The Sundance Film Festival has found its new leader from within, promoting Sundance Institute documentary program director Tabitha Jackson to festival director.
Jackson’s appointment was announced Saturday night during the festival’s awards ceremony.
Jackson takes the reins of the premier American film festival whose previous director, John Cooper, last summer said he would step down following the 2020 edition of Sundance, which wraps Sunday. Jackson becomes the first woman, the first black person, and the first Brit to head the annual Park City, Utah, showcase for independent film.
“All of these things make up part of my fabric,” Jackson said in an interview ahead of the announcement. “I suspect that the symbolism of it, in so far as it is inspiring to others who may feel they have permission to go for these big jobs, is helpful. But I hope the appointment was made on the basis of substance rather than symbolism. But at times like these, in this political climate, it is worth noting.”
Jackson’s appointment means that the top three positions at Sundance are all filled by women. Keri Putnam is the chief executive and executive director of the Sundance Institute, the nonprofit organization founded in 1981 by Robert Redford that puts on the festival. Since 2018, Kim Yutani has been the festival’s programming director.
“It’s powerful and also about time,” said Jackson.
Putnam oversaw the search process, along with a selection committee that included Jason Blum, founder of Blumhouse Productions and a member of the Sundance board. She said the festival received 700 applications and considered many outside candidates before choosing Jackson for her close connection to independent artists.
“From my perspective, putting Tabitha and Kim at the helm is the future,” said Putnam. “And I’m really excited for where they go.”
The completed leadership team, along with Cooper who transitions into an emeritus director role, will be tasked with steering Sundance into one of the festival’s most challenging new chapters. Redford, the face and founder of Sundance, is stepping back. Now 83, Redford is mostly retired. This year, Redford did away with his usual opening-day press conference.
“In an interview I had with Robert Redford, I asked him what he was looking for in the next festival director,” Jackson said. “He said a commitment to independence and an embrace of change. I think that is an incredibly powerful filter for deciding how we take the festival forward into the next chapter. They happen to be the kind of eternal verities of Sundance, anyway.”
It’s perhaps most telling that Sundance’s new director comes from documentaries. Sundance is still the top launching pad for new voices in narrative filmmaking. (Recent festival breakouts include “The Farewell,” “The Big Sick” and this year’s festival record-setting acquisition, “Palm Springs,” with Andy Samberg.)
But for years, documentaries have often been the most vibrant section of Sundance. The most prominent films of this year’s festival have also been docs, including the opening-day premiere “Miss Americana,” with Taylor Swift, and the controversial Russell Simmons accusers documentary “On the Record.”
Putnam called Jackson’s documentary background a major plus. Before joining the Sundance Institute in 2013, Jackson worked at the British public network Channel 4 and was an executive producer on a number of documentaries.
“We’re in an exciting time,” Jackson said of nonfiction film. “With the market taking such an interest in the form, which is great, we have to be ever-vigilant at Sundance at making sure that artists are not self-censoring, and they are still making the stories that are true to them without thinking: Is this something that the market wants?”
Along with quoting Redford, Jackson also cited the words of another iconoclast, Frank Zappa, when contemplating her plans for Sundance.
“He says that without deviating from the norm, progress is not possible. It could be very easy given what an extraordinary thing this festival is, to be complacent about its legacy and about its success,” said Jackson. “But I think as with all independent art makers, we’re afflicted with this kind of blessed unrest and we’re constantly asking questions about how we can be better, how we can be more artful, how we can be more relevant, how we can get more work to more audiences.”