It’s the changing of the film festival guard as Toronto International Film Festival co-head and executive director Joana Vicente steps down from her TIFF role after three years to return to her roots in American independent film. She will take over as CEO of the Sundance Institute, succeeding influential CEO Keri Putnam, who exited earlier this year after 10 years. Vicente’s last day at TIFF will be October 31, and she will begin her role at the start of November, working between the Institute’s Park City, Los Angeles, and New York City offices.
The search for her replacement was led by Sundance Board of Trustees Chair Pat Mitchell and Chair-Elect Ebs Burnough. In a statement, the board said the hiring resulted from “a very comprehensive search to find the right person who would continue to move us forward with a vision that aligns with the founding values of the Institute’s founder, Robert Redford.”
Regardless, Vicente will have big shoes to fill. During her time at Sundance, Putnam was tasked with overseeing the replacement of long-time Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper in 2019 with Tabitha Jackson. Together, Putnam and Jackson mounted a successful and innovative virtual Sundance Film Festival 2021 during a COVID surge, highlighted by the $25-million sale of “CODA” to Apple and the $15-million Netflix deal for “Passing,” which felt like the right time for Putnam to move on.
Vicente, too, charted unknown territory over the past year and a half. “Though none of us anticipated planning two festivals amid a global pandemic,” stated Jennifer Tory, Chair, TIFF Board of Directors, “alongside artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey, Joana has helped us navigate this new reality while delivering the ground-breaking and industry-leading work TIFF has always been known for.”
While at TIFF, Vicente oversaw its reorganization, led a comprehensive digital strategy and innovation plan, and launched the TIFF Tribute Awards gala, which this year honored Oscar-contenders Denis Villeneuve, Jessica Chastain, and Benedict Cumberbatch. TIFF and Sundance Institute say they are working together to make a seamless leadership transition for both orgs, and Bailey and the TIFF Board of Directors will review the organization’s structure to assess next steps and leadership needs to ensure TIFF’s continued success.
This marks a return for Vicente not only to the United States, where her husband (producer Jason Kliot) and family live, and where she ran The Independent Filmmaker Project for almost a decade, but to American independent cinema. She has produced over 40 movies, including Alex Gibney’s Oscar-nominated “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated “Capernaüm,” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes.” As the co-founder and president of Open City Films since 1994, she produced four Sundance lab projects, and has had 13 features and six short films debut at the festival, including triple-winner “Three Seasons,” which won the Grand Jury Prize, Cinematography Award, and Audience Award, and “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” which won a Grand Jury Prize.
Sundance Film Festival
Vicente will lead the Institute’s year-round staff of 200, which expands to 250 during the Sundance festival, which will launch in hybrid form in January 2022. She will set strategies for the Institute’s ongoing mission as a leading global advocate for independent artists and freedom of expression in film, theater, composing, episodic storytelling, and emerging media.
“From the day we started the Sundance Institute, we have had a very specific mission to foster independence, risk-taking, and new and diverse voices in storytelling,” stated Sundance Institute Founder and President Robert Redford, who at 85 has maintained a lower profile at the institute and festival of late. “Throughout her entire career, it is evident that Joana shares this same uncompromising vision, and we know that she possesses a deep understanding of the evolving landscape, and can reach a new generation of independent creators working more fluidly across disciplines, communicating across borders, and engaging directly with audiences.”
Reporting to the board, Vicente will work with industry artists, funders, donors, and global partners, and oversee the Institute, including its year-round artist programs, the Sundance Film Festival, Sundance Collab, as well as the public and field-building programs, working between the Institute’s Park City, Los Angeles, and New York City offices.
“Sundance has been an essential part of my career,” Vicente said in a statement. “I feel that I grew up as a producer with the support of the festival and the Sundance labs. It is such an extraordinary opportunity to lead an organization that has defined independent storytelling for 40 years. This opportunity combines all of my passions: film, working with storytellers throughout the world, and leading mission-driven organizations. I have always felt that Sundance was a home for me, and this opportunity makes me feel as if I am going back home.”
Sundance Institute, photo by Jonathan Hickerson
She added, “As a producer, I know firsthand the incredible impact Sundance has on independent artists, and I look forward to working with Bob, the Sundance Board, and the amazing and dedicated teams at Sundance who continue to find new ways to discover, support, and inspire the most creative and diverse group of storytellers — not just in the United States, but all around the world. We are at a critical time for independent creators, and Sundance is poised to continue to be a beacon for storytellers throughout the world as they navigate the rough waters of our time.”
Indeed. Vincente takes the Sundance reins at a time when the independent film community is shaken as Hollywood emerges from the pandemic. It’s unclear how the specialty market and arthouse theaters will thrive, as distributors turn to shorter theatrical windows and streaming options. So far Sundance has remained relevant to both artists and the industry. We shall see how it pivots to the new world order.
Sundance 2022’s hybrid model will do much to clarify how viable the Park City venue will remain when virtual hubs are an option. The 2021 virtual edition lured half a million viewers nationwide and expanded to 25 arthouses. Sundance endured despite lost revenue, hanging on to key sponsors, but the way forward is not without difficulty. Clearly, Vicente is well-prepared to take on the challenge.