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Inside DOC NYC: Power, Profit, and Community at America’s “Largest” Doc Fest

By Anthony Kaufman

Film still from 'Eat Bitter,' showing the silhouette of a man with arms outstretched, on a small boat.

Film still from Eat Bitter, a film that had a good turnout during DOC NYC 2023. Courtesy of DOC NYC.

DOC NYC touts itself as “America’s Largest Documentary Film Festival,” as its tagline states. But for some, bigger isn’t always better.

With 114 feature documentaries and 129 short films; an industry conference called DOC NYC PRO; honoree lists such as 40 Under 40 and Documentary New Leaders; and its famous Short List film program and Visionaries Tribute event (known to insiders as “The Prom”), DOC NYC is a sprawling event. Over the past 14 years, it has grown into an outsized destination for documentary filmmakers, with big promises of exposure, validation, and most of all, awards buzz during the crucial campaign month of November. 

But those in the nonfiction industry have complicated feelings toward the festival. Undoubtedly, DOC NYC is big in scale because of its program size and the amount of U.S. industry that attends, and many attendees herald the opportunity to connect and celebrate nonfiction together in New York City in the fall. But others are suspicious about how well it delivers on its promises and remain skeptical about its money-making initiatives and for-profit status—it is owned by New York’s IFC Center and its corporate parent company AMC Networks—with some calling the event “disingenuous” and “opportunistic.”

“I can’t fault them for what they’ve created,” admits one producer who has participated more than once at DOC NYC. “But I don’t get a sense of them giving back to the community, so I am not sure about its motivations or implications.”

Co-founded by married couple Thom Powers and current DOC NYC executive director Raphaela Neihausen, DOC NYC completed its latest edition in Manhattan last month, running November 8–26. “We had a hugely successful festival this year,” says new DOC NYC Artistic Director Jaie LaPlante, citing its 33 world premieres, a 5% bump in attendance over last year, and an online screening program that drew thousands of viewers across the nation. The festival also had a record number of 1,000 industry attendees (roughly split between industry delegates and attending filmmakers), while its DOC NYC PRO Conference moved into a larger venue to accommodate a growing audience.

DOC NYC has steadily increased its footprint on the documentary landscape, in part, because of the rising status of Thom Powers. Most of the people who spoke to us for this article did so anonymously for fear of not getting on the wrong side of Powers, who was artistic director of the festival and led all its programming until last year. Still affiliated with the festival as the organizer of the Visionaries Tribute, Powers was once famously dubbed by the New York Times as “A Kingmaker for Documentaries.” Currently, he is also the documentary programmer of both the Toronto International Film Festival and the Miami Film Festival, and along with Neihausen, remains on the advisory board of the Montclair Film Festival, which they also co-founded. Powers also has close ties to Basil Tsiokos, Sundance’s nonfiction senior programmer, who worked at DOC NYC for 10 years with Powers from 2011 to 2021, and DOC NYC’s LaPlante, former executive director at the Miami Film Festival. 

Because of Powers’s influence over an array of film festival selections and awards-awareness-raising opportunities, “no one can raise a voice against him,” says one producer. Or as another insider quips, “To quote Kanye West, ‘No one man should have that much power.’” 



“A useful showcase, but with a high price.”

DOC NYC’s large lineup has both pros and cons. According to one sales rep, because the festival takes a lot of films it can be a good place to land a New York City premiere, and a “safety school option” if you didn’t get into other showcases earlier in the year.

But with so many feature films in the selection, garnering attendance and awareness isn’t easy. As one documentary sales agent says, “It’s a good place to have a film if you can get the attention and press, but it can be challenging because of the volume of the films.” 

In terms of mainstream press coverage, IndieWire typically runs a “10 Must-See Films” DOC NYC story, which is a boost for those 10 films, and the Hollywood Reporter reviewed five films out of the program this year, but that still leaves dozens and dozens of docs adrift. “For me, press was nonexistent,” says one filmmaker who had a world premiere at the festival, “but I was told going in to expect that.”

LaPlante argues that the “bigger festival means that we’re able to include and spotlight more filmmakers and explore a greater variety of work, regions, and types of filmmaking.” But in doing so, they may be spreading themselves too thin. Like many other festivals, DOC NYC does not release attendance numbers. But many film festivals that claim industry importance publish audience statistics as a key measure of their significance (such as True/False and Hot Docs). While according to organizers this year’s DOC NYC included 50 sold-out screenings out of 227 (which is about 22%), with as many as 400 attendees turning out for docs such as Opening Night’s The Contestant, as well as Garland Jeffreys: The King of In BetweenPretty Ugly: The Story of the LunachicksLucha: A Wrestling TaleMedihaNo One Asked You; and 36 Seconds: Portrait of a Hate Crime, other films had only a smattering of attendees in the audience. 

Many note that having a New York–based subject or team can drive attendance, as is the case for many of the films above. Mathieu Faure, producer of international co-production Eat Bitter, said turnout for their screening was great, noting it helped that one of the co-directors was based in New York. Another director who flew in from Europe and stayed with a friend, however, had a “disappointing 10 people” at one of their screenings and felt disconnected from the festival. Although the small Bar Veloce next to the IFC Center functioned as this year’s filmmaker lounge, the director felt there wasn’t “really a central place where everyone meets, so it has been a bit hard to promote the film and get the attention of the right people.” 

New York also remains an attractive place to screen because of the decision-makers in the area, but it’s also expensive. For filmmakers going to the festival, it can be a costly proposition, especially since DOC NYC offers little-to-no travel support. “If you had to travel far, it’s probably not worth it,” says one sales rep.

“I'm not denying it’s a good platform to launch a film in the States, but they are not that generous towards the filmmakers, and it can be quite frustrating,” says one foreign sales agent whose European-based filmmaker received a $200 stipend to help attend. “I don't think it’s particularly fair to the makers—it is a useful showcase, but with a high price.”

Another sticking point for producers and reps is that DOC NYC doesn’t pay screening fees and stipulates online streaming for all its titles for the entire duration of the November 8–16 in-person festival, plus another 10 days November 17–26. While streaming expands access for audiences, and the festival shares online ticket revenue ranging from 20% to 35% of the net sales with rights holders, with some suggesting the money (around $300) helped allay some costs, others have concerns about about overexposing their film. 

“Buyers generally accepted these streaming opportunities as a necessary evil during the pandemic,” says one insider, “but it feels bullyish now.” A documentary distributor admits that the streaming requirement “encroaches on their territory,” but acknowledges that DOC NYC has the leverage to make the demand.

Other filmmakers speak highly of their DOC NYC experience. Producer-director Rob Hatch-Miller, for example, was very satisfied with the choice to world premiere a film he produced, The Elephant 6 Recording Co., at DOC NYC last year, noting that Greenwich Entertainment acquired the film and the IFC Center booked it for a three-week run in fall 2023. But even Hatch-Miller admits he couldn’t afford to travel from Los Angeles to the festival when he was invited to participate in their 40 Under 40 honors in 2019. 

Like most filmmakers who attend the festival, those selected for the 40 Under 40 and Documentary New Leaders lists are invited to attend the festival on their own dime. Honorees don’t have to attend, of course, but if they do, the tangible benefits are few: they get their own special reception together and receive a $150-off discount to go to the $750-per-seat Visionary Tribute. Although some professional development used to come with being on the lists and “informal post-festival activities are sometimes organized,” according to the festival, none have yet to be coordinated for this year’s honorees. Some former attendees suggest the main purpose of these lists is to boost the festival’s industry roster. Or as one former Documentary New Leader says, it’s “more of a popularity contest to help promote the festival.” 



“The festival will continue to benefit more than any filmmaker.”

Even though DOC NYC is a film festival, the event’s award-season happenings have become its most prominent aspect, most sought-after programs, and a magnet for A-list corporate sponsors (including this year, Netflix, Apple, HBO, and Disney’s A&E networks). As LaPlante says, “We use the focus that awards season brings in the press and the public to further our mission to showcase great nonfiction work.”

Launched in 2012, DOC NYC’s Short List, a competition section of 15 Oscar-qualified films—touted as a “leading predictor of future Oscar nominees and winners”—is one of its most influential and press-grabbing programs, yielding coverage from all the major trade magazines. In 2019, the festival even added another section, Winner’s Circle, for films that have won an award at prior festivals, which adds even more previously acclaimed titles to the lineup. It also allows DOC NYC to further “consolidate its power,” says one producer. “The festival will continue to benefit more than any filmmaker from the well-conceived Short List.”

This year for the first time, DOC NYC’s Short List was open only to submissions (entry fee for features: $100). While LaPlante maintains it’s still “a strictly curated list,” the move has confounded some observers. If it’s curated from the year’s best films, why does it cost to submit, and if a film does not submit, is it not one of the year’s best? And are the selected films subjective favorites or awards prognostication? “The Short List process is kind of crazy,” says one executive. “I find it confusing and inappropriate.” LaPlante argues that the Short List’s new submissions approach is a more “open process,” allowing it to function like other festival sections, and “film teams can directly communicate with us about award season plans for their films.”

But members of the documentary community have been perplexed by its picks. As part of Powers’s selections, there is often a preponderance of titles in the 15-film Short List: Features section that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. This year, seven films came from TIFF, including one title, Vinay Shukla’s While We Watched, which first premiered in Toronto in 2022 and had already played at DOC NYC last year. (It’s not the first time that a Short List title has been plucked from its own previous year’s lineup, e.g., The Biggest Little Farm played TIFF 2018, DOC NYC 2018, and then returned for the Short List in 2019.) While Toronto’s documentary program undoubtedly has the fall’s most high-profile documentaries, the connection between TIFF Docs and DOC NYC’s Short List hasn’t gone unnoticed. “It’s savvy that both brands are amplified by each other,” says one insider. “Toronto titles seem to be more well-represented.”

If the Short List has become a coveted programming spot, DOC NYC’s Visionaries Tribute—aka “The Prom”—has evolved into the industry’s most elite get-together. Held at the majestic Gotham Hall in Midtown New York, this year’s 10th annual sold-out Tribute celebrated such luminaries as Michael Moore, who made headlines with his speech, along with AmDoc executive director Erika Dilday, and filmmakers Deborah Shaffer and Maite Alberdi. Among the 500 attendees, other nonfiction notables included Barbara Kopple, Errol Morris, Raoul Peck, Stanley Nelson, Sam Pollard, Jean Tsien, and Chris Hegedus. “I think everyone who came left with a full heart after hearing the impassioned speeches,” says LaPlante.

AmDoc’s Dilday agrees. “One of the things that I was so pleased about was looking around the room, I saw so many BIPOC faces and so many women who I had mentored and [who] mentored me,” she says. “Having that giant force of women of color there, and knowing that there was a place for us, that made a huge difference.”

But while the Visionaries Tribute may be a special gathering for the community, it is also one of the best places to connect directly with Academy documentary branch members, who are invited to attend the event for free. “For better or for worse, it has become one of the main events to introduce yourself to voters,” says one producer. “That is the game, and everyone has to play it.” But the cost to filmmakers and organizations is steep: as mentioned, $750 for individuals, and thousands of dollars for a table. “The entire industry comes for the Visionary Brunch, which lines up the pockets of [DOC NYC],” adds another observer. 

It’s not alone, of course, with several fall nonfiction events positioning themselves to be award-season powerbrokers—including the International Documentary Association’s FallDocs series, the Cinema Eye Honors, and SFFilm’s Doc Stories. As one producer says, “Everything around this time of year has grown, because there have been enormous resources thrown into award season.”

Generating money from awards season is a common occurrence across the industry. The Gotham Awards are its organization’s most significant fundraiser of the year. Similarly, Film Independent has its Spirit Awards ceremony, which is sponsored by major media corporations. Even IDA, which publishes Documentary, charges substantial amounts for email blasts and awards screenings: $18,000 for an in-person screening and $10,000 for a virtual screening package. IDA does, however, invite filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds to apply for in-kind screening slots through the Awards Campaign Access Initiative. 

But the Visionary Tribute isn’t a public affair. It’s not broadcast or streamed like the Gothams or Spirits for promotional purposes. It doesn’t function to lift up films or raise awareness for documentary subjects, as FallDocs or the Cinema Eye Honors do; its exclusivity and exorbitance function to simply bestow further importance on DOC NYC itself.

And unlike IDA, SFFILM, the Gotham, or Film Independent—all nonprofit organizations whose most recent public tax filings show revenue-to-cost ratios operating at a deficit—DOC NYC exists as part of AMC Networks, a for-profit company with a market valuation that hit a recent high of $840 million dollars. That doesn’t necessarily affect DOC NYC’s mission of raising the profile of nonfiction cinema, but for a field that has been historically rooted in the nonprofit sector and speaking truth to power, DOC NYC’s brand-defining signature events can also come across as self-serving and opportunistic. 



“At the end of the day, their priority is to their shareholders.”

Most film festivals across the U.S. are nonprofits. There are only a few notable for-profit exceptions, including the Tribeca Festival, SXSW, and Fantastic Fest, which all have high-profile investors. But DOC NYC is unique in that it’s fully owned by a large media conglomerate. AMC Networks has long been controlled by the billionaire Dolan family. Earlier this year, Kristin Dolan was appointed head of the company, and former IFC Films executive Scott Shooman was named head of its Film Group, which encompasses such brands as IFC Films, RLJE Films, and Shudder, as well as the IFC Center, which produces and presents DOC NYC. Executive Director Raphaela Neihausen suggests that the organization has retained its arthouse bona fides, with the IFC Center being a fixture of “New York’s cultural scene since 2005” and “our parent company AMC Networks has an even longer history in the independent film space.”

And for LaPlante, the distinction between nonprofits and for-projects doesn’t fundamentally affect what they do. “I’ve worked in both,” he says. “Whatever the structure, they both need to balance the books to stay operational and they both need to bring value to filmmakers and to audiences to stay relevant.”

But others working in the film festival and documentary fields believe that DOC NYC needs to be more transparent about how it operates and where its revenue is going. DOC NYC’s industry PRO conference also generates substantial gross revenue, with eight-day passes (sold out this year) costing $850, and popular one-day passes costing $125. (By comparison, Hot Docs, North America’s largest international doc festival and marketplace, offers a premium All-Access Pass, which includes access to all industry events and screenings, for around $735, as well as several cheaper options—ranging from $515 down to $145 for enrolled or recently graduated students—for the entire conference.)

One documentary insider doesn’t begrudge the for-profit model, generally. “You can have a for-profit business that’s working for the social good, so it comes down to how it’s set up and what you do with the money,” they say. “But I’m not sure if [DOC NYC] is benevolent-minded.”

There’s no doubt that DOC NYC presents opportunities for filmmakers to show their films, network, exchange ideas, and have a good time, but after talking to dozens of directors, producers, and documentary executives, there is also the general sense that DOC NYC is focused just as much on its own power and influence. 

After seeing the documentary field exponentially grow—and then collapse—over the last several years because of corporate greed, it’s no wonder that people are wary. As one nonprofit executive director says, “We know there are incredibly committed people who work in the for-profit space, but at the end of the day, their priority is to their shareholders. That’s not a critique; that’s just true.”

DOC NYC’s continued growth also comes at a time that has been particularly difficult for the nonprofit sector. “For nonprofit arts organizations, it has been a rough few years,” says one film festival insider. “Audiences have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, the exhibition landscape is a mess, and financial support from foundations, donors, and sponsors is harder to secure.” Erika Dilday, who also is the executive producer of PBS’s POV series, admits, “The problem with being a nonprofit is most of the support you get is dependent on the whims and changes in the philanthropic world, and it’s hard to adjust for that. At the same time,” she adds, “I look at these for-profit entities, and they always want to know what kind of returns they’ll have, and if it’s not happening, they’ll just pull out.”

DOC NYC’s for-profit status, then, raises further questions. Although it may be on more solid ground during these challenging times for nonprofit arts funding, it may also face increased pressures to turn a profit and in so doing be more costly for the filmmakers who support it. 

“As an organization, you have to fight to get big,” one industry veteran observes, “but then when you get big, maybe you can be more generous.”

Anthony Kaufman is a freelance journalist; film instructor at the New School, DePaul, and Loyola Universities; senior programmer at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Doc10 film festival; and co-author of Hope for Film: A Producer’s Journey Across the Revolutions of Indie Film and Global Streaming.