Women are the gatekeepers to doc world

Eye on the Oscars: Documentaries Preview

For most women, showbiz is an uphill battle. But when it comes to the doc arm of the entertainment industry, females dominate.

Whether they work in television or theatrical distribution, fest programming and/or funding, women make up a large majority of the doc world’s gatekeepers.

Oscar nominees and winners like “An Inconvenient Truth,” “4 Little Girls” and “Murderball” are just three of many examples of nonfiction films that were shepherded by female execs.

A few of the genre’s power players include HBO’s Sheila Nevins, Lisa Heller and Nancy Abraham; A&E IndieFilms’ Molly Thompson; Participant Media’s Diane Weyermann; Sundance Institute’s Cara Mertes and Intl. Documentary Festival Amsterdam’s Ally Derks.

“Maybe we have a little more compassion for the little guy,” says Nevins. “Also I think that there is a certain love that women have for the underdog.”

In her 26-plus-year tenure at HBO Documentary Films, Nevins has had a hand in producing 23 Oscar-winning pics and has received 72 Emmys. Exec and her predominantly female producing team including SVPs Abraham and Heller, have been responsible for commissioning, developing and acquiring docs like “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” the “Paradise Lost” trilogy and “Project Nim.”

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As the director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, Mertes is responsible for granting between $1 and $2 million per year to independent nonfiction filmmakers globally while Derks founded IDFA – the world’s largest fest devoted to docs, and one of the premiere places to sell them.

Weyermann, exec VP of documentary films at Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media, launched the Soros Documentary Fund, which later became the Sundance Documentary Fund, in 1996. At Participant, she has been the guiding force behind titles such as “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Standard Operating Procedure” and ” Food Inc.”

Social issues can also be found in most of A&E IndieFilms titles, but VP Molly Thompson has steered clear of pics specifically aimed at niche audiences thereby successfully changing the public’s perception of nonfiction films. She’s been responsible for securing funding, producing and distributing for some of the genre’s most buzzed-about releases, including “The September Issue,” “Client 9,” “The Tillman Story” as well as this year’s “The Imposter” and “Under African Skies.”

“After one of the (“Tillman”) screenings (director) Amir Bar-Lev referred to me as the film’s fairy godmother,” Thompson recalls. “At first I wasn’t entirely flattered by that characterization but now I see what he was saying in that female documentary executives have a real role in helping doc directors make their dreams for a film come true.”

Eye on the Oscars: Documentaries Preview
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