AHC 15 Keynote Interview: Keri Putnam, Executive Director, Sundance Institute

Keri Putnam’s passion for the stage led to her career working for the big screen. The executive director of the Sundance Institute left the theater to embark on a film career that has included stints as the executive vice president of HBO Films and the president of production at Miramax. Putnam’s current role at the Sundance Institute requires her to oversee the organization’s many programs to aid filmmakers as well as the latest edition of the Sundance Film Festival. Putnam spoke with BoxOffice about the Sundance Institute’s commitment to independent cinema and theatrical exhibition. 

Art House Convergence wouldn’t have existed without the support of the Sundance Institute. Can you tell us a bit more about the Sundance Institute’s support of independent exhibitors and an event like AHC?

Art House Convergence grew out of the Art House Project, which was something that originated with the Sundance Institute several years before I was in this role. I want to credit John Cooper as well as our former managing director, Jill Miller, who together saw there was an amazing resurgence of independently owned art-house cinemas. That team created the Art House Project, which first gathered in 2006 on the 25th anniversary of the Sundance Institute. It has since grown out of its Sundance roots and exists independently, serving 500 delegates this year. To all of us, the growth of the convergence represents a real need for this gathering of community-based and mission-driven theaters to come together. There have been so many changes happening in the distribution business and in the way people are consuming films that I think it’s all the more important to have the collective wisdom of the community come together.

We hear a lot about the rise of VOD among independent and foreign titles, yet we continue to see box office success among indie and foreign titles across art-house cinemas nationwide. What role do you think theatrical exhibition plays for films that come out of the Sundance Institute and the festival?

We’ve seen a lot of changes, a lot of new platforms for people to see movies, but I think all of us at Sundance believe that theaters continue to play a critical role on a number of levels. It’s not to say that there aren’t going to be films coming from Sundance that are also released on VOD, but I think there is first and foremost something quite irreplaceable in the shared experience of seeing a film with an audience and seeing it in that collective setting. The communal experience of watching a film is core to why people love going to the festival and why they love going to theaters. I believe you can see movies in many different ways, but the cinema will always be important. On a business level, we see that the movies playing in theaters is the way the media business is structured-at least in the foreseeable future. The press cover films that have a theatrical run, and this can give a film visibility on a national level and set it up for success on digital platforms further down the line. At Sundance we believe in seeing movies in every way possible, but certainly we celebrate the theatergoing experience as one that we really believe in. We’ve seen a lot of the top-grossing indie films come out of Sundance, and we’re super proud of that, but we love indie films doing well in theaters regardless of what festival they come from.

The Sundance Film Festival is known for being a great curator of documentary films, discovering talent, and launching careers. Outside the festival, however, most people do not get to see documentaries in a theatrical setting. Do you believe documentaries have a future in theatrical exhibition, or will the only opportunity to see a documentary on the big screen be at film festivals?

Over the past number of years we’ve been seeing how incredibly popular documentaries have become in our festival. We know there’s an appetite for audiences to see documentaries at a cinema. Many documentaries are financed and produced by television outlets, but we’ve been seeing many of those companies partner with distributors to provide theatrical runs for their documentaries. We also see the popularity of documentaries in the festival-going setting, which relates to the sort of events that cinemas around the country are creating for their own audiences. I think the key thing with documentaries is that you have an opportunity to bring people together to see a film in a theater and have a conversation about it following the screening, precisely because it’s a communal experience at a theater. That’s something you can’t achieve watching a documentary at home. It’s so important to look for that added value of conversation and community that documentaries can provide, which is so core to the art-house experience anyway. I’m hopeful, based both on the popularity and the way the business is structured, that documentaries will continue to be shown in theaters and occasionally break out when they become widely distributed.

As we approach the Academy Awards, we’re seeing titles that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January continue to receive critical plaudits. To what do you attribute your dependable record for award nominations?

I think it’s a combination of things. The Sundance Institute is the umbrella organization for the festival and a number of other programs. Over 30 years we’ve been established as a place where artists can come in the earlier part of their careers to get support: get a documentary financed or maybe get their script developed at one of our labs or receive producing mentorship, and so on. We have a natural and well-established pipeline of people coming through our doors, and a great network of alumni that recommend other people. We really feel there’s an open submission process based on our reputation, where we get to see some of the most exciting work. And we also have this great network of alumni that come back with their new projects. I think Sundance is the perfect window for filmmakers to launch themselves into the cultural dialogue, knowing that, since it’s in January, it will give them time to find the right distribution for their films and time to find the right strategy to release their films. We have a proven and visible platform to launch a film and bring talent in, and we really believe in our filmmakers. The intangible thing is the remarkable taste and skill of our programmers; they see 12,000 films every year to select a program of around 200. It’s not just what’s coming through the door, it’s their process of taking the time to watch and talk about films together. We have a track record of making good choices, which is a testament to our whole programming team.

What would you say are the challenges facing independent cinema and its theatrical exhibition today?

Off the top of my head, I would just mention two things. First is the challenge of finding ways to make going to the theater a vital, exciting thing for younger audiences. I’m not talking about children. I’m talking about people who are 18 to 25, who are going to be looking forward to a lifetime of endless entertainment options. I think a huge challenge for art-house theaters is to reach out and develop this new generation that can really care about cinema and experiencing it in a theater with one another. Our audience is aging; it’s something we need to look at. Second is that going to the theater has to, whenever possible, feel like an event. People need a reason to go to the theater instead of watching films at home, and that reason may be embedded in the film, but in the case of some smaller films, it might have to do with the community of people they’re seeing it with and the program that’s around it. A community can make cinema something exciting to share and talk about.

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