The secret rulers of Sundance: Publicists

When news depends on celebrity sightings and interviews, publicists hold all the power

Published January 24, 2014 5:15PM (EST)

Aside from the nine theaters scattered throughout snowy Park City, the main hub of the Sundance Film Festival is Main Street, a picturesque slope lined with boutiques and restaurants that give way to bright lights and restless partygoers by night. Venues inhabited by casual moviegoers, film crews, sales agents, journalists, publicists and celebrities alike transform into private parties filled by those privy to Sundance’s secrets.

You learn about the secrets in different ways. “Do you know where L’Oreal is?” one woman asked me, as we got off the bus and I tried to orient myself in the middle of Main Street. “I’m sorry, what? No, I don’t,” I said.

L’Oreal is one of the many sponsors of the festival, a fact that becomes relevant because corporate sponsorships, one learns quickly, mean free stuff. “L’Oreal -- they’re doing free make-overs, girl! You need to check it out!” she exclaimed, walking away.

On Main Street, YouTube had a bar with large video displays. Hewlett-Packard set up a tent that always had dance music blaring. Stella Artois had a lounge where blond models in red dresses served free cider and beer. But by night, many of these venues close their doors to the general public, open only to supposed VIPs on the guest list.

In an ephemeral environment created specifically to peddle somebody’s agenda, whether it’s a corporation pushing a product or a film looking for good press, guest lists to these private parties, screenings and panels are guarded by publicists. And publicists, though they rely on press, are also wary of journalists.

Or at least they should be. At Sundance, where an anodyne celebrity quote can become news, the two groups engage in a careful dance where power is always shifting. At a party where I watched a man described to me as the Australian Bob Costas hit on a model, a fellow journalist introduced me to a publicist whom he described as a “big deal.” Without registering our names, she spoke to all of us and to none of us in particular. She pulled out a picture of her son and exclaimed, “Isn’t he so good-looking?”

“Let me tell you something,” she continued. “If you have a kid, and he’s not good-looking, you should put him up for adoption.” As she repeated, "He is so attractive!" it was hard to tell whether she was joking or not.

One of the writers with me laughed with her, but when we walked away, he turned to me and shook his head. “You have to kiss so much ass here,” he said, as we walked off to another party.

By Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at

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Films Journalism Movies Partying Publicists Sundance 2014