Sundance Film Festival Director Tabitha Jackson Is Leaving the Organization

A public search for a replacement is underway for Jackson, who leaves after two pandemic years in the job.
Tabitha Jackson Leaves Sundance Film Festival
Tabitha Jackson at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival

Tabitha Jackson is departing from the Sundance Film Festival in her role as director, the festival announced today. CEO Joana Vicente is leading a search for a new festival director, while director of programming Kim Yutani has joined the senior leadership team of the Sundance Institute.

The news comes just over two years after Jackson replaced longtime festival director John Cooper, who worked in that capacity for over a decade. Jackson was the first woman, the first person of color, and the first person from outside the United States to hold the position at the festival. She is a Sundance veteran who headed up the festival’s Documentary Film Program and advocated for adventurous forms of non-fiction storytelling. She will depart the festival following the latest edition of Sundance Film Festival: London 2022, which takes place June 9- 12.

No specific reason was provided for Jackson’s abrupt departure, though rumors of internal discord have circulated in recent months, including tensions between the Institute and the festival programming team. Jackson’s tenure as the festival’s director took place over the two all-virtual editions of the festival in 2021 and 2022 as a result of the pandemic. During that time, Sundance reported strong numbers in online ticket sales, but the absence of in-person screenings and activities in Park City created a dramatic impasse for the festival’s standing as the most prominent event for the U.S. film industry at the start of every year.

During Jackson’s time as festival director, the festival opened its first virtual edition with future Oscar winners “CODA” and “Summer of Soul,” and also launched its Satellite Screen program with arthouses across the country. This past year, she was among the leaders forced to contend with backlash from the Muslim-American community over the decision to program the documentary “Jihad Rehab,” for which the festival ultimately issued an apology. Two members of the Institute resigned in the midst of the controversy over the film.

The financial repercussions of holding two back-to-back virtual festivals is unclear, although the impact seems especially challenging in recent months. In 2020, the festival cut 13 percent of its staff positions and consolidated several of its new media labs into the Sundance Interdisciplinary Program; Sundance closed that program in April of this year. At that time, Sundance announced it would also end its Film Music Program. Other longstanding programs remain in place, including the Sundance Directors Lab, which takes place in Utah this week.

“Being part of driving forward the mission and purpose of the Sundance Institute has been a deep privilege and a profoundly meaningful part of my life,” said Jackson in a statement. “This incredible organization has only increased my unshakeable belief in artists as a transformative societal force and, in this complex and challenging historical moment, a force more necessary than ever. Going forward, working with and for artists and their freedom of creative expression will continue to be be my guiding light.”

Jackson was one of the final hires of outgoing CEO Keri Putnam, who left the organization after the first pandemic edition in 2020. New CEO Vicente joined Sundance after two years at TIFF. She is tasked with filling a role now defined by fundamental shifts to the festival ecosystem. Though in-person festivals from Cannes to TIFF are gearing for comebacks, the virtual component of festivals has stimulated new conversations about their potential role in the VOD landscape. Sundance has already announced plans to take on a hybrid form for its January 2023 dates, though it remains unclear what that will look like.

In her own statement, Vicente praised Jackson for her tenure at the festival and the institute during unpredictable times.

“We are grateful to Tabitha and her contributions to the Sundance mission over the last eight and a half years as a leader at the organization,” Vicente said. “She helped lead the Sundance Film Festival through the ongoing pandemic, helping transform it for the future, all while keeping independent artists as our north star. There is no doubt that she has left her indelible imprint on the organization. She leaves us with the Festival never more vital than during this time of great change in our industry and in a place to continue to make a meaningful contribution to culture. I look forward to leading the Festival in the interim and working more closely with Kim and our exceptional team of film programmers. The strength and experience of our existing Festival leadership and programming team means there is no shortage of talent to continue forward with the work we are doing for next year’s Festival.”

Yutani has worked at Sundance since 2006, when she was part of the short-film programming team. She was elevated to director of programming in 2018 under Cooper, but did not pursue his position when he left. Yutani will now take on additional responsibilities pertaining to the festival’s industry and artists relations. She will continue to oversee the programming team alongside senior programmer John Nein, who leads strategic initiatives, and New Frontier curator Shari Frilot.

In addition to having oversight of festival programming decisions, the festival director is also tasked with navigating the delicate relationship between the Institute and the festival as well as the internal politics of the goals for Sundance itself.

For years, Robert Redford served as the festival’s figurehead, a role that emerged from his creation of the Sundance Institute as a safe haven for independent filmmakers to develop their work outside Hollywood. Redford founded the Institute on his private land in 1981 and took over operations of the nearby United States Film Festival in 1985, later changing the name to Sundance. He has remained a prominent figure at the festival over the decades, though in 2019 he said he would be stepping aside to play a less active role in promoting the festival or making key decisions about its future. Now, the 85-year-old is said to cede major operational moves to the board, which has been headed by Ebs Burnough since 2021.

The festival said Vicente will lead the festival’s development and planning during the search for Jackson’s replacement. The job was expected to be posted on the Sundance Institute site on Wednesday, at which point the search for the replacement will begin.

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