Out of adversity comes opportunity. That’s the view from the top of the Sundance Institute, where CEO Joana Vicente is preparing for her first in-person festival in Park City since she took the reins of its parent nonprofit organization in November 2021.
“Sundance is so unique — it really is a place of discovery,” Vicente tells Variety.
The last-minute cancellation of the in-person festival at the start of this year — due to a COVID surge — was a blow to the institute’s bottom line because so much event expense had already been incurred. And that only added to the financial hole from the 2021 gathering, which also shifted entirely online.
But the vast expansion of Sundance’s virtual and streaming capabilities has had a huge silver lining. To Vicente, who previously headed the Toronto Intl. Film Festival and New York’s Independent Filmmaker Project, it’s clear that the organization can vastly expand its reach and impact for the filmmakers it champions by embracing the Zoom revolution.
“We have had incredible learnings from that [2021 and 2022] experience,” Vicente says. “We were able to reach more people who love film and who love art-house films. We have the potential to reach emerging filmmakers and students all over the U.S. and other countries. Our challenge is to build out our programs and find a way to continue making them more accessible.”
Now that the 2023 lineup has been unveiled, Vicente and her team will focus on supporting newly appointed Sundance Film Festival chief Eugene Hernandez as he prepares for the 2024 festival, and Kim Yutani, the 2023 fest’s director of programming, in bringing back the brick-and-snow-boots gathering in a satisfying way. But she will be all eyes and ears as the Jan. 19-29 event unfolds, focusing on how Sundance can leverage its sterling brand in the digital future.
Vicente, who has a background as an indie film producer, is also mulling ways to expand the famed Sundance Labs that have been a launchpad for so many emerging narrative and documentary filmmakers.
“We need to design a strategy that is sustainable at a time we’re facing some financial challenges,” Vicente says. “We do Sundance London. We just had Sundance Asia this summer. We are asking ourselves, how do we really leverage those moments?”
She sees Sundance as uniquely positioned to grow its influence as a content-curation brand, given its track record of platforming new talent. The institute also has a role to play in examining industry-wide issues, such as the financial struggles that documentarians are facing despite the seemingly endless demand for nonfiction content.
The Sundance Institute teamed with the National Endowment for the Humanities to create the Humanities Sustainability Fellowship that provides stipends to 20 producers and offers other networking and support resources to filmmakers. The same spirit is behind the program launched with the MacArthur Foundation and Sundance Institute board members Alan Horn and Cindy Horn to provide scholarships and development opportunities for emerging Latino artists. And the institute partned with the MacArthur Foundation and the Asian American Foundation have a similar program for Asian and Pacific Islanders.
“Sundance from the beginning has always been about creating amazing opportunities for storytellers,” Vicente says.
That filter has more value than ever in a global streaming environment: “There’s a big appetite for content and a big appetite for new voices,” she says.