Perennially undernourished but always among the year’s most controversial offerings, documentaries have been gaining respect, thanks to such non-fiction provocateurs as recent Oscar winner Michael Moore and Oliver Stone.
In fact, Stone’s latest, “Comandante” — a series of discussions with Cuban leader Fidel Castro — elicited as much discussion behind the scenes as in front of the camera when HBO yanked the doc from its previously announced May air date due to Castro’s renewed suppression of dissidents. Although Stone returned to Cuba for additional interviews with the dictator, the doc remains on the shelf.
“Some docs you can sit on for a year and will be relevant no matter what, but some docs date and ‘Comandante’ fell into that category,” says Sheila Nevins, HBO’s executive VP of original programming, who is largely credited with guiding the cabler’s docu slate under Chris Albrecht’s tenure.
Regardless of what happens with “Comandante,” HBO has been at the forefront of TV doc production and acquisition for the past 15 years. This year alone, its programs garnered 11 Primetime Emmy nods and 6 News Emmy nods.
HBO’s non-fiction programming runs the gamut from the lurid “Taxicab Confessions” series to prestige pics such as the 2000 Oscar winner “One Day in September” and “Southern Comfort,” from helmer Kate Davis, a Sundance 2001 prizewinner. Doc features like “Journeys With George” (chronicling Prexy Bush’s election campaign) and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” have helped earn the cabler ample critical kudos.
Historically, HBO’s non-fiction efforts have racked up more than a dozen Oscar wins (long and short form). As the medium and technology have evolved, so has HBO. At one time docs made or acquired by the cabler aired on HBO only. Now, Nevins asserts, each doc’s potential is evaluated both inside and outside the box; each can have many lives and licenses.
“Based on the success on certain docs at the box office, we’re forced to consider, will this have DVD sales? Will this be better for HBO if it goes out theatrically first or is it really just a TV doc?” explains Nevins.
Much of this depends on this summer’s box office returns from HBO acquisitions: “Spellbound” (from helmer Jeff Blitz, now at $4.6 million cume) and Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans,” (at $2.4 mil). Both are in limited theatrical release as HBO presentations in conjunction with ThinkFilms and Magnolia Pictures, respectively.
Marketing and publicity efforts will certainly help energize HBO’s presentation. “TV numbers are so vast compared to movie theater numbers,” says Nevins, “there’ll be a lot of people who won’t have seen but will have heard of it. If it had gone direct to TV, and this is certainly true with ‘Spellbound,’ we would not have been able to have marketed it sufficiently to arouse interest in it.”
Because of the lower cost of digital production, Nevins’ department has been able to maintain the same level of productivity. Digital technology allows the cabler to make and acquire more for less. In-house-produced, HBO/Cinemax fall selections include Susan Raymond and Alan’s Raymond’s “How Do You Spell Murder?,” Kirby Dick’s “Showgirls: Glitz and Angst” and Arlene Donnelly Nelson’s second documentary on photographer Spencer Tunick, “Naked World.”
Also upcoming as HBO doc theatrical presentations are international favorites “Balsersos” and “Bus 174.”
In noting Albrecht’s support of documentaries, Nevins credits his programming sense. “He has a real feel for what makes something successful on TV and a real feel for the audience,” she says. “Whereas I can go off into docu la-la land too much, he keeps me tied to the tube in terms of programming.” Rather than meddling or dictating, Nevins contends that Albrecht’s show notes are usually on target.
For instance, Albrecht worked closely with producer Brad Grey on the Emmy Award winner, “In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01.” “He immediately understood what it was and what it could be,” says Grey. Adding, “He understood that it was a pretty delicate dance that we were doing.”
The execs have worked together for close to 18 years. She says balancing popular taste without pandering to the lowest common denominator is one of Albrecht’s most important talents, but his sense of humor is important, too.
Nevins remembers his first day as her boss, “Someone said Chris is here to see you and I opened (my office) door and he was on his hands and knees. And I fell to my hands and knees, he stood up and I stayed on my hands and knees and I guess that’s the way it stayed. However, he did fall down for that one moment.”