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DISPATCH FROM LOS ANGELES | An Evening With Sheila Nevins

DISPATCH FROM LOS ANGELES | An Evening With Sheila Nevins

In the Green Room prior to Thursday’s “Evening with Sheila Nevins” event at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Nevins cashed in on a $100 bet pegged to the performance of Stephen Walker‘s “Young@Heart,” the documentary acquired by Fox Searchlight during last year’s festival. Sheila Nevins, president of HBO‘s acclaimed documentary division, didn’t think audiences would show up in droves to see a doc about the elderly. Despite the marketing muscle of Searchlight, the film earned about $3.5 million during its theatrical release earlier this year, and Nevins personally made $100 on the bet (which she immediately offered to charity).

That tension over whether documentaries belong in theaters or on television has been pronounced in recent years in the wake of the success of a number of theatrically released non-fiction films. And Nevins remains a passionate advocate to filmmakers that many docs are often best served not only by the small screen, but by HBO. In putting a documentary in theaters, she noted yesterday, you are asking audiences to buy a movie ticket, popcorn, and gas, “instead of turning on your television to watch what almost always is a critical story about the world you are living in.”

Most recently, HBO wanted to buy the Sundance Film Festival award winner “Trouble The Water” for a slot this August, Nevins admitted yesterday. But the filmmakers of the acclaimed Hurricane Katrina film were focused on a theatrical release first and recently announced a deal with Zeitgeist (with a late August IFC Center debut on tap).

“We really wanted that documentary and I think it has some good Academy Award potential, and the producers wanted it to be in a theater first and we felt that a docu on Katrina had to go on in August and that we didn’t want it after it was in the theaters,” Sheila Nevins explained, “And they said ‘No’. I thought they’d say yes.”

“They weren’t going to come by this money easily and they were never going to make it in the theater, but they believed that the theater was the home and good for them,” Nevins continued. “That’s the great commitment, them and Shakespeare.”

Nevins feels so strongly about the medium that she recently sent an HDTV as a gift to Michael Moore, with a note written from the point of view of the television itself. “Dear Michael, don’t hate me,” the note began, “Please be my friend.” She hopes to convince him to return to television with HBO.

“I think he should come back to television, I’ve told him that, he hates television,” Sheila Nevins said.

Asked “Why,” by Q & A moderator Patrick Goldstein, Nevins quickly responded, “Ask him, I think its because he thinks its a second-class citizen, even though not as many people went to see his last movie…but he’s a star.”

“I stand for television,” Nevins reiterated on Thursday at the LA Film Fest, “You can bring Baghdad into a living room…I’ve always stood for television and am proud of the television documentary.”

Introduced as the producer, executive or advocate behind some 500 documentaries over the decades, Nevins was touted for the more than 15 Oscars and 70 Emmy Awards received by those films and filmmakers. For fifteen of her past twenty-five years at HBO, she sought the validation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, hoping to secure an membership in AMPAS that finally came this year. “I think what they finally said was that documentary finally has a place,” Nevins noted.

Nevins made her first trip to the Los Angeles Film Festival amidst a flurry of HBO-related activities and screenings at this year’s festival. Last night the fest debuted Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato‘s controversial doc about Heidi Fleiss, while also screening in the fest are Jeff Stimmel‘s “The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale” (airing on HBO next month) and Mark Mann‘s “Finishing Heaven.” The company is also backing the new HBO Documentary Film/Film Independent Fellowship, supporting filmmaker Christian Bruno with a $10,000 production grant for his project, “Strand: A Natural History of the Cinema,” and particiption in the fest’s concurrent Fast Track program.

The Fleiss doc, “Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal” (also set to air on HBO next month), has been particularly buzz-worthy of late, with the recent revelation that Fleiss, while struggling with drug addiction, turned against Bailey and Barbato. Midway through production, she refused to cooprate with the film despite being paid by HBO for her participation in the movie. Nevins stepped in herself to conduct an on-camera interview with the Hollywood Madam.

“I think she was scared,” Nevins said yesterday, “to show you how good [Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato] are, they touched a raw nerve.” Probed further by moderator Goldstein about why HBO pursued the project in the first place, Nevins immediately responded, “Because I think she got a raw deal… I was fascinated by her, [she was] on the edge of genius and destruction.”

Then pressed on the decision to pay the subject of a film, Nevins defended, “When someone is a celebrity and tells you their life story they should be paid.” But, she noted that to give the subject final cut as part of any deal would be “a crime.” And she added that all subjects deserve respect even as the filmmakers try to capture the reality of a subject’s life.

Admitting that she never distinguishes between, “high brow and low brow,” Nevins has established a career battling to tell both artful and tabloid stories. “Life is just full of a variety of experiences,” she said of her broad taste in topics.

“It just has to be as real as it possibly can be while protecting [an aspect of the subject’s life],” Nevins explained, elaborating on her approach to documentaries, “We respect the individual to the very end of their destructive or productive selves.”

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