Sundance Names Tabitha Jackson as Festival's New Director

Tabitha Jackson - H 2020
Josh S. Rose

The U.K. filmmaker, who served as director of the Sundance Institute’s documentary film program for the past six years, beat out 700 candidates hailing from around the world.

After a seven-month search, the Sundance Institute has named Tabitha Jackson as the new director of the Sundance Film Festival. Jackson was chosen following a worldwide search and will replace outgoing director John Cooper, who announced in June that he was stepping down. Cooper, who spent 11 years in the post, will assume the newly created role of emeritus director.

Jackson, 49, is an Emmy-winning filmmaker from the U.K. and has served as director of the institute’s documentary film program for the past six years. She will oversee the fest’s overall vision and strategy, while leading a senior team in close collaboration with director of programming Kim Yutani. In his new role, Cooper will oversee special projects, including preparations for the institute’s 40th anniversary in 2021.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Jackson and Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam two days before the announcement to discuss the selection process and what the move means for the future of the venerable indie film festival.

Putnam says she initially received 700 applicants and looked at candidates that were both domestic and international as well as film industry executives and those who led arts nonprofits. She whittled the pool down to 10, and then she and the board further refined the list to four.

"Throughout it all, Tabitha was competing just really strong," Putnam tells THR. "And as we went through additional paces and conversations, what began to emerge for me were her standout qualities. First and foremost, she is hugely aligned with artists. She really gets them. Second, she’s a killer leader. People on her teams and throughout the organization are really inspired by her. And outside the organization, the different stakeholders we work with look to her. She is so curious and provocative, and I love that combination."

Since 2013, Jackson has shaped the institute’s documentary film program in profound ways, overseeing the creation of new programs and resources that support nonfiction filmmakers worldwide. Sundance has become a particularly strong event for launching docs in recent years, with three from the 2019 slate nabbing four Oscar nominations this year. A focus of Jackson’s new role will be shaping the institute’s full slate of global public programming throughout the year — including Sundance Film Festivals in Hong Kong and London and a nationwide short film tour — as well as leading the community of artists and audiences those programs serve.

"During one of my gazillion interviews, I met with Robert Redford and asked him what he was looking for in the next festival director, and he said, 'a commitment to independence and an embrace of change,'" Jackson recalls. "Those two things, which were the same for him when he started this whole grand experiment and are as resonant now as they were then, I’m deeply committed to as well. And the independent voice and the joyous expression of that voice at a festival, which can then send that work into the culture, that’s really exciting."

With more than 25 years of experience in the field of arts and nonfiction film, Jackson previously served as the head of arts and performance at Channel 4 Television in London, where she supported independent and alternative voices. She also executive produced a number of projects for the U.K.’s Film 4, including Bart Layton’s The Imposter, Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film, Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, Sophie Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology and Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days on Earth. She won a 2006 Emmy for outstanding informational programming — longform for Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge.

"I founded Sundance Institute with the clear mission of celebrating and supporting independent artists," Redford said in a statement. "And the festival is the platform where we can showcase their stories. As we approach our 40th anniversary, I’m pleased to have Tabitha lead us as we move into the future and meet the next generation of artists and their stories."

Jackson will have big shoes to fill as the popular Cooper gives up the festival director reins. The fest’s scope and ambition have evolved over his tenure, including programmatic innovation like the Kids sidebar, which was launched in 2014. The two will work together over the coming months to ensure a smooth transition.

"I’m a huge admirer of her approach to the work we do," Cooper said in a statement. "Tabitha’s approach and vision are ambitious and fresh, and she embodies the best of what Sundance can be."

As for areas that are ripe for change at the festival, Jackson was reluctant to identify any just yet, noting with a laugh, "I haven’t taken my coat off yet to sit down in the job." She continues, "But I have some thoughts and questions. It’s more about, for me at the moment, questions I want to ask of the team and of the broader institute. The answers respectfully should come later. I have a year before it will be an expression of my vision for the festival, and there’s lots I want to learn. So, I have some questions, but I don’t want to go into the answers yet."