Dylan Levy tells everything you need to know about volunteering at the Sundance Film Festival.
Imagine yourself volunteering at the Sundance Film Festival for the first time. It’s January in 2014. You’re freezing your ass off on day 4 after getting no more than 5 hours of sleep a night in a crowded dorm and you’re at the onset of one of the worst colds you’ll ever have. In spite of the perfectly picturesque ambiance of Park City and some marvelous films you’ve already seen, you’re starting to doubt it’s worth it. However, everything starts to change when you meet a few other volunteers whose immunities are just as low as yours and whose love for cinema and film festivals matches (and even exceeds) your own. But is it still worth it? I had my absolute answer when a co-volunteer asked me to come along to the premiere of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. In spite of the cold, the exhaustion, and the sickness, I knew it was all worth it as I stood up and applauded the best film of the decade (I’m all-in on that claim).
Plain and simple, volunteering at the Sundance Film Festival has been one of the most enriching experiences in my life, and I hope to go back as many times as I can before I roll over. Though I can only speak to my experiences as a full-time crowd liaison, there are many other departments in which people can volunteer. The film, corporate, and press offices often require volunteer hands on deck. Theaters require volunteer ushers and ticket takers. And of course patrons need volunteer travel liaisons to tell them when the next bus is leaving and where it’s going. For the record, travel liaisons have to stand outside by bus stops for several hours at a time, but their hours are also shorter.
Anyways, let’s talk about what it means to be a crowd liaison. Duties include the following: making sure people are in their proper places in line; answering any questions about the event, such as the film start time, celebrities in attendance, and/or theater capacity; and communicating with other crowd liaisons, theater team members, and theater managers. But above all, maintaining a professional and positive attitude with patrons is CRUCIAL. Customer service skills are an absolute must. Patrons are often cold, exhausted, sick, and impatient, so you need to be careful when you express your authority. You see a lot of “action” if you’re working in the waitlist line, which is basically cut off 30 minutes before a film starts. So if a patron with a waitlist number arrives 29 minutes before the start time, you must politely and kindly ask that he/she go to the end of the line. Sure, sometimes someone will argue with you for several minutes before storming out in anger, or compare your authority to that of Nazi officers, or even look up your email address on the internet and send you a message about how you suck at volunteering, but as long as you’re as professional and courteous as you can be, you’ll do fine. And of course, you’ll have some interesting stories to tell.
All volunteers receive certain perks, but those depend on what level volunteer you are. You can either be a full-time or sign-up volunteer. Full-time volunteers must work at least 80 hours (or how much is required by their department), but their credential gets them into an unlimited amount of films and they even qualify for festival provided lodging. However, volunteer alumni are much more likely to get housing, so don’t depend on it if it’s you’re first time applying to volunteer. Sign-up volunteers must work at least 24 hours during the festival, and they receive a volunteer voucher for every 4 hours worked, which they can exchange for a ticket in the volunteer line.
A certain number of volunteer seats are always reserved at each venue (the number varies per venue). Volunteers just have to get in the volunteer line at least an hour before the show starts and present their credentials or vouchers to reserve volunteer tickets. If it’s a screening with a lot of buzz, however, I suggest you get there MUCH earlier to guarantee yourself a ticket. But hey, if you can’t make that in time, you can always get in the waitlist line. And if you end up getting a spot, you just have to show your credential or voucher.
All volunteers also receive invitations to the Opening Night Party and the Volunteer Appreciation Party. The Opening Night Party is in a grand two-story space at the Legacy Lodge, and it’s the best opportunity not only to meet other volunteers, but even industry and film festival professionals. The Volunteer Appreciation Party is much smaller and more intimate. I’m not sure if all volunteers get one, but I also received an invitation to the Awards Night Party. If you’re not scheduled to work during that, you can meet several of the filmmakers and actors of your favorite films of the festival. It’s pretty much THE big party at the festival.
Films and parties sound wonderful, but you won’t be able to enjoy either if you don’t prepare yourself for the harsh climate in Park City. With the dry, cold air, it’s not about how thick your jacket is; it’s all about layers, layers, layers. Bring several pairs of long underwear, long pants, and several long shirts, sweatshirts, and/or sweaters. Yes, volunteers get those nice Kenneth Cole coats as uniforms, but you’ll need much more than that to survive. You’ll also need:
- several pairs of socks
- good, sturdy snow boots,
- a reliable snow/rain jacket
- a scarf
- a warm beanie
- chap reliever
- sleeping aids
- toothpaste and toothbrush
It will be cheaper and more convenient in the long run if you bring all these things with you, but you can certainly buy things like moisturizer, chap reliever, and sleeping aids at a nearby convenient store.
Staying warm and keeping your skin from drying out isn’t too hard; keeping healthy and preventing yourself from getting too sick (disclaimer: you most likely WILL get sick) is much tougher. I’ve volunteered at Sundance twice, and twice I suffered a cold. This year’s in particular was probably the worst I’ve ever had. And if you’re volunteering, you’ll be faced with a tough decision: do you see that one film you’ve been dying to see that’s showing late at night (or early in the morning) or do you go home early and get plenty of sleep before that 9 hour shift the next day? Unfortunately at Sundance you’ll have to choose one: films/parties or plenty of sleep. You can’t have both. A cold during Sundance is rough, uncomfortable, and downright miserable, but there are ways to soften the pain. First and foremost is, of course, sleep. Second is a healthy diet. Eat plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains and keep up your levels of vitamin C (thank you, volunteer hub, for providing plenty of emergen-C packets). I saw 18 films this year, but I exacerbated my cold by getting about only 5 hours of sleep every night and drinking a little too much alcohol at the parties. One day I felt so horrible I had to leave my shift early to rest in bed for the whole day. In retrospect, I would have rather forgone watching 3 or 4 films in favor of getting more sleep, but even with the worst cold of my life, Sundance 2015 was worth it as much as it was last year. It’s entirely up to you how you want to spend your cold-ridden experience.
Above all else, Sundance is also the place where eternal friendships are born. If you’re a filmmaker, you’ll most likely meet the next person to do that score for your dream project, or you’ll find a producer who actually “gets” your vision and agrees to finance your film. This is true with many film festivals. At Sundance, though, I’ve met so many other volunteers who are filmmakers, writers, actors, journalists, critics, and all-around film lovers, and some of them have become my very best friends. You end up forming a wonderful sense of camaraderie, especially if you’re a crowd liaison fighting against the cold weather (and a cold) to keep lines in order and patrons happy. And since volunteers aren’t even allowed to publicly voice their opinions of films, the only people to whom I can vent my enthusiasm or frustration are my volunteer confidantes. I occasionally envy the casual festival attendee or press and industry member who gets to see so many more films than I can. Perhaps some day I’ll no longer need to volunteer in order to afford to go, but just as a film crew bonds from the shared experience of making a film, so do volunteers in making a festival run smoothly. Volunteers are essentially the backbone of the festival, and I’m proud to call myself a Sundance volunteer.