‘We Chose the Riskier Route’: How Sundance Leaders Reimagined a Virtual Film Festival

Sundance Toppers Keri Putnam and Tabitha
Jackson: Sundance Institute; Putnam: Photograph by Michael Buckner

The 2021 edition of the Sundance Film Festival will look very different. With the coronavirus pandemic raging, Sundance has opted for a virtual gathering, following in the footsteps of the Toronto Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. But Sundance has made important technical innovations that its leaders claim will re-create the communal atmosphere of a film festival while enabling attendees to access premieres and talks from the safety of their homes (and without having to dust off their parkas). Sundance Institute CEO Keri Putnam and Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson spoke with Variety about the obstacles and opportunities of having a digital festival.

Did you consider canceling Sundance?

Tabitha Jackson: When you’re contemplating a global pandemic, you have to think, “Is it responsible to go ahead with a festival?” Within about a nanosecond, the answer to that philosophical question was yes, of course.

How is Sundance’s approach to hosting a digital festival unique?

Keri Putnam: There are several elements of the design of the platform that are distinct. Like many festivals, we decided to use [streaming platform] Shift72 as a player because their quality has been established. But unlike many other festivals, we’ve been able to build an environment around that player. Our films roll out in tight slots throughout the day, so we preserve that energy of the premiere. Not only that, but also that every film in the program gets a live interactive Q&A.

Jackson: We knew we needed to experiment with re-creating the social nature of a festival where you can bump into people serendipitously or meet people you haven’t seen for a while. People can go in as an avatar to our site. You can meet people. There’s a gallery space, a cinema space, and this exciting innovation called a film party, so after every feature film you can go in as an avatar and bump into people and talk about the film you’ve just seen.

Will Sundance return to Park City post-pandemic?

Putnam: We will be back in Park City. We will be back in person. Could there be a hybrid that offers access for people that can’t get to Park City? Maybe. But none of us have ever imagined losing the in-person gathering.

Jackson: It will look different this year, but we must not forget that to bring our traditional 120,000 people to a small mountain town during a pandemic isn’t even a dilemma. That would be grossly irresponsible.

There are so many issues that society is grappling with — a reckoning on racism, climate change, a global pandemic. Are they reflected in the films?

Jackson: The work reflects a world of independent filmmakers. It’s a combination of work that was made before the pandemic, during the pandemic. There is work that reflects the racist history of many countries including this one. This film festival is not a frivolous distraction to take our attention away from all the serious issues that are going on in the world. It’s helping us understand it and to put forward a proposition for what the world could be when we come out the other side of this.

How are media consolidation and the rise of streaming services affecting the type of films you champion and the artists you support?

Putnam: As the companies consolidated, they’re competing for global eyeballs in an intense way right now. What that may mean is more investment in more mass appeal content; it may mean more independent content. I don’t think we know, but what we need to do is partner with the artist and listen to them. Because if there are certain stories that can’t get out through those dominant platforms, we want to support them. We’re happy to have Netflix and Amazon and HBO Max and Hulu and all those companies at the festival. At the same time, we recognize that those companies’ business plans might not align with the full range of independent content that we’re putting forth.

During the Trump era, Sundance felt like a gathering of the resistance. Will that change with Biden in office?

Jackson: My hope is that we go a level deeper than party politics. It’s about values. We are in resistance to any downward pressure on freedom of creative expression, which includes freedom of movement and travel. We are in opposition to narratives that clearly are not founded in fact or truth or justice, and it doesn’t matter what administration is perpetrating that.

Your digital platform is ambitious but could face technical issues. Are you prepared for high-profile mistakes?

Putnam: We could have put the work that the team curated on demand for four days and have it be seen by people, and that would have been safer. We chose the riskier route following the lead of the artists and the audience whose adventurous spirit inspires us.

Jackson: The things I wake up in the middle of the night worried about are not what will people think? What keeps me awake is will there be some random global power outage?

You walk down Main Street of Park City every year and it’s like taking a tour of global capitalism with sponsored lounges and parties and events. Is there tension between Sundance’s indie spirit and the corporate sponsors and big companies that come to the festival every year? 

Putnam: We’re a non-profit. A non-profit needs to have supporters and partners of all kinds to be able to enable our work. We’re not just a festival. We also have labs and provide millions of dollars of grants to up-and-coming artists that enables them to make their work. As a non-profit there’s always going to be a need for that support.

I am really proud that we’ve been able to message to a lot of the companies that came unofficially in the past that our values and what this work supports really doesn’t align with what they were doing. Drafting off what we do while not supporting our work not only hurts us, but it hurts the people that do support us. As a result the partners we do have are integrated in a deeper way to the values of what we do. There’s going to be an inherent tension between scrappy independents and corporate sponsorship, but it’s one we need to maintain in order to maintain our vitality as a non-profit.

Tabitha, this is your first festival as director. Did you ever imagine the kinds of challenges you would face?

Jackson: This was a baptism by fire, but it was in some ways freeing. We just had to do things incredibly differently and meet the moment. It’s been crazy and sometimes sad, but the overall feeling is one of exhilaration with a little chaser of exhaustion.