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From Salem to Sundance: Meet film festival programmer Heidi Zwicker

The North Shore native shares some of her most-anticipated movies for this year’s fest, including ‘Scrapper,’ ‘Magazine Dreams,’ and ‘Eileen’

Heidi Zwicker, photographed across the street from the Cabot cinema. She is a Sundance Film Festival senior programmer originally from the North Shore of Boston.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

In 2020, Sundance Film Festival senior programmer Heidi Zwicker was screening festival submissions when she reached a movie called “CODA.” A native of Boston’s North Shore, Zwicker was sheltering from the pandemic in Los Angeles and hadn’t seen her family in several months. She didn’t know when she would see them again.

Seeing the film triggered “a wave of emotion,” Zwicker recalled on a recent Zoom interview, particularly the scenes shot at Briscoe Middle School in Beverly, where she had gone.

“The sense of home — the thing that you look for in a Boston movie — was so strong,” she said.


Zwicker was part of the 13-person programming team that handpicked “CODA” for that year’s Sundance, the world’s premier independent film festival that takes place every January in Park City, Utah. The coming-of-age film played on opening night, promptly sold to Apple for a record-breaking $25 million, and later won the Oscar for best picture.

The “CODA” success story epitomizes the value of Zwicker’s work: She’s a tastemaker, unearthing indie gems and then lifting them up so the whole world can see them shine.

Much of Zwicker’s year is spent on the hunt. During some months, she consumes as many as eight or nine film contenders in a day, or as she described it, “watching movies from when you wake up to when you go to bed.” In other seasons, she travels the world attending festivals and showcases, scouting fresh talent, and tracking works-in-progress.

Zwicker is in the throes of preparing for this year’s festival, which begins Jan. 19 and will offer a combination of live and online programming. (This year, she is one of 12 features programmers and 10 shorts programmers.) It is the first Sundance to take place in person in three years; last year’s events were canceled before the festival amid concerns over the Omicron variant of COVID-19, and the 2021 festival was entirely virtual.


Bringing Sundance back to Park City was important to the staff. “There is that experience when you’re at a film festival and the rest of the world doesn’t exist,” Zwicker said. “That’s what I definitely have not had for the last few years — because the world very much exists when you’re doing the online festival — that magic.”

Zwicker, 44, was born in Salem and moved “over the bridge” to Beverly when she was about 10. Her enthusiasm for film and TV began as a kid. One of her earliest movie memories involves weeping over fallen Ewoks when her dad took her to see “Return of the Jedi” at Cinema Salem.

“You could not have convinced me that what I was experiencing wasn’t real and that I wasn’t seeing something adorable die in front of me,” she said.

She went on to major in English with a concentration in film and drama studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and later moved across the country for a master’s degree in Critical Studies of Film and Television at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Despite her interest in entertainment, Zwicker didn’t seriously consider pursuing a career in the field until 2004, when a UCLA classmate recommended her for a gig at Sundance. The job entailed writing coverage — or summaries and analysis — of international scripts. She fell in love with the work, and the following year, she began screening film submissions for the festival.


For several years, Zwicker hopped around various positions at Sundance, and eventually landed in a front-facing role that was as much about curation as it was about networking: Zwicker was expected to present films to audiences, moderate Q&As, and serve as a guide for filmmakers through the Wild West of indie film publicity and distribution.

This was a job for a schmoozer, and for a more reserved cinephile like Zwicker, the responsibilities were alien and challenging.

“The festival itself is so overwhelming, especially for an introvert like me,” Zwicker said. “You’re going to socialize 16 hours a day and meet all sorts of new people? Terrifying. I remember being like, I don’t know if I can really adapt to this.’”

But her outlook shifted once she witnessed the spirit of the festival. She had just introduced the action-drama feature “Bellflower” (2011) to an audience and was spending time with the director, Evan Glodell, when his team got the call that their film had been acquired by a distributor.

“I was there, it’s the best moment of their professional lives, and that joy was so infectious. All of a sudden, the last piece clicked,” she said. “I was like, oh yeah, I can do this. I can be social for two weeks a year if it means that I get to be a tiny part of these filmmakers’ journeys.”

The next year, Zwicker enjoyed another dose of festival magic when she got to know a young filmmaker who was participating in a Sundance fellowship for budding artists. His name was Ryan Coogler. Then an unknown writer and director of short films, Coogler would soon return to Sundance with his feature debut, “Fruitvale Station” (2013), and would go on to become an acclaimed director with films such as “Creed” (2015), “Black Panther” (2018), and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2022).


One element of the festival that has changed over Zwicker’s tenure is the gender and racial diversity of the swath of filmmakers whose work is accepted. The writer-director Sarah Polley, who has had films play at Sundance, recently told the Globe that during her first festival experiences, she would sometimes find only one other woman on slates of 80 or 90 filmmakers.

“I definitely remember years that we would have maybe two female filmmakers in the world competition. That’s been tough,” Zwicker said, adding, “The more diverse the set of filmmakers are across our program, the stronger and better our festival is.”

Remarkably, Sundance has achieved gender parity in recent years. More than 50 percent of the 2023 feature films have a female director, and more than 40 percent have a director of color.

Zwicker is particularly proud of the evolution of Sundance’s Midnight programming — the movies that play late in the evenings and often have horror or science-fiction elements. “For so long, genre filmmaking was primarily a white male filmmaker game,” she said.


She singled out Nikyatu Jusu, whose feature debut “Nanny” won the U.S. Grand Jury prize at Sundance last year, as a disruptor in the horror space. “I remember when I saw Nikyatu Jusu’s short film ‘Suicide by Sunlight,’ and I was so excited to see such a unique, specific voice in genre filmmaking, because that’s what we need more of,” she said.

From the upcoming Sundance lineup, Zwicker highlighted “Scrapper,” a British drama that she said was the only feature selection this year that made her cry, and “Magazine Dreams,” the story of a grocery store employee who aspires to become a superstar bodybuilder. The film was written and directed by Elijah Bynum, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst who’s from Western Mass.

Zwicker also mentioned “Eileen,” an adaption of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, starring Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie and set in the 1960s outside Boston. Zwicker liked the novel, which traces the dreary life of a cynical young prison employee, but said she struggled to envision the story for the screen until she saw the director’s “dark and twisted” conjuring of “a period wintry Massachusetts.”

Though Zwicker calls LA home, she still has a soft spot for her native North Shore, where she remembers winter days when her parents would tug her through the snow on a toboggan to Cinema Salem.

“When I’m watching movies set in Boston, if there’s a good Boston accent, I’m in heaven,” she said. “There’s nothing I hate more than when it’s a film that’s shot in Georgia, and it’s like, ‘This is Massachusetts.’”

Zwicker bears other markers of a Bostonian. At one point, she flashed her wrist toward the screen, revealing a tattoo of the New England Patriots logo.

“I have a lot of Patriots gear, which is not always something that wins you friends in Los Angeles,” she said. “I still root for the Patriots every weekend.”