A successor has yet to be named. Board of Trustees Chair Pat Mitchell and Vice-Chair Ebs Burnough will Co-Chair a Search Committee to identify Sundance Institute’s next Chief Executive.
Putnam’s departure comes in the wake of John Cooper’s exit in January 2020 as Festival Director, through he continues to be involved as an Emeritus Director, actively engaged with Sundance alumni and other sundry fest projects. While SFF Founder Robert Redford said he would not longer have a public-facing role in January 2019, the esteemed star and Oscar-winning filmmaker remains involved with Sundance Institute as a member of the board.
“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 Redford. “We cannot overstate her impact, and we thank Keri for her invaluable service in support of independent artists.”
During Putnam’s tenure she has led the Institute through an era of significant change in the media landscape which has seen the rise of streamers, many of which have made their mark with big film acquisition deals at the festival in recent years, i.e. Apple with his record-setting pick-up of this year’s CODA for $25M and Netflix with its $12.5M 2017 pick-up of Mudbound to mention a few.
As the leader of one of the cinematic epicenters for independent film, Putnam is confident about the future of arthouse fare, telling us, “I think the indie film market, judging at what happened at our festival and other film markets in the last year, I think we can be optimistic. There is a market for great work. With a lot of buyers out there, there’s an appetite for exciting work, and I think there always will be. What I’ve seen over my decade at Sundance is a lot of dynamism and a lot of change in terms of the rise of the streamers and some of the consolidations and a lot of stress on the market in some ways, but I also see the vitality of the voices, and I believe independent filmmakers will find a way to tell their stories, and I think most importantly, the range of voices, the diversity of voices, and the kinds of voices which may not be prioritized by the commercial mainstream, need to be heard through platforms like Sundance and so many other festivals and independent spaces; it’s urgent that these voices rise up and are launched and I think that mechanism will continue and be vital for many years to come.”
This year was quite an anomaly year for Sundance due to the pandemic. Coming away from being one of the last lively film festivals in 2020 before the global Covid shutdown, Sundance opted this year to hold a week-long hybrid festival at satellite cities around the nation in addition to taking the festival online. It provided a means for those who had never been to Park City, Utah, to relish the festivals’ movies with the rest of the industry. The event drew viewers from 50 states and 120 countries and became literally Sundance’s most watched ever.
Talking about that revolutionary pivot for Sundance, Putnam tells Deadline, “I’m so proud of what our team accomplished at the festival this year, it’s one of the great highlights of my experiences at Sundance. Weathering the challenge of the pandemic year in general was incredible, but also putting together a festival with a new director, with Tabitha Jackson and (Sundance Film Festival Director of Programming) Kim Yutani and the whole team on our newly built digital platform in such a short period of time, and reaching a wider audience than ever before and a new audience — we reached an audience that had never been able to attend Sundance before and that was super exciting. Most importantly, I think the filmmakers had a chance to really feel the sense of having a Sundance premiere with the way the platform was designed, and really got the energy in the best way we could provide.”
Also during her run as CEO, Putnam spearheaded the launch of new programs to support artists seeking production, financing and distribution, including Sundance Catalyst, which raised $40 million in equity and grant investment over the past eight years for a wide array of independent projects. In addition, Putnam and her team have prioritized the Institute’s longstanding commitment to historically underrepresented voices by expanding and establishing programs for artists of color and artists with disabilities.
Putnam’s team also launched a fellowship to diversify critics covering the Festival, and she has also commissioned groundbreaking research on issues of equity and inclusion in media, including a 2012 partnership with Dr. Stacy Smith and Women in Film to study the barriers facing female-identifying artists, based on Sundance Institute’s extensive applicant and acceptance data. The learnings led to the launch of the Women at Sundance program, helped Sundance achieve gender parity in its programs, and became the basis for ReFrame – an industry-wide advocacy group for women in media co-founded by Putnam.
Putnam expanded Sundance Institute’s worldwide footprint beyond Utah festivals in London and Hong Kong and Lab programs in cities across the US, Mexico, East Africa, the Middle East and beyond. Recognizing an opportunity to connect and serve an even larger community of independent artists around the world, in 2018 the Institute launched Sundance Co//ab, a digital platform offering courses, classes, and community events. By 2020, the platform was home to 1M users from over 150 countries.
“Under Keri’s leadership, Sundance forged new partnerships across the industry and beyond,” said Board Chair Mitchell. “She helped build a diverse, world-class team, and invested in leadership at all levels, from staff to the Board. 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. We are grateful that Keri will be staying on in her role through the end of our fiscal year.”
“After an incredibly rewarding decade, and following the success of our first-ever online Festival, I have decided it’s the right time for me to step down as CEO of Sundance Institute. Leading Sundance through this volatile era in media together with such an impassioned team has been one of my greatest joys,” said Putnam in a statement “The remarkable growth of our community of artists, audiences and partners over the last ten years is a testament to the vitality and urgency of the independent storytelling Sundance supports. The Institute stands today as an innovative and resilient organization at the intersection of arts and media, supporting more artists and reaching a bigger audience than ever before. I look forward to exploring new challenges and opportunities in my next chapter, and can’t wait to see the extraordinary Sundance team break new ground in the years ahead while maintaining their renegade, independent spirit.”
Putnam, a former Miramax and HBO exec told Deadline this morning that she hopes to potentially return to her roots in development and production.