When DOC NYC started a decade ago, documentary film was still seen as something of a novelty. In the ensuing years, non-fiction movies have exploded in popularity with hits such as “RBG,” “Free Solo,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and “Apollo 11” helping to fuel more interest in the genre.
“We never could have anticipated the change,” says Thom Powers, the festival’s co-founder and artistic director. “Fifteen years ago you would not propose to a date that you go and see a documentary film, but now I think you would come off as an impressive date to suggest it.”
Powers points to several factors for the turnaround. In particular, he credits streaming services such as Netflix with helping to get audiences more comfortable with watching documentaries and with making non-fiction films more readily available.
“It used to be that if you heard about a documentary film, it would take great effort to see it,” says Powers. “You’d have to track it down at a video store and not even a mainstream store. It would need to be an obscure one. Your enthusiasm would peter out before you ever got to watch it. But streaming services have removed those obstacles and allowed people to watch things in a risk-free way and that’s stoking the appetite for documentary films, because people realize that they like them.”
DOC NYC is a ten-day affair, one that kicked off on Wednesday and runs until Nov. 15, with screenings and panels hosted at IFC Center, SVA Theater and Cinépolis Chelsea. It will highlight more than 136 feature-length, non-fiction films, including such likely Oscar contenders as “The Biggest Little Farm,” the story of a couple’s attempt to leave city life for the country; “The Cave,” a look at a doctor’s efforts to save lives in war-torn Syria; and “One Child Nation,” a deep-dive into the consequences of a radical attempt at population control by the Chinese government. Other films that are being highlighted include “The Capote Tapes,” a chronicle of the rise and fall of novelist Truman Capote; “Ask Dr. Ruth,” the story of sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer; and “Honeyland,” an intimate portrait of a Macedonian beekeeper.
“When we were starting out, our feeling was that New York deserved to have a large, robust documentary film festival that covered both the artistry and the industry of the field,” says Powers.
To that end, the group also puts on DOC NYC Pro, an eight-day industry conference featuring panels and master classes. This year’s events focus on everything from crash courses in avoiding legal pitfalls to discussions about how documentary filmmakers can parlay their skills into the burgeoning world of podcasting.
Powers, who is also the documentary programmer for the Toronto Film Festival, previously spent a decade making non-fiction films for the likes of HBO and PBS. He went into the field because he loved the medium, but he acknowledges that his decision was a risky one. Things appear to be stabilizing for a rising generation of moviemakers. Not everyone is going to land the kind of lavish deals that hit festival docs such as “One Child Nation” or “Knock Down the House” enjoyed. But the rise of streaming services and the growing box office returns for documentaries mean there is more interest in supporting and buying these types of films. In addition, crowdfunding has left filmmakers less reliant on a limited pool of funding from foundations and wealthy patrons.
“The situation is improving,” says Powers. “It’s still a field you should discourage your children from going into, but for those children, like me, who don’t listen to their parents, there are many more routes to finding success than there were when I was starting out.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that DOC NYC showcases more than a dozen feature-length films.