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My Sundance Experience: Or 'How I learned To Stop Watching Movies and Embrace Swag.'

Our own Chris Parry (left) shows off his SeanJohn swag with US weekly's David Keeps (right) at the super secret Sean John House.
by Chris Parry

If you've never been to Sundance, you honestly can not understand what goes on behind the scenes. For many people who HAVE been to Sundance, they still can't understand what goes on behind the scenes. In fact, some of the people who WORK for Sundance don't know what goes on behind the scenes. So this year, I set out to find out exactly what goes down in Mt Tinseltown this time of year, by putting movies on the backburner, ingratiating myself with publicists and corporate executives, and finding out that an extra suitcase isn't just a luxury - it's a necessity.

Imagine you're working in the marketing department of a new clothing label. We'll call it JohnSean to protect the innocent. Now, clearly you want your clothing worn by the kind of people who have paparazzi following their every move, because that puts your label in every newspaper and magazine. It puts your shirts on Access Hollywood and your shoes on E! Entertainment Television. It puts your headwear on Celebrity Justice. And the children will follow.

So how do you get your gear to the celebs in a quick, efficient fashion?

Simple. You give the stuff away. And you give it away at a place like the Sundance Film Festival, where the beautiful people gather like flies around doody.

This year I went looking for goods. I printed lots of nice new business cards, dressed like a filmmaker, buddied up with some friends who have been on the scene for a decade or two, and told them to "swag me." Little did I realize what was to come.

Here's the list of swag I came home with:
1 Phillips wearable digital camera
1 SeanJohn ski jacket with faux rabbit fur lining
1 set of stereo headphones
1 new Sims PC computer game, complete with expansion pack
1 cellphone hands-free set
4 hats of various descriptions, from cashmere girly stuff (courtesy of Target) to ski hats (thanks, IFC)
1 set of cashmere gloves and scarf (again, Target)
1 fleece scarf (courtesy of Yahoo)
11 CDs of music, from Howie Day (who I really like) to stuff I wouldn't listen to if I was paid to.
1 Black and Decker coffee grinder
1 critic's pen that lights up blue in the dark
1 pair of long johns and a tank top from 2Xist
1 Buddy Lee T-shirt from Lee Jeans
1 pair of Pony sneakers
2 tote bags from IFC
1 wristwatch from IFC
1 antique wooden Seattle Space Needle pen from Cinema Seattle (complete with 1962 artwork and box)
Countless magazines, from Details to Entertainment Weekly
2 Film Festival Channel T-shirts
1 Raybans T-shirt
1 leather laptop bag from Power Up
So many mints I smell like a peppermint factory
1 Tecante Tequila cap

... from here it gets a little tough to remember, but there's that much again that I've forgotten, and that much AGAIN that was left behind because we had no room to pack it all in our bags.

And that much AGAIN that I could have received if I'd stuck around at certain parties for a little while longer. And let's not even talk about the free food and booze.

Now, I'm nobody; a simple journalist with a penchant for free crap who can argue with a door bitch that I'm someone special, even though I'm not. Yet I came home with all this? How? And more importantly... why?

Well, reason number one is that I asked. A lot of marketing people, when approached by someone with a lot of press passes around their neck, will take the easy road and simply say "you want a T-shirt?" It sure beats arguing, and in the end the recipient will write articles like this one, so it's all good PR.

But sometimes it takes more than this. Like, for example, my trip to the Sean John house. There had been no sponsorship deal between Sean John and Sundance, nor was there a Sean John party for me to crash, and the house of swag itself was a small, unassuming condo in the hills surrounding Park City. There was no name on the front, no mass invitation, no way of knowing that this small place with an SUV out front was where to come for your free booty.

And that's why, when I walked in the door, nobody asked me who I was. Instead, they brought out three jackets, asked which one I wanted, then had their photographer take 'fashion shots' of me on the porch out back in my swank new jacket.

I'd found the place, thus I was worthy. That seems to be the credo. And it was still the credo back in Park City when I walked into the Phillips Lounge, struck up a conversation with Zooey Deschanel, and was promptly handed a digital camera by a third party. "Do you have a card?" asked the marketing gal. "Sure, here you go," I said, swapping the camera for a Hollywood Bitchslap card that had the poor dear wondering what she'd done giving product to someone who works for a common website.

Sometimes the swag came easily, like it did at the Queer Lounge Party. I walked up to the door, totally not on the list, flashing a badge that had got me into some other party but seemed to bamboozle the door guy just long enough for me to make a break for it. With a massive queue behind me, it was more trouble to catch me than it could possibly be worth to him, so he just let it slide as I slipped into the mob. I stuck around five minutes, before being chased out by a sexually psychotic male jeweller who wouldn't take no for an answer, only stopping long enough to have a swag bag shoved into my hand as I made for the car. Computer games, eau de toilette (aptly named FCUK HIM), stereo headphones, music, electronics of variuous descriptions... it wasn't a bad thanks for spending five minutes of my evening at a party, drinking two quick free vodkas, and escaping the amorous clutches of a madman.

Other times the swag is tougher to come by. The Details party promised much swag, but kept it for the very finish, rewarding only those who stuck around despite the presence of The Simple Life's Paris 'Icky' Hilton and Nicola 'Picky' Charles. By leaving when the smell became to rank, I missed out on an MP3 player, among other items. Bugger.

But while the swag is a nice aspect of the 'connected' Sundancer's time at the festival, it's nothing compared to the swag lumped upon the celebrities. Take for instance the time I spent at the XBox House, interviewing their VP of something or other while celeb after celeb walked in, was asked 'do you have an XBox', and upon saying no was promptly offered to have one sent out. Or Joe Pantoliano, hitting the Village at the Lift and filling bag after bag full of Lee Jeans, 2Xist undies, Pony shoes and more. When the jewellery starts hitting the bottom of the swag bag, you know things are going beyond mere product placement - these people are being given things merely because they're famous. And by being famous, they're the people who could afford to buy them most.

On the other end of things, the common film festival patron has no idea this is going on. When I'm picked up in a complimentary GM transport vehicle to come to the Fred Segal House of Beauty, the people I pass on the street don't know that I'm a simple shmuck just like them... for a moment in time, I am important.

Then, of course, I'm refused entry for not being important enough.

Of course, getting in amongst the swag isn't easy. In fact, it's almost a job in itself. The XBox folks gave me nothing, despite the feature article I'm putting together on the fuiture of faming and movies. Motorola House showed no sign of actual Motorola products, despite the three days it took me to get in. And the parties... the Sundance Channel party had a system that required you to receive an invite in the mail, then return the invite for a confirmation number, then take that number to the Sundance Channel offices where you would get your actual invite...

And after all that, the party really wasn't much good.

But the lure of free crap is just too much to resist, especially when you bring home your first bag cramped with product. If I'd have kept everything given to me, I would have had to buy two spare suitcases to take it all home. So, instead, I played Santa Claus for my condo roomies, who never seemed to get why I wasn't watching movies all day.

Over the course of eight days in Park City, I spent maybe $120. I ate free food at party after party, drank free booze until I could keep no more down, was driven around at no expense and watched movies for free courtesy of my press pass. And then I came home with maybe $500 in goods.

But it could have been more. Every party this year seemed to have a 'diversion' swag bag and a 'VIP' swag bag. The diversion swag would be okay, good enough to keep the crowd from bitching, but the VIP swag bags were stacked with the kind of things you just don't get for free normally. Electronics. Gym memberships. Holidays. Expensive clothing. Jewellery. And most of us never even knew they existed...

But I've no complaints. I'm all pimpin' style in my new Sean John gear, with my super luxury Phillips digital camera (pictured above), and my smart-looking IFC watch.

In the words of Joey Pants, as he greedily filled bag after bag with free clothing as marketing shills clusterfucked around him... "Cha-ching."

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originally posted: 01/26/04 12:48:16
last updated: 02/05/04 07:21:25
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