Sundance Faces Existential Questions in Search for New Leadership

As Sundance searches to replace outgoing director John Cooper, it must confront the uncertain future facing independent film as a whole.
People walk past the Egyptian Theater on the first day of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, USA, 24 January 2019. The festival runs from the 24 January to 2 February 2019.2019 Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Usa - 24 Jan 2019
People walk past the Egyptian Theater on the first day of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah
George Frey/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In late June, the Sundance Film Festival announced that after running the festival for 11 years, the 2020 edition would be John Cooper’s last. Sundance declined to offer specific plans on the hiring process as the festival searches for a new director, but sources with knowledge of its plans say that the board hopes to fill Cooper’s role by the end of the fall. The festival has been known to promote from within, but Sundance is engaged in a broader search, and only a few candidates have stepped forward.

“We’re talking to candidates from a broad array of backgrounds — and those conversations are going to continue for at least several months,” said Sundance Institute CEO Keri Putnam. “The festival is dynamic and evolving, and we look forward to finding the right new director to lead us forward.  In the meantime, we’re all excited to celebrate Cooper and his incredible tenure at his final festival as director.”

Even programming veterans often cobble together multiple programming jobs, and the opportunity to run the most revered U.S. festival should be a dream gig. But the opening also presents a daunting challenge, as new leadership would be tasked with keeping Sundance relevant during one of the most vulnerable moments in its history.

For nearly 40 years, the Sundance Film Festival has been the preeminent showcase for independent film in America. The domestic arthouse industry continues to rely on Sundance, but that relationship isn’t a given. “The festival starts the PR machine,” said IFC Films vice president Arianna Bocco. “It creates the frenzy, sets the tone, that sort of thing. It can work well for you and it can work against you. But if Sundance were to go away, from a distributor standpoint, something else would take its place.”

Everyone knows the festival’s myth-making stories: “Reservoir Dogs” launched Quentin Tarantino’s career overnight, “The Blair Witch Project” became a global box-office hit, “Little Miss Sunshine” reignited the buying frenzies. It’s also true that many more Sundance films never find distribution, much less a bidding war. This has always been a tricky message for Sundance, which must manage expectations while taking justifiable pride in its unique ability to shape conversations with its massive platform.

Today, Sundance faces some real warning signs. By the end of the 2019 edition, none of the movies in the festival’s NEXT section found distribution. The biggest sales faced mixed results: A24 pickup “The Farewell” continues to perform well across the country, but “Late Night” was a bomb for Amazon. Expensive mistakes happen (remember “Happy, Texas“?), but Sundance can literally no longer control its narrative: Domestic box office is struggling across the board, and for independent narrative fiction features in particular. Independent theaters are being sold, or considering a sale, or filing for bankruptcy.

Some of these issues may seem irrelevant to running a successful festival: The role of a chief curator is less contingent on determining the future of the art form than determining the best strategies for showcasing it. But how much power can a festival have if the audience for its movies continues to dwindle?

These challenges come as the festival maintains a strong team that includes director of programming Kim Yutani, who replaced Trevor Groth after he left for investment firm 30West last year. However, the role of Sundance director is hard to quantify. The festival posted the position on various job forums in mid-July, calling for applicants with 10 years of programming experience, extensive film knowledge, and a deep well of contacts. But these metrics don’t begin to capture the essence of Cooper’s legacy, or the demands of a job that could determine Sundance’s long-term future.

Cooper inherited his position from Geoffrey Gilmore, who ran the festival for nearly 20 years. Gilmore’s tenure coincided with the explosion of the independent film market at Sundance, in the immediate aftermath of “sex, lies and videotape,” and launched the careers of major directors like Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino in the ’90s. However, Sundance’s ability to launch new directing talent struggled as discoveries began to materialize at other emerging festivals such as SXSW.

The sun rises and shines on Main Street before the morning premiere of the "Leaving Neverland" Michael Jackson documentary film at the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah2019 Sundance Film Festival - Day 2, Park City, USA - 25 Jan 2019
The sun rises and shines on Main Street during the 2019 Sundance Film FestivalDanny Moloshok/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

When Cooper was promoted from director of programming to Gilmore’s role in 2009, former midnight programmer Groth became Cooper’s wingman. They guided the vision of the festival into the next decade. The theme of the 2010 edition was “cinematic rebellion,” and they launched the vital NEXT section to highlight riskier storytelling as an alternative to the more conventional works in competition.

NEXT evolved to become the festival’s most exciting corner, where breakouts like Eliza Hittman (“It Felt Like Love”) could screen alongside curveballs from established directors like Andrew Bujalski (“Computer Chess”) and David Lowery (“A Ghost Story”). As programming chief, Cooper created touring editions of the festival in London and Hong Kong and made VR a permanent part of the festival lineup, paving the way for other festivals to follow suit. Most recently, the festival added an Indie Episodic category to encompass the rising popularity of television among independent filmmakers.

Sources familiar with the thinking behind the festival’s hiring process said the Institute seeks someone who could bring “activist attitude” to the job, while synthesizing the previous directors’ strengths. Gilmore was known for his cinema-first mentality as he delved into programming decisions above all else; Cooper ceded much of that process to Groth, then Yutani, while focusing on maintaining the flow of the festival and producing its events.

Putnam and her board are reportedly engaged in wide-open conversations about Cooper’s replacement. Meanwhile, he is expected to remain aboard as director through January and oversee other long-term Sundance projects, while Yutani will play a role in the transition.

Few major programming figures have thrown their hats in the ring, leaving many in the community to speculate about potential hires from the festival’s inner circle. These included Bird Runningwater, the director of the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, who launched its Native Filmmakers Lab in 2009. Others have suggested that Groth, who has receded from the spotlight at 30West, might be ready to take charge at Sundance.

There are other veteran programmers across the country whose resumés suggest they might be up for the challenge: former San Francisco Film Festival head and ex-TIFF programmer Noah Cowan; former AFI Fest director Jacqueline Lyanga, who recently took on a new year-round programming role with Film Independent; the widely beloved MOMA chief curator of film Rajendra Roy, whose programming background includes the Hamptons and Berlin. At the same time, if Sundance were to hire a traditional festival programmer, it may be better off sticking with someone from its existing team. (There is also the issue of non-profit salaries: In 2017, according to the Sundance Institute’s tax filings, Cooper made $239,701. At the time, he’d spent 27 years at the festival.)

Whoever lands the job will need the expertise to oversee a 10-day event that brings upwards of 120,000 people to Park City, where rising operational costs make each year a more daunting proposition. They also will have to find ways of keeping the programming essential and aligned with the Institute’s mission of being a platform for independent film. And if Sundance starts to lose its currency, the festival director is an easy scapegoat.

Robert Redford, Keri Putnam, and John CooperfSundance Film Festival Opening Press Conference, Park City, USA - 18 Jan 2018
Robert Redford, Keri Putnam, and John Cooper at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival opening press conferenceStephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock

Meanwhile, 83-year-old Sundance co-founder Robert Redford has already started to recede from his position as the festival’s visionary figurehead; at the start of the 2019 edition, he made a point of introducing the opening press conference with programmers before stepping off the stage, rather than taking questions from reporters as he had in previous years. Redford continues to embody Sundance’s identity, but he won’t be there forever, and the festival must confront how it will maintain its value without his annual presence.

Sundance and its future director also have to consider how much it needs to craft a program that meets industry needs when many buyers now pre-buy projects long in advance of their premieres. The delicate dance of art and commerce has no easy answer. “It’s folly to anticipate the marketplace, and impossible to ignore it,” said Tony Safford, the festival’s programming director in the 80s and a former Fox Searchlight executive. “I think Sundance has navigated it well. Its best accomplishment is to be many things for many people.”

Several other North American festivals face similar questions about their next moves. The Toronto International Film Festival is nearing its first edition with co-heads Cameron Bailey and Joanna Vicente, who also serves as executive director, marking the first time the major fall gathering has had two figureheads overseeing its lineup and operations. SFFILM, the San Francisco film festival and institute behind major filmmaking grants out of Silicon Valley, is currently searching for a new artistic director. Tribeca Film Festival owner Tribeca Enterprises was recently acquired by James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems. And while this year’s New York Film Festival will maintain its tightly curated lineup in late September, it’s unclear how long artistic director Kent Jones will remain in the position now that he has launched his own filmmaking career with his well-received “Diane.”

To that end, while the process of filling Cooper’s role comes with unique challenges, it’s also a microcosm of the open-ended situation facing film festivals as a whole. On the one hand, the festival circuit provides the ultimate contrast to concerns about the future of film culture: Festivals stand as living proof that filmmaking is a vital form of creativity worthy of celebration and industry support. Nevertheless, all festivals must contend with the need to remain relevant with no clear template for what that means. “We’re on the brink,” Safford said. “Cinema is nearly dead, but storytelling isn’t. Filmmakers and performers know better than we do where we’re headed.”

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