Sundance Institute cutting 24 jobs, expects ‘much harder’ economic times in 2021

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, speaking at the opening press conference for the 2015 Sundance Film Festival at Park City's Egyptian Theatre, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015.

The Sundance Institute, the nonprofit arts organization founded by Robert Redford that fosters independent storytelling and runs the Sundance Film Festival, cut 24 jobs Wednesday.

The staffers being let go — about 13% of the institute’s employees — will come from the institute’s offices in Los Angeles, New York and Park City, Utah, the institute’s executive director, Keri Putnam, said in an internal memo. The layoffs will be effective this week.

Putnam wrote that Sundance “did not face the immediate level of devastation of many nonprofit arts organizations this year,” because the institute was still able to hold the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in January, before coronavirus-related closures shut down much of the U.S. economy. Sundance kept its full staff this fiscal year by cutting executive salaries, reducing department budgets, moving in-person events to digital platforms and running a deficit, Putnam said.

Running the institute in the 2021 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, “will be much harder,” Putnam wrote. Donations to the institute and festival ticket revenue will be hit hard by the pandemic and its economic fallout, she wrote.

Among the changes Putnam outlined in her memo:

• Some employees will see reduced work schedules, and seasonal staff budgets are being cut. Those staying with the institute at the higher levels may take a pay cut, she warned; the leadership team, including Putnam herself, took a reduction in salary starting in March, and those cuts will continue in the next fiscal year.

• Sundance will restructure its theater, film, music and New Frontier lab programs into “a single interdisciplinary program to support storytellers in theater, performance, emerging media and cross media projects.”

• The institute will consolidate the operations teams for the festival and the labs to “elevate digital platforms and partner-led collaborations.”

• The institute will “invest in building capacity on our digital team,” both to support the worldwide growth of the Sundance Co//ab online platform and to build up the online portion of the 2021 festival.

Those being laid off will receive a severance package that includes accrued vacation, one week of pay for each year worked (with a minimum of eight weeks), company-covered health care through August, their company-issued laptop computer, and outplacement services for three months.

Putnam’s news came two days after Sundance Film Festival’s new director, Tabitha Jackson, released an open letter detailing the institute’s still-developing plans for the 2021 festival. Jackson wrote that the “nucleus” of the festival will be online, and that the in-person part of the festival will remain in Utah — primarily in Park City — but it will also spread to at least 20 cities across North America.

Sundance staff cuts

Here is the full text of the memo by Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, sent to institute staff on Wednesday, announcing layoffs and other staff changes at the arts nonprofit:


Subject: A Difficult Step On Our Path Forward

From: Keri Putnam

To: Staff

I’m writing today with difficult news. I am deeply sorry to let you know that, in light of the financial impact of the pandemic, we have no choice but to reduce the size of our team. I had hoped not to have to send this email, and these are hard words for me to write, but I know they are far more painful for you to hear.

We have tried to be as candid as possible with you these last several months about our financial picture and the evolution of our artist support programs and Festival, but I want to recap how we got here.

Because we were able to hold the 2020 Festival in January as planned, we did not face the immediate level of devastation of many nonprofit arts organizations this year. But, as you know, the pandemic had a meaningful impact on our projected revenue. In response, we made executive pay cuts, made across-the-board reductions to all departmental budgets, and moved in-person events to digital platforms. With these savings measures and approval by the Board to run a deficit, we were able to retain our entire full time staff and support our full cohort of artists across programs through this current fiscal year. The upcoming fiscal year beginning in September will be much harder.

Both contributions and Festival ticket sale revenue will be seriously impacted by the pandemic and its economic fallout, and therefore we will be facing significantly reduced income for the coming year. We have been working in earnest to find solutions that might better this outlook, but have now recognized that we must take additional steps to ensure a sustainable future for the Institute.

Gathering in live spaces will always be critical to our values and work, but in-person events, including the Festival, will be different for at least the next year. From streamlining programs to moving in-person events to a digital format, we have decided we must restructure and realign our teams to meet our new reality.

Over the last several months, the leadership team and the Board have been meeting to define the ways we must adapt our work to effectively deliver on our mission of supporting independent artists now, and going forward. This included assessing the new capabilities required for our future and aligning a decision making process to our values, including maintaining our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The cuts and changes will affect all areas of our work. I want to share a few key elements of our restructure here:

• We are restructuring our longstanding Theater, Film Music, and New Frontier Lab Programs to create a single interdisciplinary program to support storytellers in theater, performance, emerging media and cross media projects. With this consolidated program, we hope to seed a flourishing of new works within and across forms and to honor our history and commitment to supporting independent artists in these disciplines. More details will follow on how this will function and sit in the organization.

• Acknowledging that the way we physically produce our Festival and Labs will shift as we elevate digital platforms and partner-led collaborations, we are consolidating our Festival and Lab operations teams.

• We will continue to invest in building capacity on our digital team to support the global growth of Sundance Co//ab and to build a robust Festival platform that will complement our live event.

We will be reducing the organization by 24 positions across our Los Angeles, New York, and Park City offices. Additionally, some staff members will transition to reduced work schedules, and seasonal staff budgets will be greatly reduced from their usual levels. All impacted employees will hear directly from their managers by 1:30pm PT / 2:30pm MT / 4:30pm ET today. Those remaining with the Institute will receive an invitation for an all-staff meeting later this afternoon.

As we approached the reality of losing deeply valued colleagues, we were driven by the goal of supporting their transition to the best of our ability with severance packages as generous as we can afford. Packages will include accrued vacation, one week pay for each year worked with a minimum of 8 weeks to all departing employees, and company covered health care insurance through the end of August. Each person will be able to keep a company-issued laptop computer, and for three months we will be offering outplacement services to provide career, resume, and interview coaching for all departing staff from experienced professional coaches.

Even those not departing the Institute will be asked to shoulder some of the financial burden to keep us financially sustainable. The salary reduction that the leadership team and I took in March will continue and deepen for FY21, and unfortunately it is likely that tiered salary reductions for staff at higher compensation levels, and changes to all of our benefits will also be necessary. I understand the real impact of these measures for remaining staff, and we will continue to work to limit them as much as possible. Any changes will become effective on August 31, and we commit to finalizing these details and sharing them with you by August 1.

Sundance Institute is a wonderful place not only because of the caliber of art we support, but because of the people who define our culture. Every team member we are losing is someone who cares deeply about our mission, and has contributed meaningfully to our work and to the character of our organization. As hard as these last few months have been, they have also been some of the most extraordinary in my ten years at this organization. Today’s news is even more painful after having seen firsthand the ways in which every one of you stepped up to support one another emotionally and meet the new demands of this extraordinary year.

Nearly four decades ago, Sundance Institute was founded on the belief that independent artists are essential for a thriving society. Their work brings beauty, meaning, humanity, and truth. It sparks dialogue, and brings us together even in this time of isolation. Our commitment to these principles has not changed; this is still our North Star and I’m confident that our redesigned organization will be sustainable and vital. If ever there were a moment for us to stay grounded in the purpose of our work, it’s now.

Words cannot express my profound sadness to have to deliver this news, or my gratitude to each and every one of you.

With deep appreciation and respect,