PARK CITY, Utah — Courtney Love was scurrying out the door of Kari Feinstein’s Style Lounge, a pop-up swag suite coinciding with this week’s Sundance Film Festival, a goodie bag heaving with free jewelry and spa treatments firmly in hand.
Inside, pop singer/reality TV star Ashlee Simpson, along with former “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” star Kevin Sorbo were halfway through their respective gifting tours. The two listened intently as a publicist described the unique benefits of a facial moisturizer with essential oils extracted from a swamp in Austria.
What had brought these random celebrities — who did not have films screening at the festival and seemingly no official business there — to Utah was anyone’s guess. But their purpose at the Style Lounge was crystal clear: acquiring expensive goods in exchange for a posed snapshot with swag in hand. The exchange functions as an implicit product endorsement that, much to festival founder Robert Redford’s chagrin, has become an intrinsic part of the Sundance experience.
“There are too many people who come to the festival to leverage their own self-interest,” Redford said in a panel discussion this month.
During the peak years of “Swagdance” — 2005 through 2007, just before the global recession made gifting prohibitive to all but a few lounges — the celebrity hunt for gratis handouts such as luxury skin care products, plasma-screen televisions, diamond-encrusted iPhone cases, cashmere socks and get-away vacations threatened to overshadow the programming that has made Sundance indie filmdom’s premiere destination. In those days, the ideal end game for swag suite mavens was to land a tabloid photo of a star cuddling the product being pushed on a celeb-watching page of InStyle, In Touch Weekly or Us magazine, or, to a lesser degree, a mention on a celebrity blog like JustJared.com or PerezHilton.com.
But thanks to the latest Information Age developments, the swag game at Sundance has fundamentally changed.
“It’s all about social media,” said Feinstein, who has operated popular gifting suites around the festival since 2001. “It’s all about getting your stuff into a celebrity’s hands and having him or her tweet it or Instagram about it to all their followers.”
When actor Mekhi Phifer stopped by the suite and posed with a $3,000 Polaris electric bicycle, Feinstein’s team posted a photo of him on Twitter, which Phifer promptly retweeted to his 41,000 followers. “It creates a new awareness of Polaris,” Feinstein said.
(The actor received a scolding in the blogosphere for live tweeting his prodigious swag haul that included hats, tequila, earphones and yogurt.)
Veronique Vicari, whose Jewelry by Veronique booth was prominently installed at the Style Lounge, can attest to social media exposure’s ability to boost the bottom line. She saw sales spike when reality show star (and Kardashian sister) Kendall Jenner put a photo of a piece from Vicari’s collection on her Instagram account. “I got about $3,000 in orders that day,” Vicari said. “That push was very effective. One Instagram can change everything.”
Down the street at the Ugg Australia “experience,” a cozy lounge adjacent to a ski lift in downtown Park City, boldfaced names such as Jennifer Hudson, Lake Bell, and singer-songwriter-turned-producer Alicia Keys (her film “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” premiered at Sundance) stopped by to pick up Ugg-branded cold-weather products and momentarily escape the winter chill. Ugg representatives assiduously live-tweeted the event and one bragged that the Ugg Facebook account had nearly 2 million followers.
“We don’t like to call it a gifting suite,” a publicist for the event said. “For Ugg, it’s all about the experience. When someone puts our boot on, our job is done.”
At the Eco Hideaway, an invitation-only suite tucked away in nearby Deer Valley, far less well-known brands touted their products. First-time Sundance visitor Michael Foster gave away roughly 150 of his Egyptian cotton men’s scarves — retail price: $125 apiece — in hopes that the word of mouth would help his fledgling company.
“We live in a celebrity-driven society, and nobody knows who I am so I have to get started some way,” said the Jamaican designer, who added that he asked an InStyle editor to tweet about his wares after checking them out.
“We do best in resort towns and at high-end hotels because the demographic is so successful,” echoed Madison Slagowski, the manager of Farasha, a traveling boutique, which gave Eco Hideaway visitors a gift certificate to its location at the St. Regis. Stevie Nicks liked a boot cover she saw at the gifting suite so much that she had her assistant rush over to procure one from the store, Slagowski said.
Swag suites operate with their own inexorable synchronicity. And by the end of the festival they had done their job of making the public aware of who got what: Paris Hilton nabbed a 70-inch Element Electronics flat-screen TV, James Franco and Naomi Watts scored Samsung Galaxy tablet computers at another while Octavia Spencer (at the fest with her acclaimed drama “Fruitvale”) signed a bowl of cream of wheat at a gifting lounge (for charity, of course). Victoria’s Secret model Allesandra Ambrosio got swagged out head to toe in an Oakley snow suit and goggles.
From her booth toward the rear of Feinstein’s Style Lounge, Jennifer Thomas, a representative for Resvology, a moisturizer that uses a “gene-activating molecule” to combat wrinkles, confirmed that she had handed out product to an eclectic grab bag of famous people including Abigail Spencer (“Cowboys and Aliens”), the potty-mouthed Canadian rapper Peaches, Billy Morrison and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” co-star Alex Lombard — a courtesy Thomas was all too happy to extend.
“We’ve realized the power some celebrities have,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Look at her in that photo. If she looks like that, and uses that, I want to look like that.’ It’s like instant credibility.”
VIDEO: A video guide to Sundance 2013
PHOTOS: Dramas in competition
PHOTOS: Films for sale