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It's freezing, there's no pay -- is that Redford?

January 27, 2007|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

PARK CITY, UTAH — Nick Clifford, a Brown University junior who aspires to work in the film business, was standing in a bright orange vest at a shuttle stop on Park Avenue under a practically pointless heat lamp. A first-time volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival charged with helping festival-goers figure out how to get from Point A to Point B, Clifford was inordinately cheerful, given that his shift required him to stand in subfreezing weather from 8 p.m. to midnight.

"Without the heat lamp, it would be cold," admitted Clifford, who grew up in New York City. "But you get everyone huddling around this thing, praying to the heat gods, and then it's OK."

At 20, Clifford is technically a year younger than the minimum age for a festival volunteer. But, just as the film world is all about connections, so too is this festival; a Sundance board member who also is a member of the board of the Ivy Film Festival, which Clifford runs at Brown, got him the gig standing in 9-degree cold night after night. Believe it or not, that's a coveted slot.

Not everyone who applies to volunteer at the festival is accepted. Those who do make the cut get the right (the positions are unpaid) to freeze their butts off in a variety of locations, drive film prints from venue to venue, take tickets, control sometimes edgy crowds, work long shifts and bunk with strangers -- in exchange for access to movies, filmmakers and the limited amount of festival-sponsor swag that comes their way.

And they must obey the rules: no talking to celebrities, no asking for autographs, no pitching their own film projects. Violators who are found out will not be accepted back.

"We want people here who believe in what we believe," said Sundance volunteer manager Sallie Hedrick, 25, an actress ("Big Fish," "Dawson's Creek") who first volunteered in 2005. "We're not into people who self-promote."

For most, the trade-offs are well worth it. At least 900 of this year's more than 1,300 volunteers are returnees. There are 544 full-time volunteers, who work all 10 days of the festival. The 772 part-time volunteers are expected to pull at least four eight-hour shifts. They come from 39 states and 12 countries.

The 828 Utahans have it particularly tough. Most have to schedule festival duties around their real jobs and juggle family obligations to boot.

Mary Klismith, 50, a school counselor in Park City, works daily from 7:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., then dashes to the Eccles Theater (a high school auditorium), where she ushers and takes tickets from 4 p.m. till midnight. She doesn't get more than four or five hours of sleep a night during the course of the festival, which she considers a small price to pay.

When Klismith first volunteered in 1985, the operation was a pale version of today's high-tech event. "I would sell hard tickets out of an art gallery," she said. "People would just walk in and I had a little cash box."

Still, there are plenty of opportunities to brush up against fame. Klismith recalled seeing Nicole Kidman a couple of years ago. "It was when she was going through the divorce, and everyone was like 'Don't talk to her, give her space.' "

Other times, the temptation is just too great. "Sometimes we place ourselves strategically," Klismith said. In 2002, when then-husband Brad Pitt accompanied Jennifer Aniston to the premiere of "The Good Girl," he wandered off while she did interviews. "We were all definitely in place," Klismith said. They knew they weren't supposed to talk to Pitt, but when Klismith's friend and school co-worker Beverly Pacal, who provides food each year for fellow Eccles volunteers, offered Pitt a hamburger, he accepted. Now they can brag they once had a burger with the hunky actor.

Shirley Olson, 53, a substitute teacher from Spokane, Wash., has missed only two festivals in the last 18 years. This year she is distributing tickets to people who have ordered online. When she was a registrar in 1992, there were only 100 volunteers.

"I do miss the intimacy of the old festival, where everybody was pretty much in one location and you'd see the same people over and over," Olson said.

Because she is from out of town, Olson stays free at a local condo. Her seniority means that she usually gets a private room. Most longtime volunteers have encountered the somewhat elusive festival founder, Robert Redford. "I have actually had a couple of pictures taken with Robert Redford," Olson said. "He would come and greet the volunteers, which means a lot to them because it's nice to know they are appreciated."

Festival staffers, though not eager to discuss it, confirm that there is something of a special Redford protocol that is expected to be followed when he attends screenings. To avoid being approached by fans, he is ushered to a seat after the lights go down, and he leaves before the credits finish.

"He's really unassuming, always dressed casually," said one volunteer who cleared a path for him at the Filmmaker's Lodge, a venue that hosts panel discussions. "He was in a baseball cap, and if I hadn't known he was coming, I wouldn't have recognized him."

Now in its 27th year in Park City, the festival has been around so long that volunteers are passing the baton to their children.

Olson's daughter, Neleigh, is here for a second year.

"She has grown up with Sundance, so as soon as she turned 21, she decided to volunteer," Olson said. "We're starting a new generation. If I get too old and slow to do it, she can take over."

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