April 13, 2024

Brighton Journal

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Inside Sundance CEO Joana Vicente's surprising departure

Inside Sundance CEO Joana Vicente's surprising departure

Scandal at a film festival usually arises from provocative auteurs or loose actors stirring up drama at press conferences. The Sonoma International Film Festival, held last weekend in the heart of California wine country, was a different story.

Many independent film players spotted Sundance Film Festival director Eugene Hernandez at the event, along with two of his predecessors in the role: John Cooper, who left in 2020, and Tabitha Jackson, who resigned in 2022. All three were in town to screen films And independent films. They were mixed when the shocking news broke that Joanna Vicente, Sundance's CEO, had resigned from her position after less than three years. These observers certainly found the perfect noir to pair with the whispers about what Vicente's exit means for Sundance — the 40-year-old non-profit founded by Robert Redford, known in world film circles as a destination for artistic discovery. So what the hell happened?

Vicente arrived at Sundance in 2021 from her position as executive director of the Toronto International Film Festival, taking on her new job at an impossible moment. COVID-19 closed theaters, restricted travel and forced Sundance to bring that year's film slate online. The circumstances led to the organization falling into financial chaos. Revenue was down $22 million in 2021 compared to the previous year (down to $34 million from $56 million in 2020, according to ProPublica). Remarkably, 2022 saw revenues rise to $58.6 million as Vicente executed the event with an unprecedented digital rollout. That year, Sundance also reduced its liabilities by $2 million under Vicente's supervision, according to filings.

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While Vicente and her employer confirmed that it was her decision to step down, three sources familiar with the matter said diverse Vicente has come under increasing scrutiny by the Sundance Institute's Board of Trustees. Vicente is known as an elegant leader with operational savvy never Sources say her fundraising ability has raised questions. Sundance's CEO is ultimately responsible for securing and managing the company's funds and attracting private donors.

Through a spokesperson, Sundance described Vicente as a “tremendous asset” who has expanded the festival’s international editions, increased funding and managed the “daunting task” of bringing the festival back from the pandemic. The organization also points out that Vicente's reimagined opening ceremony — with Christopher Nolan and Kristen Stewart in attendance to receive honorary awards — raised a record $1.5 million this year. The role of CEO of Sundance is perhaps one of the most prestigious in the industry and is compensated accordingly. While Vicente's salary has not yet been reported on tax filings, her predecessor Kerry Putnam earned over $450,000 in 2021.

The question on the minds of many in the independent film community — not to mention the larger entertainment ecosystem that relies on Sundance for prestige product and additional marketing value — is why Vicente would leave after such a short period, especially in light of the “enormous assets” she has proven to be?

diverse I spoke with more than a dozen industry insiders who have long been involved with Sundance and have watched it closely. The board of trustees is “a handful of people, to put it politely,” says one independent film and TV executive. It is headed by the well-heeled Ips Burno, a film director and former advisor to First Lady Michelle Obama. Longtime members include environmentalists, a software engineering mogul, and activists associated with, according to two sources, Bardford (or wanting to rally around his cold flame). Newcomers over the years — Jason Blum, Tessa Thompson, Gigi Pritzker, Charles D. King — give the board legitimacy in the broader filmmaking community.

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“It's like they didn't really give her a chance,” another high-ranking film executive says of the board's relationship with Vicente. “But it can make anyone feel weary.” Another source close to Sundance disputed that characterization, saying, as with many nonprofits, the leadership is “very engaged and enthusiastic.” The board once again named one of its members as interim CEO: Amanda Kelso, the former Instagram executive, who served as acting leader between Putnam's exit and Vicente's appointment. Kelso is well-liked within the organization if not well known in Hollywood circles. She will be around for a while, Variety previously reported, with insiders estimating it could be nearly a year before a serious CEO search is conducted.

You can't blame the board for prioritizing long-term revenue strategy, if some have already taken issue with Vicente's actions in that department. Film festivals are in crisis all over the world. The annual festival in Berlin has faced serious budget cuts and program cuts as a result. Last year, Toronto lost its big-money sponsor, Bell. To its credit, Sundance has kept all of its top sponsors on board over the past few years of turmoil. Unlike its European and Canadian counterparts, the Park City Festival does not receive funding from the federal government. No matter how she got here, she must pave a new way up the mountain.

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