Tabitha Jackson Details How the Sundance Film Festival Adapted During a Pandemic

Sundance Film Festival Director Tabitha Jackson inherited the acclaimed festival weeks before COVID-19 hit. Here's how she adapted to our new, virtual normal.

Tabitha Jackson

Image via Sundance Film Festival

Tabitha Jackson

One phrase that's been thrown around often in light of the COVID-19 pandemic is "new normal". With the pandemic shifting life for millions across the globe, it feels like every few months there's a period of adjustment, realizing "wait, that thing we loved enjoying with scores of people just can't happen the same way because of this virus that's impacting our lives daily." One of the first major festivals to be hit was SXSW, which canceled just as the coronavirus was shutting down the NBA back in early 2020. With resiliency, ever-present Zoom calls, and some ingenuity, we as a people have been able to adjust, and the 2021 edition of the Sundance Film Festival (which kicks off on Jan. 28, 2021 and ends on Feb. 3, 2021) is proof positive of that.

Back in 2020, all was seemingly bright for Tabitha Jackson, who was announced as the new Festival Director over at Sundance back in February 2020, mere weeks before the coronavirus changed life as we knew it. Jackson, who'd worked as Director of the Institute’s Documentary Film Program for seven years, didn't let a global pandemic stop one of the most important film festivals on the planet. Sundance is now virtual, with more attendees than ever before being able to virtually take in the movies of tomorrow, interacting with each other and being a part of live panels and more throughout this year's festival. First-time directors like Jerrod Carmichael and Questlove have feature-length films on the docket, and while it won't be the same as hunkering down in Park City, Utah for a week, queuing up to take in a film who's description caught your eye, Tabitha and her team have set out to make it as complete of an experience as possible with the limitations the world is currently under.

Complex recently got to chat with Tabitha about assuming the role as Festival Director, how the Festival has pivoted to a virtual environment, and shares some thoughts on features that will no doubt be on the tip of your lips in the very near future.

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First off, I wanted to say congrats. It's amazing that you're the first woman, the first person of color, and the first person born outside of the US to be given the title of the Director of the Sundance Film Festival. Before we get into anything about what's been going on, I want you to talk a little bit about how you got there. I'd read that you'd been working at Sundance for a number of years since 2013?
Yeah. I came to Sundance from London. I was working at Channel 4, Film4 in London, and came to Sundance first in 2013 to run the documentary film program. I have a strong background in non-fiction filmmaking. And so to come to an organization, so famous for championing the independent voice, and particularly in the field of nonfiction, [I] couldn't turn it down. I came and I had an amazing time engaging in the work as it was being made with artists, that we do Residential Labs year-round support. When the festival job came up, I've got to admit I was slightly conflicted because I love that messy, creative process stuff.

The festival, I just associated with the incredible intensity, energy, and buzz of the experience around completed work. I wrestled with it and thought; the reason I do this work, the reason I enjoy this work is because I think it's really important. I think the independent voice, freedom of creative expression, artists speaking truth to power, showing us our humanity and our complexity is really important. And the festival is this massive megaphone, or trampoline, or catapult—however you want to describe it—which sends this work out into the culture, and to not take this job would be really not to be walking the walk. [If] this work is important, then I should use the best, most fun tool to try and get it; uplift voices, show work that hasn't perhaps been picked up by the market, and just get it into the culture. So that's why I did it, little knowing what was about to befall me, as I was handed the keys.

I was going to say, it's literally like maybe a month and some change later, the world takes a sharp turn. How quickly did you start asking, "Well, what's the festival going to look like in the future?"
It was pretty quick, I got all my amazing things of 2020 by February. I got married on the first day of the [2020 festival], then I was handed the keys to this incredible, smooth-running machine. I could just put my feet up because everyone knows how to do it. That was in February. And then by March, we realized, I have to change the plans. The plans of bringing 120,000 people to a small mountain town during flu season didn't seem so smart anymore. So in March, April, that's when we took the festival apart. What helped us was having a very clear mission and purpose. We know we're going to do a festival because we know we want to get this work to audiences and we want to gather a community. So then the question wasn't if, but how. And that's what we've been coming up with for the rest of the year.

Normally I ask people how they spent their 2020s; I'm assuming you were just laser-focused. I've talked to some filmmakers who have worked the virtual festival circuit. I imagine that the last half of 2020, you have been studying how some of these other organizations have been trying to put their stuff on virtually?
Yeah, absolutely. One of the great things about this year was how generous our festival colleagues have been in sharing; how they did it, what their challenges were, what they've learned. And so from festivals like CPH:DOX in Copenhagen—that was one of the first it like had to turn on a dime, it had like a week to pivot. We are using the same player, Shift72, that they used, and that every other festival that seems to have gone after it pretty much used. To the big ones, Toronto and New York Film Festival, everybody has been generous because I think we all recognize we have to get through this together, to come out the other side of it. We hope we don't need to for too much longer, but we've learned a ton, we've built a ton of stuff, and we want to share that with our colleagues as well, in whatever way we can. But we've got to see if it works first.

What were some of the pillars that you guys wanted to make sure would resonate in the virtual space as they would in real life?
Well, it goes back to that initial conversation where we like, "Okay, we've got to take this festival apart." And because this is my first year, there were some really basic questions that I wanted to explore. Like, what actually is a festival? What do we mean by "a festival?" How does that differ from a streaming platform where you can also see lots of films as you want to? We know that the reason why the festival can be propulsive is because of that energy. There's a richness of the offering, whether it's films or talks or events; there are too many people, there are not enough tickets, it's crammed into a short amount of time. So in order to preserve that energy, we need to figure out what that looked like in this iteration.

The festival is shorter—it still has a lot of films, but we are playing them out so that they... One of the things a festival does is bring people together [at] a particular time and say, "If you want to see this, you have to be at this place at this start time." So there's an energy around that and an anticipation that can build, and a moment where everybody can be talking about the same thing. So we built that.

Another pillar was, after, we couldn't have done any of this without talking to artists, filmmakers, and the industry. So we knew that what people were missing in this year was that moment of, you release your work to its first audience, and then, maybe you've pre-recorded the Q&A afterward. So you have no idea what people thought of it, you have no idea what questions they have. Even though it's a pretty big lift with a few risks in it, we wanted to make sure that every single feature film has a live Q&A. That takes a team of people to put it on, and do the technology, and the tech checks, and get everyone on the same spot. So liveness and energy were two of the things. And then for us, a huge one, which counter-intuitively the pandemic allowed us to do, was to reach different audiences.

Previously, if you were lucky enough to be able to get to Park City, you could be part of the festival. But if, for reasons of geography, or finances, or physical ability, or just not feeling that that was for you, you wouldn't come. The pandemic accelerated and intensified lots of things, both good and bad, but this move to online accessibility was definitely for us one of the great things.

In terms of this year's schedule, I didn't realize that Jerrod Carmichael's directorial debut [On the Count of Three] was going to be shown this year. What are some of the films that you're really excited for people to see this year, and why?
Well, the why is because this is work that's coming out. I'm excited generally about the program, including the fact that like Jerrod actually, more than half the directors of the features are first-time feature directors. These are new voices. This doubles down on the festival as a festival of discovery.

One of the documentaries I was blown away by, is also by a first time feature documentarian, who we know in the different fields, Questlove. This documentary is called Summer of Soul. It has its premiere on opening night, and it's about an extraordinary cultural event called the Harlem Cultural Festival that happened in the same summer as Woodstock, and yet we have never seen any of this footage, which is mind-blowing. This footage lifted me off my sofa. The footage is extraordinary; the energy, the color, the fashion. It's got Sly and the Family Stone, it's got young Stevie Wonder, it's got Mahalia Jackson, it's got Mavis Staples, this extraordinary cultural moment. And the film asks in an incredibly artful way, so elegantly edited, why might it be that we haven't seen this footage? What was going on? Just how this moment got lost or got erased.

Also from a first-time director, Passing. Rebecca Hall is an actress who we may have come across in other films [Ed note: She's featured in the forthcoming Godzilla vs. Kong], but this is her first as a feature director. Passing is an interesting reflection based on a novel from the Harlem Renaissance, but an interesting reflection on identity, however we choose. It has contemporary resonances as well as what it was about when it was written. So that's amazing.

And then there's All Light, Everywhere in the U.S. Documentary Competition by Theo Anthony, who made Rat Film about Baltimore a couple of years back. I think this is a thrilling film about what it is to see. It's like the structures of perception, how we see, how we are seeing. So it includes everything from film cameras and why we talk about filming as shooting. And there's such kind of militaristic language around it to machine learning and artificial intelligence, and the latest in surveillance. So it's one of those broad sweeps that it kind of reveals things. But, there's a reason why everyone is in this program. So I could just talk about everyone, if you had a number of days to spend.

Yeah, going through the program and trying to figure out my schedule alone was like, "All right, I want to see this. I need to see this when it first comes out." There's a lot of interesting things there too, like Superior, with the twins.
So many of these films, particularly, they're spread across now, by the Midnight section, the NEXT section. Just these fully-realized visions of complete story worlds that take you somewhere else entirely. And also there's an amazing one in the Premier section called Prisoners of the Ghostland by Sion Sono, an incredible Japanese director. It stars Nicholas Cage, but it's just the energy and the imagination of the thing is extraordinary.

Earlier you asked what I've been doing. It feels like this whole nine or 10 months has felt like one day of being sucked down a Zoom hole, just with loads of meetings. It's hard to differentiate the days, except when extraordinary things happen; like the pandemic, or the uprising around racial justice, or the assault on the Capitol. But apart from that, it's difficult to differentiate. I think one of the things I'm excited for people to experience is just that sense of being lost in a film and some of the films. Just giving yourself over to this sense of discovery. "I'll give it a go, this film from Kosovo, which I wouldn't normally queue up on my Netflix," will turn out to be profoundly important maybe to you. So that sense of being able to be taken around the world when we can't physically move around the world, to meet people who we can't meet or who we just wouldn't have met before. I think the role of a festival in this moment is even more important than it usually is.

Now, the other thing that you always hear coming out of a festival like Sundance is, "Okay, which films made the most buzz? Which ones are companies looking after?" Has that side of the festival changed at all? Do you get into that at all, the financial, the business side of a film that does well and is now being picked up?
Well, we get into it in the sense that because it's important to the filmmakers and to the artists that their work... Both that they can kind of make good on the money and years of their lives they spent on it and the money it took to do it. That they can make good by having a scene at the festival, maybe picked up. And of course, the fundamental thing, which is that being bought means you're going to be distributed and you're going to get to audiences. And so, of course that's important to us. What we need to do is not try and feed the market but to expand the market, so that people can come to Sundance and discover something.

That's what happened in the early days of the festival in the mid-'80s. It was about work that would never have been supported by studios or picked up. The history of Sundance has been that of providing an alternative, introducing different voices, different perspectives, and the market grew to accommodate them. So, that's the wind. We ignore the market at our peril, but we also chase the market at our peril. It's keeping that line.

That's a really great way to look at things. Because I think at the end of the day, it keeps things a lot more pure, it sounds like.

I was wondering, it feels like every three months we do a temperature check, like, "Okay, how are vaccines going? Where we are at in the world?" I don't know if I'm going to be leaving this chair anytime this year, you know what I mean? Has there been any thought to the future of, let's say, we're not in a space where we can all go to Park City again, and what Sundance might look like in 2022 or anything like that?
I think that one of the things that's kept our sanity is going into this festival thinking, "All right, this is a festival that we built to meet the moment." But it's an experiment, and so some things are going to work and we're going to want to keep them. And some things aren't going to work and we'll be pleased we tried them, but we learned that they don't work. That's the kind of creative spirit that can get us through that. And we are hoping that our audiences and artists and industry are also similarly kind of experimentally-minded with this year, because we're just doing what we can to double down on our mission.

As you say, we don't know what it's going to be like in '22. One thing we do know is, now we'll have built all the stuff. So it's not going to be the scramble it has been this year. And we know that after working to increase the range of audiences who can experience this work, as the first audience outside of Park City, that's going to be a really hard one to let go. Why would we let that go?

But we also feel that it's something that we can build on as well. So we'll see, we don't want to do anything too hasty. We do want to get back in person as soon as it's safe to do so, because there are some things you can't replicate, but we're on such good ground for having a basis for something meaningful, that involves gathering, which is very important to us. That involves gathering in a moment, [with] a liveness and an energy to it, and involves gathering in a moment around this work as it meets the world. They're the three kind of foundations of how we move forward, along with this bringing multiple perspectives together. I love the fact that we can be meaning makers in moments like this. And the meaning is often made, not simply by what you were looking at, but where you're looking from. So it matters if you're watching in Tulsa, or if you're watching in Park City, something different happens in the experience.

I want to try and keep those things going and remain open to what the possibilities are. Two things I've learned during this process; one is the importance of having a clear purpose. So you know why you're putting yourself, and your staff, and everybody else through this thing, but also being flexible. You know what you are going to hold on tight to, and you know that everything else you can let go. As long as you've got the mission, you can keep going forward. So the how, the tactics of it, we'll figure them out depending on what craziness is happening in the rest of the year.

Right. It seems like you guys definitely did that now. I'm excited, and I've got my schedule ready. I can't wait to take in the films this year.
I wanted to say, if this is your first Sundance, one of the thing I'm particularly excited about is what they have managed to build in New Frontier, which has been our space for emerging technology, and cutting edge, bleeding edge artistry. This year, the New Frontier space it's off the charts in terms of... Just imagine that, yes, we have less money, but our ideas in some areas have got much bigger and this is one of them. So using tools like proximity audio, and webcams, and avatars mean that you can go and bump into people and talk about the films afterward, as people would have done on the shuttle buses.

But now this is globally accessible, the New Frontier experience, as well as having the work. There is just this experience of being with people. And so, I say all that because I am going to meet you in New Frontier and we will walk around and have a blast.

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