Leadership / 01.15.19
15 Years of Sundance Evolution, According to Longtime Ticket Office Insider
The 2019 Sundance Film Festival is set to kick off on Thursday, Jan. 24, and run through Sunday, Feb. 3. A program of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, Sundance ranks as the largest independent film festival in the United States each year. Indeed, thousands of movie lovers and insiders flock to Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah, each January with the hope of landing a front-row seat and the chance to discover the next Get Out, Little Miss Sunshine or The Blair Witch Project. Those are just a few of the films that had their debut at Sundance in past years, and then went on to become box office and award season favorites. One person who’s had a front-row seat at Sundance for quite some time is Linda Pfafflin, Associate Director of Ticketing for the Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance started in 1978 as the Utah/US Film Festival. It was officially renamed Sundance in 1991 after Redford's iconic Sundance Kid character, and the event has certainly grown over the years. Pfafflin has witnessed this growth since starting at Sundance in 2004, and this year, she’s retiring. She is leaving with some amazing memories and accomplishments.
"I actually started as a Theatre Box Office volunteer in 1999, the year Blair Witch Project first played," Pfafflin said. "This year, Blair Witch is being shown as an ‘archive’ film screening. Oh my! When I joined the Sundance Film Festival full-time in 2004, I considered it an ‘encore career’ after 20 years working for a Fortune 500 company. I had never thought of ‘ticketing professional’ as a career, but here I am!"
Pfafflin’s first official job title was Ticketing Systems Administrator. At the time, Sundance was installing a new ticketing system. She took over the leadership of the ticketing team in 2006.
"During that time," she noted, "ticketing adopted other departments: all Festival customer service, info booths, theater box offices and scanning. In 2004, we had 21 employees. Today, we have more than 60, not including ticket and call center agents. Seven years ago, the team grew so big that we now occupy a separate off-site building."
The growth of Pfafflin's team has coincided with the growth of the festival itself. Ticket demand has exceeded supply for years, and that demand has only grown more enormous as Sundance's reputation and cache have increased.
"We started trying to count unique visitors in 2011, and since then, the total has grown from 43,000 to 124,000," she shared. "Unfortunately, the seat count has only increased by a little more than 20 percent, and that was by adding seven theaters. But an average theater is little more than 300 seats. We're still trying to keep the Festival accessible and affordable for students, locals and outreach groups that will have interest in some of the subject matter we present. Our mission is to find audiences for artists rather than just program for popular demand."
Pfafflin is indeed leaving with fond memories, a sense of accomplishment and the recognition that she is going to miss the action. Mostly, though, she is going to miss her staffers.
"The favorite part of my job has definitely been the people I work with and the volunteers," she said. "When I started, I had kids in high school. Now, I have grandkids — my primary reason for retiring. But the ticketing team stays young, mostly mid-20s. We do have a lot of long-time volunteers getting older with me — we have more than 2,000 volunteers — and at the Festival, it's like an annual school reunion."
These employees and long-time volunteers have helped Pfafflin overcome significant challenges in her 15 years with Sundance. Her biggest challenge?
"Trying to get everyone, including other internal departments, to understand that there is a moment where I could create a ticket out of thin air…but I can’t create a seat! Especially a seat up front (we’re all general admission)." She added that getting customers to understand "we are a non-profit organization, not a big movie studio" has been another challenge.
Fortunately, technology has helped make her job somewhat easier over the years. Still, Pfafflin gives credit to the human factor first.
"I'm of the firm opinion that there is no perfect ticketing system and every system can crash. Trust me — we've watched Harry Potter sales, Coachella, TIFF and big concert sales and sympathized over the terrible tweets they get.
“In the earlier years, we had a lot of criticism about our ticketing system's stability. We've corrected what we could, changed procedures and simplified. But we'll never make everyone happy if they don't get exactly what they want. Even if they have 825 screenings to choose from, they all want the same 20. And then people who do get what they want are unhappy about their seats or the fact that a celebrity was a no-show.
"On the other hand," she gushed, "I want to praise the technology gods for Queue-It [the virtual waiting room process] and Zen Desk [customer support via web form]. I can no longer imagine a world without that technology!"
Another big improvement over the years has been security, especially as the Sundance Film Festival has grown bigger and drawn more high-profile celebrities. "We do more security and safety training for staff than we used to, and we instituted bag checks a couple years ago," she shared.
On a personal note, Pfafflin feels she has grown personally and professionally as a result of her association with Sundance.
"Personally, I've opened my world culturally and generationally. Professionally, I think I've built a structure for a team that always excels even though we only have about a 50 percent return rate, which exceeds the normal return rate of 25 percent for most seasonal employees. And, hey, we did win INTIX's Outstanding Ticket Office Award in 2011!"
Along the way, Pfafflin herself has discovered a handful of movies well before the general public embraced them. Several come to mind, but one really stands out: a French nature documentary called The Emperor's Journey, wherein a certain animal family talked to each other about their hardships.
"It was my first festival in ticketing , and every screening was more than half empty,” Pfafflin remembered. “Then it was re-dubbed with an English narration — no more animal small talk, alas — released as March of the Penguins, and won the Oscar!"
Looking ahead, Pfafflin has opinions on where she thinks Sundance is headed. There will still be some challenges, absolutely. Mostly, she is excited for the future of what she is leaving behind.
“Sometimes, I think I’m retiring about a year too early. I know there is a 2020 ticketing technology push to finally have all electronic tickets, be able to buy tickets via a mobile app, put your tickets in your phone ‘wallet,’ take credit cards in the waitlist [it’s cash only now] and use CRM to predict more customer behavior attendance. I think the Festival needs to address growth issues creatively. If another 100,000 people want to attend by 2030, there isn't anywhere to lodge them, and the largest theater isn't going to double in size to fit demand. I think in 10 years, it'll still be about controlling expectations, just like it was 20 years when I started as a volunteer.
“A good piece of advice that was given to me early on was ‘Remember, it's a film festival, not a life-or-death event.’”