SPOTLIGHT January 2021: Keri Putnam, Sundance Executive Director and Activist
The recently announced Alliance of Women Film Journalists 2020 EDA Awards were replete with brilliant work by women in film. The strong female showing is a testament to trend-setting programming at Sundance Film Festival, where many of the EDA Award contenders had their premieres. The list includes Promising Young Woman, Crip Camp, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and The 40-Year-Old Version, among others. That’s not at all surprising. Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Institute are known to amplify the work of emerging artists and emphasize gender parity and inclusivity. This is due in large part to the influence of Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute.
Putnam oversees the yearly fest and has helmed Sundance Institute since 2010, 29 years after it was founded in 1981 by Robert Redford. In her ten years of tenure, she’s grown the non-profit to its current stature of international renown. And, she has lead the movie industry in amplifying diverse voices through the festival and by building the institute’s impactful year-round programs that support storytelling artists around the world.
EXPERIENCE AS THE BEST TEACHER
Keri Putnam was born in 1965, and fell in love with theater early in her life. She believes it might have been in middle school, when she was cast in a lead role in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. After graduating from Princeton Day School in 1983, she went to Harvard to study theater history and literature, graduating summa cum laude. As an apprentice at Williamstown Theatre Festival, she worked in the literary office, an assignment that changed the her career trajectory. She joined HBO soon after, at a very early time for the network, and spent the next 15 years being promoted from assistant manager, to manager, to vice president, then to executive vice president of HBO films. In 2006, she became president of production at Miramax Films, and during her tenure there, the company released films that won or were nominated for a number of Oscars, including No Country for Old Men, The Queen, and There Will Be Blood. In 2010, she was named executive director of the Sundance Institute. Robert Redford and the Sundance board of trustees saw her potential as a leader who could expand the international reach of the arts organization he’d started in the early 1980s. They were right.
GROWTH AT SUNDANCE
Under Putnam’s leadership, Sundance has continually grown and expanded, and now supports over 800 artists each year through it festival, labs, grants, and workshops. As the digital world has developed, Putnam has created new programs for all forms of storytelling that leverage the most cutting edge technologies. Most importantly for the women that comprise over 50% of the film and media-viewing audience, she has been consistently and insistently committed to better representation for women and diverse voices in all media platforms.
COMMITTED TO PARITY
Beyond her work as Sundance’s executive director, Putnam lends her experience and insight to a number of woman-focused initiatives and non-profits.
As a board member of Women in Film Los Angeles, Putnam is involved with the nonprofit in developing programs that advocate for women working in the screen industries, both in front of and behind the camera. The Women at Sundance program, which supports women writers, directors, and producers, was started in partnership with WIF: LA in 2012. It is through the Women at Sundance program that Dr. Stacy Smith and researchers at USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative revealed the unfortunate (but not at all surprising) statistics about how far women lag behind men at being hired for all jobs in the film industry. Though before the release of these reports the inequity was clear from Dr. Martha Lauzen’s ongoing research at San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, and through expansive anecdotal evidence, the hard numbers have led to a loud and insistent call for change and commitment to closing the gap.
Putnam is on the executive team of ReFrame, founded by WIF: LA and Sundance Institute to support more than 50 partner companies to mitigate racial and gender bias in the film industry. The organization awards the ReFrame Stamp of Approval to film and television projects that, as noted on the ReFrame website, ‘hire female-identifying people in four out of eight key areas of their production, including: writer, director, producer, lead, co-lead, speaking parts, department heads and crew. Additional points are awarded to content that has women of color in key positions.’ Productions report that the ReFrame Stamp has a positive impact on their success and garners viewer appreciation and loyalty. More and more shows and films apply for the ReFrame Stamp every year.
THE #MeToo AND #TimesUp CHALLENGES
Putnam is also in the forefront of demanding change in Hollywood around the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Times Up’s 4% Challenge was first announced at a panel at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The 4% Challenge references the measly percentage, 4%, of the top 1,200 studio films between 2007 and 2018 that were directed by women, and encourages industry-wide commitment to raise that percentage by hiring women directors, especially female filmmakers of color, within 18 months.
All these positive actions, inside of, in collaboration with, or outside of Sundance, have led to impressive forward momentum for women filmmakers, as well as representation onscreen, and Putnam is integral to it all. In her blogs and speeches, many of which are accessible on the Sundance website, she constantly raises awareness of initiatives and organizations participating in the Sundance Institute’s Allied Organization Initiative, focused on parity and inclusion. that list of organizations includes ARRAY, The Black List, Outfest, and RespectAbility, among others.
SUNDANCE IN THE PANDEMIC
In 2020, and even as we enter the new year with hope for change, safety, and better days, we’ve had to rethink our expectations about filmmaking and film viewing. The festivals that created buzz, excitement and financial support for independent work — the bright new voices of filmmaking, and storytelling that represents diverse perspectives — have had to curtail, cancel, or completely redesign themselves. In a very real way, Sundance was the luckiest of fests last year since its January scheduling meant it was the last international fest held in person before the pandemic took hold.
Since then, cancellations have been the order of the day. Now, with vaccines being rolled out and a new American president soon to be in office, there’s reason for some optimism. But for Sundance’s regularly scheduled January dates, the still rising deaths and cases of COVIE-19 demand that safety and caution trump in-person gatherings of any kind, anywhere. No one in the film world knows that better than Keri Putnam. In July of 2020, she sent out a heartfelt memo to employees in which she let them know 24 staff positions, or about 13%, would be eliminated. She also talked about the restructuring of the institute’s theater, film music and ‘new frontier’ lab programs to create a single interdisciplinary program inclusive of all media.
Also in response to the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the arts community, Putnam spearheaded the creation of the “Sundance Institute Respond and Reimagine Plan,, which redistributed funds to directly support artists and arts organizations in need, with a special focus on artists from historically marginalized communities that have been most impacted by the pandemic. 60% of the emergency funds went directly to artists, including 103 who participated in the Sundance Institute Labs, which were done digitally this year, and 39 grants were given to arts organizations across 19 countries around the world. You can find the list of the grantees on the Sundance Institute website’s COVID-19 page.
CREATING SUNDANCE 2021
Putnam and the new Sundance Festival Director Tabitha Jackson have been reconfiguring and redesigning the 2021 Sundance Film Festival to sustain the event by making it an almost entirely virtual experience. The fest will be shortened to 7 days (January 28th through February 3rd), using a custom-designed online platform for streaming programmed films (all available online in the US, some available worldwide). Talks, events and emerging media programs will be available globally.
In essence, Putnam and Jackson are making Sundance programming accessible to many people who’ve only dreamed of attending the fest, inviting them to see the films that get the buzz that lasts through the year — often through awards season. In addition, drive-ins, indie arthouse theaters, and other local partners nationwide will participate. This wider accessibility may remain a part of festival design even when in person attendance resumes.
WHY WE CHOSE HER
Keri Putnam has had a feminist agenda since the start of her career, and thank Goddess for that! She’s consistently championed women in film and opened opportunities for diverse voices in moviemaking. She has built industry-wide alliances that advocate for and enact change. Numbers don’t lie. The Sundance fest 2021 program boasts 50% female filmmakers. Sundance grants fund films that Hollywood would deny. When, at some point in the future, we all see ourselves equally and respectfully represented onscreen and in the credits, we can shout a chorus of thanks to Keri Putnam for moving the needle forward to make it happen. — Leslie Combemale