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MTV Enlists Sheila Nevins to Launch Documentary Films Unit

MTV has recruited renowned HBO alum Sheila Nevins to launch the MTV Documentary Films banner to operate as part of Viacom’s growing MTV Studios operation.

Nevins will lead the charge on developing a broad slate of documentary features, specials and series designed to inspire young adults to take action on pressing social issues. Nevins, who left HBO in early 2018 after a storied 38-year run as documentary chief, will build a team to produce programming for MTV and affiliated Viacom outlets as well as for outside buyers. Nevins will put a big emphasis on scouting for rising stars in the docu world and filmmakers from non-traditional backgrounds.

“The whole purpose here is to energize the large population of young people that MTV embraces,” Nevins said. “The world is in a sorry state. We need to energize people in some way to make regular people feel that they can make a difference.”

The matchmaking between Nevins and MTV came through MTV Communications head Liza Burnett Fefferman. She worked with Nevins on the 2014 Laura Poitras feature doc “Citizenfour,” about cyber-sleuthing whistleblower Edward Snowden, during Burnett Fefferman’s tenure at “Citizenfour” distributor Radius.

After meeting Nevins, MTV president Chris McCarthy saw the potential of dispatching a seasoned executive with decades of experience to nurture a clutch of talented newcomers. She will also use her overflowing Rolodex to bring in A-list filmmakers.

“MTV’s brand is celebrating young people in everything they do, and they want everything from escapism to activist,” McCarthy told Variety. “What Sheila brings to the table at such a brilliant level is storytelling skills. Her relationships in the documentary world will make MTV Documentary Films a cornerstone of our operation. We really want to build out that side of the business and stretch what we are doing now.”

Nevins said she is approaching MTV productions with the goal of tackling narratives in a different way than she and documentarians have in the past, especially when it comes to unpacking complicated social issues.

“There’s an elitism to many documentaries that are already talking to the converted,” Nevins said. “I think it’s time to stop that. Part of the attraction of this job to me is to reach the regular folks out there. I see this as an enormous opportunity.”

McCarthy added that Viacom’s growing digital reach will allow the company to engage younger viewers with documentaries and related content on a variety of linear and digital platforms. The two indicated that a push to get younger adults registered to vote and to the polls in next year’s presidential election will be a big focus.

MTV’s documentaries will not be exclusively aimed at younger viewers. But Nevins said she sees great untapped potential to connect in a new way with the millennial and Gen-Z viewers that MTV and other Viacom brands aggregate.

“I’m fascinated by this audience. It’s there and waiting. They’re energized, and they are the future,” she said. “I’d like to bring something to them that is not their normal cup of tea — or glass of beer, if you will.”

(Pictured: Sheila Nevins, Chris McCarthy)

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