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Keri Putnam will be stepping down as the CEO of the Sundance Institute before the year is done, after a decadelong tenure with the media and arts nonprofit.
“I feel incredibly proud over what we have accomplished over the past decade, especially over this past year, and it just felt like the right time for me to try a new chapter and also for the organization,” said Putnam in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
Putnam, who first attended the famed festival in 1992, joined the Sundance Institute after a long career in production, including holding top posts at HBO Films and serving as president of production at Miramax. A central focus of the executive’s past decade has been spearheading efforts to bring more diversity into the Sundance fold and, by extension, the independent film space, which has long been overwhelmingly white and male. As Putnam explains, a main draw of the job was “the role [Sundance] played in launching artists that wouldn’t have been prioritized by the commercial system.”
A program launched under Putnam’s purview was Sundance Catalyst, meant to forge relationships between independent investors and filmmakers that has, over the past eight years, raised $40 million in equity and grant investment. Other new efforts included a fellowship to diversify critics covering the Park City festival as well a 2012 partnership with USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative head Dr. Stacy Smith and Women in Film to study the barriers facing female-identifying artists. The latter led to the launch of the Women at Sundance program, which helped Sundance achieve gender parity in its programs. The 2021 iteration of the Sundance film festival saw female directors account for exactly 50 percent of the festival slate, while 51 percent of filmmakers were people of color.
“I had been coming to Sundance since 1992. I loved the institute and long understood the impact in launching talent and careers. By 2010 it was well-established in doing that work, but it was also facing, along with the rest of the industry, a vastly shifting field,” says Putnam. For Sundance, the 2010s saw the rise of the streamers in the independent space, and the globalization that had long been a part of the studio system had begun to seep into the independent film business models.
Putnam and her team established satellite festivals in London and Hong Kong, as well as the institute’s filmmaker Lab programs in Mexico, East Africa and the Middle East, among other locales.
“As a fierce supporter of independent creators, Keri has been instrumental in seeing the Institute through a decade of transformation, while keeping a laser-focus on Sundance’s mission of preserving, discovering, incubating and encouraging independent artistry in all forms,” said founder and president of Sundance Institute Robert Redford in a statement. “We cannot overstate her impact, and we thank Keri for her invaluable service in support of independent artists.”
“Under Keri’s leadership, Sundance forged new partnerships across the industry and beyond,” said the Sundance Institute’s board of trustees chair Pat Mitchell in a statement. “As a result, the Institute is stronger than ever, and poised to leverage this exciting moment to continue its invaluable work on behalf of independent artists in the US and around the world.” Mitchell and vice chair Ebs Burnough will lead the search committee for Putnam’s replacement, which Mitchell noted will come at the end of the fiscal year.
Putnam’s exit means that the 2021 iteration of the famed festival, the first Sundance to take place exclusively online due to restrictions surrounding COVID-19, will be her last. She calls the feat “one of the most challenging things I have ever worked on and one of the proudest moments I have ever been part of, too.” The online festival also acted as the first for new festival director Tabitha Jackson, who took over for John Cooper after his 11 years in the post.
When asked about what’s next, Putnam lists several possibilities, including a return to development and production or a stay in arts and culture work. “I am really eager to explore,” she says. “It’s such a dynamic time in the field that once I start doing a bit of listening and some exploring the answer will open up.”
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