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Executive Suite: Keri Putnam

Keri Putnam
Misha Gravenor

The new executive director of the Sundance Institute has big plans beyond managing America’s top film festival.

Keri Putnam first attended the Sundance Film Festival in 1992 as an ambitious HBO executive. This year, she and festival director John Cooper will sit atop America’s premier indie-film showcase as executive director of the nonprofit Sundance Institute, which puts on the fest and its filmmaker labs. The mother of two teenagers (husband Marvin is an entertainment lawyer), Putnam, 45, left HBO Films in 2006 to be president of production at Miramax until it shut down in 2009. At Sundance since April, she oversees an annual budget of $23 million, which is spent developing such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) and Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre). This year’s fest, which runs Jan. 20-30, includes a record six movies developed in Sundance labs.

Last year, the festival screened films throughout the country. Can you see Sundance becoming a full-fledged distributor?

No, that’s not our role. Our role is to connect the work with the market in a variety of ways. I think there are some clever ways to do that, and we are going to keep thinking about innovative ways to do that, but I don’t think distribution is our thing. We are looking at what we can do with technology that’s a bit more of a year-round idea.

Even with online and VOD, 80 percent of Sundance films leave the festival without distribution. How do you change that?

Remember, we are just a curator. But our plan is to dig heavily into that area. Whether the plan ends up being educational, to help filmmakers learn how to marshal their own resources, or whether it’s some partnerships we figure out, we’re definitely going to be
in that area.

Your family is in L.A., and much of the institute is in Utah. How often will you be there?

I’m headed to Utah for the Feature Films Screenwriters Lab (Jan. 14) and will stay through the festival until Feb. 2. In general, it’s my intention to make monthly trips to the Park City office, New York office and the Sundance Resort for the labs. We have state-of-the-art videoconferencing, which helps cut down on travel costs, but there really is no substitute for meeting in person.

What is Robert Redford’s involvement these days?

Well, he was hugely involved in hiring me for this job, along with the board of trustees. He is very interested in what our global impact is. A third of the films at the festival are international, and 30 percent of our lab projects are international, too. We have a screenwriters lab in Jordan, we have our theater department working in East Africa, and our documentary lab is the pre-eminent funder of contemporary social-issue documentaries in the world. We are all over the world with Sundance.

Got a favorite Sundance movie?

My first Sundance was Reservoir Dogs and Gas Food Lodging. All the movies that year [1992] were pretty great.

 

ONE WEEK ON MY CALENDAR

MONDAY: Meet in Santa Monica with Robert Redford and the heads of the various Sundance entities. We get together twice a year.

TUESDAY: Fly to Washington to meet with the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and other groups to plan the launch of Film Forward, our partnership to bring 10 new independent films to audiences around the world to advance cross-cultural dialogue.

WEDNESDAY: Accept an award for Sundance Institute from the Center for Citizen Diplomacy in Washington, recognizing our global work.

THURSDAY: Head to New York to meet with foundation funders about our documentary film program.

FRIDAY: Back in L.A., meet with John Cooper and Trevor Groth as they finalize selections for the 2011 festival.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

SATURDAY: My daughter’s final soccer game of the season, in the rain in Camarillo, Calif.