The Sundance Film Festival incorporates many exciting aspects of the film world and one of them is the ease of making contacts. One day, I had a short break between films and decided to take the festival shuttle to Park City Main Street and while I was waiting in the freezing cold, I met Shirley Olsen (SO). Her bright and cheery charisma was a warm welcome to the extremely chilly outside temperature. I was intrigued with her Sundance story and asked for an interview. We hopped on the bus and our twenty minute bus ride conversation unfolded like this:
KP: The weather is so dry and extremely cold. Is this normal for the festival?
SO: Oh! I have seen everything from dry bare streets with no snow to waking up each morning of the festival to find 12 inches of new snow on the ground. The weather in Park City is unpredictable! You always need your boots and a coat no matter what! It is always cold! And, it usually snows sometime during the festival.
KP: Do you live in Park City?
SO: No, I live in Spokane Washington. However, I used to live in Utah from 1988 to 1992. My first festival experience as a volunteer was in 1989, and then I was hired as Festival Staff for the following festivals through 1992. In spite of my moved to Spokane, I have come back as a volunteer every year. I have only missed two festivals in 18 years. This is my 16th festival and it has grown tremendously.
KP: What draws you to participate at the Sundance Film Festival every year?
SO: It is sort of a vacation for me. I use it as my renewal from my world in Spokane. I love film! Therefore; I enjoy returning to the festival to see new film and filmmakers. I like to follow the new filmmakers and in 5 or 10 years from now, I want to know where they end up. It is a thrill to see their name over and over again. I like to support their films and watch them grow in their careers. Another reason that draws me back is to reconnect with my old friends. Every year I meet new people and build on those friendships. I have met people from all over the world and the only place that I would ever see them again is when we come back and reconnect at Sundance. It is easy to email, write letters or send Christmas cards but there is nothing like returning to the festival at the same time everyone else is doing so; whether it is on vacation or for festival work. We enjoy each others company and have a good time while we focus on film.
KP: You must be very valuable to the Festival?
SO: Well, all of the volunteers make it go. It helps the festival to keep the general costs as low as possible. We help them and they treat us very well.
KP: Do you get to see any of the films?
SO: Yes! For full-time volunteers, part of our benefit is that we get free access to all the movies. We need to work the entire 10 days of the festival either a 5 or 6 hour shift. The rest of the time is free. We have credentials that allow us access on a space available waiting list. There are several theaters that have a certain allotment of tickets available for the volunteers and we are free to wait in the wait list with everyone else but we don’t have to pay for our tickets. There is no salary but a small stipend that we receive and those of us from out of state are provided housing. This really helps! Otherwise, we could not afford to come and volunteer because the housing in Park City is so expensive during the festival. We are grateful for the generosity of Sundance.
KP: What was it like back in 1989?
SO: It was nice! Very intimate! Very personal! I worked in registration back then which today they call it Pass and Packages. We handled all the pre-packaged tickets, ie for filmmakers and press. I think at that time in 1989 or 1990 we only gave 40 press passes. We handled all of those through registration. My director at that time insisted that we knew all the names of all the package holders. And, we did! We would see them on the street and there was an instant sense of camaraderie. There was no division between the actors, the directors, the staff or the volunteers. There was one party at night and everyone went to that party. Also at that time there was a very limited amount of theaters (The Holiday Village cinemas, the Egyptian Theater, and Prospector theater). We would see the same people again and again. It felt a bit like summer camp only in the winter in Park City. That part of it was very intimate. It was a very nice atmosphere because it felt like we were all in this together.
KP: When did the intimacy begin to change?
SO: Well, it gradually grew every year but I think there has been an expediential growth in the last 5 years. It seems to have just exploded! Growth has its advantages but, it also takes away from the intimacy which it was founded. Unfortunately it can’t be maintained any more. I think the main difference is that in the past the emphasis really, really used to be very intensely on the filmmakers. Today, I think they are somewhat over shadowed by the star power of those coming in just to be seen at Sundance. In the early days, everyone understood that the festival was really about the filmmakers. It was very special and a nice group!. I think that Redford still maintains his commitment to the filmmakers and still does a lot of things for them, but it is not as public or it doesn’t get the attention in the press that the big names get. Well, 18 years ago, we didn’t have big names come in as much because it was just the small independent filmmaker’s scene. The approach was that the filmmakers would say, “Ok! I have made a film so come see it!” And, that was it! Now, the approach feels more like a market, even though it’s really not but it has more of that feel rather than a showcase for Indy films. The festival has fought very hard to keep it true to its roots and to seriously focus on film which is the main reason for the buttons we see all over (Buttons: Focus on Films). We want people to not forget what we are here for and to focus on films. Hopefully the vision is contagious and will continue to ignite people to take that seriously. The festival wants to have people carry on the vision. If you just listen to people talking all around you, on the bus, walking, etc….they are talking about film. The heartbeat is definitely still present!
KP: I hear “this film got picked up” or “that one didn’t’ How does this work?
SO: I don’t know much about that part and obviously we hope that the films are successful that are shown here, but more importantly we hope that the filmmaker has a chance to tell his story.
KP: What is the biggest change you observe?
SO: The biggest change is observing how many more people are here! In 1991, we had 100 volunteers and this year we are over 1300. I believe that the festival attendance overall has increased about 10 fold. It is incredible how much it has grown and with that development change is inevitable.
KP: Everyone seems so friendly and happy. Is this normal?
SO: Yes, it is! This is a continuous mood of the festival, even from the very beginning. It has always been a time of excitement and discovery with an anticipation that something great is going to happen. It is very exciting!