Sheila Nevins Stepping Down From HBO Documentary Films After 38 Years

Sheila Nevins
Matt Furman
“Am I gifted? Do I take something from the garbage and make it angelic and it flows up to the heavens? No. I’m a synthesizer,” says Nevins, photographed Jan. 15 at her office in New York City.

She has headed the division since 1979.

Sheila Nevins is leaving HBO Documentary Films, The Hollywood Reporter has confirmed.

News of Nevins' departure was first reported in an extensive interview with Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, which went online early Saturday.

Sources tell THR that Nevins will be leaving early next year.

On Monday (Dec. 18), HBO made the news official, announcing that Nevins would be leaving to “pursue the rest of my life," as she put it.

“HBO is in my DNA and I will always consider it to be my alma mater,” she added.

“The word legend is often thrown around loosely in our business, but in Sheila’s case it actually applies,” HBO CEO Richard Plepler said in his own statement. “She has been an integral part of HBO’s extraordinary success. Her impact, not only in the documentary field, but throughout popular culture is nothing short of remarkable, and she has built an extraordinary team that is second to none in our industry. To say that we will miss her is insufficient, but we are thrilled that she will continue to wear her artistic hat on a number of documentary projects for HBO in the coming years.”

Nevins, 78, has headed HBO's documentary division since 1979, serving as president since 2004, with HBO having won 26 Oscars on her watch, most recently A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness in 2016.

In addition, as executive producer or producer, Nevins has received 32 Primetime Emmy Awards, 35 News and Documentary Emmys and 42 Peabody Awards, including the first one ever presented to a cable program for She's Nobody's Baby, produced with Ms. Magazine.

Often seen as a pioneer of the modern-day documentary, Nevins has supervised the production of more than 1,000 documentaries, including hits like Alex Gibney's Scientology exposé Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, the Oscar-winning Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour and the Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds profile Bright Lights.

“There’s something exciting about leaving a job. I can’t explain it. I have deprived my life of a life. All I did was work. I was, like, born at HBO and I don’t have to die there," she tells Dowd. "If I stayed any longer, I probably would have died at my desk. I just regret that there’s so little time left.”

Nevins, the Times says, is taking "several projects" with her, which she will finish at home. And she's considering doing a radio show with SiriusXM called "Kicking Ass With Sheila Nevins" and maybe another book, according to the paper.

In May, Nevins released a collection of poems and essays titled You Don't Look Your Age...and Other Fairy Tales. The book, in which certain stories were dramatized and some characters were given fictional names, explored such things as her son's battle with Tourette's syndrome and her mother's life with Raynaud's disease, which left her without an arm and leg. The book also includes tales of infidelity, Viagra and plastic surgery.

Nevins, who graduated from Barnard College and received an MFA in directing from Yale's School of Drama, has received numerous career achievement awards, including a 2005 Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award and a personal Peabody in 1999 in recognition of her work and ongoing commitment to excellence.

She was named vp, documentary and family programming at HBO in 1985; was appointed senior vp, original programming, in 1995; and was upped to executive vp, original programming in 1999.

In her interview with Dowd, Nevins talks about the recent wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations being made against high-profile figures in Hollywood. Reflecting on the early days of her career in TV, in the 1970s, she says she thought "being touched by a man inappropriately was part of the rules of the game.”

“I had no way of knowing. I had no one to go to, and I didn’t suffer. I just allowed it," she says. "Now I feel a little bit guilty for allowing it, but I have to say, it’s like a wound that healed, or a wound that never was. I’m not sure that I knew there was any other way. I had to have a job. I didn’t have any money.”

She also talks about the range of sexual harassment and assault that women can experience in the workplace, using the claims made against Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer as two of the tiers.

“I mean, there’s Harvey and then there’s poking. Harvey is a criminal. He deserves to be put away," she says. "The stuff I read about Matt Lauer was horrifying. I’ve never had that happen. But I’ve certainly sat in editing rooms and had well-known people kiss my neck and put their hands on me. But I pulled it away or let it happen or said, ‘Eww!’ I was not fired up."

Still, she predicted that despite the current climate, misbehaving men will be up to their old tricks soon and women should continue to fight back.

"I think you have six months,” Nevins says when asked how deep the change is and whether men will stop interrupting women and making lewd comments. “Because the men will come forward again. It’s almost Darwinian, spreading the seed, that makes men the aggressor. And it will be up to women to punch back. A man used to be in the position of stopping your career at the go. But now you can just say, ‘I’m going to tell.’ And there are a million people who will listen.”

Speaking with THR last spring, Nevins said "it will always be hard" to be a woman in the workplace and said that despite her success, she's endured that challenge.

She also reflected on how deep-pocketed streaming services and cable rivals have made her job more challenging.

"There was a film at Sundance that went for $4 million that I thought was worth $150,000," Nevins said, not naming the doc. "In the old days, anyway. Now people have Monopoly money."

Dec. 18, 7:26 a.m. This story has been updated with the official news of Nevins' departure.