Back to IndieWire

Thom Powers

Thom Powers

Documentary Storytelling is Flourishing Like Never Before

By Guest Blogger Peter Belsito

Thom’s and our paths have crossed for many years. I am partial to ‘docs’, having made them in the past, and always feeling they were the ‘equal half’ of our cinema world, along with feature length narrative works. New York has a special relevance in the U.S. movie world. It is closer to Europe (than L.A. – in many ways) and then there is that educated, passionate, cinephile audience always demanding of us in the business that we do ‘better’ and ‘more’. We also must include the difficult, ornery and important NYC press movie reviewers. Thom and his colleagues are doing very interesting work in this regard, i.e., introducing important new documentary movies in one of the world’s current great cultural centers. He discusses in the following the current ‘moment’ in documentary production and exhibition. An interesting time we live in.

In these blogs on our strategically placed colleagues in today’s movie world we have been trying to construct a vision of what’s happening today and why and where it is all going. I think Thom pushes our understanding of documentary filmmaking, its place in the world, mindset of the makers and business people much farther, I learned a lot from speaking with him and writing this piece.

He comes from Detroit and deepened his love for film going to screenings at the Detroit Institute of Arts. After that he moved to L.A. and worked for the comic book publisher Fantagraphics (they publish the work of the great R. Crumb). He worked seven years in publishing and book selling. In the mid 90s he moved to NYC and went to work for a documentary film company. At that time, the changing technology opened the horizon for documentary movies and opened many new avenues for docs. He spent the next 10 years making documentaries through his company Sugar Pictures for HBO (including ‘ Breasts’, ‘Private Dicks’), PBS and other outlets.

In 2000, while making films, Thom began teaching at the NYU School for Continuing Professional Studies a course about ‘Documentary Film – Development, Research, Financing’ and continues with that class to this day.

While at the 2007 Berlinale he met his wife-to-be, Raphaela Neihausen, (Executive Director of Stranger Than Fiction screening series and also the DOC NYC Film Festival), who was in Berlin with her produced Documentary ‘Miss Gulag’. Today they have a one year old boy, Bez.

In the mid 2000s Thom was getting weary of the daily, never-ending grind of making films. He knew that he liked talking to filmmakers. He began a career transition from making films to showing them.

Thom says, ‘for a programmer, such as I am, this is an unusual background. In our movie world, there’s a divide between making and marketing a film. It’s an entirely different set of skills, energy, focus. There are different sacrifices and rewards. For example, it’s very hard for filmmakers to put themselves in the shoes of people who distribute – and vice versa. Having done both I think I have an understanding of the different mindsets involved. For example, and one critical difference, is that a filmmaker must focus absolutely myopically on one film as it’s being made, maybe for a year or more. The distributor has multiple films before them always and must focus on many diverse things.

‘Therefore when I am programming I remain mindful of 1) the particular unique experience of the filmmaker, and 2) I ask myself what can I do for that particular film among the many that I am including in the program.’

In 2005 Thom brought the idea for a new Tuesday evening feature documentary series, Stranger Than Fiction, to the new 6th Avenue Greenwich Village movie house, the IFC Center. It was an instant hit. The documentary filmmaking community of New York City was very active and had reached a critical mass in that it needed a place, a venue, an excuse!! To meet and to talk together and to gather.

The format thus was –
-screenings every Tuesday night at the IFC Center, now or old feature documentaries
-always a post screening Q&A with the director or a special guest; craft the content of these to focus on various relevant important issues
-afterwards go out socially with all and with the audience

Then the job at TIFF opened. In the last twenty years Toronto in September / TIFF has become one of the world’s great film festivals and film market (for doing business). Thom saw his background of entrepreneurial energy fitting this job. Here on this broad international arena he could now pick and advocate for even more of these films. The challenge was that at TIFF you had to work really hard to attract attention to documentaries because of all that’s going on there during the Festival (a huge event in many venues at all hours, many galas and movie stars, hundreds of films, a busy major international film marketplace).

Thom continues. ‘So one of the challenges at TIFF, is that you have to work very hard to attract attention to documentaries because of all that is happening there. How to get traction at this event?’

Thom pointed out, and I (Peter here) agree with him, that at Sundance for example, documentaries are always the strongest section, along with international films. (I, Sydney here, would say that this year the international films as well as the premieres were extremely strong.)

Thom said, ‘At TIFF, success there would be a powerful testifier to documentaries’ abilities to reach a wider film going audience. So in that first year, 2006, we wanted a high profile documentary for the TIFF Gala Section. That film was Oscar winner Barbara Kopple’s film with the Dixie Chicks, the music superstars, ‘Shut Up and Sing’. It did well and made the point that documentaries could bring in to the festival a higher wattage spotlight than previously thought’.

Another TIFF portfolio is Mavericks in which Thom features live conversations related to documentary screenings with personages such as Jimmy Carter (along with a Jonathan Demme documentary); Bruce Springsteen being interviewed by Edward Norton; Bill Gates talking at the showing of Waiting For Superman (childhood education being one of his philanthropical interests).
More recently, with John Vanco, Thom came up with idea of an IFC Center based documentary film festival, DOC NYC which premiered in 2010 and is slated next for Nov. 2-8, 2011.

(John Vanco is a guy whose career I (Peter) have followed for years with interest. Through his central, NYC based leadership roles in film distribution and exhibition over the last 15 years, Vanco has strived to connect great works of artistic cinema with appreciative audiences. Greenwich Village’s IFC Center, led by Vanco since its 2005 opening, is the bricks and mortar home of IFC Entertainment and serves as a focal point for the NYC independent film community. As one of the founders of Cowboy Pictures (along with TIFF Bell Lightbox executive Noah Cowan), Vanco led the distribution efforts on behalf of dozens of foreign language, documentary and American fiction features, including works by Lynne Ramsay, David Gordon Green, Catherine Breillat and Shohei Imamura. Cowboy also programmed an innovative film calendar at a Manhattan cinema and managed the theatrical libraries of Janus Films and Pennebaker/Hegedus films. Previously, Vanco served in various capacities at Miramax, New Yorker Films and Fine Line Features.)

When Thom and John surveyed the NYC documentary film scene they found the following documentary oriented events in place:
-MOMA / Museum of Modern Art – Always bright and competent, they did Documentary Fortnight and did a very good job ferreting out overlooked films and they discovered (and surpassed) new boundaries to these pictures’ being screened for audiences.
-Margaret Mead Film Festival – sponsored by the Museum of Natural History they discovered films of anthropological trend. (Peter’s note – a few years ago they showed a film by Hart Perry which David Sandoval and I originated as producers on South Texas migrant farmworkers 25 years of struggle called ‘El Valle de Lagrimas / Valley of Tears’.)

So they wanted to create a NEW spotlight for documentary films and filmmaking in general NOT for the above (already well served) audiences. DOC NYC was founded to look not just at documentaries or films but also at other forms of art and creative work.

They want also to examine the creative areas of writing and photography which have similar problems to filmmaking and the goal was to create a space for such a discussion. New York is good for this also because it has a great concentration of people in the creative fields there, related fields to filmmaking, and New York is an important unique center.

DOC NYC was a big undertaking the first year. IFC owns DOC NYC, Vanco is the Head and the married pair Rafaela and Thom were hired to respectively be the Executive Director and the Artistic Director (similar titles they both hold in Stranger Than Fiction).

(Thom also Programs for Miami IFF under the new leadership of Executive Director Jaie Laplante. As a Programming Consultant Thom works with the Festival on the documentary lineup.)

Thom sees film today, ‘as a still burgeoning field, with evermore new people and more films. The problem of shrinking capital that fiction producers are facing – that doesn’t hinder doc makers so much because they were accustomed to producing without much money. To me, the vitality of DIY efforts in the doc world are very exciting. In the old days, if your film wasn’t chosen by a Sony, Magnolia, Zeitgeist or one of the other handful of theatrical distributors, then you had little hope for reaching the big screen. Now there several new pathways are emerging.

Thom continues, ‘The last five years has provided such internet tools which offer us great potential and flexibility in reaching audiences. For example Gary Hustwit has recently self distributed titles such as ‘Helvetica’, ‘Objectified’. He draws upon his background as a rock ‘n roll music band manager. That taught him how to establish a direct connection with his audience by touring with his films the same way a band tours for an album. That encourages the audience to follow a director from project to project.

‘This new flow of product, the large amounts of new films, feels normal for me coming from publishing where there was always a wide diversity of product. Often success in publishing (like film now) depends on being able to reach niche audiences. So in documentaries today you can be successful by just focusing on your niche audiences.’
Lastly these useful tips for documentary filmmakers and the guiding philosophy on DOC NYC:
Documentary storytelling is flourishing like never before – encompassing reportage, memoir, history, humor and more. DOC NYC celebrates this cultural phenomenon and encourages its new directions.
Among its missions, DOC NYC aims to:
1. CURATE: guide audiences toward inspiring work.
2. CROSS FERTILIZE: gather practitioners of many fields – filmmakers, writers, photographers and other storytellers to inspire each other.
3. CROSS GENERATIONS: use the festival’s partnership with New York University as a means for younger and older voices to communicate.
4. CULTIVATE NEW AUDIENCES: attract newcomers with the excitement of a festival atmosphere.
5. EXPAND DISTRIBUTION: help documentary storytellers make the most of emerging technologies such as video downloads, podcasts and electronic readers.
6. CREATE SOCIAL SPACE: bring people together in theaters, lounges, and discussion spaces around New York’s Washington Square area.
7. MAKE THE MOST OF NYC: foster fresh connections between residents and expose visitors to the opportunities that happen only in New York.
For the past six years, the team behind DOC NYC has been building a community around the weekly documentary film series Stranger Than Fiction at the IFC Center. Our background of hosting documentary makers from around the world and consistently selling out shows has given us practical experience to launch this festival.

Some of our favorite STF nights have involved connecting film to other worlds – as we filled the theater full of war photographers for BLOOD TRAIL or advertising executives for ART & COPY or restaurateurs for A TABLE IN HEAVEN. While STF will continue its weekly run on Tuesday nights, DOC NYC allows us to focus a different kind of energy into one concentrated chunk of time.


Some links:

Stranger Than Fiction is a Tuesday night documentary series held at the IFC Center, hosted by Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen. STF presents an eclectic mix of documentaries – sneak previews and lost classics – followed by discussions with the filmmakers and post-show receptions. Now in its fourteenth season, STF has fostered new talent, won loyal audiences, and provided a gathering spot for New York’s independent film community. Esteemed speakers have included Michael Moore, Ira Glass, Laurie Anderson, Jonathan Demme and Barbara Kopple.

Thom Powers is the documentary programmer of the Toronto International Film Festival; and artistic director of the weekly Stranger Than Fiction screening series and the DOC NYC festival at IFC Center. He teaches documentary development at New York University School of Continuing Professional Studies and the School of Visual Arts Social Documentary masters program. He is a co-founder of the Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant and the Cinema Eye Honors. He is a consulting programmer for the Miami International Film Festival. For ten years, he produced and directed documentaries for HBO, PBS, Sundance Channel and other outlets through his company Sugar Pictures. Prior to working in film, he was an editor and marketing director for the publisher Fantagraphics Books.

Stranger Than Ficton Executive Director Raphaela Neihausen is the producer of the documentary Miss Gulag which premiered at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival. For seven years, she worked for Mercer Management Consulting (now Oliver Wyman) where she rose to the position of senior associate. She holds a BSFS/MA joint degree from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. She is also Executive Director of the new documentary storytelling festival DOC NYC – coming to NY for the second time this November.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox