Sheffield ’16: HBO’s Nevins on impact, commissioning, Oscars

Taking the stage at Sheffield for the first time, HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins (pictured) discussed the films she wished she'd commissioned, how the U.S. cable net's doc strategy has evolved, and her unique social impact approach.
June 15, 2016

Taking the stage at Sheffield Doc/Fest for the first time, HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins (pictured) informed delegates that she isn’t out to change the world – she prefers to “nudge” it along.

Every film is a “bit of the campaign” for the exec, who began at HBO in 1979, and has so far waged more than 1,000 such campaigns in her 37 years at the premium cable net. The doc icon, who received the UK fest’s inaugural Creative Leadership Award, took part in an “In Conversation” event on Tuesday (June 14) with Nick Fraser, commissioner for BBC’s ‘Storyville’ doc strand.

Asked by Fraser for her views on social impact, Nevins likened her commissioning strategy to nudging along films on important issues, offering the example of Irene Taylor Brodsky‘s doc short Saving Pelican 895, which followed efforts to save a young oiled pelican from the BP Oil Spill and help it learn to fly.

“The pelican is a nudge, because it says there’s something natural about flying for a bird, and there’s something evil about the fact that his mother couldn’t teach him how to fly, and she might very well be dead because of the oil spill. That’s the kind of nudging,” explained Nevins.

Saving Pelican 895

Saving Pelican 895

And if there are accolades involved – as there was for Brodsky’s Emmy-winning doc – all the better.

“I’m not just making films to nudge the world, I also want to win prizes,” she smiled.

As an executive producer, Nevins is the recipient of 31 Primetime Emmy Awards, 34 News and Documentary Emmys and 40 Peabody Awards. Under her watch, HBO docs have picked up 26 Oscars, most recently winning in February for Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.

Nevins attended the Yale School of Drama prior to being hired at HBO – then a fledgling cable net – to launch its doc division. Though she had intended to work in theater, once she landed in non-fiction she says she “tried to think of TV as theater,” and heeded the advice of mentor Don Hewitt, creator of 60 Minutes, who told her “real people could be sexy.”

“I think documentaries are the greatest things in the whole world. It’s the way strangers meet strangers and learn to love each other,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is even better than theater,’ because this is not the same thing every night, this is not scripted – it’s inspired by experience.”

Nevins references Al Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s Salesman (1968) and Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) – “I must have seen it 10 times” – as influences that fostered a respect for the stories of ordinary people.

Asked about her experience at HBO over the years, Nevins said, “I think I get beaten down a lot. I survived at a price. First of all, I’m a woman. Second of all, I work in a corporation. Third, I do pretty much do what I want.”

Discussing the place of docs at HBO, Nevins offered, “This is the great news. Nobody subscribes to HBO for the documentaries. That’s the good news. The bad news is nobody subscribes to HBO because of the documentaries. That means there’s always going to be the low end and the off- off- off-Broadway of it, but that also means there’s a lot of freedom.

“The reason the docu brand of HBO today is famous is because, one, I’m very good at what I do, but that’s not the main reason. The main reason is nobody was doing documentaries. Maybe the Brits were, but in America, ‘documentary’ meant ‘politics,’ it meant, ‘What’s wrong with the government, is the CIA doing its job?’ They were not storytelling documentaries when I came in.”



Nevins says she originally figured documentaries were tantamount to history, and did films on Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. But after seeing the popularity of films such as Jaws and The War of the Roses, she shifted to tell the real stories of ordinary people.

“It wasn’t a genius thing,” she said. “I wanted to be popular.”

Nevins acknowledged that HBO has backed her on a number of provocative, risky films, touching on Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and Josh Fox’s Gasland.

“The fracking thing was a big issue. The U.S. was divided about fracking but we were allowed to do an anti-fracking film.”

As for films she wish she had commissioned? Nevins lists Hoop Dreams, Restrepo and Amy, adding that the latter Oscar-winner was too expensive for HBO.

In a Q&A with the audience, Nevins later revealed a purism around such advances in docs as virtual reality (VR) and artful non-fiction.

The exec reasoned that “you still can’t enter your television sets, you’re still not Alice in Wonderland,” adding that the means of transmission are difficult to translate into the broadcast world, and while HBO is looking to explore it, she was “scared” of VR.

Later, when asked about the blending of genres in such films as The Imposter, Nevins said plainly that she “doesn’t like the mixture of narrative and documentary.”

“I think the legitimacy of telling a story is a very valuable way of telling a story and the longer you can hold on to that truth, the better it is. I think I’m a purist about that and maybe that’s old fashioned but I do think if you follow a story legitimately, you might get a better truth.”

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