Sundance chief steps down after 19 years

NEW YORK — Geoff Gilmore, a central figure in the evolution of the indie film biz, has ended his 19-year run atop the Sundance Film Festival to take a top exec post at Tribeca Enterprises.

A Gotham native who grew up on Long Island, Gilmore is returning home to occupy the newly created job of chief creative officer. The parent of the Tribeca Film Festival has other media holdings in such arenas as exhibition, events and international, which will take Gilmore beyond the scope of programming a fest.

When he starts the gig in mid-March, Gilmore will be trading one A-list boss, Robert Redford, for another, Robert De Niro. A year after the first Tribeca fest met with success in 2002, De Niro launched Tribeca Enterprises with producing partner Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff.

The 6-year-old entity “is well positioned to develop a film organization that can create a new paradigm for the future,” Gilmore said in a statement. “For me this is a big decision, a huge change and an enormous opportunity.”

Reached Tuesday by phone, Gilmore told Daily Variety that several factors, both personal and professional, influenced his decision. One is his ongoing relationship with Julie LeBrocquy, a filmmaker who has been based in Dublin — a shorter trip from Gotham than from L.A.

Another is the task of spearheading a traditional festival instead of breaking new ground in the ways films reach audiences around the world.

“We had finished a cycle of independent film over these past couple of years,” he said. “It was a hard decision. I agonized over it but I don’t know if there was anything more I could have done at Sundance.”

New York itself, as a media capital, international mecca and Gilmore’s birthplace, also played a role. Despite 30 years in Los Angeles, including a long stint at UCLA before joining Sundance, he said, “I’m the kind of guy who cries when the New York Giants win the Super Bowl.”

Money, of course, also can’t also be left out of the conversation, as the nonprofit realm of Sundance has more limitations than the for-profit possibilities at Tribeca, even in these economic times.

Rumors of the Sundance topper moving on have circulated for months, but the details of where he landed were unexpected.

“I’m surprised, but it’s a smart move,” said Michael Barker, co-prexy of Sony Pictures Classics. “Geoff’s one of the smartest guys around and he will contribute an awful lot to their strategy and their profile.”

It is unclear how involved Gilmore will be in programming the Tribeca fest, whose ninth edition kicks off April 22. Peter Scarlet remains in charge of the fest and Gilmore’s role is much more supervisory, though he said he would be “developing a sense” of how involved he might get once on the ground.

Along with expanding Tribeca’s overall brand and guiding strategy, Gilmore will join the board of directors of Tribeca Enterprises. There has been a spate of recent news out of Tribeca, including the launching of one-off fests in China and an ongoing fest in Doha, Qatar.

Sundance has no immediate plans to name Gilmore’s replacement, though a couple of veteran programmers have established themselves to the point that they could take the helm.

Still, the goateed Gilmore’s bullish view of the art and commerce that combined in recent years to create the specialty boom and his trademark greeting of audiences before screenings will leave a void in Park City.

When he came aboard the fest in 1990, “Sex, Lies and Videotape” had just opened the era of Sundance as an acquisitions hotbed. Gilmore was one of the main architects of the maturation of the fest that resulted in films from “Clerks” to “Blair Witch Project” to “Little Miss Sunshine” exploding into the mainstream after a screening in a formerly sleepy Utah mining town.

Sundance rep Brooks Addicott said the annual postmortem known among organizers as the Wrap was under way and it was too early to address whether the new chief would come from within or be an outsider.

The fest’s 25th anni “has been a time of candid reflection,” Redford said in a statement. “I support completely his decision. The timing is right to move on. We wish Geoff only the best as he embarks on the next phases of his life and career.”

Addicott underscored the amicable nature of the parting. “Nobody’s looking at this like he was stolen away,” she said.

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