FEATURES | summer 2004
HBO’s Sheila Nevins Nurtures and Nudges
When Sheila Nevins was first hired to produce documentaries at HBO in 1979, the pay cable giant was barely a blip on TV screens dominated by the three national networks.
“We were minority players in television and maybe being a woman fit into this whole minority thing,” Nevins speculates.
“Maybe I was given this backdoor assignment because I was a woman and no one really wanted to work in documentaries.”
Today, as president of HBO Documentary and Family, Nevins is widely regarded as the most powerful executive in television documentary, responsible for developing, producing and acquiring documentaries for HBO and Cinemax. Her programming has garnered 18 prime time and 32 news and documentary Emmy Awards and 20 Peabody Awards, including a personal honor for her programming work.
She has been the executive producer of 13 Academy Award-winning documentary features and shorts, including this year’s short documentary winner, Maryann De Leo’s “Chernobyl Heart.”
“We try to make HBO the distinguished place for television documentaries,” says Nevins. The first to remind you that she has been dubbed “the dominatrix of docs,”
Nevins is viewed by many of the filmmakers she’s worked with as tough minded but also nurturing. In an era when Hollywood studios are run by corporate suits whose allegiance is only to the bottom line, Nevins’ humanistic vision shapes the documentaries HBO produces, much as the Hollywood moguls of the classic era shaped the kind of films their studios made.
Documentarian Rory Kennedy says that whenever she tries to define what an HBO documentary is, Nevins surprises her by doing something that’s outside the box.
“I don’t really have a philosophy,” says Nevins. “When it feels right — right for HBO, and for the particular producer or director — when it’s slightly different or experimental on some level, you just lunge at it and take your chances. I don’t like didactic or instructional documentaries.
“When I started in television at the networks, documentaries were part of the news division,” she continues. “They were about politics, not emotion. I remember seeing something on PBS called ‘Hunger in America,’ and that was interesting to me. I started wondering if I could do that, if there was a job in those kinds of stories. I copied what in journalism is called ‘the back of the book’ and tried to make it bigger and longer.
" I have a respect for people telling their own stories. Holocaust survivors, cancer survivors, sex workers, pimps — they all wrestle with the same things. They want to survive the onslaughts. They have to make a living. They want to be excited and stimulated by life. I think that surviving in this complex, tossed-about universe is courageous, and how people do that is of great interest to me.”
Comment on women making documentaries
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor for Film Comment and Sight and Sound magazines.