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Reality Checks: How DOC NYC Became a Major Showcase for Non-Fiction Film

Reality Checks: How DOC NYC Became a Major Showcase for Non-Fiction Film

Bigger isn’t always better. But when it comes to DOC NYC, now the largest documentary film festival in the U.S., the five-year-old upstart event has proven itself a worthy new addition to the nonfiction calendar. By all accounts, screenings have been selling out; the country’s top documentary filmmakers, from Albert Maysles to D.A. Pennabaker, are showing up for tributes and events; and sales agents are closing deals on select world premieres. 

A Strong Resource

“We couldn’t really be happier with how things went,” said Tim Horsburgh, director of communications and distribution at Kartemquin Films, which had four films at the festival: “Life Itself,” “Hoop Dreams,” a 30-minute short “On Beauty,” and the world premiere of the highly touted “Almost There,” an affable character portrait that reveals the thorny relationship between filmmaker and subject.

READ MORE: The 2014 DOC NYC Bible: Every Review, Interview and News Item

Likened to the Tribeca Film Festival, another New York event that quickly rose to prominence, DOC NYC has benefited from the concentrated film industry and press presence in Gotham. DOC NYC founder and artistic director Thom Powers is proud of the fact that the festival can not only “deliver press attention that is unique to New York City,” but “spreads the wealth around,” he added, noting that “well over a dozen films will walk away with meaningful pull quotes.”

Kartemquin’s Horsburgh agreed. “The press and social media attention was significant,” he said. “It feels like DOC NYC has grown rapidly into a significant date on the film calendar — and it will only get bigger.”

Ticket sales also increased. According to Powers, more than a quarter of the shows sold out and purchases of advances passed doubled.

Many of the buzzed-about documentaries in this year’s festival are not only captivating audiences and press — they’re also garnering attention from buyers.

“Enquiring Minds,” a chronicle of the tabloid National Enquirer, has already closed a multi-territory deal with a subscription VOD provider, according to sales agent Andrew Herwitz, who is also representing the ping-pong doc “Top Spin” and “The Cult of JT Leroy,” two other docs that will likely find distribution.

“I think it’s impressive how quickly Thom [Powers] has taken something that was not on the radar to being really meaningful,” said Herwitz.

Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun said he saw 3-4 new films that deserved representation, but only chose one to take on “A Murder in the Park.” The film chronicles a famous Chicago murder case, in which a guilty man may have been commuted in exchange for the incarceration of an innocent man. Its world premiere was one of many of the sell-outs at the festival.

According to Braun, DOC NYC isn’t generating buyer bidding wars, as companies are waiting to see what Sundance will bring, so it may be “a harder time for them to crack open the piggy bank,” he said. But for doc-makers who don’t want to take the risk on waiting for another festival slot, DOC NYC presents a “bird in the hand” for filmmakers, according to Braun.

Fitting the Festival Calendar

Award-winning documentary producer Julie Goodman (“Buck,” “The Great Invisible”) agreed. Goodman and her team chose DOC NYC to show Andrea Scott’s “Florence, Arizona,” because they felt Thom Powers’ curation would lend the film a certain level of prestige. But they also didn’t want to wait around for the spring. “It’s going to be a while after this festival to find another documentary event,” she said.

Indeed, DOC NYC may crowd up against IDFA, the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam, but there is little else in the way of North American documentary festivals in the late fall. Many of the other major documentary fests, such as Hot Docs, Full Frame and AFI Docs, take place in the spring and early summer.

As for competition with IDFA, Powers said there is little overlap. “IDFA has a natural strength in European cinema, and we have a natural strength in North American cinema,” said Powers. “And there are so many filmmakers based just in New York City, so that gives us a home field advantage.”

That’s one of the reasons that Eli Holzman, producer of New York police corruption documentary “The Seven Five,” chose to premiere the film at DOC NYC, calling the festival a “perfect launchpad” for a “New York story through and through,” he said.

On the other hand, Matthew Valentinas, an executive producer on Amy Berg’s controversial Hollywood sex abuse drama “An Open Secret,” said that a New York premiere for the highly buzzed about film was necessary, because other festivals felt the material was too hot to handle. “Los Angeles,” he said, “is very protective of itself.” “An Open Secret” is also likely to close a deal out of DOC NYC within the next few weeks, according to Valentinas.

Other films that were popular with audiences and sold out quickly include “Heaven Adores You,” “Above & Beyond,” “Back on Board,” “Rubble Kings,” and “Sex and Broadcasting.”

Too Much of a Good Thing

One complaint against DOC NYC is that there are too many films in the program and it can be a challenge to get noticed. Not only does competition exist among the 91 feature films in the program, but also among the independent narrative and documentary films being released in theaters during the fall award-season glut.

But Cinetic Media’s head of sales Linzee Troubh, who is repping two world premieres at the festival (a first for the company) — “Every Last Child,” about the resurgence of polio in Pakistan, and “Opposite Field,” a doc about a Ugandan Little League baseball team — said the number of new films is actually fairly small, so buyers can easily target acquisition titles.

Troubh also noted another important facet of DOC NYC’s marketplace. For less flashy documentaries, or those more suited to grassroots or alternative new media distribution routes, they’re not going to get lost like they might at a more cutthroat A-list festival like Sundance. “In that way,” she said, “we can bring more attention to them at DOC NYC.”

As DOC NYC continues to grow, Powers has had to change his schedule. While he continues to program documentaries for the Toronto International Film Festival — which he acknowledges helps him find films for DOC NYC that don’t fit into the Canadian festival — he and his wife, DOC NYC executive director Raphaela Neihausen, had to relinquish their lead programming positions at New Jersey’s Montclair Film Festival. (The festival is now programmed by former Sarasota Film Festival head Tom Hall.) But both continue to work on Stranger than Fiction, a documentary series at New York’s IFC Center.

“There’s just a lot of documentary making happening right now,” Powers said. And DOC NYC has shrewdly positioned itself as a rising new player to showcase the work.

As Impact Partners’ Dan Cogan, an executive producer of DOC NYC’s opening night film “Do I Sound Gay?” testified, “I must say I love that [the festival] has raised the profile of docs in what feels like a loud way.”

READ MORE: Michael Moore, Albert Maysles and More Documentary Titans Speak at DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute

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