Docs Not to Miss at Sundance 2015

BEST OF ENEMIES directed by Morgan Neville

The Sundance Film Festival serves up a rich array of non-fiction films. But how do you prioritize from over 40 docs? I’ve gained an early look at roughly half and picked some of my favorites.

Further down, I highlight several films featured in the Doc Club panels that I’ll be moderating.

Here’s my tip-sheet:


CITY OF GOLD tracks food critic Jonathan Gold and his passion for exploring the ethnic cuisines of Los Angeles. This charming portrait will strongly appeal to the legions of Eater and Chowhound readers. With cameos by fellow food scribes such as Calvin Trillin and Robert Sietsema, the film makes the case that the best food writing goes beyond what’s on the plate. Filmmaker Laura Gabbert previously directed No Impact Man and Sunset Story.

520x317Hot Girls

HOT GIRLS WANTED (pictured) gives an intimate view of young women as they experience the highs and lows of amateur porn. For many teenage girls today, porn carries fewer taboos than it did for their parents’ generation. Filmmakers Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus (Sexy Baby) explore the complicated reality behind this fantasy world. Also on board are Rashida Jones (producer) and Abigail Disney (executive producer).

(T)ERROR gains unprecedented access to an FBI informant tasked to spy on American muslims. The film is a fascinating character study and look into an area of surveillance that’s metastasized since 9/11/01. I’ve tracked the project closely since directors Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe participated in the 2013 Garrett Scott Development Grant. The project has attracted many esteemed supporters including executive producer Eugene Jarecki and consultant Laura Poitras. Continue reading…


Judith Helfand, Shola Lynch, Rory Kennedy and Lucy Walker appear on SundanceNOW panel on Jan 20.

On Monday, Jan 20 during the Sundance Film Festival, I’ll be introducing the panel “Spotlight on Women Directors” moderated by Anne Thompson (free and open to the public at 2:00 pm at Sundance Channel House 268 Main Street). The event is an offshoot of this month’s theme on SundanceNOW Doc Club focusing on women. For perspective on the breadth of recent work, below is an alphabet of women in documentaries – both behind and in front of the camera – from the past year.

A = AFTER TILLER dir by Martha Shane & Lana Wilson

B = BLACKFISH dir by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

C = CHICKEN & EGG PICTURES funding women doc makers


E = Editor turned director Alison Ellwood’s 30 for 30 film NO LIMITS


G = GIDEON’S ARMY dir by Dawn Porter

H = Head Honchos Sheila Nevins (HBO Docs); Molly Thompson (A&E IndieFilms); Cara Mertes (Ford Foundation JustFilms; Tabitha Jackson (Sundance Documentary Fund): et al.

Continue reading…


Photo credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Stranger Than Fiction, the weekly documentary film series hosted by Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen and presented by IFC Center, takes a new approach to its programming this winter season with a thematic focus on music documentaries. The season opens on Tuesday, January 28 with a sneak preview of FINDING THE FUNK, directed by Nelson George, tracing the past, present and future of funk, featuring interviews with Sly Stone, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and more. The season combines classic docs such as Timothy Greenberg-Sanders’ LOU REED: ROCK AND ROLL HEART (Feb 4) and D.A. Pennebaker’s MONTEREY POP (Feb 18 including a historic reunion of the crew) with previews of forthcoming releases such as BROTHERS HYPNOTIC (Feb 11) about a family of street musicians turning professional and THE ROAD TO FAME (Mar 4) about Chinese students putting on a production of the Broadway musical “Fame.” The 1994 Oscar-nominated film A GREAT DAY IN HARLEM, about a famous group portrait of jazz musicians, will screen on Feb 25 and include a tribute to its producer Jean Bach who died last year at age 94. The STF winter season takes place at the IFC Center every Tuesday night at 8:00 pm for eight weeks, plus a special Thursday screening on Jan 30. Each event includes a discussion with the filmmakers, followed by a gathering at a nearby bar. Tickets are available for individual shows or season passes can be bought for $99 for 9 films.

“Music is a great way to beat the winter doldrums,” said Artistic Director Thom Powers, who also programs for the Toronto International Film Festival, DOC NYC and “This eclectic group of films gives insights to favorite performers and showcases emerging talent.” One exception to the music-themed Tuesdays is a special Thursday night screening on Jan 30 of THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE, directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns & David McMahon, featuring a Q&A with two of the film subjects Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise who were wrongfully convicted in the case of the Central Park jogger. Mayor DeBlasio has vowed to settle their case seeking restitution for the years they spent in jail.

The two final STF winter screenings on March 11 and 18 will be announced later in January.

Documentary Skewed Answers to Manohla Dargis’s Questions

Give Manohla Dargis credit for surveying 70 film professionals about the state of independent cinema. She draws upon that research for an article published in the New York Times titled As Indies Explode, An Appeal for Sanity. She published further excerpts in an online piece So Many Indies, So Many Reasons. I take issue with her plea for the film industry to “stop buying so many movies,” but I appreciate her starting the conversation. Her observations have already elicited reflections and dissents from Indiewire’s Anne Thompson, Filmmaker’s Sarah Salovaara and Criticwire’s Sam Adams. Below are my full responses to her original questionnaire:

1. How would you characterize the current state of American independent cinema from your specific industry point of view?  Is it strong, average, poor – or somewhere in between?

Continue reading…


THE DOG, a documentary telling the true story behind DOG DAY AFTERNOON, was acquired by Cinedigm and Drafthouse Films for theatrical release in 2014.


by Thom Powers

Over the years, I’ve seen too many filmmakers become embittered by their distribution deals. Sometimes they had unrealistic expectations, sometimes they got caught in bad deals. The filmmakers who feel disgruntled range from those with niche titles all the way to the most successful directors. I remember seeing an esteemed director at the Toronto International Film Festival being greeted warmly by the head of a distribution company. “That’s funny,” the director later told me, “I’m currently suing his company for unpaid royalties.” Behind the diplomatic smiles lie many untold stories.

As we start off 2014 and head into Sundance, I want to explore how filmmakers can make better deals for themselves in all distribution channels:  theatrical, television, digital and international. Most filmmakers go into distribution negotiations for the first time, or with a gap of several years since their previous film–which might as well be their first time in this changing landscape. That puts them at a disadvantage negotiating with distributors who are regularly making deals and confident about stipulating what’s “normal.”

What filmmakers frequently lack are points of comparison. To change that I reached out to several filmmakers and other industry insiders for feedback. I’m grateful to everyone who shared their experiences. I’ve edited and condensed contributions to reduce repetition (though some points are worth repeating).

Continue reading…