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How Sundance Is Trying to Diversify Its ‘Mostly White Male Critics’

Robert Redford, president and founder of
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/S

The Sundance Film Festival has always been a leader when it comes to promoting diversity in front of and behind the camera. At a time when the movie business is under pressure to become more representative, Sundance has led the way, inviting a large number of storytellers who are female and who are people of color. But at the festival’s kickoff press conference on Tuesday morning, Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam said that organizers had noticed a disturbing blind spot.

“Diversity isn’t about who is making the films,” Putnam said. “It’s about how they enter the world.” She added that the festival noticed that they were admitting “mostly white male critics.” That influenced the kind of films that were championed by reviewers, which in turn meant that only certain types of films scored big deals and major distribution pushes.

“This lack of inclusion has real-world implications,” Putnam said. “So we decided to do something about it.” She said that organizers re-shaped the credential process as a result.

“Sixty three percent of the press is from underrepresented groups this year,” Putnam said.

Putnam and John Cooper, the festival’s director, emphasized that the festival prizes films the shine a light on society and grapple with political and cultural issues.

“We go out to find the most interesting, the boldest voices from all around the world,” said Cooper.

This year’s slate includes “Knock Down the House,” a documentary that chronicles Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rise; “Late Night,” the story of a diversity hire in a comedy show writer’s room; and “Native Son,” a contemporary reworking of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel. Forty seven percent of the movies in the festival were directed by women, while people of color account for 39% of directors with films in competition.

Putnam added that the consolidation in the media space — one in which a major studio in the form of Fox is going away thanks to a merger with Disney — is resulting in fewer platforms for artists. She also bemoaned a “click-bait” culture that doesn’t celebrate more thoughtful types of stories.

“We see Sundance as a public square for independent voices,” said Putnam. “We recognize that this sort of public square is in short supply right now.”

Sundance founder Robert Redford appeared briefly at the opening day event to welcome the press. “God, this festival has been around for 34 years,” he said as he thanked the festival volunteers for keeping things running smoothly.

The 82-year old Redford recently retired from acting. He has said his most recent film, 2018’s “The Old Man and the Gun,” will be his last. Just as he is stepping out of the frame, Redford implied he was going to also cede the stage to his festival programmers. With Sundance having become an institution, he said he wanted to take on a different role.

“I think we’re at a point where I can move on to a different place,” said Redford, looking trim in a black leather jacket and T-shirt. “The thing I’ve missed is being able to spend time with the films.”

In the past, Redford spent much of the festival welcoming media and introducing the various premieres. That might not be the case much longer.

“I don’t think the festival needs a whole lot of introduction now,” he said. “I think it runs on its own course.”