Flash, cash & the ratings dash: HBO’s Sheila Nevins

Sheila Nevins isn't a big fan of Steven Spielberg's film Amistad. The senior vice president of original programming, documentaries for New York-based HBO thinks Spielberg missed a great opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of the slaves. Nevins...
September 1, 1998

Sheila Nevins isn’t a big fan of Steven Spielberg’s film Amistad. The senior vice president of original programming, documentaries for New York-based HBO thinks Spielberg missed a great opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of the slaves. Nevins envisions a documentary that provides an oral history of slavery – an emotional piece similar in tone to HBO’s Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, wherein Hollywood actors read letters from soldiers in Vietnam.

It’s not a question of whether Sheila Nevins is going to do a documentary about slaves, it’s a matter of when. It’s this type of drive that has taken HBO viewers into the world of autopsies, prisons and crack houses. They’ve walked amongst Hitler youth and suffered with people living with AIDS. They’ve been brought to the front lines of the abortion wars and behind the lines to the prison camps of Nazi Germany. They’ve also tasted the seedier side of society, learning what drives libidos, perversions and sexual obsessions.

Whether HBO has been in your face or down your pants, its guiding force has been Sheila Nevins, who has built HBO into a repository for some of the best (and also some of the most lewd) documentary work seen on television, in the process winning seven Oscars, 23 Emmys and 14 George Foster Peabody Awards. She has turned HBO into a showcase for some of the most renowned American documentary filmmakers of this era, from New York-based Al Maysles (Letting Go: A Hospice Journey) to Alan and Susan Raymond (I Am a Promise) to Jon Alpert (Life of Crime). At the same time Nevins has opened the door for a new generation of filmmakers, like Los Angeles’ Jessica Yu (the 1997 Oscar winner for Best Short Subject Documentary) and Meema Spadola of New York, whose 1997 film, Breasts, was reportedly Cinemax’s highest-rated documentary.

‘Sheila listens to everything,’ says Jon Alpert. ‘She is actively looking for independents and ideas. If what you are doing fits into that, you get tremendous support and resources.’

‘She really goes on instinct,’ says Los Angeles-based Bob Weide, producer of the upcoming Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell the Truth. ‘When I took this film to other people, I heard lots of reasons why they couldn’t put this on the air. The great thing about Sheila is she simply liked my film and that was it.’


‘When we started out the field was very virgin and bare,’ Nevins says, sitting in her office overlooking New York City’s Bryant Park. ‘I had a great place to grow these things, and by the time the competition came, we had already established our personality. But we have to keep being in the forefront, we have to keep making things that are worth paying for [by subscribers], because these other channels are free, and they were doing reality, so our reality had to change.’

Today she’s a self-proclaimed reality junkie, but producing documentaries was something Sheila Nevins never imagined she’d be doing when she graduated from Yale Drama School. ‘I didn’t wake up with a burning desire to do this, it sort of found me,’ she says.

It was legitimate theater that originally interested her, but it would be TV, a medium she knew nothing about, that put cash in her pocket. While appearing in some 200 English language basics training films produced by the U.S. Information Agency in the early 1970s, Nevins became interested in the production side of television. Subsequent stints with Children’s Television Workshop, Time/Life Films and ABC led to a producer job for CBS’s Who’s Who. Frustrated at doing all of the legwork for the correspondents, she leapt at the chance to interview for a position as director of documentaries at the then-fledgling HBO. ‘I thought I was going to direct documentaries; I didn’t know it was going to be a corporate thing,’ she says. ‘I had no idea what HBO was.’

At the time, in 1979, HBO was an eight-hour premium service in what was then a small cable universe. The channel was about to expand to 12 hours of programming daily and looked at documentaries as a cheap way to fill air time. Nevins quickly realized that she wasn’t hired to direct documentaries, but was to hire people to make shows for HBO. ‘When I called people, they thought I was insane, because I had been working for them three months before in a totally different capacity, and now I was going to give them money to make shows.’

Feeling a bit overwhelmed but determined to rise to the challenge, Nevins first concentrated on the ‘obvious’ kinds of documentaries, such as Time Was, about history. She went to a newsstand in her building one day looking for possible ideas and saw an issue of Consumer Reports magazine. HBO eventually began to produce a series of consumer-friendly shows in conjunction with the magazine, which drew consistently good ratings and proved to her there was an audience interested in reality programming.

The subject matters expanded and Nevins, becoming more aware of the possibilities the documentary format offered in a commercial-free environment like HBO, grew with them. While doing docs on the likes of Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler for the Time Was series, she became intrigued by the complexities of people, and realized that everyone – not just the famous, but ordinary folks – had extraordinary stories to tell.

‘The concept of our unexpurgated [programs] began to mean a certain kind of license to push reality to where it would naturally go without any censorship,’ she says. ‘There was no need to curtail what was happening. That’s when reality began to be as interesting to me as theater, because it meant people could realize their stories to their full extent and where they could take them, whether the stories were happy or sad or violent or tragic or sexual.’

Nevins went out to attract the best filmmaking talent, such as Alan and Susan Raymond, Albert Maysles, Lee Grant (whose 1986 special Down and Out in America brought HBO its first Oscar), and Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman of San Francisco, whose 1989 Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt also won an Oscar. HBO offered something independent filmmakers always struggled for – cash. ‘We pay a living wage always, even when reality was not hot,’ she says, ‘ I wanted them to make a living, and fought hard for them to make decent salaries.’

The difference between scrounging for dollars and knowing a film is financed has an enormous impact on independent filmmakers. When HBO gave Meema Spadola completion funds for Breasts, she said it was the difference between working a full-time job while working on the doc nights and weekends, or devoting all her time to the project. She describes Nevins as a ‘fairy godmother.’

‘If she sees the potential in a project, she can sort of lift you up and say, `Great, here you go, finish it and let’s air it.’ She’s not going to put you through the ringer to make you beg for money,’ says filmmaker Jessica Yu. ‘If she likes your idea and likes your work, she’ll make the decision. It’s a smart way of working in terms of fostering a lot of good will.’

‘If you say the magic word or three magic words or whatever interests her and excites her, she’ll approve your idea,’ Terri Randall, director of the Oscar-nominated Daughter of the Bride adds.


HBO is often criticized by the press for being too in-your-face, and for airing juicy ratings winners like Real Sex, Shock Video and Taxicab Confessions (although Nevins says critics seem to always be the first ones asking for screening tapes of these shows). Nevins defends herself by claiming HBO subscribers have accepted and come to expect the channel to air these types of shows, be it the oral sex shown in Taxicab Confessions 5 or the severed body parts of Autopsy. However, she does wonder sometimes whether she has become too jaded and doesn’t see things as sensitively as she should.

She has rarely had to battle HBO executives about content, mainly because HBO has prided itself as a channel that champions first amendment freedom. ‘It was from that base that we had a comfort zone,’ she says. ‘If you had a Richard Pryor special, you could do a show called Eros America; if you showed an [unedited] R-rated movie, you could push your exposure of a crack house to the full extent of what was going on inside. It was the mandate of the network, because that’s what people were paying for.’

Where Nevins keeps her radar tuned is whether or not a documentary is boring. Boring documentaries are an anathema to her, and that’s why she claims she is very hands-on, up to 80%, she estimates. ‘Eighty percent hands on?’ asks Albert Maysles when presented with that statistic, ‘It seems more like the opposite to me,’ especially when he compares HBO to other networks that want complete editorial control over the entire project, the main reason that provocative documentaries never air on commercial U.S. channels, he adds.

Nevins says the extent of her hands-on involvement is based on her expectation of a show’s rating. If a show is an art piece, she won’t fight the producer on everything, but with the crowd pleasers she gets down and dirty, making sure programs are believable, not boring or too long, even though she feels that every documentary is too long. ‘Even one that I think is really inspiring… when I see it a few years later, I think it could be shorter. Labors of love are always too long, since we don’t have commercials [or time slot restrictions].’

Filmmakers have to listen to Nevins because she’s paying the bills, but she also feels they know that her heart is in the right place and she really wants the film to be good. ‘The main difference about Sheila is that she chooses filmmakers whose work she likes and who she thinks she can trust, in projects she really likes,’ Jessica Yu says. ‘She definitely has some strong opinions, but she’ll also say, `Take it or leave it, do what’s best for the film.’ When she says it that way, it gives you some freedom to step back from it and say, `Okay, let’s try it her way.”

‘She’s very straightforward and has a strong sense of what she wants, but she’s always open to hearing what you think and your argument and that makes for a really good working relationship,’ Rob Epstein adds.

When Bob Weide handed a rough cut of his Lenny Bruce film to Nevins several months ago, she told him that she could put it on the air as is, but she suggested that Weide work with a new editor and make it that much better. ‘Normally, I’d have some serious concerns about… someone cutting my material and taking my film away from me,’ he says. ‘But she put it to me in such a non-threatening way, that what in the past would have triggered a lot of concern about someone trying to take over my film was changed to: if we can make the film better, why not?’

Jon Alpert says that while the procedure isn’t antagonistic, there is always one meeting of ‘existential crisis’ which occurs on every single project. ‘You think everything is wonderful and Sheila will look at you and say, `What is this about? I don’t know what this film is about?’ and at that point, it becomes hell week, hell month or hell however-long-it-takes until you answer that question. Once that’s resolved, it’s smooth sailing.’

‘I am a tyrant,’ Nevins says. ‘When I know the answer, I can be very bored, but when I don’t, I can be very humble. I know the answer more than I don’t know the answer, but I’m a very good listener and a good audience. I never think of anything but the audience. Never, ever, ever… because the audience is paying for my summer vacation, they are paying for my shoes. I owe them what they want to watch. Michael Fuchs (former head of HBO) used to say that I heard them talking to me at night… So if I think it’s boring, I can be very forceful.’


HBO’s ‘repertory company’ of filmmakers is a mix of veterans and newcomers. One of the areas that makes Nevins most proud is the creation, Cinemax Reel Life (see p. 36), which started in 1995 and is a place for HBO to acquire, provide completion funds for or commission documentaries that don’t fit the HBO profile. ‘I wouldn’t be doing my job right if I didn’t bring in the next generation of filmmakers,’ Nevins says. ‘The vérité style being passed on to a new generation changes very much the way it looks and feels.’

Nevins believes it’s the ‘best time’ to be in documentaries. ‘Reality has become as interesting as fiction. It’s as if audiences discovered that we’re interesting as people,’ she says. She feels documentaries draw much of their impact by inviting people into viewers’ living rooms who they normally would have never met, and by the end of the film, will grow to either love or hate.

She is even willing to concede when she sees a really good documentary on another network, she’s happy – even if it is too long.

‘I love documentaries by accident, and on purpose now. I can’t wait to get to work. I don’t know too many people who love what they do as much as I do.’


REEL LIFE – CHANGING LIVES: Cinemax provides showcase for filmmakers

You’re a struggling independent filmmaker, working at a day job, and retreating to your labor of love whenever you can, whenever a few dollars roll in, forever feeling as though you are never reaching your goal. Then a friend of a friend of somebody who knows Sheila Nevins, Nancy Abraham (HBO’s VP of original programming, documentaries) or anyone else in the HBO doc department tells them about your work. They like it and presto – you’re handed a check for completion funds and the potential to have your film seen by a sizable audience.

Welcome to Cinemax Reel Life, the series that showcases such filmmakers as Michel Negroponte (Jupiter’s Wife), Nick Broomfield (Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam), Jean-Jacques Beineix (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Party Monster) and docs that have ranged from the extremely serious to outrageously quirky.

Reel Life came about after Nevins requested a pot of discretionary funds for experimental documentaries that could air on Cinemax without damaging the ‘HBO mother ship.’

To be suddenly bestowed with completion funds or a chunk of money for a new project can have a profound effect. Meema Spadola was working as an associate producer at the Fox cable channel FX, while working on Breasts in the evening.

‘That one decision that Sheila made changed my life,’ she says. ‘It allowed me to get that project done, allowed me to get someone to sell it around the world, allowed me to get a home video distributor, a book project, a second project at HBO… it gave me credibility. I wasn’t a documentary wannabe, I was someone making documentaries and getting them shown.’

Typically, films that make it to Cinemax Reel Life receive between US$25,000 to $80,000

‘Having the funding… feels like you’ve won the lottery in a way,’ adds Jessica Yu, whose Oscar-winning Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien was acquired by hbo before it was nominated.

‘What I’m used to is that you come up with an idea and you try to raise money and by the end, you’re not even sure if you want to do the movie,’ says Yu. ‘Here, it was still possible to ride out the enthusiasm of being in love with the idea and then just go into production.’

DISTINCT SOCIETY: HBO docs sell overseas despite unique flavor

No other channel on U.S. broadcast or cable television produces the types of docs found on HBO and Cinemax, and HBO likes it that way.

With shelves weighed down by awards, they are taking viewers into the incredible lives and shocking realities of America in brash and often controversial ways.

‘Uninterrupted vérité is probably the most extraordinary documentary style, and because we don’t have commercials, vérité can never look [on other channels] the way it looks on HBO,’ says Sheila Nevins.

HBO produces or acquires about 40 hours of doc programming annually, an amount that will rise when its new digital service, HBO Signature – described as a showcase of HBO original movies, series and docs – debuts in the fall. About 90% of what airs on HBO, which has over 23 million subscribers, is originally financed by the channel. Nevins says as the need for more product on Cinemax (with ten million subscribers) and Signature arises, the company will look more toward coproduction and acquisition for those two services. She estimates the company will need to purchase 24 docs for Cinemax and Signature over the next year.

Budgets for docs can range from US$40 to 50,000 at the low end (for an acquisition) to as high as US$1.5 million for a high profile film like Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls. Shows like Real Sex and Taxicab Confessions have budgets of about a half million dollars. Most of HBO’s original docs run under, but are not limited to, the America Undercover banner. Now in its 15th year, the strand concentrates on contemporary American issues with strong social relevance.

HBO has relationships with many of the leading independent filmmakers but is also eager to discover new artists, whose films make a better fit into the slots available on Cinemax Reel Life (see p. 36) or on Signature. In addition, HBO will be sponsoring a documentary film festival, Frame By Frame, to be held in New York City in October.

Internationally, London-based ITEL, which is partially owned by HBO, distributes HBO docs abroad. Andrew Macbean, chief executive, admits HBO docs can be a difficult sell because of the subject matter, but international programmers have taken to them because they represent a style of documentary and an investigation of issues not normally found elsewhere.

‘There’s investigative journalism in the U.K. that’s sold internationally, but the rawness of America Undercover’s approach is something quite unique,’ he says. ITEL has sold HBO docs to over 60 countries outside of the U.S.

HBO screens every tape and reads every submission that comes into its offices. A few of its best ideas have come through the mail. The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter, a film documenting the deteriorating health and ultimate death of a person living with AIDS, originated from a fax sent by David Paperny of Vancouver, Canada.

The idea for a documentary about a crack house sprang from a submission that someone sent about a person living with aids who was involved in a crack house. That idea didn’t appeal to Nevins, but the possibility of getting into a crack house did. She put the person in touch with filmmaker Jon Alpert. ‘We review everything just in case,’ she says. ‘Out there another great documentary may be in the mail.’

Alpert believes that what makes HBO unique is that it lets independents in the door in the first place, and also treats them with respect. ‘The door isn’t wide enough at HBO to drive every idea through, but at least there is a willingness to talk with you and listen to you ideas… which is virtually impossible elsewhere.’

Nevins says that she never looks for a particular strand of doc programming, but just enjoys stories that move her in some way, bring her to places she’s never been, and force her to have an emotional reaction to what is on screen, be it images that are uplifting, violent or vulgar. ‘We’re more emotive and visceral than intellectual. We don’t ever forget who our audience is and what it wants from us.’

GOLDEN DOCS: HBO’s Oscar-winning films

Down and Out in America

Lee Grant (1986)

You Don’t Have to Die

William Guttentag & Malcolm Clarke (1988)

Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (1989)

I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School

Alan & Susan Raymond (1993)

Educating Peter

Thomas C. Goodwin & Gerardine Wurzburg (1993)

One Survivor Remembers

Kery Antholis (1995)

Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien

Jessica Yu (1997)

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.