Sundance Schwag: Party Promoters Blast Into Town

On the crowded streets of Park City, Utah, it’s difficult to leave the screening of a small movie like Friends

On the crowded streets of Park City, Utah, it’s difficult to leave the screening of a small movie like Friends With Money, directed by indie cult figure Nicole Holofcener, in a big limousine.

The movie’s star, Jennifer Aniston, spent the weekend in the company of her favorite accessory, her gay hairdresser, Chris McMillan; for press interviews, she was accompanied by her co-star, Catherine Keener.

And the crowds, normally more blasé, literally chased her limousine down the street at the end of the screening.

But while the film is attracting raves and may be one of the more viable products at the festival this year, it was quite possible to believe that Ms. Aniston’s followers were chasing after the Jen of “Who Told Jen?” and “It Should Have Been My Baby!” tabloid-headline fame, not the frumpy stoner maid and man-stalker of Ms. Holofcener’s film.

Because Sundance isn’t about films.

Sure, Gwyneth Paltrow was also in Park City—for five minutes, give or take a few, to promote a short she directed. Yes, Sting stopped by a Motorola party on Saturday night with his wife, Trudie Styler, who is promoting A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Absolutely that was Rob Lowe—whom Hollywood is buzzing about once again for his cameo as an agent in Thank You for Smoking—at the Self magazine swag suites, scoring a new BlackBerry.

But what about the biz? “Film Fest Flurry,” cried yesterday’s Variety—but that supposed flurry only confirmed news of the second film acquisition of the festival. Not quite a blizzard.

Between the C-list Hollywooders and the outer-industry culture hoboes, the real celebrity set and the few folks actually buying films must have been a bit lonely.

All around town, you could find Lizzie Grubman with her Power Girls; Trista and Ryan from The Bachelor; Jason from Laguna Beach; James Van Der Beek, late of Dawson’s Creek and not much else; Shannon Elizabeth from American Pie; Minnie Driver, who is supposedly performing a few songs at a party; the fabulous Bai Ling, who has been out every night till at least 2 a.m.; and that woman who plays Dr. McDreamy’s wife on Grey’s Anatomy, who went straight for the Kooba bags at the Marquee Hospitality Suites. And those are just the strivers you recognize.

There were plenty of transplanted New Yorkers just hanging out, too: Dori Cooperman, a friend of Ms. Grubman’s and a New York girl about town; Mandie Erickson, the proprietor of Seventh House P.R., who’d brought her friend Simon Hammerstein, the grandson of Oscar; Dani Stahl of Nylon magazine, who was hawking her Lia Sophia collection of costume jewelry and supporting her boss, who’d made a documentary about Good Charlotte in Japan; John McDonald of Lever House; and enough fashion and lifestyle publicists to found a new, heavily publicized country.

“Hi, I’m calling to get a car for Emile Hirsch and Carmen Electra,” one publicist squealed into her cell phone on Main Street. “I need the nicest one you’ve got.”

“I’m just here pushing myself,” said linebacker Dhani Jones of the Philadelphia Eagles. No real celebrity would ever be so blunt, but in a nutshell, he described exactly what everyone was doing here: getting photos of themselves out there, getting their names in In Touch, reminding everyone that they exist. After all, wouldn’t we forget that girl from the San Francisco Real World if she didn’t show up time and again to show her face?

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” THE D.J. SAMANTHA ROSEN ASKED an entertainment editor from Condé Nast. They were both enjoying a free lunch up at the Café Yahoo in Park City this weekend past. The entertainment editor was actually working, looking for future story ideas and cover subjects. Indeed, Ms. Ronson was working too, D.J.-ing at a party at Tao.

Everyone’s working on everything, and everyone wants you to know it. Movies, sure. But also: books, electronics, music, life-story rights and that most ephemeral product of all, lifestyle.

In other words, the tangible commodity being exchanged at Sundance is publicity. And Sundance is now just another blip on the cross-platform festival circuit, a stop on the party train, where people in the less-glamorous industries go to try to rub a little stardust on their cheeks, and hope it sticks.

Hollywood, in comparison to the other, less-hefty culture industries, clearly has the real money—no matter how loudly the trades claim it was a bad year. So publishers and agents and club promoters and musicians and restaurateurs and art dealers glom onto Sundance, hoping for some of Hollywood’s spare change. And get some they will, because every idea is fungible now in another form.

Case in point: Back in Manhattan on Monday night, up at the Guggenheim Museum, the Sundance Theatre Laboratory presented a preview of Grey Gardens, the musical by Doug Wright, Michael Korie and Scott Frankel that will open at Playwrights Horizons next month.

Sure, the authors admitted to a conceptual struggle with their adaptation of the famous 1975 documentary by the Maysles brothers. “As far as I know, a documentary has never been translated into musical theater,” said Mr. Frankel from behind the piano. “Once something is sung, it can no longer be fact,” said Mr. Korie. And the expert: “It must be historical,” the film’s (and musical’s) star, Edie Beale, who died in 2002, had written to Mr. Maysles of the forthcoming work. But come now: Fact? Fiction? In the post-Frey world, does it matter? Let’s sell an idea!

How long will it be until a movie is made of the musical of the movie? After all, didn’t we just see a film from the play from the film of The Producers? And how long until the one-woman-show version of Joan Didion’s nonfiction The Year of Magical Thinking is re-brokered by Scott Rudin and rewritten by Michael Cunningham for Christine Vachon?

Tina Brown and the Weinsteins and Talk magazine had it right about synergy and platform-agnostic and all that. They were just too early. Now anything can be anything, and anyone can be anyone. Polymorphous publicity.

AROUND 4 P.M. ON SATURDAY IN PARK CITY, AMANDA DEMME WAS RUNNING around the W Hotel Lounge at the Village at “The Lift” at the bottom of Main Street. A bi-level heated tent—the kind you find in Bryant Park during Fashion Week, where W Hotels gives out free drinks and, in the case of Utah, white golf pencils as well—the W Lounge was going to be the place to be Saturday night of the Sundance Film Festival.

Ms. Demme, the widow of the late Ted Demme, is a West Coast fixture, their Amy Sacco. With Teddy’s at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, she has made nightlife in Los Angeles hot again. Recently, she sealed a deal with W to create lounges in many of the chain’s hotels. She had flown in specifically for this event (reported cost: $700,000) tied to the Sundance Film Festival, which was being used—go figure—to publicize and market the W Hotel’s new residences in Las Vegas.

Ms. Aniston’s co-stars—Catherine Keener, Jason Isaacs, Scott Caan and the experimental-theater guru Simon McBurney—posed for photographs and chatted with journalists on the makeshift stairwell, while Ms. Demme prepared vigorously and obliviously on a couch, surrounded with various headset-clad assistants.

A small-hipped woman with wavy, dark, curly hair, she had winnowed the list down to 110, telling people there would be “absolutely no plus-ones” and that she would vet everyone at the door if necessary. (Her own publicist was apparently not even invited.) Ms. Demme had also flown in several New York party promoters: Richie Akiva, Scott Sartiano of Butter and Eugene Remm. Meanwhile, their rival, Noah Tepperberg of Marquee, had opened a version of Tao in a huge dive bar a few blocks up.

“They’re all here doing this one little party,” said Mr. Remm as he surveyed the movie publicists, photographers and hangers-on, who were equally oblivious to the preparations going on for that evening. A handsome twentysomething with a shaved head who has previously been linked to Shannen Doherty, Mr. Remm works for Level V in the meatpacking district, getting the Lindsay Lohans and Wilmer Valderramas into the club—and then, of course, into Us Weekly.

And the fact that there were probably more people planning the W Hotel event than had supposedly been invited to attend was not lost on him. Nor was the idea that he had traveled across the country to attend a film festival with no intention of even seeing a movie.

“I don’t even know where they take place,” Mr. Remm said. “I honestly wouldn’t know where to start.”

THE W LOUNGE IS ALL PART OF A LARGER COMPLEX for which celebrities and their entourages must be credentialed. There is a Yahoo diner, where the food (naturally) is free and, while the celebrities snack on mac ’n’ cheese, a publicist keeps tabs on the spellings of their names in order to feed what they ordered to the gossip columns; a Philips Electronics lounge, where select celebrities receive things like Sonicare toothbrushes and electronic razors; a Fred Segal “store” offering Le Tigre, Timberland and Rocawear products; and an Uggs “showroom.”

When an unsuspecting couple strolled up to the Uggs store on Sunday afternoon, hoping to just purchase a pair—they were perhaps the only couple in Park City for the weekend who didn’t know the meaning of schwag—a security guard laughed in their faces. “There is nothing for sale here,” he said, then turned them away.

Likewise, Americans, in general, seem nonplussed about what they’re going to buy and what they’re going to see—how else to explain the $26.8 million weekend intake of Underworld: Evolution? Despite critical acclaim, last year’s Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance, Forty Shades of Blue starring Rip Torn, barely even received distribution. As for this year’s festival line-up, so far only Little Miss Sunshine, a comedy about a dysfunctional family at a children’s beauty pageant starring Steve Carell and Greg Kinnear, seemed poised to truly break out after it was purchased for $10.5 million by Fox Searchlight.

As crowds exited a packed screening of Wrestling with Angels—a staid, unthrilling film about Tony Kushner which emblemizes the idea that to be truly successful these days, not only must you be a widely admired playwright, write a musical and work with Steven Spielberg, but you must also be the subject of a documentary—a small gathering of people were sitting on the tented ground outside the theater, eating cold cuts out of a Ziploc bag and playing travel Scrabble. They were waiting in the cancellation line for a screening of the Shorts Program IV.

These were not your typical Sundancers. Indeed, your typical festival-goers wouldn’t know that Bobcat Goldthwait premiered a movie called Stay (about what happens after a woman performs oral sex on her dog) or, perhaps, even who Michel Gondry is (Mr. Gondry’s follow-up to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, called The Science of Sleep and starring Gael García Bernal, has been another festival favorite).

Those festival-goers exist in the Sundance of Robert Redford myth: a place of discovery, a place where filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh could make their names.

THE NIGHT OF AMANDA DEMME’S PARTY WAS FRIGID COLD; it had snowed all day. Indeed, Ms. Aniston and her compatriot had worried they wouldn’t be able to get back to L.A. that night—remember, the real celebs don’t actually want to spend time in Sundance. But at 1:30 in the morning, Ms. Demme’s event was still hopping.

Maggie Gyllenhaal was on her way out the door, and one must give her some credit: Though she’s been popping up lately in Reebok ads, she was in Sundance in actual support of a film. In Sherrybaby, she plays a convict released from prison who wants to reconnect with her child (and, in the old Sundance tradition, she shows her breasts perhaps eight times).

Representatives for Levi’s would later boast that Ms. Gyllenhaal hadn’t taken any free clothes. As per their “gifting suite” regulations, she had given money to charity in exchange for the new slim-cut jeans. “That’s our exclusive,” the publicist said.

There were no other celebs, however, left at Ms. Demme’s party, but as D.J. AM mashed the Verve with Beyoncé, the room was full of dancing New York and Los Angeles transplants. The Bungalow-style filler was certainly not, one might think, part of Ms. Demme’s original 110 invitees, mostly because they wouldn’t exactly be recognizable to a Wireimage photographer.

But still, they filled a room, just as they’d filled the Motorola party up Main Street, and just as they’d filled Tao, which was at least five times the size of any other event space. And they’d all been there, privileged enough to go from Art Basel in December to Aspen for New Year’s and then straight to Sundance. It’s not the worst kind of life.

Indeed, Dori Cooperman—caught on her way into the Fred Segal schwag suite—might have summed it up best. “Babe,” she said, a glimmer of humor in her eyes, “would I ever miss a great party?”

Sundance Schwag: Party Promoters Blast Into Town