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: The Documentary ‘Power’ List: Part I

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As promised, I’m delivering my list of the most powerful people in documentaries. I have come up with 50, but this week I’m going to build some dramatic tension by presenting 40 out of the 50, leaving the top 10 to come next week. Is this a definitive list? No. It’s more of an impression. If I were being very literal about power, then only the heads of distribution companies and television outlets, as well as those who control the purse strings, would be on this list. I want to look at the whole network of power. This is a way of taking a reflective look at an industry that makes its business looking into the lives of others. I’m having fun with it — I hope you do too. To me, what makes someone powerful is the ability to get a documentary made as he or she would like it to be made, and to get that film seen by as many people as possible. I’m primarily thinking of the U.S. market, but I couldn’t resist including some international players. I’m still fielding additional submissions and theories and will reevaluate this list. But, for now, here they are: the 40 people who have the power to get your documentary made and seen.

You’ll note that I haven’t ranked these power brokers. I will not display such timidity with next week’s round of Top 10. And, if I’m not chased out of town, I’ll submit a fully ranked top 50 at another date. I should also add that although all of the listed people belong here, some of them also hold symbolic power. Take A.O. Scott, for example. Despite the waning world of the film critic, you can’t deny that if The New York Times’ Scott were to champion your film, that review could give it the life it needs to be seen. Of course, there are other critics with similar powers, Roger Ebert coming first to mind, but I’m going to let Scott stand in for all critics. A similar argument pertains to the likes of Eugene Hernandez of IndieWIRE, as well as blogger AJ Schnack. But do they actually wield more power than, say, the head of a smallish production company? No. For more background on my process, take a look at last week’s post.

Indeed, the heart of power lies with the people who control distribution, financing, exhibition and sales, and so they dominate the list. You’ll also see some documentary directors, however, because they have become brands unto themselves, thus assuring their ability to make the films they want to make.

I’m sure you’ll be able to divine from this list of 40 who will be in the top 10. If you care to submit your estimation of how the top ten should be ranked, I’m all ears. But, be assured, my list is coming next week.

The 40 (out of 50):

Nancy Abraham (HBO, VP of Documentary Programming): OK, the cat is out of the bag: If Sheila Nevins‘ #2 is here, then that means Nevins is…

Michael Barker & Tom Bernard (Sony Pictures Classics): Maybe they got burned with My Kid Could Paint That, but the distributors behind Fog of War can still doc and roll.

Julie Parker Benello, Wendy Ettinger, Judith Helfand: Their Chicken & Egg Pictures has the funds and the production know-how to get docs made. What else does one need?

Kevin Bennett (Discovery): Discovery may not have the theatrical reach it once hoped for, but its television production is firing on all cylinders.

Eamonn Bowles (President, Magnolia Pictures): Magnolia is a savvy theatrical distributors of docs; they’ve done wonders with Alex Gibney‘s films and helped to turn Man on Wire into an Oscar hit. (Not to mention Food, Inc., which was on POV earlier this year.)

Josh Braun (Submarine Entertainment): Beloved sales agent Braun seems to have his hand in just about every hot doc deal that John Sloss (see below) doesn’t have his hand in.

Ken Burns (Director): With a lifetime contract with PBS, Burns is the king of television documentary directors.

Dan Cogan (Co-Founder and Executive Director, Impact Partners): Money is power, and Cogan has been funneling his investors’ funds in smart ways toward a host of smart projects.

Philipp Engelhorn (Founder and Executive Director, Cinereach): Cinereach has doled out more than $3 million to more than 50 films, making it a reliable player in the doc world.

Sean Farnel & Chris McDonald (Hot Docs): The popularity of this Toronto festival just keeps increasing. What is it about Canadians and documentaries? Not that I’m complaining.

David Fenkel & Adam Yauch (Oscilloscope Pictures): These guys can do more than drop the beat — they’ve stepped up in the doc world, and have already shown nimble support of several gems.

Nancy Gerstman & Emily Russo (Zeitgeist Films): They’ve been around a while but these distributors are not long in the tooth, working on docs such as The Corporation and the more current The Oath.

Alex Gibney (Director): The highly productive Gibney is in that elite class of directors whose names can actually help sell their films (to distributors and audiences).

Micah Green (Creative Artists Agency): From Supersize Me to The September Issue, agent Green has shown he can finance, package and/or sell your nonfiction film.

Eugene Hernandez (IndieWIRE): If you accept the notion that information is power and also the idea that the Internet is kind of a big deal, then the editor-in-chief and co-founder of IndieWIRE wields his power with every click of his keyboard.

Beth Janson/David Kwok (Tribeca Film Festival): Many keep whispering to me that Tribeca does little for docs but a little is a lot more than nothing.

Doug Jones (Los Angeles Film Festival): What, you don’t think of docs when you think of this festival? Well, it’s not a top doc festival but it’s still a player.

Simon Kilmurry (POV): Yes, he is the top dog here at POV. Yes, POV documentaries are seen by millions of people.

Spike Lee (Director): Like his features, Lee makes his documentaries like he wants them.

Albert Maysles (Director): He’s a legend who manages to keep turning out good work by aligning himself with the right people.

Errol Morris (Director): He may not have the popular name recognition of the Big Guy, but Morris is, like Spike Lee, a documentarian who makes his films his way.

Tom Perlmutter (National Film Board of Canada Commissioner): They may not get irony but there’s no denying that Canada cranks out a fleet of great doc programming.

Janet Pierson (SXSW): The little festival that can really make documentaries (Spellbound, anyone?).

Thom Powers (Toronto International Film Festival/Stranger than Fiction/DOC NYC): From Bloor Street to Broadway, Powers’s doc empire keeps expanding. Who says nice guys can’t have Powers? No, really, I mean that.

Jan Rofekamp (Films Transit International): This year, international doc veteran Rofekamp was dubbed a “doc mogul” at Hot Docs, and I couldn’t agree more.

Ann Rose (Sundance Channel): In documentaries, Sundance reigns supreme — and not just theatrically.

Michael Rosenfeld (National Geographic): Nat Geo is one of only a handful of television channels that reliably churn out top-notch documentary work, and Rosenfeld is at the helm.

A.O. Scott (NY Times critic): Woe the death of the critic, but Scott’s opinion can light a flame under any film.

AJ Schnack (blogger and Cinema Eye founder): The tireless Schnack burns the midnight oil blogging, advocating, criticizing and cheering on the doc world. His Cinema Eye awards ceremony may at this point be more party than power hub, but that could change.

Jonathan Sehring (Sundance Selects & IFC President): Sehring is one of the most highly respected indie film executives; he is deeply woven into the documentary film fabric.

Elizabeth Sheldon (VP, Kino Lorber): Sheldon runs this go-to theatrical distributor of docs.

Sky Sitney (Director of Programming, AFI Silverdocs): Yet another festival that can’t be ignored if you want to get your doc noticed.

John Sloss (Cinetic): From the Croisette to Park City, sales agent Sloss has his hand in just about every hot doc deal. (How many hands does this man have?)

Cynthia Swartz (42 West): There’s a handful of publicists (including Susan Norget, David Magdael and Jeff Hill) who can hustle a doc well, but Swartz is in the rare class of having both a mighty PR machine at her back and being able to sit in a room with documentarians without making their skin crawl.

Sue Turley (Ro*Co / Oprah Channel): Their partnership with the Oprah Winfrey Network, which will launch in January 2011, makes Ro*Co a multiplatform powerhouse that will bring documentaries to millions of viewers.

Lois Vossen (Series producer, Independent Lens & VP, ITVS): POV’s sister series, Independent Lens, also claims the same elite status and expansive audience that their shared parent, PBS, affords.

David Wilson & Paul Sturtz (True/False): No longer the new kids on the block, Wilson and Sturtz have managed to turn a fun and cool little festival into part of the doc establishment. (Yikes, maybe that means they’ll quit and turn to organic farming.)

Milton Tabbot (IFP Documentary Spotlight Programmer): IFP is near the beating heart of the documentary marketplace; and Tabbot is proven to have the doc Midas touch.

Sadie Tillery (Full Frame): In an ever crowding field, Durham’s Full Frame remains one of the top doc film festivals in the world.

Harvey Weinstein (The Weinstein Company): A man who’s reputation perhaps extends beyond his reach, Weinstein remains a factor in the doc world. I look forward to seeing him work every angle to get The Pat Tillman Story an Oscar nod.

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
  • Matt

    FOREIGNID: 24602
    Since I don’t see my name in this list, I’ve drawn the obvious conclusion, and I’m shocked and honored that you’re putting me in the top 10. All kidding aside, it looks like a pretty comprehensive list. I want to throw out some names that I thought you missed, but I think I’ll hold off until I see what you’ve come up with for the top 10.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 24614
    Matt, you were actually on the list but the liberal doc industrial establishment was going to revoke my membership, so, sorry, you had to be cut!

  • James McNally

    FOREIGNID: 24667
    Informative and comprehensive, but why the digs at your northern neighbo(u)r? We “don’t get irony”? Huh?

  • DocGal

    FOREIGNID: 24685
    Sky Sitney is actually the Artistic Director now — great list

  • Tim Sparke

    FOREIGNID: 24754
    Only 2 non-americans in your list out of 50. No mention of the people behind the EU Media fund, or EDN, or Yves Janneau and Sunnyside, or anyone from Channel 4, ZDF, Arte, CBC, YLE, or Al Jazeera . The really worrying aspect of this is that it is a PBS blog and we always thought they had access to atlas’s and the worldwideweb…clearly budgetary restrictions have taken their toll.
    Tom, if you wants some help then Mercury will be happy to assist you research an accurate who’s who in the doc industry, presuming of course you are that rare breed of American with a passport?

  • Dean Hamer

    FOREIGNID: 24817
    A useful list but overweighted to the commercial the side of documentaries as compared to social activism. For example there is no mention of the Fledgling Fund, Active Voice, Working Films, Tribeca All Access, or many other groups and people that help documentaries reach a fwider and more important audience than any film festival.

  • Tbo

    FOREIGNID: 24847
    No Kartemquin Films on the list?

  • Tom Shepard

    FOREIGNID: 24869
    Echoing Dean’s comment above about social activism: very sorry not to see anyone from New Day Films listed. One of the oldest, and most successful social issue film companies (40 years this year!), run cooperatively by nearly 80 doc filmmakers, and thriving in a marketplace in which many other doc distributors have failed.
    Founders Jim Klein, Julia Reichert, Amalie Rothschild and Liane Brandon must have been on to something in the early 70s. Where else can you find the veteran filmmakers of our generation working with the hottest new filmmakers to bring their work out into the world? And making money doing it!