If you walk around the Sundance Film Festival, you might spot a celebrity or your favorite film director — but it’s almost certain you’ll catch sight of volunteers.
This year, they’re wearing blue jackets (which they receive as part of the gig), and they can be seen throughout the festival selling tickets, acting as ushers, shoveling snow, answering questions, directing traffic and more.
Of the just over 2,000 volunteers at the 2018 festival, about half — 1,172 as of Jan. 16 — are Utah locals. Volunteering gives local cinephiles a chance to see films at the festival without buying tickets or passes — and to be in the action at the annual event where Utah becomes a central focus of Hollywood chatter.
“The idea of being able to be involved and also see a lot more movies than I had before was definitely enticing,” said Conor Hilton, a Provo resident who volunteered at the festival in 2016. “It was insightful to see how the festival gets put together.”
Tom Taylor teaches Welsh at Brigham Young University and has lived in Provo for the last 15 years. In that time, he has volunteered at Sundance about 10 times — whenever he has been in Utah — including at this year’s festival.
Taylor remembers one particularly surprising experience he had one year working the doors at the Sundance resort. He was holding the doors open for people as they filed in for a screening.
“And sometimes I would look them in the eye, but the doors were heavy enough that I would oftentimes just sort of look down, but I’d give them a verbal welcome,” he said. “One time I pushed the door open, and I saw some cowboy boots, and I welcomed the person to Sundance, and he said, ‘Well, thanks, I guess.’ And I looked up and it was Robert Redford. I don’t know how often he gets welcomed to Sundance, but not very often, I would assume.”
Taylor has enjoyed working all of his years as a volunteer at the Sundance resort, where he said there tends to be more locals — both working and attending — than at other festival venues. His seniority as a volunteer means he has more flexibility to do the volunteer work he prefers, which includes acting as an usher at the resort.
“The ushers get to stay in and watch the film, and that’s the fun thing,” Taylor said. “So I’ll see several films when I’m working as an usher.”
Volunteers get free tickets to public screenings, as well, depending on how many hours they work, and some of the perks of the job extend beyond the official Sundance experience.
“I enjoy skiing, so I go up there and oftentimes do some skiing before the shift, and that’s great,” Taylor said. “And the people are just wonderful. … You make friends with people that you share things in common with, and I think when we serve in a different community together, we make those kind of friends.”
The year that Hilton volunteered, it was only during the second half of the festival — volunteers can choose to work in the Sign-Up program, which offers flexible scheduling of at least 24 hours; Full-Time, which requires working every day of the festival; and Half-Fest, which is a hybrid of the two.
Hilton enjoyed his experience as a volunteer at the festival and would recommend it to Utah County filmgoers interested in the event.
“When people talk to me about the festival, and they’re like, ‘What’s the best way to do it?’ Well, if you have the time and flexibility to volunteer, do that,” Hilton said. “Because I think that has been the most rewarding experience for me at the festival, just because, one, you get to see a lot of things, and you also get a different and more full taste of what the festival is like.”
Applications to become a volunteer generally open in mid-August before the following year’s festival. More information can be found at sundance.org/festivals/sundance-film-festival/volunteer.
Derrick Clements is an independent arts reporter, podcaster, columnist and film critic. Follow him on Twitter @derrific and find all his work at derrickclements.com.