Doc day at the ongoing IFP Conference in Manhattan today featured a titan of the doc world today. In front of a packed room of eager documentary filmmakers and industry movers and shakers, HBO Documentary Films’ President Sheila Nevins took to the stage at IFP’s Independent Film Week for a one-on-one conversation with Thom Powers, of the Toronto Film Festival and the IFC Center’s Stranger Than Fiction doc series. The division of HBO that Nevins heads makes and acquires non fiction programming for the network, picking including Josh Fox’s “GASLAND,” “12th & Delaware” from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, and the upcoming projects “Wartorn” and Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking.”
“You have to cry out for people to watch documentaries on television,” Nevins said in her opening remarks to Powers. Elaborating on her point, Nevins added, “Documentaries are a form that requires you to empathize and identify with characters. People have enough going on in their own lives. People don’t subscribe to HBO for the documentaries, but they may discover them and really enjoy them.”
Fielding a question about why a filmmaker might want to air their doc on TV, Nevins conceded that four-walling a film in a theater might be a good idea for some films, but noted, “There’s something incredibly exciting about entering someone’s bedroom with a story. HBO viewers are still paying ‘admission’ with their subscription fee,” Nevins reminded us, highlighting the fact that subscription television still provides a special platform on which a filmmaker can premiere a film.
As for what it’s like making acquisition decisions day in and day out, a process that means saying “No” many more times than saying “Yes” when there are only 45 slots a year to fill, Nevins noted that she never feels that her corporate bosses are breathing down her back. Though the powers that be have stopped projects that were (factually) headed down the wrong path, Nevins says that she and her team are fairly free to make the decisions they feel are the right ones. Nevins made it clear that if one is proud of their project, at any stage, to send footage and concise literature to her. But remember, she said, “Our job is to say ‘No’ and realize why something should not be made. It’s the filmmaker’s job to convince us why we should acquire it.”
What kinds of films are going to make it onto HBO? “It’s about how much noise I can make with a film. I want to find something that weaves its way through and says ‘I’m here!'” After explaining that her doc division felt it could not produce a doc on the Haiti earthquake that was adding something new to the conversation, Nevins said, “Topics are hot and cold. Things get overexposed. Our job is to police what’s going on in other media.” She continued, “Sorrow seems to be covered very well elsewhere. The documentarian’s job is to find your way through what’s already out there. But if it’s not right for HBO, it might be right for someone else.”
Concluding the talk, Powers asked if good documentaries need powerful characters. Nevins thought for a bit, concluding that you need to care about someone to be hooked by a doc, “What you remember from docs like ‘Wartorn’ (HBO’s upcoming doc that takes a historical and personal look at post-traumatic stress disorder) are the characters you’ve just met. I can’t think of one doc we’ve had that didn’t have a compelling character.”
As Powers dismissed the audience, a few filmmakers left rough cuts, trailers, and press kits with Nevins’s HBO colleagues Nancy Abraham and Sara Bernstein, who came prepared with what Nevins called their “Santa sack.”