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 Top 10 Most Powerful People in the Documentary World

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Ah, the irony of creating a power list for people in an industry where everyone feels so powerless. And yet, however small the spoils and anemic the troops, there’s no denying that within the doc kingdom, there is a hierarchy of power. My previous two posts have led up to this, a ranking of the top ten most powerful people in documentaries. Combine this list with last week’s 40 and we’ve got 50 of the most powerful of the powerless. Enjoy . . .

[3:30, Monday — Ed. note: On Friday, Doc Soup Man (DSM) sent in his list. Over the weekend, he reevaluated things a bit and DSM made some minor changes to the list. Because of an error, his initial list was posted for a short time. We've replaced that earlier list with DSM's revisions. See the revised (and final) top 10 below.]

Sheila Nevins1) Sheila Nevins (HBO, President of Documentary): Nevins’ name is the first that comes to most people’s minds when it comes to the top power broker of docs. And she deserves such reverence because she’s earned it. She created a documentary fiefdom out of nothing, and her films have earned countless awards. She stands at the top not because she’s the obvious choice — in fact, I’d contend that Mertes has more all-around power. But Nevins has been around so long, has developed such a strong corps of loyal filmmakers, and fights for her projects with such uncompromising, idiosyncratic taste, all of it with HBO’s backing, that she has been able to launch a thousand ships, all of them carrying the Nevins signature. Without intimations of repression or nuclear ability, let’s just say that if Mertes (see below) wields her power like Barack Obama, then Nevins wields hers like Kim Jong-Il.

Michael Moore2) Michael Moore (Director): His detractors seem to outnumber his champions, but when you talk with documentary filmmakers, they bow down to the man who spearheaded the theatrical documentary industry we know today. He’s not just the most famous documentary filmmaker — he’s one of the most famous people in America, period. And his fame and guile means power: not only does he make movies the way he wants to, he is often there to lend a hand to fellow filmmakers.

Cara Mertes3) Cara Mertes (Sundance Institute, Director): Mertes is the benefactor, the gatekeeper, the liaison and the friend to so many documentary filmmakers, it’s difficult to quantify her power. From funding to creative help to exhibition, Mertes has her finger on every possible lifeline that a filmmaker needs. And, unlike Nevins, whose power is consolidated under the HBO brand, Mertes’ power is expansive: it extends well beyond where Sundance doesn’t shine. Relationships with billionaire doc-lovers Soros, Skoll and Gates have assured that the Institute will continue to annually churn out the top crop of docs. (Ed. note: Mertes was POV’s executive director from 2000-2006.)

Claire Aguilar and Richard Saiz4) Claire Aguilar (ITVS, Vice President of Programming) Richard Saiz (ITVS, Senior Programming Manager): ITVS funds and puts out countless documentaries for public television and cable, and Aguilar and Saiz are the people whom every doc filmmaker wants to be on a first name basis with.

Diane Weyermann5) Diane Weyermann (Participant Media, Executive Vice President of Documentary Production): Along with Nevins and Mertes, Weyermann’s sensibility and work has helped define the doc landscape, but her role at Participant limits her reach a bit. Still, with Jeff Skoll’s backing, she has created a model for nonfiction filmmaking production that includes outreach and activism.

Orlando Bagwell6) Orlando Bagwell (Ford Foundation, Director of the Media, Arts and Culture unit): Bagwell, a producer and filmmaker in his own right, holds the keys to one of the most significant sources of documentary funding.

Ally Derks7) Ally Derks (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, Director) Derks is one of the grand dames of the doc world, and IDFA is the international locus of power where everyone (fests, distributors, buyers) comes to see documentaries first.

Nick Fraser8) Nick Fraser (BBC’s Storyville, Commissioning Editor): The BBC’s Storyville doc series is one of the preeminent outlets for non-fiction filmmaking, and Fraser has shown a keen sense of what works and doesn’t work.

John Cooper/Trevor Groth/Caroline Libresco 9) John Cooper/Trevor Groth/Caroline Libresco (Sundance Film Festival Top Dogs): There are so many great festivals with so much great reach, but then why is it that U.S. filmmakers want to get into Sundance more than any other? Is just because they get to wear parkas and drink beer with Sean Penn? No, it’s because there’s a genuine excitement at Sundance about docs that often raises them far above their fiction feature peers, and that can turn into sales, deals, future financing and a sense of “I’ve made it,” in and of itself.

Molly Thompson10) Molly Thompson (A&E IndieFilms, Vice President): Thompson has the Rolodex and the backing of A&E to commission, acquire and provide finishing funds for films that keep coming (from Jesus Camp to The September Issue to the upcoming The Tillman Story.

» Find out who the next most powerful 40 people in the doc world are by reading part one of this list which was posted last week.
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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: 24661
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    Ally Derks was the big one I found missing from the earlier list, forgot who else I thought should be in there.

  • http://skylightpictures.com Paco

    FOREIGNID: 24800
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    I’m really surprised that Sally Jo Fifer isn’t in the top 10 – she has been such a force in the transformation of ITVS into an ever more effective documentary funding organization. In fact I would put Sally Jo and Cara Mertes above Sheila Nevins on the list, hands down.
    Another name that should be on the top 50 list is Wendy Levy of the BAVC Producer’s Institute, which essentially develops new avenues to distribute and increase the impact of documentaries, and to funders of these initiatives.
    Hey, but that’s the good thing about these “Top” lists – it makes you think about the people that should be on and aren’t…