It might be movie stars and filmmakers that garner most of the accolades during Sundance, but the festival itself could not function without the vast network of volunteers behind the scenes. As the prominence of the festival has grown, volunteer numbers have also ballooned and now nearly 2,000 come from all over the world to assist festival staff in every aspect of the event, from theater management to ticketing, marketing, tech, transportation, and beyond. In exchange for their dedication, volunteers are granted a insider access and get a completely unique perspective of the US's preeminent celebration of independent film.
Those coming from far away who dream of being part of the Sundance Film Festival may see the immediate appeal, but if you're a local who views the festival as an inconvenience to the normal flow of life, you may be more skeptical. We talked to a few local volunteers to find out about their experiences and why you would want to get involved.
The Sundance Volunteer Experience
Cheryl Soshnik, Park City
A Park City resident since 1981, Cheryl Soshnik was part of the local crowd that's so crazy about Sundance. Living in Old Town--the epicenter of the festival--she was particularly impacted and often chose to flee town on bike touring adventures to Australia or New Zealand during January rather than endure the influx of people. That all changed in November 2006, however, when she realized she hadn't made her normal plans to to vacate town yet while reading an article in The Park Record about how the Sundance Institute was still looking for volunteers. "I figured if I couldn't beat 'em, join 'em and I signed up to be a volunteer," Soshnik says. "Now I love the experience so much, that I refuse to leave town until February because I wouldn't miss the festival for anything." In the 11 years that she's volunteered, one of her best memories is of the 2015 festival. After having a knee replacement done in November, Soshnik thought she'd miss out on her normal whirlwind of 20+ films since she couldn't stand long enough to get tickets and was still doing physical therapy and rehab. But , to her great surprise, she was awarded the honor of "Volunteer of the Year," which along with made her a sort of celebrity, came with a festival pass that allowed her to bypass all the lines.
While many volunteers switch up jobs year to year, Soshnik hangs on to her spot at the Pass and Package Office at the Main Box Office because, in addition to the hustle and bustle, she loves the staff and returning alumni volunteers. The festival has become such a big part of her life, Soshnik even dedicates herself to volunteering for the Sundance Institute during their Summer Outdoor screenings series and the Labs at Sundance Resort.
Sheila Raboy, Park City
Although she didn't volunteer last year due to other commitments, Sheila Raboy has also had a fair stint with the Sundance Film Festival and, like Soshnik, is now a convert. "I could never understand the attraction of Sundance until I volunteered," says Raboy. She's volunteered for a number of different local organizations and freely admits that while each has its rewards, none are as much fun as volunteering for the Sundance Film Festival. After her first year as a volunteer, she was selected to serve on the first Sundance Volunteer Board where she helped communicate the needs and wishes of volunteers to the Sundance Institute. This also included putting together online training for management and other positions.
Some of the perks Raboy enjoys include getting a cool jacket from sponsors of the festival and being in the middle of it all, from press conferences to free screenings. But, for her, the schwag and exclusive access plays a distant second fiddle to the opportunity to serve the independent film community. "The greatest surprise of volunteering at Sundance has really been the excitement and close up look at the creativity as well as personal interactions with the many movie stars and behind-the-scenes folks."
Kamaile Tripp, Salt Lake City
Though Sundance Film Festival's epicenter is Park City, there's no shortage of volunteer opportunities in the Salt Lake Valley during the 10 days of the fest. SLC resident Kamaile Tripp is newer to the festival, but she seems to love it no less the Soshnik and Raboy. For her, the people have definitely been the bright spot of the whole affair. "These really amazingly talented people come from all over the world to volunteer and you do become a family, especially when people come back year after year," Tripp says. "I have all these open invitations to visit everywhere." The prospect of meeting people from different places or getting to travel is a big part of Sundance, particularly now that the organization hosts a variety of other events in locales including Hawaii, Los Angeles, London, and Hong Kong.
Tripp knows her way around volunteering and has been doing it for years. But Sundance makes her light up when she talks about the upcoming volunteer party, the movies, and seeing all her friends again for the third year. "I didn't think it would be as good as it is or that we would be treated so well."
The Perks + The Commitment
While the Sundance Institute makes it a priority for volunteers to enjoy the festival, organizers do, 0f course, expect volunteers to work hard. Requirements for half-fest and full-time volunteers are the equivalent of a full-time job, with volunteers giving 40+ hours during either one or two weeks of the festival. Anyone is welcome to volunteer and because of the wide variety of jobs, there's something for almost everyone, whether you're outgoing and want to be in the midst of the filmgoer throng or would prefer something quieter behind the scenes.
Only volunteers who put in 40 hours/week receive the full benefits, such as access to the Awards Night Party and unlimited volunteer movie tickets. But all volunteers receive at least a credential (roughly valued at $200) giving them access to non-theatre Festival venues, a jacket, access to the volunteer party, and volunteer movie tickets. Housing and some meal vouchers are provided to full-time alumni volunteers, but first timers have to take care of their lodging and daily expenses out of pocket.
How to Become a Volunteer
Since Sundance has become such a huge affair, applications for volunteers open in August for the upcoming year's festival and alumni are given priority. But if you don't want to wait until next year to volunteer, there's still opportunities to get involved with the Sundance Institute, including at community events in Utah. It's a great way to get involved ahead of time and accrue some alumni points. You can find all the details and requirements on the Sundance Institute website.
Take a deep breath everyone, the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is almost underway!