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Reality Checks: DOC NYC Lifts Oscar Contenders, But Why So Many Films?

Reality Checks: DOC NYC Lifts Oscar Contenders, But Why So Many Films?

READ MORE: 10 Must-See Documentaries at DOC NYC 2015

Six years ago, there was a hole in New York’s film festival calendar.

Now DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival, has firmly taken root, and grown in size and importance with a fertile 104 new feature-length documentaries (27 of which are world premieres). That’s an over-abundance of new nonfiction to consider that wasn’t previously showcased in a single fall event.

While the festival’s increasingly expansive bounty may be a natural outgrowth of documentary’s rising prominence in the media landscape, the program is also a bit unwieldy. One can easily draw comparisons to DOC NYC artistic director Thom Powers’ other gig, the Toronto International Film Festival, where he also programs documentaries. Like TIFF, DOC NYC provides an effective launchpad within a media-rich environment, to boost Academy Award contenders and hot-button docs. But also like TIFF, smaller films could potentially get lost in the selection.

Oscar Lift

DOC NYC’s “Short List” sidebar, composed of Oscar-worthy docs, has become both predictor and influencer: In each of the past two years, the DOC NYC Short List had nine titles overlap with the actual Oscar Documentary Short List and screened four of the five eventual Oscar nominees. With 15 total films in the category, stocked with widely acknowledged front-runners, this success rate isn’t surprising. And just because a film makes the DOC NYC Short List doesn’t make it a shoo-in for the Academy.

“Any documentary that is included will get some kind of lift,” said Submarine Entertainment sales rep Josh Braun, “but a number of the films in this section in both 2013 and 2014 were not short-listed, so it’s certainly not a guarantee those films will end up on the [Academy] short list.”

But the genius of the Short List program isn’t its ability to forecast winners; it’s that it functions as a publicity and marketing magnet.

“There are so many docs competing for spots on the [Academy] short-list at this stage, and branch members can’t possibly watch them all,” Magnolia Pictures’ Matt Cowal, who is repping “Best of Enemies” and “The Wolfpack,” said. “Recognition from Thom Powers and DOC NYC in this category is very meaningful for positioning a film as one that merits serious consideration.”

Indeed, DOC NYC touts the fact that it has become a destination for Academy documentary branch members to gather before the voting deadline of November 20. At this year’s Visionaries Tribute luncheon — which honored Jon Alpert, Barbara Kopple and Frederick Wiseman (because one is never enough) — some 50 Academy documentary branch members hobnobbed before saluting their fellow filmmakers.

This year’s lineup of nonfiction heavyweights includes, among others: Kirby Dick (“The Hunting Ground”), Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone”?), Alex Gibney (“Going Clear”), Davis Guggenheim (“He Named Me Malala”), Asif Kapadia (“Amy”), Michael Moore (“Where to Invade Next”), Brett Morgen (“Montage of Heck”), Morgan Neville (“Best of Enemies”), Stanley Nelson (“The Black Panthers”), and Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Look of Silence”) — all of whom are represented in this year’s Short List category.

The Industry Takes Note

DOC NYC founder Thom Powers said that putting together this year’s Short List has been the toughest, with pressure coming in all year from documentary reps and distributors to be included. “People definitely put in a good word about their films, starting as early as Sundance,” said Powers. “And there is easily another five to 10 films that could have been a part of this year’s list.”

Where the Short List section can also make an impact is by boosting dark horse contenders. For example, Oscar short-listed docs such as Alan Berliner’s “First Cousin, Once Removed” (2013) and Wim Wenders’ “Salt of the Earth” (2014) played in the section. Of course, just appearing on the Academy’s short-list — and not among the five nominees — doesn’t help a documentary’s profile much. But filmmakers will gladly take it.

“I do think [Thom’s] list helps a lot,” said Impact Partners’ Dan Cogan, “particularly for films like [Kim Longinotto’s Impact Partners funded film] ‘Dreamcatcher,’ which came out much earlier in the year and has not been the focus of people’s attention of late, and now the voting is about to start.”

Prominent distributors are also using the festival to launch new titles. Netflix has chosen to premiere the first two episodes of its new true-crime doc series “Making a Murderer” in the hopes of enhancing its profile, while AOL will present “Once and For All, ” with no less than presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Hilary Clinton in attendance.

Realistic Expectations

With producers and distributors flaunting their Oscar contenders and high-profile films, and another more than 85 new feature documentaries playing over the festival’s seven days, it might seem easy to get lost in the shuffle for less known commodities.

But industry observers aren’t complaining, at least, not yet.

“There are more films being programmed in DOC NYC this year, so we will have to look at the results afterwards,” said Braun, who is hoping that Submarine’s world premieres, the 1960s-set LSD counterculture doc “The Sunshine Makers” and PTSD epidemic investigation “Thank You For Your Service” “will get some real attention,” he said.

Impact Partners’ Dan Cogan believes that DOC NYC has the ability to boost smaller films because buyers have already seen the heavy-hitters in the lineup. “They’ll be focused on what’s new,” he said. “And because Thom is so well-respected, his choice of a small film can indeed help elevate it.”

According to The Film Sales Co’s Andrew Herwitz, DOC NYC is a “totally legitimate place to premiere a film,” he said. “While there are no bidding wars, we’ve had some good results.” Last year, for example, Herwitz unveiled “Topspin,” which sold to Fusion for TV and First Run Features took theatrical and transactional VOD rights. “The filmmakers had realistic expectations and were happy with the outcome,” said Herwitz.

A number of other world premieres from last year’s lineup eventually found homes; for example, The Orchard acquired the gun control doc, “No Control,” and Sundance Selects bought police corruption story, “The Seven Five.”

Powers argues that all the films in the festival have an audience. “It’s important to recognize that each one of these films has its own community,” he said. “I’m not asking or expecting any one person to master all 100 films. Even I don’t have a mastery of the entire lineup. That’s why there is an entire programming team.”

Powers acknowledged DOC NYC might seem unnaturally large. But the fact is that there are still plenty of documentaries pounding on his door to get a slot — “including films that have merits,” added Powers. “So if it looks like a big lineup, there’s still a lot more films out there who would like to be getting this exposure.”

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