Keri Putnam on Sundance 2021 Going Virtual – Leslie Combemale interviews

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AWFJ’s January SPOTLIGHT is on Sundance Institute Executive Director, Keri Putnam. As part of our focus on Putnam, and in preparation for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which for the first time is happening virtually, we spoke to her about her life, her experience, and how she and Sundance Film Festival’ new Director, Tabitha Jackson, built this year’s festival to not only represent the best in film and make room for diverse voices, but also allow for people all over the world who have always wanted to attend one of the world’s most influential film festivals to finally do so, and from the safety of their own homes. Fans of great film and inspired female creatives, read on:

LESLIE COMBEMALE: What personality traits and experiences as a child can you point to as being advantageous and as having helped lead you to your career—and in particular your work at Sundance?

KERI PUTNAM: Growing up, I was a bookworm. I loved stories of all kinds. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, just a long train ride away from the theater in New York. I fell for the theater and ended up working in my local regional theater in the summers in high school. I was fascinated by the intersection of literature, history, and theater – how the stories we tell as a culture connect to our history, and also the impact of mass entertainment. In college I wanted to study theater literature and history – but they didn’t have a major in that at Harvard, so I designed my own major. I was able to draw courses from many different areas, work with visiting fellows, take individual classes, and work with my thesis advisor in the English department. It was a very fun way to go through college – it was an incredible opportunity and reflects what I steered towards later.

COMBEMALE: In what ways did your career before Sundance most prepare you to take on that challenge?

PUTNAM: In many ways, my career before Sundance didn’t prepare me at all – I’d never worked in a nonprofit, I’d never raised money, and I’d never been a CEO before. I had run departments and parts of businesses, but it was a huge growth step for me when I came into this role 10 years ago. But the ways my previous career did prepare me for this role as three-fold: First, I’d been coming to the Sundance Film Festival since 1991, and I’d worked with filmmakers who came through the Sundance Institute Labs in my previous jobs – so I had an enormous respect and passion for the work that was being done. Second, I’d worked in a creative environment: I oversaw development and productions of films from a creative perspective. I love working with creative people as a manager and a colleague. And Sundance has an extremely creative culture across the board – not with just the artists we support, but with the people who work at the Institute. So my prior work prepared me for that sort of team and culture. Finally, with a background at HBO and Miramax/Disney, I gained insights on how to support creative work that accrues up to a larger “brand” value and promise. This isn’t true about too many other companies in the arts and entertainment space. I was excited to be part of shaping the future of such an iconic organization as Sundance.

COMBEMALE: Sundance is committed to parity and inclusion. Can you trace how that has been so indelibly carved into the mission statement and acted upon?

PUTNAM: Sundance Institute has been elevating and supporting historically underrepresented voices since its inception. Indigenous voices were at the table at the very first meeting at the Institute’s founding; at our very first Labs, people of color and women and LGBTQ+ people were at the creative table. Inclusion is in our DNA. But, there’s always more work to do – there’s always more to do to examine who’s making the decisions as an organization, and how we hold ourselves accountable. Before I came to Sundance, I’d worked with artists that Sundance had supported like Gina Prince-Bythewood, Allison Anders, and Moises Kaufman (among others), so I was familiar with the work that the Institute has done to uplift voices and artists whose stories needed to be told and who were underrepresented in the cultural mainstream. But when I came into this role, we decided to underline that intentionality that had long preceded me, and move towards accountability – how do we ensure that we’re actually doing this work? So we did research, we collected and published data about how we were doing in our artist programs against broad representation in the culture, and we identified gaps that we tried to address with programming. This led to the realization that we had opportunities to deepen our work in this area; and at the core, we need to ask the questions about what is the real reflection of our culture, and how are the stories that are being told fit into that? How does storytelling hold up a mirror to who we really are? How can we expand that tent of whose stories get told?

COMBEMALE: For you personally, what is your single biggest achievement at Sundance to date?

PUTNAM: The work I’ve done to focus on gender parity – especially co-founding ReFrame with our wonderful partners at Women in Film – has been a highlight. But more broadly than that, I walked in the door at Sundance with an incredible admiration for the work that the Institute had done, what it stands for, and how the staff had maintained such fidelity to Robert Redford’s founding vision. The opportunity I saw was that we needed to retain that fidelity – stay true to our roots – while shifting and expanding our work in response to the radical shifts in the media, arts, and entertainment landscape. This required many changes – including expanding the forms in which we work, making a commitment to new pathways for supporting artists in finding resources, distribution, and career sustainability, broadening access to our work with new digital and global programs that now reach tens of thousands more people than ever before. What I’m most proud of is that, even throughout all this growth and evolution, e never lost our shared sense of clarity of purpose. Our team has risen to meet this moment – it is the incredible, visionary, committed people who work at Sundance Institute who got us here.

COMBEMALE: You are involved in a number of other ventures relating to parity, like ReFrame. How do you choose where else you give your time and expertise, how do you balance your work and personal life when non-profits take so much time and work, and what is the Sundance Institute’s commitment to helping those working there keep a balance, which is essential to any creative, inspired career?

PUTNAM: I’ve been passionate about opportunities and advocacy for women in media throughout my career. I’ve worked with many women directors as far back as my time at HBO, and all the way through, I’ve recognized the gaps that women creatives – and women executives at the leadership table – face, and I’ve looked for ways to close them. I’m passionate about our work with ReFrame, as well as sitting on the board of Women in Film. I give a lot of time on mentorship – it’s very fulfilling for me to work with and learn from a new generation, and I find that I get back much more than I give!

In terms of keeping balance, one of the reasons I stayed with HBO and Miramax for so long was for the flexibility and stability that it provided to me while I was starting my family. I had both of my kids while I was at HBO; when you’ve been with a company for a long time, you can use some of the trust and reputation that you’ve built for yourself to leverage that into flexibility. I’m so grateful I was able to use that flexibility to create that stability and balance for my kids, between my work and my family life – and also enjoy the fun parts of working in a production job! However, I was never not working full-time – and I recognize that’s not for everyone. I was lucky that by the time I came to Sundance Institute and the nonprofit space, my kids were older, because I had vastly underestimated how much work needs to be done in a resource-strained environment, even with the joy and purpose to be found in working in a mission-driven environment. We’re always trying – and I’m always trying personally – to manage capacity levels and make that balance a priority in our work culture at Sundance.

Out of necessity, the 2021 Sundance Fest is largely virtual, but that also means greater access for film lovers around the world who want to take part. In fact, your new Sundance Fest director Tabitha Jackson speaks of ‘slippers instead of snow boots’. One aspect of the 21 Fest is the satellite screenings across the US. Can you talk a bit, however, about the events and experiences meant to mirror the collaborative and exciting feel of the physical fest, like the Festival Village, Main Street and the Artist Lounge?

When we realized in the spring that we would need to plan for an entirely reimagined festival, from the outset we knew that we didn’t just want to have a platform where we put a slate of films up on-demand and say, ‘This is our curation, enjoy it on your own time.’ We wanted to create that same shared excitement we experience at the live Festival, online – but that was a tall order. We took a few different tactics: one, we preserved the energy and temporality of a premiere at a Festival – our premiere screenings take place in a very short window, with a live, interactive Q&A immediately following the screening so the audience can engage with the filmmakers. Two, we wanted to recreate the in-person experience of the Festival experience “off screen,” and we did that in a way that relies on our partners, rather than producing it ourselves. The result was Festival Village, an online space for our partner community, which includes sponsors but also foundations, allied nonprofit organizations, and our Satellite Screens across the country, to come together and offer programming online that is free and open to everyone. Thirdly, one of our core values is access. In a year when circumstances prevent us from travelling and gathering together in Park City, we know that, paradoxically, this is actually an opportunity: we can provide access to the Festival this year for many people who may not have been able to come to Park City before. We’re enormously proud that we’ve been able to open access to the Festival online across the country, and to our Talks and New Frontier slates to audiences around the world. Additionally, we’re proud that this year, 20% of all tickets and passes have been either free or subsidized – another way we’re increasing access.

COMBEMALE: There’s no question the pandemic has been disastrous in every way, including for the arts. Still, we must all try to find the positive ways it might impact our future. In what way might Sundance come out of it different in a good way, or expanded, more aware or inclusive, or stronger?

PUTNAM: It absolutely has been a challenging year for us, as it has for so many nonprofits. However, I see Sundance Institute carrying two things forward with us: one, is a fierce commitment to a culture of equity and access, and a commitment to finding new ways to de-center our organization by working with partners. This year, we had to do this out of necessity – but we’ve found enormous success in inviting more people and organizations in to share ideas and programming. Equity and access have always been values that we hold, but they’re even more amplified now. Secondly, while it was an enormous challenge in pivoting all of our Summer Labs to our online learning community Co//ab, we also found a huge opportunity for growth – Co//ab had an explosion of new users this summer – but there were also so many bright spots in moving these Labs online, in terms of how we share ideas, how we invite artists in from outside the U.S., and how we integrate digital opportunities to provide more access, flexibility, and customization. Even when we move back to in-person, I think we’ll continue to offer a hybridity element to all our programs.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.