Sheila Nevins, the first lady of documentary film, has been exposing innovative, provocative docs to audiences before they knew the genre existed. In her 25-plus-year tenure at HBO Documentary Films, she has had a hand in producing 21 Oscar-winning pics and has received a jaw-dropping 48 Emmys, including the Governor’s Award last year. So it may come as a surprise that the division president, who seemingly has nothing to prove, is “anxious every minute of every day.” Especially when it comes to compiling the unit’s annual slate, which this year consists of 45 films for HBO and HBO2.
“Accomplishments are yesterday,” Nevins explains.
Anticipated docs in the premium cabler’s lineup include celebrities like Carrie Fisher in “Wishful Drinking” and “War Torn: 1861-2010,” exec produced by James Gandolfini.
“It’s hard to get people in this crowded universe to watch documentaries,” Nevins admits. “Celebrities are important because the public may be more inclined to watch a docu presented by a person they know. So if a name has a passion for the subject then you would be stupid not to incorporate them.”
In the case of migrating Fisher’s one-woman show from Broadway to television, Nevins had to do some groveling.
“I saw the play and went to my bosses the next morning and said, ‘Please, please, please let me do this.’ In television, everyone has to beg,” Nevins explains. “I mean, I don’t get on my knees although for (‘Drinking’) I think I would have.”
While Fisher’s play captivated Nevins, she says that when it came to originating, acquiring, developing and producing this year’s slate, topics that personally resonated didn’t necessarily matter.
“If my heart’s not in but I think it’s right for HBO and right for the audience, I try to find a way into it.”
The cabler’s annual summer series mixed films about abortion (“12th & Delaware”) and the death of 27-year-old Iranian dissident Neda Agha-Soltan (“For Neda”) alongside sensational films about the likes of infamous paparazzo Ron Galella.
“It’s almost instinctive,” Nevins explains. “You just feel the balance.”