Tabitha Jackson stepping down as Sundance Film Festival’s director

Jackson was in charge of two festivals that ran online only, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tabitha Jackson MC's the Sundance bonfire community gathering on Swede Alley, in Park City, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

The Sundance Film Festival will be looking for a new leader, as director Tabitha Jackson is leaving after two years at the helm of America’s most prestigious film festival.

The British-born Jackson will step down after Sundance Film Festival: London, which runs Thursday through Sunday, the Sundance Institute announced Tuesday.

Joana Vicente, who took over as the institute’s executive director in November, will lead the festival’s development and planning in the interim, the institute announced. Vicente also will lead a public search for Jackson’s successor.

(Sundance Institute) Joana Vicente, who has been executive director of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute since November 2021, will lead the search for a new director of the Sundance Film Festival, the institute announced on June 7, 2022.

The 2023 festival is set for Jan. 19-29, as a hybrid event with in-person screenings in Park City and Salt Lake City, as well as online screenings.

Jackson was named director at the end of the 2020 festival, succeeding John Cooper, who had run the Park City-based festival for more than a decade. She was the first woman to be the festival’s sole director, and first person of color in that job.

Jackson never got to oversee a full-fledged in-person festival, but led Sundance’s effort to create the festival experience online in 2021 and 2022, while the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the traditional gathering in Park City.

When Jackson got the job in 2020, the announcement came just days after she got married, in Park City, to filmmaker Kirsten Johnson (”Dick Johnson Is Dead,” “Cameraperson”).

Jackson joined the institute in 2013, as director of its Documentary Film Program, supporting nonfiction filmmakers through grants and mentoring. Before that, she was head of arts and performance at Britain’s Channel 4, and executive producer on several movies for the channel, including Bart Layton’s documentary “The Imposter” and Nick Cave’s documentary and concert film “20,000 Days on Earth.”

She shares an Emmy for her work as a commissioning producer on the 2005 PBS documentary series “Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge.”

In a statement, Vicente expressed gratitude to Jackson for 8 1/2 years of work at Sundance. “She helped lead the Sundance Film Festival through the ongoing pandemic, helping transform it for the future, all while keeping independent artists as our north star,” Vicente said. “She leaves us with the Festival never more vital than during this time of great change in our industry and in a place to continue to make a meaningful contribution to culture.”

Vicente also announced Tuesday that Kim Yutani, who has been with the festival since 2006 and has been programming director for the last five years, will join the institute’s senior leadership team. In addition to her programming work, Yutani will manage the festival’s industry and artist relations.

(Agnieszka Wojtun | Sundance Institute) Kim Yutani, director of programming of the Sundance Film Festival, has been elevated to the Sundance Institute's senior leadership team, the institute announced Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

Yutani will work closely with Vicente — who was co-head of the Toronto International Film Festival for three years before coming to Sundance Institute — on planning the 2023 festival, along with senior programmers John Nein (who also leads the festival’s strategic initiatives) and Shari Frilot (who is chief curator of the festival’s New Frontier program).

“The strength and experience of our existing festival leadership and programming team means there is no shortage of talent to continue forward with the work we are doing for next year’s Festival,” Vicente said in her statement.

The Sundance Institute took over operations of the U.S. Film Festival in 1985, and was officially renamed the Sundance Film Festival in 1991. Before the pandemic, the festival was bringing in more than 100,000 attendees, from Utah and around the world, to see the newest in independent American films.

In March of this year, the deaf family drama “CODA” became the first movie to premiere at Sundance and go on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

The festival also faced a controversy this year over the screening of the documentary “Jihad Rehab,” which Muslim American filmmakers viewed as offensive and as reinforcing negative stereotypes. Two institute staffers reportedly resigned over criticism aimed at Sundance for programming the film in the festival. Sundance later apologized for the hurt caused by screening the documentary, which went inside a Saudi Arabian treatment center for former Guantanamo Bay prisoners to reintroduce them into society.