Sundance calls on residents for help
October 10, 2008
Emily Aagaard doesn’t remember the films she saw the first year she volunteered for the 10-day Sundance Film Festival in 2005.
What she remembers are the people she met: dental hygienists from Nova Scotia, up-and-coming actors for Los Angeles, retirees, young professionals, reporters from national publications and a little girl with long brown hair.
Aagaard was directing foot traffic outside the Eccles Center and stopped the girl to ask how she was enjoying the festival.
Perhaps she was lost.
"It was Abigail Breslin from ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’" Aagaard laughed. The 10-year-old actress was later nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Oliver Hoover in the comedy about a family that takes a cross-country trip to get their daughter to a beauty pageant.
Today, Aagaard is the volunteer manager for the festival that has become a 24-hour global entertainment event. She says organizers still need 300 people to do everything from tear tickets, program computers, manage theaters, and sweep streets to deliver films to eager audiences. More than 1,500 volunteers work at the festival every year and more than half of them are locals. ( contrast, Sundance employs 190 paid staff members).
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So far, Aagaard says the weak economy has not dented the number of people applying to serve as volunteers, but the festival is reaching out to locals who can participate in the festival without having to pay for expensive flights or lodging.
"They’re ambassadors to the greater festival," Aagaard said. "They really play key roles. They are the eyes and ears of the festival. We don’t just have warm bodies." Sundance volunteers, who range in age from 21 to 83, are responsible for screenings that run from 8:30 in the morning until well after midnight. They receive Sundance jackets and movie vouchers as swag, plus they get to canoodle with old friends and get the inside scoop on the festival.
The average full-time volunteer sees about 10 films per festival, organizers say.
"It’s really a subculture," said Irene Cho, media relations manager for Sundance. "The volunteers know where all the best parties are."
Cho started her career at Sundance in 1999 as a volunteer. In 2001, she returned to the festival as a publicist for a film. A year and a half later, the institute gave her a full-time paid position. "People think you need a film background to volunteer, but that’s not true. The way for people to sample the festival for the first time is as a volunteer."
Oldest Sundance volunteer plans to continue service
Life is what happens to people when they’re waiting in movie lines.
Tony and Roxanne Lazzara have seen it with their own eyes at the Yarrow, Prospector and Holiday Village theaters, where they have volunteered as ushers for Sundance. "It’s great for people watching," Roxanne laughed. She jokes that locals can tell a Sundance crowd apart from others because of the color of their clothing. "Everyone dresses in black," she said. "We love it."
Roxanne’s husband, Tony, says he sees a lot of celebrities at the festival. He just doesn’t recognize them. At 83, he has the distinction of being the oldest volunteer at Sundance. He is 11 years older than festival founder Robert Redford.
Lazzara started volunteering at Sundance with his wife about five years ago. Now the couple looks forward to it every year. "I just like the ambiance," he said.
Among his favorite memories at the festival is the world premiere of Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," which played at Sundance in 2004. Gore attended the screening and audience members referred to him as "Mr. President," Lazzara remembered.
The Lazzaras are among about 800 volunteers who have worked at the festival for more than five years.
Bob Beer is another longtime Sundance volunteer. He has managed Sundance activities at the largest venue, the Eccles Center, for 14 years. He manages a total of 130 volunteers. A retired Navy captain, Beer says he will work 120 hours from the Sundance premiere on Jan. 15 to "Best of Sundance" screenings on Jan. 25. He will spend most of that time on his feet. "This is a world-class event," he said. "It’s sort of like working the Olympic Games, and we do it every year."
Participants can sign up to be full-time or part-time volunteers. The festival throws an opening night party for volunteers and reimburses some travel expenses for those coming from out of town. Volunteers hear whether they are accepted by mid-November and can do some training over the Internet.
Sundance has added an extra day for Summit County residents to purchase ticket packages and expanded the inventory of available films, parties and question-and-answer sessions available to locals, organizers.
Applicants were notified Wednesday of specific time slots between Oct. 21 and 24 to purchase the packages. "Don’t abandon your time slots," Irene Cho, Sundance representative, said. "People will have an equal chance to get tickets on the 24th as they will on the 21st."
Sundance doesn’t announce its 2009 film selections until December.
Sundance by the numbers:
Number of volunteers in 2008: 1551
Age of oldest volunteer: 83
Number of countries represented: 16
Minimum age of volunteers: 21 as of 1/12/09