Volunteers outside of Eccles Theatre. Photo by Jonathan Hickerson.
Phoebe Joecks remembers the first day she volunteered for the Sundance Film Festival. Joecks is by profession a “freelance operations maven,” as she calls it. So when she volunteered at the 2008 Festival and was assigned to the Library Theatre, she already had a working background in festival logistics.
But to be on the front lines, volunteering for the first time at one of the Festival venues, can be daunting. It’s at the theatres, after all, where Festival patrons most often come face-to-face with Festival volunteers and staff. And it’s not uncommon for a volunteer, on her first day of work, to be asked a question to which she does not know the answer. But “I was just welcomed into the family” of volunteers at the Library, Joecks recalls. “It wasn’t like going to a new school; they just instantly welcomed you.”
Joecks extends the warmth she felt her first day at the Festival to new, fellow volunteers. She’s volunteering at the Prospector Square Theatre this year. Joecks is part of the Festival’s “vagabond family reunion culture,” as fellow volunteer, Brenda Berliner, describes it. On the whole, it tends to be a group of hardy, experienced volunteers who’ve either worked at or volunteered at so many film festivals they’ve formed a culture of their own, picking up old friendships where they were left off and adding new recruits to the group.
The Festival is a “reunion of the tribes,” as Sandra Hodnett calls it. The 2012 Festival is Hodnett’s tenth year to volunteer for the Sundance Film Festival. This year, she’s assigned to theatre operations at the Library. “I go to Sundance because it has that certain glamour, that buzz,” Hodnett says. “We’re treated very well, not to mention the perks we receive on top of getting to see the films—the clothing and the housing. And it just happens to be in a resort town. But truthfully, I go because I get to see people I work with every year. I get to hang out with them and work at Sundance.”
Sundance Institute works to create a culture of volunteers that prizes friendship and warmth. Emily Aagaard, the Institute’s manager of Festival volunteers, acknowledges, “Festivals all have a unique personality.” She often hears the volunteers saying that the Festival is well organized. “But at the same time what sets us apart is the friendliness and the personalized nature of the Festival,” she explains. “We’re an interesting combination of being well organized as a whole while at the same time we maintain a casualness. There isn’t that rigid style to the way we interact with our patrons and that creates more of a fun, laid-back personal manner.”
There are benefits to the culture of roving volunteers beyond friendship, however. Once a team of volunteers, who know each another from having been together at both the Sundance Film Festival and other festivals, reunites, their work styles at the Festival become intuitive and efficient. “A number of the people I volunteer with at Sundance I work with at other festivals,” Joecks explains. “You get a good co-worker and you establish your routine, and ‘this person is good at this’ and ‘I’m not so good at that’ and you learn to complement each other. You can figure out how to take advantage of strengths and compensate for weaknesses.”
Festival volunteers, who either volunteer or work at other film festivals, describe friendships whose arcs unfurl in a 10-day festival span rather than the year-long spans of more traditional professional settings. They have to pack a lot of catching-up into those 10 days. “Especially at Sundance, it really does become like a vagabond family reunion,” says Berliner, who is semi-retired and volunteers in the press and media office at Festival Headquarters.
Berliner has also volunteered at the Tribeca Film Festival, AFI Fest, Imagine Science Film Festival, and the American Black Film Festival. The friendships she starts at one festival and reignites at another aren’t just about getting to know one another; they’re based in a mutual love of film. Berliner says she knows many Festival volunteers who return each year because doing so “is supporting the films,” she says. “We talk about the films we saw at the other festivals. It’s like this college reunion.”