Secrecy is another thing that sets Telluride apart. Neither the ranks of employees nor the 2,000 pass holders have any idea what the guest director's film selections will be until the program is released on the Thursday of the festival. This rarely keeps away attendees or volunteers.
"Everyone takes this big, blind leap," says Julie Huntsinger, the festival's executive director. "It's alchemy, really. Everybody loves the balance of the films and the beauty of the place."
"This is part of my life; I can't imagine giving it up," Christensen says. "There are a couple thousand film festivals, and they are all vying to get actors and filmmakers, but when they come to Telluride they recognize it is in a class by itself."
For SHOWCorps members working the festival, prerequisites are minimal, but enthusiasm is a must.
"We're looking for a volunteer who is willing to do anything and go with the flow," says Lucy Lerner, head SHOWCorps manager. "Someone who is willing to put on gloves during the opening-night picnic and sort through a Dumpster." She isn't kidding. She notes that even HBO executives have done such tasks in the past.
The man scooping popcorn might be a doctor who's given up his scrubs for the festival, as long as he gets to see a few films.
"These are accomplished professionals and some of them take their vacation off to come work with us," Huntsinger says. "I want to make sure that we continue building that kind of devotion, because it is invaluable."
With a population in Telluride of nearly 2,400 and a need for SHOWCorps members at a number roughly equal to half of the town's residents, only a fifth of the festival's staff and volunteer crew is local.
"People who live here have families and kids and lives," says Lerner, herself a local. "They can't necessarily take the week or two off. It's easier when you can dedicate yourself 110%."
Ann Marie Jodlowski, who has lived in Telluride since 2004, juggles raising her kids and volunteering for the festival each year. "My ex-husband knows that these eight days are my time," she says. "It's like my vacation."
Jodlowski started off cleaning toilets at one of the theaters — a job that was made enjoyable, she says, thanks to the camaraderie among the staff. Jodlowski is now the "Bennie Queen," which means she hands out goodie bags, or "Bennies" (short for "benefit bags"), filled with a festival T-shirt and other sponsored items.
"It's such a fun culture," she says. "I never think that I can live off of Diet Coke and popcorn for four days, but every year I do."
For some, the fun advances to more serious relationships.
It took Pamela Chandran seven years of working at the film festival to finally go out with her longtime crush, Bruce Mazen. They met in Telluride in 1991 — she was the first staff member he met: Mazen was lost and she pointed him in the right direction.
Chandran originally came to the festival when she was 18 and a student at Dartmouth College, where Bill Pence was the film director. Now a Californian and a lawyer who lives in Glendale, she worked a variety of odd jobs in the first years but now is a film inspector and introduces movies. She's what the festival calls a "ringmaster."
"It was overwhelming how the people who had been coming for so many years were like family to each other," says Chandran of her early years at Telluride. Little did she know that she too would forge lasting bonds here.
"It took a while before we realized we had a mutual crush," she says of the years that passed when Chandran and Mazen would see each other only during the festival.
Eventually the two got married — with many other Telluride Film Festival staffers in attendance. This will be the first year they'll bring their children, 4 and 1.
The Tuesday after the festival, when all the madness is over, they go with their children to the Sheridan Chop House, the same Telluride restaurant where they had their first date.
And so another Telluride tradition will be passed to a new generation.