Katie Trainor spends her working life surrounded by the movies as film collections manager of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. No one would blame her if she took a break from the world of motion pictures during her annual vacation to the mountains of Colorado. But in the days leading to Labor Day, as summer begins its exit and Colorado’s leaves get ready to turn, Trainor will work more than 40 hours as a theater manager at the Telluride Film Festival. It’s been her late-summer ritual since 2001.
“I don’t do it for the money,” Trainor says. “It’s the least-paying festival job I’ve had, but it’s the one I won’t ever give up.”
George Christensen, who has been working the festival for 21 years, arrives in Telluride each year from his home in Chicago by bicycle.
He used to bike all the way from Chicago, but now the 65-year-old professional bike messenger takes the train to Grand Junction and makes the 128-mile climb up to Telluride’s nearly 9,000-foot elevation — a breeze compared with his annual journey to the Cannes Film Festival, which he attends and then stays to follow the Tour de France. On that trip, between the tour route and his traveling, he rides more than 5,000 miles.
“I love only bicycling more than cinema,” says Christensen, who always comes to Telluride in early August to start work in the festival’s shipping office processing sponsorship material.
He first heard about Telluride from the writings of the late Roger Ebert, who famously said the festival is “like Cannes died and went to heaven.”
Celebrating its 40th edition this Labor Day weekend, the Telluride Film Festival is a gem among film festivals not only for its location and film selections but also for the heart behind it all: the nearly 900 volunteers and staff who run the operation.
SHOWCorps, as the festival’s conglomeration of hardworking staff and film-buff volunteers is known, draws people ages 21 to 80 from all parts of the country — 117 of the more than 900 who help run Telluride are from California alone.
Marked by the green passes around their necks, the job requires a minimum of 40 hours of work during the festival, which this year is running five days instead of the usual four.
Trainor, who started at the festival as an assistant theater manager and is now the manager of the new Werner Herzog Theatre, a 650-seat venue that required the festival to hire nearly 100 additional staff members, says the experience is less like work and more like adult summer camp. It has all the familiar camp touchstones –- the fresh air, the excitement of being reunited with good friends, and even the mess-hall-style meals.
“The biggest perk is the landscape and then the movies,” says Trainor, “I love the mountains. I don’t usually get to see stars and hear such quiet.”
Trainor also works as a projectionist at the Sundance Film Festival and the Traverse City Film Festival. But Telluride, she says, is special.
“Telluride is the one everyone wishes they could go to,” she says. “It’s about watching the films and talking about them. It’s not about the parties; it’s about having thoughtful discussions.”
That tone was set back in 1973, when the town was just finding a new identity after its mining era had long passed and the ski resort was in its earliest days. James Card, head of the motion picture collection at Rochester, N.Y.'s George Eastman House, one of the world’s oldest film archives, envisioned the festival after he got a look at the town’s newly renovated Sheridan Opera House, owned for many years by Bill Pence, a partner in the foreign and classic movie distributor Janus Films, and his wife, Stella.
Card rallied the Pences and Tom Luddy, then program director of Berkeley’s influential Pacific Film Archive, to join him in bringing films and filmmakers to Telluride. A tribute to Gloria Swanson opened the first festival, which began on Aug. 30, 1974.
Decades later, the festival still finds its home within the walls of a box canyon surrounded by the peaks of the San Juan Mountains. World premieres from recent festivals include “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech” and last year’s “Argo,” all Academy Award winners for best picture.
The festival also highlights foreign films, unique silent films and old favorites picked by a new guest director each year.
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.