HBO Documentary Films

"Maybe it's a certain fearlessness or maybe it's a certain aggressiveness towards approaching a subject with no holds barred," says HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins about her team's approach to programming.
January 1, 2011

(Top row: Sheila Nevins, Nancy Abraham, Jackie Glover; Second row: Sara Bernstein, Lisa Heller)

When informed that Home Box Office (HBO) was being named ‘Most Courageous Broadcaster’ by realscreen via a 2002 readers’ poll, then-EVP of original programming Sheila Nevins had this to say: “I think ‘courageous’ is when you go into the firing line for what you believe. I’ve never been willing to be shot for any of my documentaries.”

Fast forward to 2011, and Nevins, now president of the HBO Documentary Films division, is willing to admit that she and her team can be seen as fearless advocates of the form. “Maybe it’s a certain fearlessness or maybe it’s a certain aggressiveness towards approaching a subject with no holds barred,” she admits.

Either way, HBO remains widely recognized as a purveyor of top-flight doc fare, with its docs having won 21 Academy Awards, 49 Emmys and 31 Peabodys during Nevins’ time with the subscription network. Perhaps its success - in the eyes of its audiences, critics and filmmakers alike - is rooted in the sheer range of subject matter the team tackles.

‘The beauty of the scope of the programming is that we tend to cover a lot of different issues both domestic and internationally,” says VP of HBO Documentary Films Sara Bernstein. It’s a sentiment echoed by fellow VP Jackie Glover. “I don’t know if we’re ever looking for a specific subject but we’re always looking for great documentaries,” she offers.

Roughly two-thirds of the 40-plus doc projects airing on HBO, Cinemax and HBO2 are internally commissioned by Nevins’ team, which is also comprised of SVP Nancy Abraham, VP Lisa Heller, VP John Hoffman and director Greg Rhem. The other third consists of fully completed acquisitions or projects coming to HBO at an early stage. Over the course of 2010, buzz-worthy docs airing on the net included Spike Lee’s If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise; Oscar nominee Gasland; 12th and Delaware; Wartorn: 1861-2010 and a doc that both Nevins and Abraham cite as a highlight, For Neda, which told the story of Neda Agha-Soltan, killed during the protests in Tehran following the Iranian election, and subsequently immortalized by a video that captured her death.

Equally as important as subject matter is the way a subject is approached. “An HBO documentary is often a story that deals with a bigger issue but definitely through a narrative lens through a single character or a group of related characters, as opposed to a more ‘top-down’ overall look at an issue with a lot of different voices,” says Abraham.

Budgets are also wide-ranging. “We’ve bought films for $10,000- $15,000 and we’ve paid a million dollars,” says Nevins. “We have no boiler-plate budgets, contracts or arrangements. Every film requires a different process to get on air.”

Among the projects to air in the year ahead are several slated for Sundance, including Bobby Fischer Against the World, political bio Reagan, and How To Die in Oregon, which deals with physician-assisted suicide and is, in Nevins’ words, “a pretty tough film to watch and a pretty important film to broadcast.” But again, the vantage point from which a film is made is critical. Bernstein uses Nevins’ terminology to describe that element - she calls it “the holy shit factor.”

“You may be watching the project and feeling like you know the story and that it’s familiar territory, and then there will be one moment or one scene that changes your whole mindset about that project,” she says about the films that HBO acquires or gets involved with at the rough cut stage. “And then you know it’s for HBO.”

You’re known for being hands-on with projects. For someone who hasn’t worked with you yet, how would you describe the experience?

Sheila Nevins: I would say that I’m tough, that I’m right more than I’m wrong, that I’m wrong enough times to not be overly confident, and that documentaries matter a lot to me. I sacrifice a lot to make them as good as I think I can possibly make them. I think all the people that work with me have the same sort of devotion to the form.

What would you say is the biggest challenge facing HBO Documentary Films?

Lisa Heller: It has been and probably continues to be that we fall in love with too many films.

What do you think is the biggest thing you’ve given to your team over the years?

Sheila Nevins: Balls.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.