Sundance Film Festival 2016 Blog Post
Posted: Tue, 16 Feb 2016 15:41
Melissa Gueneau, Press and Marketing Coordinator at Broadway Cinema
As a film-lover, Sundance Film Festival has always been on my bucket list of things to experience. For the past 30 years, the festival has been home to some of the most exciting and bold independent filmmaking, as well as a hub for up-and-coming talents. Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson all got their big break at Sundance. But if the idea of discovering the next Steven Soderbergh before everyone else, spending 10 days in a gorgeous snowy mountain town, and the odds of bumping into Robert Redford wearing a woolly hat all sound dreamy, heading to Sundance can be a rather expensive affair. Flights, accommodation, accreditations, food, winter gear – all of it adds up pretty quickly, to the point where it becomes more of an investment than a wintery cinematic outing.
There are ways, however, to keep the costs down and still have a brilliant experience. One of them is by becoming a volunteer. This year, Sundance recruited over 2,300 volunteers covering all aspects of the festival, from snow shovelling, to ushering and ticketing, to running venues, to looking after industry members. To put it simply, the festival would not run without them. As part of my role at Broadway, I oversee some of the coordination for Mayhem Film Festival and volunteering at Sundance meant my trip could also be a learning experience – and what better place to learn than at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world.
The application process for Sundance's volunteering programme opens in August. You need to fill in an online form, not dissimilar to a job application. The volunteer team then gets in touch in November to set up a phone interview, after which you eventually find out whether or not they have been able to find a role for you. The whole process is usually complete by the end of November. If the timeline does seem a little tight for a trip in January, it is still entirely feasible, and if you are planning a trip anyway, you can still book flights and accommodation ahead of time. Where volunteering will save you money, is when it comes to film tickets. Depending on how many hours of your time you give to the festival, you will be rewarded with a full accreditation or volunteer tickets.
Sundance is very grateful to its volunteers and there are other perks for those willing to give it a go. In addition to access to screenings, volunteers each receive a branded jacket designed specifically for them, a full festival catalogue, access to the staff and volunteer party, special advance screenings exclusive to volunteers with filmmakers often in attendance, and a fair amount of free snacks throughout the festival. There is also Volunteer Appreciation Day during which the festival celebrates its volunteers with volunteer-focused short films in front of every screening and a party for volunteers only. Volunteers are helmed as "the real stars of Sundance", and if the tagline sounds cheesy, it does really reflect the perception from festival staff.
But what do you learn from volunteering at Sundance? Well, you learn a lot. Training is tailored to each role individually, but you will generally be given a sense of what Sundance stands for with an emphasis on the fact that you are now part of the family and that for the 10 days of the festival, you are the face of the festival. Ahead of your trip, your inbox will fill with volunteer expectations documents and information about the department you are joining. Most of it will sound like common sense, but there is a reason the information is sent to you, and it isn't in any way for patronising purposes. There is no culture of presumption at Sundance. The festival will never presume that you know how to do something, unless you have specifically told them you do. Everyone receives the same starter's guide, so the rules and expectations are the same for everybody.
And it really is in your best interest to give it your all. Everything you learn from your experience, you can pretty much bring back with you and apply to your day job – customer service, how to show initiative, team building, management skills, communication, not to mention anything specific to the role you are in. The more you give to your role, the more you learn, the more you experience the festival, the more you learn. And so does the festival. Feedback is warmly welcome and any mishap, mistake or bump on the road is immediately acted upon, possibly making it one of the best run festivals out there.
I haven't even mentioned the best part of volunteering yet – the people you'll meet. There are so many volunteers at Sundance that the diversity of backgrounds is impressive. Some people work in the industry, others just love cinema. It isn't hard to imagine that in a few years time, some of the people you met volunteering might return to the festival as guests. The story goes that David O. Russell used to be a driver for the festival. It's not just the other volunteers however, the whole film industry is there, and networking has never been so easy. Forget everything your parents ever taught you and speak to every single stranger you meet. You'll come back with a full address book and a few friends too.
You can probably learn a lot from Sundance by simply attending as a regular patron, but it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of the festival and trying to watch as many films as is humanly possible. Volunteering gives you a chance to see how it works from the inside and that type of experience is absolutely invaluable. And there is still plenty of time to enjoy a few parties and watch tons of great movies. Speaking of which, watch out for Tickled, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Birth of a Nation and Life, Animated.
But there must be some downsides? Well, temperatures will drop to -11C, your nose will start bleeding for no apparent reason, you will be woken up by the avalanche cannons, you will be out of breath every time to try to do anything remotely physical, there is a 95% probability you will return from your trip ill and exhausted, and you will be the only person of the festival not to have had your picture taken with Elijah Wood (or whatever actor seems to be going around at the time of your trip). What I'm trying to say is: Sundance is a winter festival. Not a British winter kind of thing, a real full-on winter weather festival. If winter and snow isn't your thing, but you still like the sound of volunteering, there are other A-list festivals with volunteering opportunities like SxSW in Austin, and TIFF in Toronto – both of which are much warmer and both of which will probably have Elijah Wood DJing somewhere.