All That Glitters

How the Toronto festival spins cachet into cash.

As the sun dips low over Lake Ontario on the evening of Sept. 8, a parade of paparazzi will descend on downtown Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall. At this year's gala opening of the Toronto International Film Festival, media from around the world will line the edges of the red carpet, eagerly snapping pictures of elaborately turned-out celebrities. Smack dab in the middle of this hype will be upscale retailer Holt Renfrew, which assured itself a central spot by buying exclusive rights to the red carpet. “Our logo appears on the carpet,” says Mary Pompili, vice-president of marketing at the prestigious department store. “The logo is there so that as the photos are taken, [Holt Renfrew] is part of that experience.”

Holt Renfrew's red carpet purchase is just one example of how corporations are increasingly devoting their advertising dollars to the Toronto International Film Festival Group, in the hope that borrowed glitter will rub off on their products and enhance their bottom line. Seduced by the festival's glamour and mystique, executives from across the country are falling over themselves to associate their brand with TIFFG. “Over the past 10 years,” says Heather Sinclair, director of sales and marketing with TIFFG, “we've had a huge ramp-up in terms of companies looking at us from a business perspective.” Even though it's still difficult for marketers to quantify the return on sponsorship investment, for many, the nebulous notion of brand alignment is convincing enough. Result? TIFFG is riding high. The group reported excess revenue over expenses of $166,313 in 2004, making it the only one of Canada's film festivals that is actually profitable.

Hooking up with the TIFFG doesn't come cheap. Now in its 30th year, the organization has morphed from a local startup launched on a shoestring $228,000 budget to a deluxe year-round initiative anchored by one of the most important film festivals in the world. With over a third of TIFFG's approximately $14.6 million annual budget coming from sponsorship, it costs a corporation at least $25,000 just to get its foot in the door. Major sponsors, such as Visa (linked to TIFFG since 1997 and a significant backer of the soon-to-be-built Festival Centre) sign on for multimillion-dollar deals built over 10 or more years.

What's more, it can be a challenge for companies to get their brand emblazoned on TIFFG's highest-profile events. Companies covet the right to sponsor splashy affairs like the gala premières, but TIFFG is loyal to its many longtime partners; it's rare for a new sponsor to secure that sort of opportunity.

Nonetheless, marketers are convinced that linking up with the TIFFG is a first-rate way to boost their brand profile and connect with a highly sought after consumer segment, especially when they compare costs with other international film festivals. The Sundance Film Festival in Utah restructured its sponsorship program four years ago, capping the number of corporate sponsors it would take to 25, and now charges US$150,000 just to be a so-called sustaining sponsor. To be a leadership sponsor requires a minimum pledge of US$250,000, while presenting sponsors can count on coughing up at least US$450,000.

For some sponsors, such as law firm Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, which has hosted a TIFFG gala première for the past eight years, the appeal is almost entirely the hyped Hollywood atmosphere. According to chief marketing officer Alison Jeffrey, the ability to hand out some 300 exclusive invites to a posh cultural soiree makes the sponsorship worthwhile. “Year after year clients call to ask to be invited to this event,” says Jeffrey. “It is very rare to find an event today where clients are calling to say please, please, please make sure I am on the invitation list.”

For most companies, however, celebrity spotting is not enough; today's sponsors are demanding a tangible business return. For example,, an online DVD rental company and a TIFFG sponsor, negotiated access to the festival's film titles and programming notes, which they can then share with subscribers. For Sleeman Breweries' managing director Dan Fox, the festival is “an opportunity for us to leverage a high-profile and unique property in the Toronto marketplace to get our brand in front of target customers”; in other words, Sleeman's ubiquitous beer bottle in the hands of celebrities and other movers and shakers.

The desire to be associated with the festival is so strong, in fact, that a number of companies host special events or create marketing campaigns specifically connected to TIFFG, even if they're not official sponsors. Take The Ultimate Sweet Spot at Polish Beauty Bar, for example. Brainchild of publicist Candice Best, the lounge gives makeup artists, DJs, hairstylists, photographers and gourmet food companies an opportunity to showcase their wares to film festival glitterati without breaking the bank on official sponsorship. Best hopes the lounge will be “a high-energy hub that generates buzz.”

But Best walks a fine line with her lounge. TIFFG benefits from the extra attention, but TIFFG is also extremely protective of its trademarked name, and of its sponsors. “We take a very aggressive stance in terms of overcoming ambush marketing,” says Sinclair. The festival is currently battling a New York-based company that is falsely representing itself as the festival's official gift bag provider.

The gift bag dust-up, along with TIFFG's huge jump in sponsorship revenue in recent years, points at something larger going on at TIFFG–the corporatization of the festival over the past decade. This is the first year that TIFFG even has an official gift bag distribution scheme. (Invited talent and media will receive gift bags from Jeannie Lottie, Preloved, or Heys, stuffed with everything from jewelry from Holt Renfrew to Purdy's Chocolates.) Sinclair says that in the past TIFFG resisted such gambits because “it hasn't been our sensibility,” but with the trend to all things commercial, “we decided to stop resisting and embrace it.”

With all this sponsorship success, is TIFFG risking its creative integrity? The recent hullabaloo over Air Canada's threat to pull its sponsorship of the Montreal World Film Festival if Michael Sellers' controversial film Karla was screened speaks directly to the power those writing cheques can wield.

But it's unlikely corporate sponsorship will influence TIFFG's film picks, even if it alters the tone of the event. After all, the festival's world-class reputation relies on its programming. Peter Simpson, CEO of successful Canadian film production company Norstar Filmed Entertainment and a member of the TIFFG international advisory committee, describes the relationship between sponsors and festival programming as “the separation of church and state. You sponsor the event, but you do not dictate the programming.” Sinclair concurs, adding that “our partners understand us. We haven't had any challenges with that type of thing.”

What's more, very few on the filmmaking side are balking at the shift to greater commercialization. Jonas Chernick, a young Canadian actor, screenwriter and producer, whose movie Lucid will be screened at the TIFF this year, believes that “anything that can help film festivals bring in money, bring in audiences and screen more movies is a good thing.”

And it's not as if the marketers want to mess with TIFFG's winning formula. Increasingly under the gun to prove their methods are working, marketing professionals are expected to gauge the return on investment for all their initiatives, even sponsorships. But it is hard to quantify the dollar value of, say, the goodwill generated by your logo. For this reason, as Sleeman's Fox describes it, “sponsorship dollars are increasingly difficult to come by. Go back a decade and there was significantly more promotional money in the Canadian marketplace than there is today.” Nonetheless, TIFFG's sponsorship is way, way up. Executives suspect the razzle-dazzle association is worth it, even if they can't measure it precisely. “It is a viable and unique property,” says Fox, “and that is what people like us are looking for.” That, and a splashy red carpet.