Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam with God Loves Uganda director Roger Ross Williams. Photo by Natalie Simpson.
Since 1985, the Sundance Film Festival has been a launching pad for indie filmmakers.
Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, says the mission hasn't changed—just the execution of it.
She says Sundance founder Robert Redford's original outline is bringing storytellers together to enable them to tell their stories to the world.
“That's pretty elastic,” Putnam says. “It's very specific, but also very flexible.” Some of the new ways the Sundance Institute is getting those voices heard are through Sundance London and a partnership with Youtube to screen short films during the festival.
We were part of Putnam's recent roundtable interview at the fest to talk about where the institute is headed. Here are some highlights:
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis recently wrote an editorial saying too many films are flooding the theaters, and it isn’t good for filmmakers or filmgoers. What’s your response?
“There is a lot more movies being made today, obviously, but whether that creates what Manohla called a glut or if that creates more opportunity to match films with constituents who care about them, I think the jury is out . . . I think people having access to the tools and ability to make movies at a more democratized cost basis is a good thing, because that way, you'll get more people from these corners and pockets [in the world] who couldn't afford to go to film school.”
Sundance partnered with AEG Europe for Sundance London. What's in store for this festival's future?
“Our deal with AEG is just this one more year, so we may extend that deal or we may decide, 'Hey, we love being in London,' or 'Maybe we should go somewhere else,' or maybe we will decide we've been in London, so let's go to Rio. We don't know. We're going to keep our focus on the event we're going to be producing in April, try to do a great job, and then quickly take stock with our partner and ourselves and see what makes sense.”
So, you're saying Sundance could hold a festival somewhere besides Utah and London?
“I'm not saying we will, but we've seen there's a way of creating a mini festival that can bring American independent film abroad in a way that it often doesn't get to travel and connect with the local filmmaking community in a way that enriches both sides. We can see that that's fun, [in London], we've added music to it—maybe there's some earned revenue in it for us, and that's not bad for a non-profit, but for now, London's the only place we've tried. I'm not saying we have plans to try [having it elsewhere]—I'm saying it's pretty clear that if the model works, you could potentially do it somewhere else. But we're not trying to build a Sundance satellite empire.”
With so many films going digital, do you ever see the day where Sundance holds a cloud-based festival?
“Right now, we have a chunk of our shorts program with Youtube in the cloud . . . With shorts, the business model for the artist, not for Sundance, is different, where they're not coming to the festival looking to find that deal . . . Usually, the finances on shorts don't work that way; they just want to be seen. Doing a virtual festival makes a ton of sense, and we have a great partner in Youtube to do that. And they put a lot of promotion behind it. I think we're still at a place with features that if we as a festival chose to put a feature online during the festival, we would cannibalize its ability to do business.”
In a discussion about Sundance's filmmaker labs, Putnam spoke about changes to the Native Program.
“One thing we're planning to change is our Native lab. That community has very few resources, and it's very difficult to get people ready to make their feature films. So, instead of bringing them to a screenwriter's lab, where they're going to work on a screenplay and hope to get the funding to do a feature, we're actually thinking about repurposing that whole lab and making shorts in the lab, which we've never done before.”
Are there any filmmakers in your labs right now you think have a spot at a future festival?
“I'm thinking it would not be a good idea for me to menion any of my favorites at the labs, because everybody personally always has favorites. But I think they all have a fighting chance. In case you don't know, the 23 projects in the program this year came from our Institute programs.”