Schwartz Center Plaza. (Cameron Pollack '18)

November 29, 2022

Former Sundance CEO Visits Cornell: Keri Putnam on Revolutionizing Inclusion in Film

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At 2:00 pm on Nov. 17, Keri Putnam sat poised with a smile across her face opposite me at a table on the second floor conference room of the Schwartz Center. Despite a camera to my left, Putnam remained relaxed and ready — after all, this is not her first interview. For the half-hour that followed, I, along with the Cornell Daily Sun Multimedia Department, clung to Putnam’s every answer, from her personal career journey to her keen insight on inclusive storytelling in film. 

Before climbing the ranks in the film industry, Putnam studied theater history and literature at Harvard University. She started her film career at HBO and continued there for 15 years, going on to work at Miramax Films for four years. This all led to her 2010-2021 role as CEO of Sundance Institute — arguably the highest position in the sphere of influential U.S. filmmaking.  

Putnam is one of Cornell’s 20 active A.D. White Professors-at-Large. As part of this initiative, she traveled to Ithaca from Nov. 14 to Nov. 18. Throughout the week, Putnam talked with numerous Cornellians ranging from students in the Performing and Media Arts Department to the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. The keynote event of Putnam’s trip was a special preview screening of Nanny, winner of Sundance’s 2022 U.S. Grand Jury Prize in Drama, at Cornell Cinema. 

At the start of our conversation, Putnam articulated how working in the industry expanded her perception of film, saying, “I didn’t understand, quite as deeply, how many other people globally are affected by the stories that are put on screens until I began to really work in the industry.” It is easy to dismiss film as a one-to-two-hour source of entertainment, but it is important to recognize how deeply impactful film can be. Film transcends reality. Filmmakers can take us into fantasy worlds, provoke our emotions and unravel truths in society. “I think the stories that we tell in [film and television] really reflect what we value as a society, what we understand about one another and the ways in which we communicate,” said Putnam.

Film’s role to “reflect” our world can be two-sided, since our world can also reflect the screen. Thus, film’s immense platform comes with dangers: if identities are withheld from the screen, their visibility shrinks in the real world. This translates to a lack of understanding and empathy toward groups holding these marginalized identities.  

“When you have things on television and in the theaters that only reflect a portion of the population — that are either made by or featuring most often… cis-gendered, white men — you don’t actually get to feel the full spectrum of humanity in those stories,” said Putnam. “What people see on TV, what they see in films — especially young people — it helps them imagine what they can do, what they can be, what they’re valued.”

It is one thing to say film is not diverse, and it’s another thing to actually investigate why this is and how to do better. Putnum set out to address film’s lack of inclusion onscreen in her years as Sundance’s CEO. One of the largest initiatives during Putnum’s tenure was a partnership between the Sundance Institute and the University of Southern California to analyze the demographic trends of who is submitting to Sundance’s programs compared to who is being accepted. “Through that data, we found out that a lot of women, people of color, queer people, were submitting work and being accepted in the early stage programs — roughly fairly representing the population — but by the time they needed money to make a film… all those other identities were dropping off and white men were getting money,” Putnam explained.  

After discovering money as the root issue, Putnum, along with the rest of the Sundance Institute, revolutionized inclusion at Sundance by creating funding and fellowships for marginalized communities, particularly for women and people of color. Putnam articulated that this funding has considerably moved the numbers at Sundance, with approximately 50 percent women and 50 percent people of color at Sundance. 

Yet, Putnum did not stop there; Sundance brought their research to Hollywood. Putnam is a co-founder of ReFrame, a coalition stemming from the inclusion initiatives at Sundance dedicated to creating an overall gender-representative film industry. ReFrame held a two-day conference where they presented the Sundance data and held a conversation with the top male and female leaders in Hollywood about making the industry more diverse. ReFrame has even partnered with IMDbPro to create the ReFrame Stamp, which gives a seal of approval to films and television with gender-balanced hiring. 

While Putnam has a lot of boast-worthy accomplishments in her ten-plus years at Sundance, she was quick to not let me credit her with Sundance’s commitment to equality. Putnam pointed out how Sundance’s early years were already pioneering, such as the trailblazing queer cinema that came out of Sundance in the 1990s which propelled 2000s gay characters in mainstream sitcoms. Putnam stated that personal, inclusive storytelling is in the “DNA of the organization.”

Sundance has continuously challenged the dominant modes of storytelling, and the success it can bring. Sundance has mobilized a domino effect in the industry, but whether that change continues to grow is uncertain. It’s tempting to keep film as it is — why change a medium that already fills us with joy? Redefining inclusion in film does not mean we scold ourselves for enjoying mainstream film and television, but it does mean we open ourselves up to new forms of storytelling and storytellers. Film is an opportunity to hear the voices our world silences. We must both question what types of stories we are told, and which ones we open our ears to hear.

Gillian Lee is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].