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This story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Sheila Nevins‘ corner office on the 13th floor of HBO’s midtown New York headquarters features a pair of large white leather couches, several matching chairs and sweeping city views. What’s missing is the desk. “What would I do with a desk?” she asks. “If someone’s behind a desk, it seems they have the answer or the paycheck. It’s better when we can throw things back and forth.” Nevins, who oversees documentaries for HBO, HBO2 and Cinemax, doesn’t take notes either. The Yale School of Drama grad is more apt to whip out her phone midthought and play Akinator, an app version of 20 Questions, which she recently introduced to doc subject Gloria Vanderbilt. (“We had a great time guessing her famous lovers. It was hilarious.”) But if her approach resembles an idiosyncratic therapist more than a top executive, there’s no mistaking her track record. During her 30-year-plus tenure at the network, she has won more Primetime Emmys (31) than any individual and her HBO docs have won 25 Oscars, most recently for the Edward Snowden film Citizenfour.
This year, her 11-employee division will have three competing for best documentary short (but her Scientology feature Going Clear didn’t make the cut). As the doc field becomes more competitive, HBO is the rare network that originates and produces twice as many projects in-house as it acquires. The mother of an adult son lives on the Upper East Side with her husband of 40 years and her rescue dog Bogey. She talked to THR about her biggest Sundance slate ever (seven films, three in competition), why she commissioned a Black Lives Matter doc on the morning of Oscar noms, and why The Jinx and Making a Murderer have created a frenzy.
At Sundance, you’ve got movies about ISIS, animal rights and Robert Mapplethorpe. Do you court controversy?
I would say I embrace what’s important today, and that would, by its very nature, be controversial. I’m interested in things that don’t bore you. I think [our docs] are the things that maybe you dream about or that torment you.
You’ve also got a Mike Nichols doc. Did you know him well?
The only thing I knew about Mike was that occasionally he called here and said he liked a film that we had done. I thought it was someone kidding with me. Before he died, I went over to see him [on set], and we chatted for a while and I realized that he knew me. He liked me. I felt very privileged. But I didn’t know he was going to die. I would have probably fallen on my knees had I known that. Becoming Mike Nichols was two films in a way. It was one film before he died, and then there was one film after he died. It’s his last interview, so it’s really interesting.
Going Clear won three Emmys but didn’t get an Oscar nom. Why?
Remember, it’s the doc group [voting on the nominees]. It’s not the Academy. Had it been the whole Academy, it might have been different because it was so recognizable. Of course we were disappointed, but I can’t think of anything that won a Primetime Emmy in a show category that then went on to win an Academy Award nomination.
Nevins’ record-setting 31 Primetime Emmys line a bookshelf in an adjacent screening room. The next closest individual Primetime Emmy winner is Edward J. Greene with 21 and James L. Brooks with 20.
Scientologists visited your home. What’s the oddest thing they did?
Leave things in my mailbox. Hand them to the doorman. Solicitations to join. When there would be a meeting. I didn’t know there was a Scientology center four or five blocks from my apartment. They just asked me to come and understand them. It was a little creepy. I felt bombarded but not threatened. ISIS, I’m a little bit worried. But I’ve had other threats. When we did Taxicab Confessions, it was really scary. [In an episode,] somebody gets in a cab and says to a driver who has a turban, “Hey towelhead, take me to 55th Street or whatever.” It’s what he said. I didn’t say it. And so some sheikh — I don’t know who it was — started to post terrifying things. “If you see this woman on the street, she’s called us these names, throw acid in her face.” That was scary.
A photo in her office of a 1999 meeting with photojournalist-director Gordon Parks to discuss the making of a documentary about him.
Which doc created the most potential legal problems for you?
Maybe GasLand. Because we were taking on the oil companies. Every single speech and every single line had to be correctly placed in context if it was in any way edited. We don’t make those kind of docs that much. We’re not 60 Minutes. But it was a lesson. It was like going to law school.
What are the plans for the follow-up to The Jinx?
I don’t think we know yet. The trial will be in August. [Robert] Durst is supposed to be extradited from New Orleans to Los Angeles, and we will follow the story. But August is far away. There’s no place to go with it [before then].
With The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, there’s a renewed interest in true crime. Showtime’s David Nevins calls these series “premium documentary.” Do you agree?
Every doc is a premium event. Why are we calling this particular genre a “premium” event? God. I think every one of these is a baby just born and makes a lot of noise.
Nevins used her own dog for the poster of the 2012 film One Nation Under Dog: “Look at Bogey. I mean, he’s not touched up or anything. That’s how he looks. That’s a movie star.”
But why the obsessive interest now? Is it the serialization aspect?
Binge-viewing? Ways to get away from your life by watching somebody murder somebody? OK, we’re happy to do that. [But] just because something’s hot doesn’t mean it’s new. If a skirt gets shorter, that doesn’t mean it was never short before. We’ve been doing murder docs since we did Paradise Lost [about the West Memphis Three]. We did Pamela Smart. We did How Do You Spell Murder about illiteracy. We did Autopsy for five years, and those were all true crime.
Turner’s Kevin Reilly recently said that he wants to get into the doc space. Netflix is there. CNN, too. Does HBO spend more to stay competitive?
I think not. I would think equal to, less and sometimes more, depending. We’re all in the same game and all spending the same money.
A cutout sculpture of a miniature theater playing Sunset Boulevard, starring Gloria Swanson.
What will HBO’s advantage be?
Our team. Our passion. Our wanting to nudge the world. Our attempt to be as honest as we can. Our attempt to tell something that’s true. Our desire not always to get numbers but to get converts. We are never asked to perform a popularity contest. We’re more of the aura and the conscience.
Did you hear the Making a Murderer pitch?
Not that I remember. I’m not denying it. We’re pitched everything. And there’s a million very popular things I’ve turned down. But I don’t remember it.
When was the last time you read something and called a filmmaker and commissioned a film?
The morning of the Oscar nominations. I noticed that all the [documentary] films that were up there, there was almost nothing about America, and my heart broke because I realized that documentary filmmakers are not looking in their own backyard. And if they are, they’re not being recognized for it. The fact that there was no documentary about Black Lives Matter at a time when this is such a critical American issue … was unbelievable. I said to my colleague here, “Call [a director she declined to name in case a deal doesn’t transpire]. See how much it would cost to do a big documentary about what’s been happening in this country.” You have to do it.
What news programs do you watch?
I watch MSNBC at the end of the morning. Sometimes I watch Gayle King because I like her. I turn off a lot of stories that upset me. The gang rape in Brooklyn the other day. I turn off Trump. Just because so many other people care about him … I can’t watch. It makes me uncomfortable and unhappy. I haven’t watched 60 Minutes in 15 years. I listen to NPR occasionally. I read everything on my iPad.
Nevins doesn’t recall where the monogrammed personalized Coke bottle came from — perhaps an awards dinner. But she notes that it adds a splash to her minimalist office.
Budgets for scripted series are going way up. Are your budgets higher?
No. And if you can get me more money, please do.
Is there a budget line you won’t cross?
I would say $2 million is the top. The acquisition business has heated up quite a bit, and the competition has heated up, so there are more pleas to open the financial gates.
At Sundance, you don’t attend events other than your own. Why?
I don’t like to waste time. I don’t like to small talk. I don’t want to see pictures of your kids. I like to work. I like to do what matters.
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