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Inside Sundance CEO Joana Vicente’s Startling Departure

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Scandal at a film festival is usually generated by provocative auteurs or loose-lipped actors stirring up 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.

Numerous indie film players spotted Sundance Film Festival director Eugene Hernandez at the event, alongside his two predecessors in the role: John Cooper, who left in 2020, and Tabitha Jackson, who stepped down in 2022. All three were in town to screen films and mingle when the eye-popping news spread that Joana Vicente, CEO of Sundance, had resigned her post after less than three years. Surely these observers found the right pinot noir to pair with whispers about what Vicente’s exit means for Sundance — the 40-year-old nonprofit founded by Robert Redford, known in global cinema circles as a destination for artistic discovery. So, what the hell happened?

Vicente arrived at Sundance in 2021 from her post as executive director of the Toronto International Film Festival, assuming her new job at an impossible moment. COVID-19 had shuttered theaters, restricted travel and forced Sundance to present that year’s slate of films online. The circumstances plummeted the organization into financial chaos. Revenues were down $22 million in 2021 compared with the previous year (sinking to $34 million from 2020’s $56 million haul, according to ProPublica). Remarkably, 2022 saw revenues shoot up to $58.6 million as Vicente carried the event through an unprecedented digital rollout. That year, Sundance also shrank its liabilities by $2 million on Vicente’s watch, according to filings.

While Vicente and her employer emphasized that it was her decision to step down, three sources with knowledge of the matter tell Variety that Vicente was increasingly scrutinized by the Sundance Institute’s board of trustees. Vicente is known as an elegant leader with a brain for operations who never steps off message, but her abilities as a fundraiser raised questions, the sources say. The CEO of Sundance is ultimately responsible for both securing and managing corporate dollars and attracting private donors.

Through a spokesperson, Sundance calls Vicente a “tremendous asset” who expanded international versions of the festival, increased funding and managed the “Herculean task” of bringing the festival back from the pandemic. The organization also notes that an opening-night 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 role of Sundance CEO 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 filings, her predecessor Keri Putnam earned in excess of $450,000 in 2021.

The question on the minds of many in the indie film community — not to mention the larger entertainment ecosystem that relies on Sundance for prestige product and added marketing value — is why Vicente departed after such a brief time, especially given the “tremendous asset” she proved to be?

Variety spoke with more than a dozen industry insiders who have long participated in and observed Sundance up close. The board of trustees is “a handful, to put it politely,” one indie film and TV executive says. Its chair is the well-heeled Ebs Burnough, a filmmaker and onetime adviser to First Lady Michelle Obama. Legacy members include environmentalists, a software engineering mogul and activists who are, according to two sources, connected to Redford (or wish to huddle round his cool flame). Newer entrants over the years — Jason Blum, Tessa Thompson, Gigi Pritzker, Charles D. King — lend the board legitimacy in the wider filmmaking community.

“It feels like they really didn’t give her a shot,” another high-flying film executive says of the board’s relationship with Vicente. ”But they could make anyone weary.” Another source close to Sundance disputed this characterization, saying as with many nonprofits, the leadership is “engaged and very passionate.” The board once again named one of its own as interim CEO: former Instagram executive Amanda Kelso, who filled in as acting leader between Putnam’s exit and Vicente’s hire. Kelso is liked within the organization if not well known in Hollywood circles. She’ll be around for some time, Variety previously reported, with insiders estimating it could be nearly a year before a CEO search is conducted in earnest.

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

“The role of CEO at a place like Sundance needs to evolve,” an indie sales agent notes, “and so do the festivals, if any of us are going to survive.”