Thursday, October 3, 2013


“I don’t garden, I don’t cook, I don’t even floss - who has time for that?
-Sheila Nevins, President HBO Documentary Films

It’s Monday at 8:30AM, I’m in an intimate crowd of about 100 professional women at the glorious HBO Theatre in midtown Manhattan.  When I say, “intimate” I mean for New York.   The aroma of coffee, perfume and a high volume of gab fill the air as we wait in anticipation for Sheila to arrive.  Sheila Nevins is like the Anna Wintour of HBO.   A powerhouse, known for her exceptional taste in Documentary films, a docu-trendsetter with a filmic instinct that has contributed to HBO’s success for over 30 years.   A place she calls home.  

“I love what I do, the day’s are too short” say’s Nevins as she sits in the middle of the theatre answering questions from the audience.    As an ingénue, her career began in theatre she didn’t like Hollywood it scared her, yet it’s made her career. Receiving the Governors Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, a 2008 Gotham Awards Tribute and 24 Primetime Emmy Awards to name a few.  She graduated from Barnard College with a BA in English then met a cute boy and followed him to Yale although she never said what happened to him.  She graduated with an MFA in Directing from Yale School of Drama then proceeded down the arduous path of entertainment.  She held various positions, from associate producer to field and then went into news.  She was hired by HBO in 1979 with a 13-month contract that became a 30- year post.

“I’m interested in real people, real stories and I’m open to everything”.  The documentaries Sheila helmed are a zeitgeist of milestones reflecting controversial subject matters of our time.  From Gloria: In Her Own Words which depicts the women’s liberation movement to current controversial subject matters as Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God revealing clerical sex abuse cases within the US.   There’s no shortage of subject matter to draw from.  With 1000 submissions a week and a staff of 5 (including her) it’s not that easy to get your project through the gate.  If you’re a producer and your submitting your work for consideration it better be good.

“There’s no one way we work, we don’t have repetition” illustrates why Sheila has been at her post for 30 years, a very rare position for any Exec in the biz.  Every project that passes the gate is in a different stage of production.  It could come to her team as a basic pitch - a producer may submit a project already in production, or even in its final stages.  What matters most - is it a good story?  It has to be titillating, empathic and educational.    “I’m not a social activist, “My job is to show you the scar, it’s not my job to work on it.”  Point taken.   What makes her work shine is having access to a treasure trove of producers who have the vision and passion to execute the story. “I have no manager skills, I stumble a lot and sometimes we f**k up”  For her, Success is about preparation and timing.  So from producer to all content creators, remember there’s no one-way to work, just do it!

- Yvonne Russo 

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