TIFF ’12: “Take money where you can get it,” HBO’s Nevins advises

HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins kicked off TIFF's Doc Conference in Toronto this morning, advising filmmakers not to turn their noses up at brand funding.
September 10, 2012

HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins kicked off the Toronto International Film Festival’s Doc Conference in Toronto this morning (September 10), in which she advised filmmakers not to turn their noses up at brand funding.

Opening the two-day event in a conversation with film critic John Anderson (pictured, right) entitled ‘How Far Can Documentaries Go?’, Nevins (left) was asked for her thoughts on doc-makers receiving funding from brands to make films.

“I think take your money where you can get it,” she told attendees at the Conference, “as long as there’s no interference.”

She offered the case study of the General Electric-funded “Focus Forward” doc shorts initiative, which sees the multinational conglomerate funding short films about innovation from such esteemed doc-makers as Liz Garbus and Steve James.

“Indirectly with GE, you are promoting a product, but that’s okay,” she said. “You don’t really have a problem. I wouldn’t really want you to [try and] sell me [on] fracking in the middle of it, but I do think it’s okay – I don’t have a problem with it.”

Elsewhere, she discussed the art of doc-making with the audience, and addressed the issue of relative subjectivity in non-fiction.

“All of life is edited and subjective,” she said. “There’s no such thing as objective – there is no line. If you’re a painter, the minute you pick up a brush and choose a color you’re being subjective. Nothing is objective in life – death is objective.”

HBO is at the Toronto International Film Festival this year with two docs – Alex Gibney’s Catholic Church abuse-focused doc Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, and Nina Davenport’s pregnancy doc First Comes Love.

Nevins had high praise for both, but picked out a non-HBO doc screening at the festival – Dror Moreh’s buzz-building Shin Bet doc The Gatekeepers – as her TIFF highlight so far.

“The evolution of that process and the way the interviewer had edited the interviews was so brilliant,” she said of the film. “I thought it was uniquely different in its interview technique. How many docs start with the answer in the first 10 minutes? Most. It was brilliant.”

The praise fed into a wider point, with Nevins explaining that when HBO looks for docs on oft-covered subject matter, such as war or the environment, they look for films that are “vehement, and slightly different.”

“Saturate yourself in all that there is and find a crack in the wall – never think that anything’s boring until you crunch it hard.”

One example she offered was HBO’s recently aired doc One Nation Under Dog, which looks at abused canines.  Nevins said that where her network had previously done animal programming, the emergence of networks such as Animal Planet had seen HBO shy away from the genre. “The marketplace that we work in is competitive – when I began working we were the only game in town,” she said. “That’s not true anymore.”

Nevertheless, a doc like One Nation could only work on a net like HBO, she argued. “We could shock you with something which networks that rely on advertising could not,” she explained of the film, which features graphic footage of dogs being euthanized.

“It was true and therefore we had to show it as it was. We made another version for daytime in which the scene was shorter and we took out the sound… but I found that more offensive.”

Ultimately, Nevins said she and her team differentiate themselves in the marketplace by looking at “how impactful something may be. Not the number of people who watch, but the effect on the people who do watch.”

She advised filmmakers to get in touch with HBO directly to pitch projects, stating that the team does respond to every submission eventually. She recounted that filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi simply posted a DVD of her doc Journeys With George to HBO in the mail. “With stamps,” she recalled. “It wasn’t even franked by a company.”

Finally, she touched on regrets, highlighting two films she wished she hadn’t passed on: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase and Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. “I looked at it and thought it was very obvious – I thought I knew who the murderer was,” she said of the former, while adding of the latter: “I was too stupid to buy it early on – I didn’t get it.”

The doc conference continues today with a head-to-head conversation with filmmakers Ken Burns (The Central Park Five) and Shola Lynch (Free Angela and All Political Prisoners).

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