Inside the abrupt departure of Sundance CEO Joana Vicente


Scandal at a film festival is often generated by provocative authors or loose-lipped actors causing drama at press conferences. Last weekend’s laid-back Sonoma International Film Festival, held in the heart of California wine country, was a different story.

Many independent film actors saw Sundance Film Festival director Eugene Hernandez at the event, along with his two predecessors in the role: John Cooper, who left the position in 2020, and Tabitha Jackson, who resigned in 2022. The three were in town to screen films and mingled when the surprising news spread that Joana Vicente, CEO of Sundance, had resigned from her position after less than three years. Surely these observers found the right pinot noir to accompany the rumors about what Vicente’s departure means for Sundance, the nonprofit organization founded 40 years ago by Robert Redford, known in global film circles as a destination for artistic discovery . So what the hell happened?

Vicente came to Sundance in 2021 from her position as executive director of the Toronto International Film Festival, taking on her new job at an impossible time. COVID-19 closed theaters, restricted travel and forced Sundance to present that year’s film slate online. Circumstances plunged the organization into financial chaos. Revenue was down $22 million in 2021 compared to the previous year (plunging to $34 million from $56 million in 2020, according to ProPublica). Surprisingly, in 2022 revenues skyrocketed to $58.6 million as Vicente took the event through an unprecedented digital launch. That year, Sundance also reduced its liabilities by $2 million under Vicente, according to filings.

Although Vicente and his employer emphasized that it was his decision to resign, three sources with knowledge of the matter say Variety that Vicente was increasingly scrutinized by the board of directors of the Sundance Institute. Vicente is known as an elegant leader with a brain for operations that never strays from the message, but her skills as a fundraiser raised questions, sources say. Sundance’s CEO is ultimately responsible for securing and managing corporate dollars and attracting private donors.

Through a spokesperson, Sundance calls Vicente a “great asset” who expanded international versions of the festival, increased funding and managed the “herculean task” of getting the festival out of the pandemic. The organization also notes that an inaugural gala reimagined by Vicente, with Christopher Nolan and Kristen Stewart in attendance to receive honorary awards, raised a record $1.5 million this year. The Sundance CEO position is perhaps one of the most prestigious in the industry and is compensated accordingly. While Vicente’s salary has not yet been reported in tax returns, her predecessor, Keri Putnam, earned more than $450,000 in 2021.

The question on the minds of many in the independent film community (not to mention the broader entertainment ecosystem that relies on Sundance for prestige product and added marketing value) is why Vicente left after such a short time, especially considering the “tremendous asset” he had. proven to be?

Variety spoke with more than a dozen industry experts who have long participated in and closely watched Sundance. The board of directors is “a handful, to put it politely,” says one independent film and television executive. Its president is the wealthy Ebs Burnough, a filmmaker and former adviser to first lady Michelle Obama. Members of the legacy include environmentalists, a software engineering mogul, and activists who, according to two sources, are connected to Redford (or wish to curl up around his cold flame). New entrants over the years (Jason Blum, Tessa Thompson, Gigi Pritzker, Charles D. King) lend legitimacy to the board in the broader film community.

“It seems like they haven’t really given him a chance,” another high-level film executive says of the board’s relationship with Vicente. “But they could tire anyone out.” Another source close to Sundance disputed this characterization, saying that, as with many nonprofits, the leadership is “committed and very passionate.” The board reappointed one of its own as interim CEO: former Instagram executive Amanda Kelso, who served as interim leader between Putnam’s departure and Vicente’s hiring. Kelso is well-liked within the organization, although not well known in Hollywood circles. She will be around for some time, Variety previously reported, and experts estimate it could be almost a year before a CEO search takes place in earnest.

You can’t blame the board for prioritizing a long-term revenue strategy, if some took issue with Vicente’s abilities in that department. Film festivals are in crisis around the world. The annual Berlin festival has faced severe budget cuts and, as a result, program cuts. Last year, Toronto lost Bell, its big-money title sponsor. To its credit, Sundance has kept all of its major sponsors through the past few years of turbulence. Unlike its European and Canadian counterparts, the Park City festival does not receive government funding. No matter how he got here, he must pave a new road up the mountain.

“The role of the general manager at a place like Sundance needs to evolve,” says one independent sales agent, “and so must the festivals, if any of us are to survive.”

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