As staff and volunteers arrive in the soon-to-be-bustling mountain town of Telluride in advance of the 46th Telluride Film Festival, there’s excitement in the air. What films will screen? Who will the guests be? Will we get to see all the films we want to? For many of us, this is a chance to see friends we see only once a year at the festival. For others, this is another festival to work on the festival circuit.
I’ve been working film festivals for over 30 years, but I didn’t plan to be a festival gypsy. It’s like potato chips; you have one and suddenly you’re looking sadly at an empty bag. What starts as a passion for films and one festival job that allows you access to films and behind-the-scene comradery, becomes a few festivals that you travel to in order to work with your friends. Then it can become a full slate of festivals, and suddenly, you find that it’s your life. I’ve had the opportunity to produce my own film festivals, curate film programs for festivals and have worn many hats for over 20 festivals here and abroad.
Not to be confused with attending a few festivals when you have the means for passes and accommodations; a true festival gypsy may not even have a home base. I have a few festival friends that stay with family or friends, but all of their belongings either fit in a few suitcases or live in perpetual storage. Every gypsy has a different story. Some started like myself, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there’s a film festival every month. Or they found a particular niche in the festival business — events, guest relations, transportation or theater operations — and realized that if they knew others in the biz, they could work at other festivals doing the same job. Some festivals even provide lodging and transportation.
The short-term contracts mean that you need serious budgeting skills, you may have to pay quarterly taxes, and you must be able to make dinner out of cheese cubes and bread sticks from the hospitality lounge. You’ll get to travel and meet many interesting people. Each festival has its own perks and pitfalls; its own zeitgeist, if you will. Many festivals don’t hire festival staff, relying mostly on volunteers (Boulder, Portland) or are very difficult to break into for a paid gig (Sundance, Telluride) because so many staff come back every year.
If you have a certain skill set and can adapt easily to new environments, working festivals can be a wonderful experience. As with any job, it’s your team that makes all the difference. Everyone who works a festival will have a different experience. You may find yourself joining a team of longtime friends that doesn’t make room for newbies or land in a venue that requires long hours and heavy lifting. As in any line of work, there may be a few power-mad staffers who think a walkie-talkie or a position of authority give them carte blanche to act like a dictator. Not everyone working a festival knows that without the fest (i.e. the fun) they shouldn’t be part of the crew, or at least not on the front lines.
If you live in the town like Telluride or San Francisco, you can work the plethora of festivals that happen there almost every weekend. In Telluride, that would be summer work, and you’d be traveling out of town come the end of September after The Telluride Festival of Cars and Colors. However, most of the jobs are volunteer, so you’d be hard pressed to make a living. Very few people have the wherewithal to travel the festival circuit as a volunteer. A gypsy is likely working multiple jobs for the privilege of traveling to do what they love — becoming part of the crew that bands together to bring amazing, potentially life-changing films to the masses. So if you see someone carrying a festival sign, toting a bin of passes, waters or ballots, or wearing a headset or badge, give them a smile and acknowledge their hard work this weekend. They may be sleeping on a couch, subsisting on bagels and coffee (lots of coffee), or possibly, they’re a festival gypsy far from home.