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Making a Difference as a SIFF Volunteer - Interview
by Karen Pecota

My introduction to the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) began when I attended the early film screenings for press and pass holders only. This began two weeks prior to the official festival opening. It is designed to give the press a jump on the film coverage in order to guide the public through the annual five-week festival. The SIFF cinema (McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St. Seattle, WA 98109) hosts the press screenings which take place four days a week with three films per day at 10:00 am, 12 noon, and 2:00 pm.

Melanie Christian was the SIFF Mistress of Ceremony (MC) for the press screenings. Melanie openned each film and thanked those in attendance for their patronage. She discussed the official SIFF procedures to which the press and pass holders must adhere; and she always made a personal connection with the audience—i.e., a joke, an acknowledgement of someone, or allowed a question-and-answer-time. Her introductions were accomplished with graceful poise and charm. She was so revered that the SIFF pass holders presented her and her SIFF associate with a surprise award and gift certificate for a job well done.

Melanie was the contact for the press in attendance for the early screenings; therefore, every day we checked in with her. The first day she said that she was waiting for me to check in because she wanted me to meet another journalist who also wrote for a media in the German/English language. I was impressed that she had taken the time to feel it important for the two Seattle “Germans” to connect.

How did Melanie get involved with SIFF? In an interview her description of a new life in Seattle, volunteerism with SIFF and the pursuit of her dreams were the focus of our conversation.

Karen Pecota (KP): How did you get involved?
Melanie Christian (MC): I heard about SIFF in 2007 through a local company while working at an event with SIFF supporters. I was complimented on my work and asked if I would consider volunteering at the SIFF 2007 festival. I was interested and contacted Jessica Toon (assistant in 2006/07) and applied for a volunteer service job in the marketing communications department.

KP: What did the volunteer service job opportunity allow you to do for the festival?
MC: I gained experience applying for a volunteer position at the longest running film festival in the U.S. I live and work in Seattle and could manage a volunteer assignment. And, I love film! I was happy to be accepted. I have strong communication and leadership skills so SIFF felt comfortable putting me to work with the press during the pre-screenings. SIFF gave me the title of press screening coordinator. The job has different facets. In preparation for the 2008 festival, I was given a list of press and pass holders that would be in attendance. I made it a priority to get to know the press and their media using whatever information I was given prior to making contact. At the screenings, they had to check in with me before entering the cinema. At that time, I could connect the name with a face. I made regular connection with fifteen official press members. The pass holders numbered over 60 so that group was a little harder to get to know but they attended the screenings faithfully. I put together statistics on the attendee demographics. I introduced each film and communicated the SIFF cinema dos and don’ts while attending screenings. I was on call at the venue for trouble shooting. I set up feedback surveys and reports for every screening. And much more! My communication and organization skills were definitely enhanced through this experience.

KP: In what way(s) did it help you?
MC: Working with a large and seasoned volunteer organization in a promotion/communications office was more involved than one would imagine. I took my responsibilities seriously and therefore, I learned a lot. I learned the value of working as a volunteer in a well organized group. I was given an opportunity to introduce press screenings at the SIFF cinema for the fall and winter film schedule which enhanced my public speaking. I made more contacts in the Seattle Arts community outside of film. I am shy myself and observe the loners and like to be that “cog in the wheel” to foster people connecting to people at the festival.

KP: What did you observe about the press?
MC: They are geared toward the buzz of the film. The press does its homework. I recognized quickly when a good film would show according to the amount of press check in. Once they have seen a film they want to get their critique written, so there is no time for chit chat. They are on a mission!

KP: What does life after SIFF 2008 look like for you?
MC: As a writer, I am following my dreams. I am working on a screenplay and will pitch it once completed. I have always lived by putting others’ interest over mine. This year I am ready to put my own needs in the forefront to further my goals.

Melanie, the woman from St. Louis, was drawn to Seattle because of the movie, Sleepless in Seattle. A paradigm shift took place in her life after ending a nine year marriage and relocating to Seattle which set her up to control her destiny. She never forgets the date when Seattle was more than just a name: June 9, 1999. She is a great asset to SIFF and some feel that she is the best MC for the SIFF press screenings yet.

I appreciated her professional demeanor, but it is her personal touch that made my press screening experience enjoyable. She effortlessly created an appropriate atmosphere for connections to flourish in the name of film. I will always remember the first day we met. Her joyful salutation coupled with an excitement to connect me and another film colleague illustrated kindness. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting film colleague, Steve Clare, Editor of Prost Amerika. We hooked up several times during the festival. He introduced me to others and extended an invitation to write for his website. This happened because of Melanie!