The Sundance Film Festival has a new leader. Tabitha Jackson, who spent six years at the Sundance Institute as director of the documentary film program, will take over from outgoing festival director John Cooper at the end of this year’s edition. Jackson previously worked at Channel 4 Television in London before joining Sundance, and brings 25 years of experience in the arts and non-fiction film. She is the first woman, the first person of color, and the first person born outside the United States to head the festival. Sundance announced the news Saturday, to coincide with the 2020 awards ceremony.
Jackson will report to Sundance Institute CEO Keri Putnam and oversee director of programming Kim Yutani and her team as well as the operations of the Park City gathering, which brought 125,000 people to the cozy ski town for its 36th edition this year. Jackson finalized her deal for the position during the 2020 edition, while Cooper celebrated the end of his 11-year run.
“You walk around with new eyes thinking how beautifully everything is running and hoping you can live up to everything that’s already been created,” Jackson said in an interview this week ahead of the announcement. “I’m looking forward to digging in with the team to see what they made of this festival and what opportunities they see going forward. My head is full. That’s for sure.”
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Jackson’s hiring follows an extensive search that began last summer. Putnam said she received 700 applications for the position, and opened up the process to a panel of board members and colleagues to interview finalists by mid-fall. “While certainly not every applicant was qualified, we ended up with a great pool,” Putnam said. “I wanted to make sure we had an inclusive process. Tabitha just kept rising to the top.”
Putnam ticked off several attributes that cemented the decision. “Her orientation to lead with what artists need right now was really important,” she said. “The head of the Sundance Film Festival leads a curatorial team, and Tabitha has great taste. And there was her leadership. I’ve watched her and managed her as she’s led a team for six years, but also watched how she’s inspired across the Institute. She respects the people she works with and shares a vision that actually goes beyond the people in the organization to inspire stakeholders across the field.”
For her part, Jackson said she had settled into a role as Sundance’s documentary guru, where she was widely respected by the non-fiction community. “I was perfectly happy doing the job I was currently doing and engaging with artists in the messy business of documentary filmmaking,” she said. She had started to get involved with programming off-screen events at the festival when a producer in the business asked her if she planned to apply for the position. “Then it was like a little brain worm,” Jackson said. “What won out was what gets me out of bed in doing this work. Arts as a public good and as a catalytic force as a deeply necessary thing in understanding the human condition. Why wouldn’t I want to be given the trust to run a festival like this, which is a huge opportunity to direct people’s attention to exciting new voices?”
And there was one other factor: “Not to throw my hat in the ring would’ve been cowardly.”
The role certainly brings its challenges. As IndieWire reported last summer, Sundance faces serious questions about its future that epitomize many of the larger issues in the independent film community. As 83-year-old founder Robert Redford recedes from serving as the festival’s figurehead, declining box office and ever-changing models for financing and distributing films continue to fuel uncertainty about the role Sundance can play in supporting films with the Institute’s labs and festival programming alike.
Jackson acknowledged the daunting task ahead. “I think we need to find a consistent, stable, safe place for this work to be shown and championed,” Jackson said. “The community aspect of Sundance is notable. In doing this difficult work, and the vagaries of the marketplace being purely about sales, we think our role is having this strong community, inspirational work, hungry audiences, and an industry that feels we are still resonating with what they need. There’s a lot we can’t control, but those are the things we can and should.”
Jackson is the latest Sundance veteran to take on the director role after Cooper, who held 18 jobs at the festival over 20 years before replacing longtime festival head Geoff Gilmore in 2009. Sundance has a reputation for promoting from within, though Putnam considered many outside candidates for the role. “There were a lot of people who had great ideas, but a lot them were nuts-and-bolts ideas,” Putnam said. “Tabitha had them, too. But she also had a charisma and vision, humor and depth of connection to the purpose we served. I looked inside and out and chose the candidate I thought was best for the job together with a really thoughtful group of stakeholders.” She added that, compared to Cooper’s 30 years at the festival, Jackson was a relative newcomer to the Sundance world. “I hired Tabitha from outside six years ago,” she said.
In her role as director of the Documentary Film Program, Jackson doled out grants to countless filmmakers while overseeing the Institute’s Edit and Story Lab. These efforts ingratiated her to the documentary film community in one of its biggest growth periods, though they differ from the vast practical challenges of overseeing a massive festival. Putnam shrugged off those concerns, citing director of operations Ralph Rivera and Yutani for their management experience. “The whole group who runs the festival already has a great thing going,” Putnam said.
At the same time, Putnam said she was intrigued by Jackson’s off-screen programming at the festival. “She is extremely interested in the live event,” Putnam said. “The care and attention she will pay to every detail to that is going to stem from her deep commitment to making sure that the event itself reflects the values of the purpose of the festival.”
Jackson said her emphasis on “values” for the future of the festival came from an interview she conducted with Redford for the director position. “I asked him what he was looking for in the next festival director and he said a commitment to independence and embrace of change,” she said. “That was the founding vision. The animating impulse of the Institute and this festival was responding to certain conditions of the time, and although we’re responding to other conditions, there are certain similarities.” She added: “I don’t want to get into the details before we establish what the bigger picture is.”
Jackson brings a lively flair to the position, reflecting an energy unique to the documentary community. That puts her in line with Cooper, whose giddiness and down-to-earth attitude marked a dramatic shift from his straight-faced predecessor, and loosened up the Sundance environment for much of its creative community. While Sundance did not make Cooper available for comment on Jackson’s hiring, he addressed the imminent announcement earlier in the festival. When asked what he hoped his replacement would bring to the role, Cooper said, “Them being as silly as me,” and chuckled. “I do think I set people at ease here,” he said. “I tend to not take a little of the important shine off of stuff, but I let the event feel real.”
Putnam singled out Jackson’s own leadership traits. “There’s a kind of electricity to Tabitha in the questions she asks and the provocations she’s willing to bring,” Putnam said. “She’s iconoclastic, and I like that.” (At a farewell event for Cooper during the festival, Jackson popped up in a video tribute to the outgoing director to lip-synch a few lines from “Baby, Please Don’t Go.”)
Jackson was honored by DOC NYC at its Visionaries Tribute in 2018, where she invoked her unique upbringing. “As an adopted mixed-race child of divorced parents raised in a small village in rural England, I’ve come to enjoy inhabiting the edge of things, the in-between space,” she said. “It began as a survival mechanism. It’s now my most comfortable place. But now, tucked under the wing of Sundance, enfolded in the capacious bosom of the documentary community, I feel gratefully and perhaps for the first time that I’ve found my family and my home.”
Jackson’s hiring coincides with a notable uptick of interest in the documentary market, particularly from deep-pocketed streamers. At this year’s festival, “Boys State” sold to Apple and A24 in a joint deal reported at $10 million, the highest amount spent on a documentary in the festival’s history. (Some insiders said the actual figure was much higher.) However, Putnam downplayed Jackson’s specific documentary experience as central to her new role. “I wouldn’t want to convey that this is some sort of message about documentary suddenly having greater emphasis for us,” Putnam said.
Jackson stressed that point in a separate interview. “Of course my background is nonfiction, but in this role, the commitment is to independent cinema,” she said. “The money that’s coming into the non-fiction field is good in terms of sustainability. What we want to do, therefore, is to also provide a space and support for work that the market doesn’t know it wants yet, and for makers to come from particular perspectives talking about things you may not know you want to see.”
Nevertheless, Jackson beamed about a legacy of supporting more expansive approaches to documentary. “The stranger elements of stories are getting into theaters and finding wide distribution on streamers,” she said. “It can make people who thought they’d never watched a documentary open to it.” She was especially proud of the Institute’s support for documentarian Remell Ross, whose expressionistic “Hale County, This Morning, This Evening” premiered at the festival and landed an Oscar nomination last year. The movie originally received support from Sundance’s Art of Nonfiction Fellowship. “In terms of experimental work getting to a mainstream moment, I was particularly pleased with that,” Jackson said.
Jackson walked a more delicate line than her predecessor when discussing Sundance’s marketplace, which Cooper tended to regard with ambivalence. “If nothing ever sold at the festival, it would mean we’re not resonating in an industry that we deeply need to further this storytelling for different audiences,” Jackson said. “When the stories are written about the number of deals that are being done — which is relevant in the sense that it’s an expression of how this work might meet audiences — our definitions of success or failure are not necessarily the market definitions alone.”
Jackson’s 2020 festival experience was unique on several fronts. In addition to finalizing the deal for her new job, she got married on the first day of the festival to filmmaker and documentary cinematographer Kristen Johnson, whose intimate diary film “Dick Johnson Is Dead” premiered at the festival. Jackson admitted that it would be the last time Johnson, whose “Cameraperson” was a Sundance breakout in 2016, would screen at the festival during her new wife’s tenure. “Kristen Johnson is an incredible filmmaker and legendary cinematographer,” Jackson said. “Unfortunately, because we just got married — which is the good news — we’ve made the agreement that she can’t submit work to the festival, which is deeply distressing, but definitely the right thing to do.”
Fortunately, Jackson added, she felt there was no shortage of talent at her programming disposal.
“Our pathos is also about elevating and amplifying voices that we feel should be brought to people’s attention,” she said. “The festival is not just a marketplace; it’s a gathering place. It is the public square.”