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In surprise leadership shakeup, Sundance Institute CEO steps down after 2.5 years

Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente
Departing Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente speaking at a news conference during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP)

Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente, who helped bring the beloved indie film festival back in person after the COVID pandemic shutdown, is stepping down, the nonprofit organization announced Friday.

As part of the unexpected leadership shake-up, Amanda Kelso, who has served on the institute's board of trustees for four years, has been named acting CEO, taking over the reins from Vicente after just two and a half years in the role.

Vicente, who previously served for three years as co-head of the Toronto International Film Festival, did not offer any specific reason for her departure. But, in the wake of the pandemic and last year's Hollywood strikes, the organization, like the broader independent film community, has been facing significant financial challenges; last year, the institute laid off 6% of its staff.

"Over the past six years, I have had the privilege of leading two of the most culturally significant organizations for independent film in North America through some of the most challenging times for our industry," Vicente said in a statement. "This journey has been incredibly rewarding, and I’m so proud of the work our Sundance team has accomplished together, championing independent storytellers and amplifying their voices.”

During her tenure, Vicente brought Robert Redford's 45-year-old festival in Park City, Utah, back in person following two consecutive years of pandemic shutdowns while also opening it up to larger online audiences. Under her leadership, the institute created new funding opportunities for underrepresented storytellers and expanded internationally with new festivals in Asia and a recently announced festival in Mexico City.

Read more: Indie film is at a crossroads. And Sundance is full of 'canaries in the coal mine'

Still, the landscape for independent film continues to be difficult not only for filmmakers but for festivals as well, as audiences face an ever greater proliferation of entertainment just a click away. Speaking to The Times earlier this year, Vicente acknowledged the challenge.

"There's this realization that the world has changed, that things are more expensive, that technology has advanced," Vicente said in January at this year's festival. "How do we create the optimal model to have this in-person festival that is not exactly what it used to be, that needs to figure out how it can have the most impact? It needs to be responsibly done within the economy of means that we have... The way that we used to do festivals needs to be reexamined."

Kelso will transition into her role in April, with Vicente remaining through June to serve as an advisor to her and the board.

“It is an immense honor to return to lead during this pivotal time for arts organizations, and more specifically, independent storytellers," Kelso said in a statement. "I believe in the power of Sundance and its ongoing impact in nurturing our mission-based work. This work is dedicated to the discovery and development of independent artists and connecting them with audiences around the world.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.