sodas in between. The fourth level are the beautiful people – the celebrities, filmmakers, producers, and actors – who are invited to every party, get tickets to any screening they want, go from sponsor to sponsor filling up on free products (commonly referred to as swag) and then hightail it outta here as soon as their picture has made its way to print. The beautiful people don’t know how good they have it. But we do, because over the last few days, we’ve been living la vida loca.

Parties at Sundance are not rare, but invites are. On any given night there might be six or seven different parties going on, as well as the same number of dinners, the odd special screening, a couple of receptions and joints with live music that are picking up the business from those that couldn’t get into anything. The usual Sundance party falls into one of three categories:

1) THE TINY, CHEAP FILM PROMOTION: Small films want attention too, so sometimes their publicists will put together low-budget parties that take place in a small room with a cash bar and a few plates of snacks. Anyone can usually get into these things, because the director is likely handing out flyers inviting people in the street out front.

2) THE BIGGER BASH: These parties are for larger films or film-related companies, usually combined with a couple of corporate sponsors, an open bar and a gift bag for you to take home featuring the sponsors’ products. These aren’t easy to get into, but they’re not real hard if you make the right friends and move in the right circles. When in doubt, line up, hope the party doesn’t take off, and wait for them to start letting in ‘filler’ people. That’d be you.

3) THE HOT TICKETS: The ‘high end of town’ parties are Sundance’s secret scene; the condo crushes, the distributor bashes, the magazine-sponsored mosh pits. These gargantuan affairs feature lush buffets, multiple open bars, a dance floor, a DJ, TV cameras, and a long line out front that you won’t get through quickly, even if your name IS on the list. To get into one of these things you either have to be someone special or know someone special. The reason why is that the guest list is a red carpet of A-list names, the gift bags are worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and the sponsors are forking out huge dinero to make it all happen.

So with all that in mind, let’s look at the parties we’ve attended in the last few days and where they all fit into the general scheme of things.

THE CORPORATION/FREEDOM FILM FESTIVAL: A tiny affair in a tiny room, I was turned away from this bad boy because I didn’t have my ID with me. Thankfully, tiny parties don’t feature well-trained staff, so when my hurdle turned his back to talk to someone, I slipped right by him and hit the free bar. It’s a rare thing for a small party like this to have an open bar, but they were asking for donations, which is fair enough. The Corporation is a great documentary that has been packing houses in Canada this past week, and looks to be hitting US screens in June – just in time to turn people away from another four years of Bush Inc. The party featured no real celebs, with the exception of Monsters Inc co-director David Silverman and the people that made the film being celebrated. But who cares about celebs at an affair like this – you talk shop, make contacts and hear from filmmakers who genuinely give a damn whether you liked their film or not.

PROJECT GREENLIGHT: What a crock this was. After queuing in a cold, icy back alley for nearly an hour, two of my group were let in, but I was refused because the publicists claimed they were “at max capacity.” Of course, the thirty other people lined up behind me seemed to have no problem getting in despite this massive overcrowding, and when I hooked up with my buddies next day, they politely informed me that the place never got more than half full. Thanks a bunch, Project Greenlight. Ben Affleck showed up and did his comedy schtick with the crowd for a while, thankfully without J-Lo in tow. Last year those two managed to nearly cause a riot when they showed up at the Project Greenlight shindig, but I guess this time around Affleck isn’t such a hot ticket. Who’da thunk it?

FILM SEATTLE: Taking place at the swank 350 Main, one of Park City's finest eateries, we were told ahead of time that the Seattle party would be a great place to fill up our stomachs for the evening. So we came, met some old friends from the time we spent at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year, and hit the buffet... only there wasn't a buffet. There were three plates of savory snacks. The bar was open, which is a great thing whenever it happens, but the celebrity scene was a little slow for the most part. Mare Winningham was present and accounted for, and the gang from Overnight, the documentary on the rise and fall of Boondock Saints' writer/director Troy Duffy were there, along with Rick McKay, director of the soon-to-be-released Broadway: The Golden Years, but for the most part celebrity skin was thin on the ground. The swag bags featured a vintage Seattle Space Needle pen, which apparently had been found in a room at the Space Needle where they'd been kept since the late 60's. Unfortunately, the packaging featured a big red $1.95 on the top, leading many at the party to believe that their gift was worthless... those who sell them on eBay inthe weeks ahead may find something altogether different.

PREMIERE LOUNGE/BEST THIEF IN THE WORLD: What a waste of time this was. Premiere Magazine has decided to mass book the Easy Street bar in Park City for the duration of the fest, and they're holding promo parties every night of the fest. Only problem is, while Premiere may be getting a good deal of exposure for this place for not a lot of money (they've got co-sponsors up the wazoo), they've given NOTHING back to the people at the parties. Drinks were $5 (what are the alcohol sponsors for exactly if we're paying for booze?), the music was good but the dance floor was empty, there was no swag at all, and the only partial celeb I saw was the fat guy from Haiku Tunnel - who brought his kid with him and dried his socks on the fireplace. Woeful stuff - two hours wasted.

TARGET/INDEPENDENT FILM CHANNEL: Usually a tough party to get into, the IFC’s bash this time around was far less celebrity-laden (perhaps Target isn’t a celebrity lure) and took far longer to get into, despite having our names on the list. But the party did still feature tons of free booze, a lush table of dessert food including chocolate fountains, and a great swag bag on the way out the door. Celebs included Kids in the Hall’s Mark McKinney and… uh… the chick who played Kimberly on Melrose Place. The swag bag featured an IFC watch, cashmere ski hat, gloves and scarf, and a copy of IFC Rant Magazine. Not enough to beat your fellow man over, but certainly a nice collection of stuff to remember the sponsors by.

DETAILS/SEAN JOHN/WILLIAM MORRIS: This sneaky little get-together took place in a fire hall in the residential part of Park City proper. Perhaps the swankiest do we’ve seen yet, complete with massive video screens, red chandeliers, huge dance floor and two long bars, this party was quickly discovered by the masses and swamped at the door. But getting in took far more than simply knowing where it was – you had to be special to get on this list. I won’t tell you how we got in, but it was certainly the coup of the festival so far. Celebrity appearances included Amy Smart (who touched my butt), Jeremy Sisto (who didn’t), Peter Fonda, Macaulay Culkin, Mark Ruffalo, Vera Farmiga (Adrien Brody’s love interesting Dummy), and a very sloppily drunken Johnny Galecki. I thought I saw Mena Suvari a bunch of times, but it turned out to be the 2Xist Underwear publicist instead. Sadly, not long after we arrived, the bar ran out of booze, with the bartenders admitting “we really didn’t get very much given to us.” That was bad, but not something that couldn’t be handled… until Paris Hilton and Nicola Charles walked their skanky asses into the room. Quickly turning the entry/exit corridor into a bottleneck, due to security staff who were convinced that Hilton and Charles couldn’t walk in without everyone else clearing out, the doltish duo also had a booth cleared out for them, then sat and pretended they were talking as photographers snapped them from two feet away. The rank stank of skank was all too much for most people with taste and the room soon cleared. Apparently there were gift bags on the premises, but darned if we could find them. Added to that, the coat check girl hadn’t been told how a coat check works before her shift, so every jacket was filed out of numerical order, and mine wasn’t even filed under the number I was given. People essentially climbed over the counter and found their own jackets after a while, leaving the lasting memory of the Details party being “a grandiose shitfight.”

THE SUNDANCE CHANNEL: What a bum rap this party turned out to be. Everything started off great - no long lines, easy entry with a ticket, fantastic food and free booze galore, but the devil's in the details, and the Sundance Channel party was severely lacking in those. First of all, despite a tradition of having the finest swag bags of all the parties at the festival, this year the Sundance Channel decided to make their swag better, but hide it from everyone except a select few. Last year their bag was said to be worth thousands, which had celebrities diving over one another to get their share in an ugly display of greed.
This year it seemed nothing was on offer at all, except 'sepia tone' disposable cameras - something I can't bring myself to use on a purely environmental level. It seemed odd to go from great swag to no swag, I thought, but as I supped of the sumptuous Stella Artois in my fist, I overheard something that irked me. "Here, quickly, take this ticket. Don't let anyone see it. In half an hour, go to the room at the back and get your bag. They're only for directors this year..." Just as well they weren't for actors, since those were pretty thin on the ground, though Scrubs star and Garden state director Zack Braff was in attendance, annoyed that the bar wouldn't serve him booze. He seemed more than happy when I told him his film was the best I'd seen at the fest so far, but a lack of beer meant he was gone in a hurry. Adding to the annoyance, the people that I was supposed to meet at the party were instead ferried into another room when they arrived, because the first room had been overcrowded. It might not have been so bad if there weren't six IFC Video cameras roaming around the joint, clogging up the works.
So I stood looking like an asshole for an hour before my friends found me. Odds are, the Sundance Channel party next year won't be nearly such a hot ticket. Sure, swag may be sleazy, but elitism and bad planning is worse.

THE RAYBAN/CREATIVE COALITION PARTY: The mark of a good publicist is when she knows when to stick to the rules, and when to let the rules slide. Case in point tonight when I was told "Yes, you can come in, but your friend can't without a ticket." Now, most tickets to Sundance parties are for one person only, though you can get a 'plus one' if you know the right people, but this was not only a single ticket, it also had someone else's name on top, as I'd been slipped the thing when one of my condo roomies left for his flight home. But this publicist didn't flinch. Instead, upon seeing my press pass, she gave me the wave through. I was in. But, unfortunately, my friend wasn't so lucky. But that's where good judgment comes to the fore. "I've got some friends already up there," I said to the publicist as I walked up the stairs, leaving my buddy behind, "so I'll just go tell them we're here and that we couldn't get in..."
Four steps later and my buddy was behind me. The publicist, realizing her party was far from full and that we weren't sightseers, waived the rules and let my friend in. It was the smart thing to do. It left a good impression of the people running the show, and it encouraged us to stay a while. There weren't many celebs in attendance - Garden State's Eldon Henson was around, as well as a few faces that rang mental bells, but not loudly enough to put names to them. Swag bags came out later, including Rayban T-shirts and a copy of Movieline's Hollywood Life - so overall, a small, pleasant, well run party was enjoyed by all.

THE PREMIERE LOUNGE/EULOGY PARTY: I'm really building a total disdain for the Premiere Lounge, and I'm not alone. Reports from other outlets have the joint begged as being the rudest party venue in town, and I'd already experienced the lameness of the Best Thief in the World Party a few days earlier. So tonight I decided to give the place another chance, having got my name on the list, with a 'plus one' to boot. We'd just gone to see Bernardo Bertilucci's new film, The Dreamers (which kicks much ass), then turned up at the Premiere lounge expecting no problems... only, there were once again problems. "We're full. Can't let anyone else in," said the security mook. "But my name is on the list," said I, "and the place is half empty. I can see over your shoulder, it's dead." The security mook did not budge, however, sticking to his story - "We've already given out 500 wristbands. We can't let anyone else in."
Now I'm starting to get annoyed, because even if he's let 500 wristbands out there, it's readily apparent that 300 have gone home. What are they, hiding in the port-a-potty, ready to return when we least expect it? "What if I just left my friend here with you, ran in and found my friends?" - Hey, it'd already worked once tonight.
"No. Can't do it. You can't come in," said the security mook. "But they have my condo key - I can't get in my house if I don't find them!" I replied, deciding that if I was going to go down, I was going to go down in flames. "No. I said no. You can't come in," said Senor Mook, thus sealing the deal that the Premiere Lounge is the last place I, or any of my colleagues, will be seen for the rest of this festival.

THE METHODFEST PARTY: A relatively small Burbank film festival, the Methodfest folks managed to put on a party that was one of the pleasant surprises of the fest so far. While there were no celebrities at all to be found despite a press release that dropped a dozen big names, and the gathering featured the worst emcee we've ever had the misfortune to see, there were plenty of positives to be enjoyed. The Cisero's location is always a nice spot, the abundant food and drink went down a treat, and the substantial gift bags (including everything from a T-shirt to Winterfresh chewing gum) made a good impression on those gathered.

THE QUEER LOUNGE/'HOMOS AWAY FROM HOME' PARTY: Leave it to the queer end of town to not only put on the best 'party' party, but also to be the easiest one to get into without your name on the list, while also handing out the best swag bag of the festival. The Queer Lounge has been a resounding Sundance success this year, with free booze-stocked 'mixers' being held every night of the festival (big shout out to Absolut Vodka and Tiger beer - hic!), most of which featured as many straight folks as gay. Sure, of course there are still plenty of Sundancers who wouldn't be seen dead in a 'gay party', but those that brave the possibility of being seen with queens managed to have a grand old time on the festival's only true 'dance' floor, a bar that never ran dry and swag that included the golden fleece of freebies - electronics. Sure, you had to fight off the occasional amorous advance from a sexually psychotic local Mary, but anyone who has spent a week or more in Sydney knows how to manage that. Overall, the best was saved for last, and this hetero man's man will be back for another evening with the 'girls' next year - you can count on it.

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originally posted: 01/20/04 21:37:29
last updated: 01/31/04 12:37:47
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