It was Day 5 of the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival, and I wanted to talk to the leader of the festival’s critically important volunteer team.
Of course, this was not the best time for Rochelle Koch to take a few moments to chat with a pesky reporter. To put it mildly, she was kind of busy.
However, Koch, who is in her third year as the PSIFF volunteer coordinator, seemed happy to take some time to chat about her “wonderful team.”
“It’s my volunteer family, is how I refer to it,” said Koch (pronounced “Cook”), who comes across as a focused bundle of energy. “‘Our Volunteers Are The BEST!’ is what I put on my business card and on my emails—and it’s the truth.”
Festival director Darryl Macdonald was also happy to take a few moments out of his busiest week of the year to share his perspective.
“The volunteers’ contribution to the festival’s success is invaluable in every way,” he said. “This is one of the top three festivals in the U.S. in terms of attendance, with well over 130,000 attendees last year. So the manpower needed to support 15 screens showing films from early morning until well into the evening each day, the number of hands needed to deal with hundreds of filmmaking and press guests in town, coming and going throughout the festival … there are just so many fronts where extra hands and brains are needed that it is utterly true that without our volunteers, there is no way we could run a festival of this size or pursue the kinds of ambitions we have.”
Remember how we mentioned that Koch is kind of busy? Well, we were putting it mildly.
“I have over 3,500 shifts to cover at the five screening venues and various events over the 11 days of the festival,” she said Koch. “The main responsibility for myself and volunteer assistant coordinator David Gray is to manage and schedule volunteers, and making sure all of our shifts are covered when volunteers have to cancel their commitment, because life does happen.
“So out of our standing database of more than 2,000 registered volunteers, we have between 700 and 800 working at this festival—and we couldn’t do it without them. They’re wonderful people from all walks of life—a CEO to a dishwasher in a restaurant. They’re from different nationalities and different races. That’s what, I think, gives us our strength.”
The volunteers are organized into 19 active teams: Theater Operations, Transportation, Balloting, Special Events, Black-Tie Gala, Guest Services/Hospitality, Concierge, Credentials, Film Society, Film Review, Front Desk, Merchandise, Office, Opening/Closing Night, Street Team, Village Fest, Volunteer Department, Interpreter and—last but not least—the Lead Team, which supervises the Theatre Operations and Ballot volunteers.
“We rely on them to take care of everything from taking tickets at the door, dealing with customers at the merchandise outlets, (and helping) our guests in the hospitality suites, to travel support. Literally, we have volunteers who drive into Los Angeles to pick up filmmaker guests and drive them to Palm Springs,” Macdonald said. “There is not a single front of the festival that volunteers are not an integral part of.”
Few people realize that the Palm Springs International Film Festival volunteer effort is a year-round affair.
“We have a volunteer corps which helps out in the office year-round, and there’s a preview screening team made up of 16 volunteers that help us critique submitted films as they come in,” said Macdonald. “… We also do the Palm Springs ShortFest each June. It’s the largest short-film festival in North America, and last year, we got over 3,400 entries. So we’ve put together this crew of programming assistants from our volunteer corps. These are people who have long been immersed in film who help us with the grading process by actually watching the films and then recommending which films move forward in the process. It literally takes five or six months even for this group and our staff programming team to watch 3,400 films.
“I’m not entirely sure that some of us wouldn’t be wearing inch-thick glasses or be locked in a booby hatch somewhere, bouncing off of rubber walls, if it wasn’t for the help we get from our volunteers.”
Only a select few can claim to have been a part of the now finely tuned PSIFF volunteer effort from the beginning.
“We have three wonderful volunteers—Dee Thomas, and Sidel and Lionel Weinstein—who come out every season, and they’ve all been here since Sonny Bono started this festival 25 years ago,” said Koch. “And they are all such neat people.”
Of course, these three will be among the honored invitees to the annual post-festival “thank you party” for the volunteer staff, at which Macdonald and festival Chairman Harold Matzner will show their appreciation.
“When compared to all the various film festivals in the country, our volunteers have a wonderful reputation for being the friendliest and the most helpful, since they know film themselves, and they know what they’re doing,” said Koch. “All of our volunteers do a wonderful job, and they’re great ambassadors for Palm Springs.”
Those interested in becoming a PSIFF volunteer should visit the website at www.psfilmfest.org/society/work/volunteer.aspx. People who register will be contacted via phone by a volunteer representative.