There is much glitz and glamour that headlines each SCAD Savannah Film Festival, featuring movies vying for the top awards with their A-list stars in tow, but for the past five years, the Docs to Watch panel has not only become a staple and must-attend event within the festival, but also a precursor to who you’ll see accepting the Oscar for Best Documentary in March.
Spearheaded by The Hollywood Reporter’s awards guru, Scott Feinberg, the panel this year is no different from years past, with a bevy of known names of the documentary world and films that have been capturing the eyes of industry members and critics as well as casual moviegoers, who seem to identify with the stories being told.
“We want to create a sense, and back it up with stats, that this is a place... if you’re a top film and you’re in the running for best documentary or an Oscar and all that, we in some ways want to be out in front of that,” Feinberg said.
“This is partly why the filmmakers and their representatives are clamoring to be on this panel... nobody knows for sure if being on this panel, which then appears on The Hollywood Reporter, whether that helps [an awards run] to be more likely or it is us having a good read of what the Academy is going to go for, but either way, it’s worked out pretty well over the past few years.”
The stats certainly do back it up. Last year’s Oscar winner for best documentary, “Icarus,” was featured on the panel along with its director Bryan Fogel, as was the previous year's winner with “O.J.: Made in America” and its director Ezra Edelman.
Morgan Neville was in Savannah speaking on the Docs to Watch panel in 2013 a few months before he was on stage accepting the Oscar for his film, “20 Feet From Stardom,” and now is back with his massive crowd-pleasing Mister Rogers documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The film has grossed over $22 million up to this point — making it not only the highest-grossing documentary of 2018 but also 12th all-time — and Feinberg said the director was excited to return to Savannah to talk on the panel, as it was a touchstone for him on his way to the Oscar.
“We’re now getting to the point where in a few instances, and there are a couple other examples this year as well, where you’re having repeat guests,” he said. “I think the goal is to get the best films and filmmakers, and we recognized a few years ago before everyone got on board with the Oscar that [Neville] is very special. These are totally different movies, but he makes very emotionally moving films and he’s probably got as best a chance as anyone to win this season’s Oscar.”
Outside of the Mister Rogers doc, though, Feinberg says fans shouldn’t sleep on the rest of the slate of documentaries, which he says could also be appearing as nominees or winners along the awards circuit. Among them is the Ruth Bader Ginsburg film, “RBG,” which has won acclaim at festivals so far this year, as well as “Quincy,” which is co-directed by Alan Hicks — a previous panelist in Savannah — and Quincy Jones’ daughter, Rashida Jones, who many may recognize from TV's “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office.”
Feinberg added that while most people have talked about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as the big crowd-pleasing hit of the year, he also recommends “Science Fair” (directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster) and “Free Solo” (directed by Elizabeth CHai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin) as films that should play well to a large audience.
Most importantly, though, the panel offers yet another resource to the younger generation. Feinberg added that having these filmmakers here and discussing the process of making a film, the research required and everything in between is vital to SCAD students and other aspiring filmmakers.
“You’ll see that the filmmakers behind the documentaries are much younger and have more relatable experiences for the students,” he said.
As the Docs to Watch panel enters its fifth year in existence, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down as Feinberg said he finds Savannah to be an amazing place to visit himself, but it also has become a place the filmmakers really attach to whenever they’re in town.
“Most have generally heard that Savannah is beautiful and fun but they get there and they see that for themselves, but also, this festival is as hospitable to its guests as any festival that I know about,” he said. “They’ve always told me how impressed they are with the amount of interest [in movies] with the locals and students... it’s a very engaged student body.”
The Docs to Watch roundtable panel takes place at 4 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Lucas Theatre, with screenings scheduled throughout the festival.