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Sundance's Keri Putnam Shares What She's Learned from the Women Filmmakers Initiative

Women and Hollywood By Kate Wilson | Women and Hollywood April 28, 2014 at 10:40AM

The Sundance Institute is one player in a very complex ecosystem and we feel we have the ability to bring together a conversation among many organizations working in this space. We want to contribute to the conversation.
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Keri Putnam
Keri Putnam

As the Executive Director of the Sundance Institute, Keri Putnam oversees all of the organization's programs, including the Women Filmmakers Initiative and its associated research. Prior to taking the leadership role at the Sundance Institute, Putnam was Head of Production at Miramax and an executive at HBO. She has worked with countless top directors, including the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stephen Frears, and Lasse Hallstrom, among others. Through the Sundance Institute's Women Filmmakers Initiative, Putnam is working with practitioners and academics across the industry to find ways of working towards gender parity in the film industry.

Women and Hollywood met Putnam at Sundance London.

Let's jump right in and talk about the goal of the Women Filmmakers Initiative, described on your website as a plan to "identify and lessen roadblocks." The word "lessen" stands out. Is there a way to eliminate the roadblocks? 

Maybe the word "lessen" is too un-ambitious -- certainly we're all up for eradicating the roadblocks. Perhaps "eliminate" is a better word? It's a process. The Sundance Institute is one player in a very complex ecosystem and we feel we have the ability to bring together a conversation among many organizations working in this space. We want to contribute to the conversation. So, using the word "lessen" may be intended to recognize that the roadblocks are systemic and come from many different sources. There's no way for one organization to eradicate them. But the idea of incrementally making progress, shining a light on the issues, understanding what those issues are and being able to add to a conversation about them and also, importantly, find programmatic ways to address them -- that is what we're after.

You've talked about the Sundance Institute as part of the ecosystem of the film industry, but the film industry is also part of a larger ecosystem -- the worldwide social, cultural ecosystem where gender parity is still far from reach in all senior roles in banks, board rooms etc. Are there ways in which the film industry could work with global initiatives to promote women in leadership roles? 

Certainly the idea of drawing lessons and power from conversations happening in other sectors is central to our approach with the Women Filmmakers Initiative. For example, one of the barriers we've identified in our research with Dr. Stacy Smith at USC Annenberg [School for Communication] was the idea that access to information and empowerment around finance is critical for women. That study holds true in a number of sectors. 

When we held a workshop for our women fellows in New York -- just ten days ago with 64 women filmmakers -- we brought in a speaker from Morgan Stanley and an expert to teach negotiation skills, marketing people and brand people. We wanted the women filmmakers to learn from the other sectors. Many of our greatest challenges are universal -- there are great studies about women in hedge funds, an area where women are highly under-represented. There's an interesting parallel to be drawn between what a senior executive needs to "be" and what a film director needs to "be." On the bright side, I look at what is happening in Congress, and I feel like there are big steps being taken in politics.

It is so important for women to have role models -- imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. But if we are going to increase the number of women making films, logic dictates that we need to support more first-time directors.

That's true. What we've found -- we announced it in January and I'm not sure it has really been digested -- is that the filmmakers who come through Sundance Labs are just as likely to get their movie made if they're a woman or man. What's interesting is the value of a network, a community, and the support provided by Sundance labs. If there's a pipeline and the ability to recognize and support talent early, maybe the market will respond.

Men and women enter the Sundance Labs on equal terms, and you've found that they leave with equal success. That raises the question of whether there is a place for exclusively female forums -- for example, women's film festivals. Is there a danger of "ghettoizing" female films and female filmmakers? 

I don't think there can be any harm in shining a light on any community via a film festival, and I'd encourage the celebration and highlighting of any sector of film. But at the end of the day, we want to fight for great film and we want to up the quality of films being made across the board. It's interesting to read what the Cannes team has said about the recent stark under-representation of women directors at the festival -- it was quite controversial. I felt that what the programmers were saying was that they want to pick the best program -- this year they have more women, but sometimes they don't. They don't want the issue of gender parity to be part of the selection process and I understand their position. That said, our experience at Sundance Labs is that women are making great films -- they are just as likely as men to find distribution and an audience.

This article is related to: Keri Putnam, Sundance London, Festivals, Interviews, Women Directors, Sundance Labs


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