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Volunteers keep film festival running

Their love of movies and moviemaking is what pushes them to work on behalf of the Newport event.

April 23, 2013|By Michael Miller
  • From left, Newport Beach Film Festival volunteers Riki Kucheck, Leslie Feibleman, and Dennis Baker, get ready for this week's film festival in their Newport Beach offices.
From left, Newport Beach Film Festival volunteers Riki… (Don Leach / Daily…)

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.

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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.

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