Skip to main content

June 18, 2024

Fireside Chat: Keri Putnam and Barbara Twist

In response to the recent decline of mainstream distribution opportunities for independent documentaries, many entities have begun the work of imagining new potential solutions. Distributors and platforms cite changing audience behaviors—away from communal gathering spaces and towards streaming—to justify decreasing investment in independent films. But what is the economic impact of audience engagement? And how can we expand our vision for distribution beyond commerce, to value the circulation of stories with cultural impact, vital information, and risk-taking cinematic art? Until now, there has been scant publicly available data about the audiences of independent cinema. For current and future entrepreneurial ideas to flourish or new policy efforts to succeed, however, we need to truly understand our audiences. Moreover, creators and storytellers may no longer need to rely on gatekeepers to develop our own interventions, but we do need access to data to develop forward-looking strategies that will help us reach the people who want to see our work.

In this Fireside Chat, Keri Putnam (a Walter Shorenstein Fellow and former CEO of the Sundance Institute) and Barbara Twist (ED of Film Festival Alliance) will discuss their collaboration on and preliminary results from the first-ever large-scale survey of the scale, demographics, and interests of the U.S. audience of independent scripted and documentary film. This original audience research was conducted by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy in collaboration with Film Festival Alliance and other organizations, with an eye toward understanding the current and potential audience for independent film and how the industry might grow to meet them.

Moderator: Asad Muhammad (American Documentary | POV)
Biographies (submitted by the speakers):
Keri Putnam is a producer, board member, and strategic advisor to media companies and nonprofit organizations. She is a '23-'24 Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, researching the challenges and opportunities facing independent documentary and scripted film in the US. In 2022, Putnam founded Putnam Pictures to produce film and television. She was CEO of Sundance Institute from 2010 to 2021, where she and her team proudly supported independent artists in making and presenting their work. Prior to Sundance, she was President of Production at Miramax Films where her team’s slate garnered 34 Academy Award nominations and 7 wins. Putnam began her career as an assistant at HBO and ended her 15-year tenure as Executive Vice President. At HBO, she supervised production of over 45 films and miniseries that collectively received over 50 Emmy Awards.

Barbara Twist is a film exhibition consultant and producer with a background in film festivals, art houses, post-production, and distribution. As a producer, her award-winning films have played at festivals including Austin Film Festival, Aspen ShortsFest, Palm Springs ShortFest and New Orleans Film Festival and have been nominated for the Student Academy Awards. She is currently the Executive Director of Film Festival Alliance. She is the former Director of Partnerships for Vidiots Foundation and the former Managing Director of the Art House Convergence.

Asad Muhammad is an impact strategist, organizational leader, public media executive, and father. As VP of Impact & Engagement Strategy at American Documentary | POV, Asad extends the impact of nonfiction films beyond their public broadcast date through community engagement, education, and event production work with noncommercial television stations. With twenty years of service in public education, nonprofit leadership, restorative justice, and community development, Asad believes that trauma-informed care and harm reduction can be integrated in the duty of care to documentary filmmakers, protagonists, and audiences. He is most invested in sparking intergenerational conversations through the cultivation of inclusive spaces where people can exercise agency over their own learning. From orchestrating impact campaigns to organizing film screenings, Asad is a passionate witness to how nonfiction storytelling connects to the hearts and minds of underserved communities, policymakers, and leaders – inspiring folx to better focus their power and fight for change and transformation.