Click photo to enlarge
At the volunteer check in at Park City's Marriott Hotel recently, Sandra Nugent (left) gives volunteer Lori Tack her credential.

If movies are the heart of the Sundance Film Festival, the army of 1,590 volunteers are the muscle.

"They do everything," said Sundance volunteer coordinator Emily Aagaard.

They take tickets, run theaters, direct moviegoers to venues, and ensure the festival runs smoothly so the focus is on the films -- not logistics.

Without them, the Sundance Film Festival might not exist, or at least, it wouldn't be as accessible to the average film fan.

"I can't imagine the cost of hiring a manpower force with that many people," Aagaard said. "It certainly wouldn't be $15 a ticket."

This year, about 3,000 people applied to volunteer. Of those selected, about 60 percent are locals; 40 percent came from outside Utah, even outside the country.

The volunteers are as different as the films: a dental assistant from Toronto, an aspiring screenwriter from Idaho, West Valley City's planning commissioner. They have in common their desire to be completely immersed in the festival.

"People use their vacation time to volunteer; they fly out here," Aagaard said. "I know a woman from here who sent her husband and kids to California for 10 days so she could volunteer."

Salt Lake City's Alexi Campos, an 11-year volunteer who manages the Rose Wagner Theater during the festival, gave birth a few months ago. She started volunteering at Sundance when she was 16 -- before the 21-and-older rule was strictly enforced.

"I thought, 'I'm not going back," she said. "'There's no way.'"


Advertisement

She was already juggling the responsibilities of a newborn and a 45-hour-a-week day job. Adding an additional 40-hour-a-week job seemed nearly impossible.

In the end, she couldn't stay away. She sat her mother and husband down and requested extra help.

"It's really fun," she said, and worth turning her life upside down for a week and a half.

Aagaard said the fun is what brings back 75 percent of the volunteers year after year.

Because so many are perennial volunteers and are posted at the same venues, they develop friendships and look forward to seeing each other again.

"It's amazing to kind of see them come back together," Aagaard said. "It's almost like a reunion. Here's this person they had a wonderful experience with the year before, and they're excited to see them again."

Campos says her volunteer group has summer reunions.

As for compensation, a few volunteers, such as Campos, receive a stipend, but most work the festival for free. Perks include access to films, including volunteer-only screenings, and a Kenneth Cole winter coat.

Third-year volunteer Joseph Garcia, a credit manager and West Valley City planning commissioner, says he gets "much more out of it than I put into it."

"I think there's more important things than money," he said. "You have to have self-fulfillment and growth. To be able to say I worked for Sundance, it kind of shows how much effort you put in as a person, how many things you try to do and take on. There's a little bit of prestige."

ndicou@sltrib.com