Volunteering at film fests: a crash course in communications

October 5, 2017

I love movies. Not just the indie films or the Oscar-worthy ones, I love them all. So, it’s no surprise I found a way to get more immersed in the industry by volunteering for film festivals in my city.

Whether you volunteer for Sundance, Hot Docs, Telluride, Vancouver International Film Festival or the Toronto International Film Festival, doing so is a great way to contribute to the arts and culture community in your city, do some celebrity spotting and see more movies. If you work in public relations, it’s also an experience that can help you become a better communications professional.

1. Keeping cool

Film festivals are notoriously busy – crazy and busy. Did I mention busy? People are desperate to see celebrities. Press delegates are rushing to cover all the films they possibly can. It is hectic at the best times.

As a volunteer at a festival, you have no choice but to keep a cool head and stay calm under pressure, which is a skill you need in the communications industry. Public relations work can often be quite demanding between client requests, company needs, and new business pitches all requiring your attention at the same time. Like when you’re volunteering at a film festival, you must be adept at prioritizing and juggling so that everyone’s needs are effectively met.

2. Managing a team

Organizing the volunteers for a film festival requires superhero-level powers of project management. Specific roles are very clearly defined. “Volunteer A, you’ll be an audience counter” and “Volunteer B, you’ll be a ticket scanner” and “Volunteer C, you’ll control this line-up.” Having specific responsibilities well laid out helps to prevent any confusion during the chaos of show time.

Knowing how to identify and define roles and responsibilities for teammates is an essential PR skill that is necessary for everything from media relations to event management to crisis communications. When people know what is expected of them and are given clear deadlines and activities, work gets done more effectively and efficiently.

3. Rewarding participants

Film fest organizers must answer the key question: “what’s in it for them?” Why? Because volunteers need incentives to donate their time and effort to create a successful film festival. When working in PR with influencers, the same thinking applies: you need fun, meaningful incentives to create partnerships that are mutually beneficial.

Film festival volunteers might get exclusive screenings, vouchers to see other films, swag bags and the like. Influencers might also get exclusive experiences, compensation for their time, products to try-out and facetime with other influencers and thought leaders. No matter their level of influence, people need a reason to give up their time, and as PR professionals, our job is to identify how to make that happen.

4. Creating a tribe

As a volunteer at a film festival, you are a part of a select group of people. At some festivals, this select group of people might be 3,000 strong, but at others, it could be a mere 100. Either way, you are part of a group that has its own mission (make everyone’s festival a success), uniform (specific colour of shirts) and way of doing things (always being friendly and helpful). You belong to a tribe.

In communications, we foster tribes among loyal brand ambassadors; we foster tribes in our own offices, and we help our clients foster tribes within their own companies. By and large, people want to feel included and part of something bigger than themselves, working towards a larger goal.

5. Knowing it all

Perhaps the most important lesson of all, which you learn as a film festival volunteer, is that you don’t have all the answers, all the time. And that’s something you just learn to be comfortable with.

When you work in communications, the same rule applies. While you may never have all the answers, but those who succeed as film fest volunteers and in communications have the drive to figure them out.


  1. Great tips and so very true! Also a film buff, I’ve volunteered at many film festivals and worked at the box office during TIFF for a few years and it’s true – you don’t have all the answers all the time, staying calm under pressure is a must and being rewarded for your time makes it that much more fun!

  2. Julie Martinson

    I’ve been volunteering at TIFF for about 5 years now and I think the most important thing I’ve learned is how to keep calm under pressure for sure. My favourite part is meeting people from all different walks of life with a shared passion for film.

    1. Jennifer Williamson

      Agreed Julie! TIFF brings out such a passionate and fun group of people.