Volunteers keep film festival running

To borrow a line from Tennessee Williams, patrons of each year's Newport Beach Film Festival benefit from the kindness of strangers.

Make that the unpaid kindness of hundreds of strangers.

The festival, which kicks off Thursday, gets by on the contributions of more than 500 volunteers and no salaried staff. A handful of team members work as paid contractors, but the majority of helpers do it out of passion for the craft — and the reward of seeing one of Southern California's top festivals run like a well-oiled machine.

"At any given time, there's probably 50 to 100 volunteers working around these venues," said David Schniepp, who coordinates volunteer activities for the festival.

At a typical festival screening, volunteers serve as ushers — usually about three per theater. Volunteers sell tickets at the box office and tear them at the door. A few oversee line control, while others take photographs or count the ballots that audience members fill out to give feedback on a movie. And at least one volunteer, known as the programmer, opens the screening with a speech.

In preparation for each year's festival, the organizers hold several orientations to sign up new helpers. Some volunteers, though, are regulars who learned the ropes years ago.

Dennis Baker, who programs the festival's short films and manages its data and internal technology, joined as a volunteer in 2003 after retiring from his job teaching auto shop at Silverado High School in Mission Viejo. His work for the festival extends year-round. When he's not busy planning the next shorts program, Baker updates the database of contact phone numbers and emails and maintains records of past programs.

"I can list the films we showed in the film festival eight years ago, and the ones we didn't," Baker said Tuesday morning while taking a momentary breather at the festival's Newport Beach headquarters.

He and other volunteers operate in a tight cluster of second-floor offices in a nondescript building near UC Irvine. Inside, posters of "Milk," "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and other recent hits line the walls; plastic bins, DVDs and paperwork are crammed in between desks and TV screens. Often, workers squeeze past each other in the narrow hall.

Still, volunteers' efforts are far from confined to the home office. Some staff members, including special programs director Leslie Feibleman and senior programmer Riki Kucheck, attend festivals year-round from Toronto to Sundance to network and scout possible features for Newport Beach.

At other festivals, Feibleman said, she's learned of films through recommendations by critics or filmmakers; she's passed her business card around at after-parties and hospitality lounges. In the fast-paced festival setting, contacts can be made on the spur of the moment.

"You'll be at Sundance on a shuttle bus, and you'll run into the director of the opening night film," Feibleman said.

Back home, Feibleman considers herself a stay-at-home mom but works an average of 20 to 30 hours a week watching films and making other preparations. The month or two after the festival is the most relaxed time of the year, she said, but it doesn't last long to crank up again. The call for entries for the coming year's event goes out Aug. 1.

For Kucheck, some of the most treasured moments come when audience members approach her and comment on how seamlessly the festival appears to run.

"When it comes together, it's so cool," she said.

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