Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: What’s ‘Power’ in the Doc World, and Who’s Got it?

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Power. It’s an elusive term. There is real power — the power to control the world around you, to do what you want, and then there are the different ways that we perceive power &mdash as in wealth, fame or influence. Is there such a thing as power in the documentary film industry? In this industry of social progressives, artists, and generally lovable and cooperative good folks?

Of course there is. Power is not a bad thing. The power of documentary film is that it can do so much good in the world as both a social and a creative medium. But what about the power of the individuals who get those documentaries made? Is it fair to look at the power that they wield individually? I think so, but then why do I feel like I’m walking over a taboo threshold?

Let me start with where I got the nutty idea to rank the most powerful people in documentary film. I used to work at Premiere magazine, where we would annually rank the most powerful people in Hollywood. We were one of the first outlets to do such a list, and it was a must-read for many for some time. Hollywood execs would spend hours on their therapists’ couches trying to work out their feelings about being dropped in the rankings.

As much as such a list could be deemed exploitative or reductive or just plain silly, I think what we were doing there was bringing the 800-pound gorilla into the light. We were putting in print what everyone in the industry was already discussing over lunch with their peers.

Does such a gorilla exist in the doc world, lurching through the halls of the documentary division at HBO, the festival stages at Sundance, and the sales offices of Cinetic? I think so.

So, this is my official announcement: I am in possession of a list. On this list, I have scribbled the names of the top 50 most powerful people in documentaries. I have checked this list with other people in the doc world. It is not a definitive list. It is open to change. And I hope that it will be the beginning of a conversation — one that includes that big gorilla.

How did I come up with this list? In this case, I defined power by imagining a room full of filmmakers, producers, funders and programmers. If you are a documentary filmmaker, then who would you most want to be in that room advocating for your film? We’re talking about the power to get your movie made exactly as you want it — and giving it the best chance to be seen by as many people as possible.

This is a slippery slope, of course. (I, for one, expect to get bruised.) One could easily say that all you need is George Soros (or Jeff Skoll or Ted Leonsis), who has all the money in the world, to get your movie made exactly the way you want it made. But power is not just about money. Power is reputation, experience, influence, knowledge, connections, intelligence and creativity. It’s also very much about access.

And so, with that in mind, I came up with this list. But before I reveal this list, I want to open up the floor. If you have something to say about this list — or just the nature of lists — then I want to hear it. If you want to come up with your own list, and would like to weigh in on who you think should be on my list, then I want to hear that too.

Watch for my list of the 50 most powerful people in documentaries in this space very soon.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Filming Docs

    FOREIGNID: 24509
    I’d say the most powerful people in documentary are the names that you hear discussed most often. The first ones that come to mind are:
    Sheila Nevins
    Michael Moore
    Morgan Spurlock
    Davis Guggenheim
    Lawrence Bender
    RJ Cutler
    Steve James
    Errol Morris
    Barbara Kopple
    DA Pennebaker
    Spike Lee
    Albert Maysels
    Alex Gibney

  • Zed

    FOREIGNID: 24513
    Can’t make a list like this without mentioning Ken Burns.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 24514
    I can dig the directors mentioned so far, but Lawrence Bender? Not sure he’s got that much weight in the doc world. And aside from directors, what about the gatekeepers? programmers? distributors? agents? execs?

  • Gail M.

    FOREIGNID: 24518
    The power in the documentary world lies with the “gatekeepers” not the filmmakers themselves. There is very little funding out there for documentaries, and often the people who choose who to give grants to are really choosing which films will get made and which ones won’t. There are also very few venues to show the films to a wide TV audience. Again, those at the helm at PBS’s POV and Independent Lens, HBO, etc. are the power brokers. Without their endorsement, a film is dead in the water. Likewise the panelists at the major documentary film festivals. Without having shown at these festivals documentaries even have a hard time making it in educational distribution.

  • Emily

    FOREIGNID: 24525
    It’s all about accessibility. It’s not always the commissioning editors and funders you wish to reach, but sometimes who can stretch your reach the furthest on your behalf. Bring on the list!