As the Sundance Film Festival's Loyal Attendees Age, It's Marketing to Millennials and Gen Z

The Sundance Institute launched a 2024 film festival marketing plan to grow its 18-to-34 year old fan base

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Five days into the Sundance Film Festival, the Sundance Institute added 25,000 new Instagram followers, bringing its total to 510,000 as of today.

The 2024 festival wrapped up at the end of January, and its marketing leaders told ADWEEK that right now, the stakes feel high. The festival faces an existential threat as its loyal base ages, and so it’s embraced a marketing transformation to encourage brand loyalty from millennials and Gen Z.

Its 2023 festival was the first time the Sundance Institute realized it had significant traction with people between 18 and 34. Since Robert Redford founded the Sundance Institute in 1981, the nonprofit has subsided with small marketing budgets. It’s different now that it finds itself marketing to new audiences. The hurdle has Sundance Institute’s marketing leader and its agency partner launching new social strategies and tossing out the years-old processes that slowed things down.

“That next aspiring class of filmmakers that Sundance wants to amplify? Those individuals live in digital and social channels,” said Tom Dunlap, chief content officer at Superbloom, the agency partner Sundance Institute worked with this year.

That’s why this year the festival’s marketing strategy was all about social media. The online strategy also made sense given the film industry’s expansion into platforms, influencer deals, branded entertainment and more. It wouldn’t make sense to eschew a social strategy when the Institute’s fans are mostly content creators, of various kinds. 

In 2018, at the time Kate Benay accepted a role as the Sundance Institute’s head of marketing, the entertainment industry was already acknowledging its convergence with the broader marketing and technology landscape. More people identify as content creators or film enthusiasts, regardless of if they use capture footage with cameras or work with iPhone footage. The streaming giants were also growing, and theatrical attendance was down.

The mission isn’t the festival’s legacy format. It’s about giving a platform to independent film

By the pandemic’s onset, Benay was two years into her job as marketing lead, and focused on changing the Institute’s marketing strategy.

So, when the festival went virtual for the first time in its history, Benay regarded it a catalyst for long-term growth. 

“It forced us to transform our entire business online and convince people to, quote unquote, come to the Sundance Film Festival, even though that would mean sitting on your couch,” Benay said. 

Traveling to Park City for Sundance comes at a steep cost to attendees. That issue, Benay said, makes the in-person festival inaccessible to most of its target audience. The Institute’s mission is to find, support, nurture and provide a platform for underestimated artists hailing from diverse backgrounds. 

“If we’re only connecting [filmmakers] to one particular type of audience demographic, then we are only doing half our jobs,” Benay said. “You can tell people, ‘Hey, Sundance is for you. But when it costs thousands of dollars to participate at all, then it’s really disingenuous,” she added.

The festival’s more cost effective online screening option means that Benay can honestly tell audiences that Sundance is for them. She also considers the way the Institute speaks to its audiences in its messaging and across social channels.

Why Sundance Institute reconstructed its marketing strategy 

Since she took on the role, Benay’s been building out a marketing strategy. The marketing budget increased after she joined. By then, the Institute decided to invest more seriously in full-funnel advertising and audience development.
This year, Benay deconstructed the festival’s Daily Recap production model. Until 2024, the festival aired the recap daily, in theaters. The longform news digest broadcast the previous days’ events, and the theatrical format relied on a 24-hour production window, multiple crews stationed across the event and footage in late-night post production.

“Then, at the end of that, the people that see it are mostly the people already on the mountain. Then we would show clips, maybe on social media and put it on YouTube … but it was really serving an audience that we already had,” she said.

Engagement at this year’s festival also mattered to the festival’s brand partners, who benefit from festival traffic in Park City and launch their own activations amidst the event.

“Fundraising at the festival not only enables us to host the festival every year, but also is a critical piece of our budget for running our year-round artists programs. We do our labs and a lot of the other work that eventually even feeds into the pipeline of the festival,” said Mary Sadeghy, the Sundance Institute’s head of partnerships and co-director of advancement.

Most festival sponsors have had a presence there for at least ten years. Sponsorship entails a donation to the Institute, and a separate cost for its activation. Partners independently handle logistics like securing space on Main Street and planning their own events schedule. Official partners include other festival nonprofits, like Women in Film, to co-host festival events at no extra cost.

What film festival marketers look for in an agency 

By the time the integrated content and production agency Superbloom pitched the Sundance Institute, the nonprofit knew it had to embrace a social-first marketing strategy. 

The content agency has an integrated production studio and outsources work to its community of about 300 entertainment industry professionals in various roles. Benay already knew Dunlap, from when the two worked together at creative agency 72andSunny.

“One of the founding principles of Superbloom was for us to take an entertainment-first approach to solving advertising challenges for brands,” Dunlap told ADWEEK. 

The agency’s hiring practices illustrate how advertising and filmmaking are converging. For instance, Superbloom’s head of brand content, Adam Milano, who previously worked at entertainment houses Live Nation Entertainment, and Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Superbloom successfully pitched the Sundance Institute’s business. Benay liked that the agency had experience in both the marketing and entertainment industries, its connection to a large freelance creator community and its integrated production studio concept.

Over six festival days, Superbloom created more than 20 pieces of content. Three ran each day across Instagram and TikTok. “You’re dealing with snow, you’re dealing with Park City … But we had some tools,” Dunlap said. 

He’d built a custom team with these challenges in mind. Winter Dunn, an independent film director who has presented films at other festivals, was Superbloom’s showrunner during the festival. 

“Look, I love change. Personally, I think you evolve or die. We just have to keep thinking about how we can do things differently,” said Benay.

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