Essay: Corporate Sponsors in the film festival arena

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Unlikely Partnerships: Corporate Sponsors in the film festival arena. Is the gain mutual?

Film festivals, places of convergence where creativity and business merge and industry professionals seek mutually beneficial partnerships, have much in common with and have often referred to as Field-Configuring Events (FCEs). This term was first introduced by Meyer, Gaba and Conwell and refers in particular to ‘places where business cards are exchanged, networks are constructed, reputations are advanced, deals are struck, and standards are set.’ Lampel and Meyer’s later study defined FCEs as;

…settings in which people from diverse organizations and with diverse purposes assemble periodically, or on a one-time basis, to announce new products, develop industry standards, construct social networks, recognize accomplishments, share and interpret information, and transact business.

In light of these studies and in particular the simultaneously ‘competitive and collaborative interactions’ nature of these events, this essay will examine the interrelationship between the film industry and other industries in the form of corporate sponsors at film festivals. The fine line between collaboration and competition provides grounds for a fertile field of enquiry. Competition at such events is multi-faceted; on an artistic level, filmmakers battle against one another for exposure and seek valuable connections for their future careers; film acquisition teams, producers, sales agents and distribution companies all enter the festival space with a specific agenda in mind, both attempting to outdo their competitors while also being open to fruitful collaborations. The same can be said of corporate sponsors at film festivals; these brands are also fighting to clinch deals, gain ultimate exposure and demonstrate their social, cultural, inter-industry engagement. The film festival space is a highly structured demonstration of capitalist self-advancement, a space with multiple agendas, for as Janet Harbord notes ‘film festivals are mixed spaces crossed by commercial interest, specialized film knowledge and tourist trajectories.’ In simultaneously catering to diverse demands, the space becomes in a positive sense, a hybrid, and in a negative sense, fragmented. The 2017 edition of the Berlinale provides a case study of the roles of corporate sponsors at such events and the way in which their hierarchical arrangement mirrors the goals behind the festival itself.

The first question we must ask ourselves is whether film festivals can be defined as FCEs, and whether ‘configuration’ really can be achieved for all the fields involved in such a diverse event. Lampel and Meyer refer to FCEs as ‘tractable settings bounded by time and space,’ events which generally run on a cyclical basis and are held in a confined area, but consistently bring with them novelty and difference, or in Lampel’s words ‘predictable unpredictability.’ This phrasing draws attention to the fundamentally contradictory space of the FCE, where the local meets the global, companies and freelancers interact and the familiarity of the event for regular attendees merges with the appeal of the unknown in the form of new content, breakthrough stars and filmmakers. The contradictory, nature of film festivals has led critics such as Harbord to ally them with the concept of Marc Augé’s ‘non-place’ however, this definition appears problematic as Augé’s definition of a non-place as a ‘a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity’ does not seem to accurately correspond with the fight that film festivals undergo to create their own identities or ‘brands.’ This ‘branding’ can be used as a means of attracting interest from cinephiles, key film industry players and corporate sponsors alike, who see their own interests, or often rather what they would like to be perceived as their interests, aligning with those that the festival promotes. Film festivals are also highly relational in the sense that they exist within a network of other festivals and that they have to fight to maintain relevance. This makes them, in contrast to Augé’s non-place, highly relational events, which strive to foster individual identities and build their histories through archive material. All of these factors represent efforts to create a solid foundation for a temporally concentrated event, which would otherwise risk falling into the territory of the forgotten. While it is true that ‘Event organizers […] have to reposition their event continuously in an evolving field context in order to maintain its status,’ this ‘repositioning’ often refers to keeping the event in touch with current affairs, popular stars and current hit films, thus maintaining market pertinence, rather than completely repositioning festival’s political standpoint for example. Therefore despite the converging vectors that constitute the film festival space, which can make it appear to be a precarious, ill-defined entity, it is in fact a highly organized means of arranging creativity and industry within the body of the festival while also arranging itself within a larger body of other competitor festivals. Therefore it is not only the festival space itself which can be seen as a FCE, but also the larger global multi film festival landscape, in which maintained relevance and continued success remain ongoing concerns.

It is precisely this driven, fighting spirit that underlies the film festival as a whole that provides such an appealing destination for corporate sponsorship. The potential for ‘disparate constituents to become aware of their common concerns’ is a unique and valuable trait of a creative industry event such as a film festival, which corporations can capitalise upon. It is in many ways the fundamental differences between the set-up of creative industries and that of non-creative industries that acts as such a USP for corporate sponsorship of such events as it allows corporations access to a unique, otherwise inaccessible atmosphere. Moeran and Strandgaard, with reference to John Hartley’s study, expand upon the structural differences between creative and non-creative industries in Negotiating Values in the Creative Industries: Fairs, Festivals and Competitive Events:

…creative industries cannot be identified at the levels of either industry or organisation since creativity is, unlike an automobile or sheet of aluminium, an input, not an output. Moreover, the creative industries have not developed common interest associations that might exploit their ‘creativity’ partly because creative workers are for the most part employed on a casual, part-time, freelance basis and thus develop ‘portfolio’ rather than organisation-based careers.

If this is the case, then the successful participation of non-creative industries in a creative industry event demands a behavioural change in the actions of the non-creative corporate sponsor in order to reap the best awards from the event. Despite brand status and brand associations that the consumer may have in the outside world, corporations use festival spaces as opportunities to become more fluid, redefining the cultural and social perceptions consumers may have of them.

Although a corporation can never function in exactly the same capacity as a freelancer would at a film festival, it can nonetheless attempt, with varying degrees of success, to employ similar techniques to the freelancer in order to become more fluid and open to change and new collaborations. In the Freelancer’s Guide to Corporate Event Design, Troy Halsey notes that ;

…because it is common for freelancers to be hired temporarily within corporate design teams to offset workloads, it is important to understand the corporate design model as well. Although the specific titles and responsibilities vary between organizations, their fundamental function is universal. Understanding these roles and structures allows you to be seamlessly integrated into an existing team when necessary – a characteristic required to be a successful freelancer.

The freelancer must display adaptability and after having presented and effectively sold himself/herself to the prospective employer, he/she must integrate into the existing team and fulfil a pre-understood function for a contracted length of time. When the corporate sponsor participates in the film festival, the organisation is already fully aware of the corporate set-up and has already established itself within this framework, but within this creative framework it will remain an outsider if it does not learn the mechanisms and potentialities of this event. While Diego Rinallo and Francesca Golfetto question ‘whether events can configure or just reproduce fields […]’ , stressing that the possibilities of reconfiguration lie in the hands of the organisers, it is arguable that the power to reconfigure is actually dependent upon far more than just the festival’s organisational body, for almost every participant is aiming to realise this aim. In this way, the corporate sponsor, as a participant, must actively contribute towards its own re-configuration rather than relying upon the festival body to realise this aim for it. Instead of dealing exclusively with the marketing and sales of its output products, it must also actively ‘input’, not only in terms of the financial contribution and awards it offers, but also in the creative presentation of an adapted brand image, which has been tailored to the event specifications to assure sceptics of its relevance within the given platform.

While parallels can be drawn between freelancer and corporate sponsors, it must nonetheless be acknowledged that the goal of ‘seamless integration’ noted by Halsey is not necessarily applicable to either freelancer or corporate sponsor within the setting of the film festival, despite its certain relevance to the freelancer employed within a corporation. The film festival space is one in which avid self-promotion is the norm and this quite clearly runs counter to the invisibility that would be achieved by seamless integration. In many ways this space can be seen as a unique, highly competitive advertising ground, in which purposeful visibility must be the aim. It is the hope of both freelancers and corporate sponsors alike that this purposeful visibility will give rise to an eventual ‘seamless integration’ of sorts; for individuals, the integration into collaborative projects or corporations, and for corporations, the creation of a sense of belonging and purpose within an industry that would otherwise remain alien and inaccessible to them. However, whereas many freelancers working in the film industry would see participation as essential for career development however, corporate sponsors see their own participation as a bonus for their brand’s image, but this would by no means be a necessary step to ensure the success of the corporation as a whole. Unlike freelancers, who are competing against many other film industry professionals, corporate sponsors will be represented in a peerless community in the sense that there is rarely more than one sponsor from the same sector at any one film festival, so there would be no need, for example, for Audi to battle BMW for its position as the superior automobile manufacturer. This lack of inter-sector competition within the festival environment allows the brand to focus all its energy on self-promotion. Despite differences between its participants, the festival

itself acts as a bridge between freelance and corporate set-ups; it is simultaneously an event that runs for a short ‘contracted’ length of time and must constantly fight to keep afloat and relevant, yet is also a corporation in its own right, which does not seek to blend into another corporation’s shadow, but merely seeks the backing of these other entities to realise its own aims.

According to Mike Robinson and David Picard events such as film festivals can be ‘viewed as liminal and playful practices, and […] offer ways of exploring and securing being, belonging and meaning in the world. ’ This assertion suggests an inherent discontent or confusion with the present state of the outside, non-festival world, for why else would there be a need to ‘secure being, belonging and meaning in the world.’ In other words such events present a contained atmosphere within which there will be possibilities for re-alignment or ‘configuration’ for participants in the outside world beyond the realm of the festival. While many brands engage in festival sponsorship with the hope of brand reconfiguration as a form of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility,’ the application of such terminology is debatable as its definitions are so diverse. While corporate sponsorship of a cultural event such as the Berlinale does fall within the remit of a ‘corporate expression of values’ it sits less comfortably within definitions that emphasize the term as ‘actions that appear to further some social good’ as sponsorship of an international film festival can hardly be said to be the most altruistic donation of funds resulting in clear benefits to disadvantaged communities. Understandings of the term differ between the opportunistic and the altruistic. The ambiguity surrounding the goals of CSR is in many ways a direct result of corporations’ diverse interpretations of it and reminds us that while emphasis is placed upon the corporations’ responsibilities towards society and outside concerns, there is always also a responsibility towards company stakeholders and affiliates. Rather than ‘[creating] an enclave to protect against the deracinating effects of global capitalism’ as Harbord suggests, the Berlinale as well as the brands engaging in ‘CSR’ there, appear to be using the advantages of capitalism on both a global and a national level in order to fund the construction of its deliberately multi-faceted identity. In many ways the festival is already the deracinated product of global capitalism and it embraces rather than shuns its benefits. While the EFM serves as a physical manifestation of capitalist mechanisms within the film industry, the presence of such a diverse range of corporate sponsors (see Table 1.1) demonstrates the festival’s role within the wider capitalist context.

The Berlinale recognises that it is just one of several destinations for corporations to direct their funds towards. The festival thus provides a clear example of the highly structured modes of sponsorship on offer and the way in which different types of collaboration are tailored to different types of corporation with varying degrees of financial support on offer. The division of the sponsors into these categories makes it clear what the sponsors will receive for their investment in the event and serves as a reminder that each donation is a strategic transaction. As Hannah McGill notes of her work on EIFF, ‘corporations are not exactly overflowing with spare cash either, and as anyone who has ever worked on a sponsored project knows, that kind of money comes with conditions attached.’ As a willing participant in this lucrative deal, the Berlinale has pre-empted these conditions and created the packages available on its website so as to ensure it ultimately has control over these stipulations. Table 1.1 clearly illustrates the different levels available at the 2017 edition of the Berlinale and the corporations, which opted for each level. The categories that demand less substantial sponsorship are tailored towards either smaller corporations or ones that are curious about sponsoring the festival but not ready to fulfil the demands necessary to become a principal partner. The Berlinale presents its sponsorship categories as such so as to assure that it is able to appeal to corporations at every level, while simultaneously applying stipulations that mean that only more successful brands with a wider reach and consequently more disposable funds are able to attain the higher categories. As such, the Berlinale has marketed sponsorship to potential corporate backers by positioning the different ‘packages’ in much the same format as ‘premium’ and ‘budget’ goods. By creating this format they are effectively ensuring that all of their principal partners are big budget corporations, which are likely to already have widespread brand recognition.

The Berlinale is ultimately also a corporation and must market itself effectively in order to guarantee that it attains the necessary corporate funding. Table 1.2 shows the 2016 edition of the ‘Facts and Figures’ sheet as the 2017 edition has not yet been released, which is made available online after each edition of the festival. This demonstrates the way in which the Berlinale uses numerical evidence to convince corporations that they should sponsor this festival as opposed to its numerous competitors worldwide. By enumerating and dividing the event’s participants, reach and media resonance into different sub-categories, order is brought to what might seem like a disparate, multi-purposed event, thus making it easier for the critical evaluative eye of the potential investor/sponsor to assess the festivals immediate value. In other words, the festival’s economic approach plays a key role in convincing the corporations that this is a business-to-business deal worth making. The quote taken from Peter Yeung’s 2015 Telegraph article featured at the bottom of the 2016 facts and figures sheet has clearly been selected to back up the numerical value of the festival on a global level, while allying the Berlinale with a specific agenda. Yeung’s comment is a clear attack of elitist festivals such as Cannes as he describes the Berlinale’s success in ‘[eschewing] glitz and glamour for a more challenging line-up.’ The inclusion of this comment on this information sheet, which is to be seen by countless potential sponsors is a strategic move as by introducing a subjective comment onto a fact sheet including primarily objective information, the Berlinale frames this opinion within the realm of the unquestionable, thus attempting to cement their desired identity.

The 2017 principal partners provide fruitful case studies of non-film industry corporate involvement in the festival, both in terms of the Berlinale’s targets and the aims and strategies of the corporate sponsors in this setting. One of the most apparent common denominators in this category is the nationality of the brands selected as principal partners. The 2017 edition of the Berlinale saw a veritable celebration of German brands in the form of the festival’s affiliations, with three of its four 2017 principal partners being of German origin, including Audi, a member of the Volkswagen group, Glashütte, a German watch manufacturer, and ZDF, a national TV channel. While film festivals traditionally were set up with the goal of local touristic promotion, as was the case with landmark festivals such as the Cannes and Venice film festivals, which were carefully orchestrated so as to draw in the largest possible pool of tourists, the use of corporate sponsorship is multi-faceted in that it is important that they both promote the national and are recognisable and consumable to international visitors. Brands such as Audi clearly fulfil this goal as it is both recognisable to the global audience but of German origin, whereas the other German choices would be less widely recognised by international audiences either due to their high-end artisanal status, as is the case of Glashütte, or owing to their exclusively national output, as is the case of ZDF, which by dint of its status as a national TV channel will inevitably be less widely recognised in the global arena. L’Oréal, the only principal partner of non-German origin however, enjoys wide global recognition and would, like Audi, act as a familiar symbol of global capitalism to the foreign visitor. Despite the questionable application of the notion of the ‘non-place’ to the film festival space, Augé’s comments upon the role of brands in fostering a sense of belonging and reassurance in otherwise unknown surroundings are pertinent here in relation to the festival’s location in Potsdamer Platz, a place that is arguably far closer to the ‘non-place’ than the space of the festival itself;

a foreigner lost in a country he does not know (a ‘passing stranger’) can feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, big stores or hotel chains. For him, an oil company logo is a reassuring landmark; among the supermarket shelves he falls with relief on sanitary, household or food products validated by multinational brand names. On the other hand, the countries of East Europe retain a measure of exoticism, for the simple reason that they do not yet have all the necessary means to accede to the world-wide consumption space.

Augé’s mention of the exotic luxury of multinational brand placement is particularly fitting in the setting of Berlin, a city once divided into both East and West, which now unified openly celebrates capitalism not only through its festival, but also its location within the city – Potsdamer Platz – a place which was specifically chosen for its status as a ‘no-man’s land,’ a space that had always been at a crossroads and which could be efficiently restructured to whatever purpose the developer saw fit or in other words repackaged as a new ‘product.’ The diverse interest of corporate firms in high profile film festivals such as the Berlinale can lead to some confusion and blur the identity of the festival through the various vectors that become part of its make-up. Harbord notes that there was an apparent ‘confusion of who or what [was] fronting the festival’ following its relocation to Potsdamer Platz in 2000. In the site that Harbord bemoaned due to its abundance of artificial, Americanized structures, several L’Oréal face cream billboards were being used to hide the construction site of the festival grounds, which were still only semi-built at this stage. Ironically, the introduction of large multinational marketing into a transitional festival construction site might well have been the only familiar aspect in the area to passers-by. After being heavily bombed in World War Two, in the Cold War era Potsdamer Platz became a ‘junction of the four power zones, which soon turned it into a black market area’ and the Berlin wall ran directly across the middle of the square. It is no coincidence that such a space should function as a backdrop for a festival, which also has convergence at its heart. The introduction of recognisable brand imagery into such a space acts as a way of providing visitors and indeed displaced locals with a sense of familiarity in an otherwise alien space, which has lost its identity to the erasure and rebuilding to which it has been subjected.

This notion of rebuilding or remoulding settings is also applicable to corporate sponsors’ aims of brand image realignment within the festival setting. There seems to be a hope that while the festival aims to bring order to a wealth of submissions and thus help new directions to be embarked upon, it will also help the positive fostering of a brand’s image through its involvement. This key aim of ‘keeping up appearances’ is clear to see in the online content created by the festival’s principal sponsors in relation to the Berlinale. For example, Glashütte, a German luxury watchmaker, which upgraded its sponsorship package from co-sponsor to principal sponsor this year has listed its participation with the Berlinale under an ‘engagement’ tab on its website dedicated to its collaboration with the festival. However, this ‘engagement’ is quite clearly also an advertising opportunity and the content provided on the site goes on to tie tenuous links between the film festival and its artisanal timepieces as can be seen in the following excerpt of the brand’s report on the ‘Berlinale Moments’;

Potsdamer Platz, home to the Berlinale, is ringed by iconic architecture and exceptional buildings. They inspire people. They tell stories. They are artisanal masterpieces and stylish beauties. And they have all of that in common with the timepieces from Glashütte Original. And so every day, in and around the Berlinale, we find images that combine in inspirational ways the elegance and perfection of the watchmakers with that of architecture.

This text excerpt is followed by a series of images bearing blatant product placement (see Figures 1.3, 1.4 and 1.5), in which a watch repetitively features in the foreground and the background is filled alternately with out of focus images or with landmarks that can be associated with Berlin, but would not necessarily make one think of the Berlinale unless given the explicit context.

Such images demonstrate the clear agenda of the brand, which quite plainly extends past the thin veil of engagement. This notion of ‘covering up’ is extremely pertinent here when we consider the comments made by Glashütte, which appears to be using the guise of ‘engagement’ to veil its blatant advertising at the event and make itself appear to be a generous brand in the eyes of the consumer so as to encourage further sales. The Berlinale also uses the presence of these brands to its own advantage, as the corporate sponsorship helps the festival to ‘cover up’ any lacks in the festival production budget.

Without its corporate sponsors and suppliers, the festival would be lacking many of the amenities it provides its guests. Audi, for example, provided the 2017 edition of the festival with a variety of automobiles, which were used as shuttle buses and official escort vehicles for the festival director, Dieter Kosslick, and to transport the stars to the red carpet. Automobile sponsors are many ways essential to the festival in order to ensure that the additional cost of transport did not have to be considered. The brand, a member of the Volkswagen group, laid a particular emphasis on the low-emissions given out by their vehicles (See Figure 1.7), which now seems increasingly pressing given the recent Volkswagen emissions scandal, in which Audi vehicles were also found to have been ‘cheating the system.’

This partnership is very fruitful for the festival and also allowed Audi a platform not only to demonstrate its vehicles in the format of ‘sampling,’ allowing guests to experience their products throughout the festival’s duration while outwardly showcasing cultural involvement. Dietmar Voggenreiter, a member of the board for Marketing and Sales at Audi AG, said of the partnership between the Berlinale and the automobile manufacturer in an interview about the pair’s partnership;

Effective sponsorship of the arts has been an integral part of our corporate activities for more than 50 years. Platforms like the Berlin International Film Festival are an impressive way to promote interdisciplinary dialog and to make it possible to experience the interface between art and technology up close.

This statement clearly draws upon the notion of visible collaborations as a means of self-promotion. It is notable that for Audi, like Glashütte, for whom the Berlinale is just one of their cultural sponsorships, this partnership is one of many possibilities in the arts and for Voggenreiter the focal point is not necessarily film, but the issue of general engagement in the arts sector. Despite this, particular efforts were made by Audi to accentuate the relevance of the car industry, and the technological advancements associated with it, in the world of film. The OpenHouse Berlinale Lounge played host to several events that demonstrated the links between the car and film industries, under the bracket title of ‘Automotive Industry Meets Film Industry’, including topics such as ‘Science Fiction as a Driver of Innovation’, ‘The Next Big Thing – Artificial Intelligence’, and ‘Virtual Reality and New Perspectives.’ These events, open to all festival participants and held in an informal environment created an atmosphere in which the car industry could actively demonstrate its engagement with the film industry. Here, just as Voggenreiter referred to the arts instead of specifically film, the car industry seems to have chosen to represent itself under the larger bracket of ‘technology’, thus demonstrating the further reaching inter-industry relevance of the brand. The Audi representatives, Mattias Ulbrich from the Audi IT department, and Sebastian Schwartze, Audi exterior designer, were the speakers chosen by Audi to represent the brand at the events, demonstrating a desire to promote the marriage of creativity and technical innovation in Audi.

The intention of such events is ultimately to advocate a blurring of the demarcation lines between industries and encourage the audience to perceive bridges between fields where they previously saw none. Dieter Kosslick notably highlights the dual benefits of Audi’s presence for both the brand and the festival;

The Berlinale is an incubator for creativity and new trends. The openness and inquisitiveness of Audi – to view the Berlin International Film Festival as a laboratory for substantive initiatives – opens up new possibilities for us.

Such a spirit of mutual benefit and interwoven interests is most clearly manifested in the lounge setups created for each principal sponsor at the Berlinale. This physical presence forces the festival participants into recognition of the brand, but interaction between participants and the brand can only truly be achieved if the brand creates events that appear stimulating to the festival attendees. As such, in addition to the Audi Lounge, which hosted the Berlinale Open House Program, L’Oréal introduced its very own ‘Atelier’ make up studio for the first time in 2017, Glashütte hosted the ‘exclusive Golden Bear Lounge by Glashütte Original […] a vibrant, pulsing place to be and be seen’ with a view of the red carpet and ZDF’s lounge functioned as the backdrop for daily trade meetings at the festival. All four brands took up these temporary, glorified ‘stalls’ so as to extend their visibility beyond strategic logo placement and demonstrate that they can offer the festival benefits beyond their monetary offerings, making them players in the field rather than spectators.

Ultimately it seems that the film festival, an event that can be accurately described as a FCE must offer a space for the re-configuration of the field and all participants ranging from corporations to individuals, while also constantly maintaining its own relevance through self-reconfiguration. Viewing the film festival as an ‘arena’ is particularly applicable because of the double-sided nature of the gaze within this setting – where spectators are as visible to fellow spectators as the spectacle itself. While films remain the main objects of exhibition, but it is not uncommon for professionals to visit film festivals without viewing a single film, prioritizing networking over viewing in a space where business and creativity coincide rather than collide. The complex relational structure of the festival between corporations and individuals is key to its definition. As Doris Ruth Eikhof notes, ‘…industry structure and action is always related to concrete individuals. This micro-macro dyad is thus a key aspect of the real-life context of managing creativity – and one that emerges from analysing work and production in the creative industries as transorganisational. While festivals and corporate sponsors engage in macro-micro relations to appeal to individual participants, the festival and its corporate sponsors are themselves engaged in macro-macro co-operations. These business-to-business collaborations

serve to strengthen both businesses’ stances and appeal to individual participants. The festival is therefore an event with mutual reliance at its foundation and the tension created between collaborating ‘macro’ bodies as well as that upheld between ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ entities keeps the potentially precarious event afloat.

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