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Documentary, Now: Three Rock Stars Who Run The Fast-Changing Nonfiction World

You may not know their names, but this trio of powerful women shape and determine many of the best documentaries made today.

Netflix’s Lisa Nishimura, Ava DuVernay

Photo by Marion Curtis/StarPix/for Ne/REX/Shutterstock

The Academy will announce its list of Oscar-eligible documentaries this week, a field that counted just 82 entries in 2005; last year, there were 124. And along with this growth comes a new attribute for the much-admired/often ignored genre: Power.

Under Sheila Nevins, HBO led the way in showing how documentaries could draw audiences with nonfiction programming that’s skillful, dynamic, and relevant. Under Lisa Nishimura, Netflix upped the ante with deep-pocketed algorithms that not only proved audiences craved this content (after all, documentaries are the original reality TV), but also guided exactly where those viewers could be found, and what they wanted to see. And while social justice has always been the bailiwick of documentary filmmakers, Diane Weyermann at Participant has given that niche the financing and clout it deserves.

While their business models differ, they’re all producing documentaries that might not otherwise exist, making them better and getting them seen. They have all risen in the ranks on hard work, merit, and passion for the genre. And they’ve done so in an arena once considered a low-budget sideline to higher-credibility features — not a power center sought after by men. No longer.

READ MORE: Oscars: How TV and Streaming Emmy Contenders Are Changing the Documentary Race

“Diane and Sheila both have incredible longitudinal presence in our world — funding and creating docs for over two decades,” writes documentarian A.J. Schnack, a cofounder of Field of Vision and Cinema Eye Honors co-founder in an email. “But they’ve also stayed current, even ahead of the curve, on where docs are going next.”

All three women, as well as many of their colleagues, he added, “highlight how the documentary world has shifted from the international commissioner model to one that is led primarily by strong American broadcasters and content creators.”

These executives are fiercely competitive. Netflix’s days as a benign licenser of docs are long gone; with its 2016 original production budget of $5 billion, it competes head to head for hot filmmakers and original projects. (“I don’t have that kind of money,” Nevins said.) All three look for theatrical distributors — when they want to qualify their movies for Oscars.

READ MORE: Netflix Will Spend $5 Billion On Content In 2016; ‘The Ridiculous 6’ The Most-Watched Film On The Service In First 30 DaysEach has their strengths and strategies. Nevins and Weyermann feel strongly about social justice; Nishimura taps into the global power of documentary. Nevins and Nishimura both want to lure more subscribers, but where Nevins is Captain Sully, relying on her knowledge base and gut instincts to land the plane, Nishimura leans on the precision guidance of algorithms.

Here’s a breakdown of the executives who shape the documentary world as we know it.

Lisa Nishimura

Lisa Nishimura Netflix

Lisa Nishimura at The Rebels & Rulebreakers of Netflix Luncheon, May 2016


Title: Vice President, Original Documentary and Comedy, Netflix

Year She Joined the Company: 2007

Oscar Nominations: 4  (“The Square,” “Virunga,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom”)

Special Flavor: Nishimura has a clear passion for docs about food, from Netflix’s cinematic first original doc series, the Emmy-nominated “Chef’s Table” (led by “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” director David Gelb), to bestselling author Michael Pollan’s four-part “Cooked.”

While food might seem like a romantic topic, Nishimura views it as a category swimming in data. “Underneath it are a lot of different subsets,” she said. ‘Cooked’ is very different from ‘Chef’s Table,’ which is wildly different from a film like ‘Food Inc.’ ‘Cooked’ was more anthropological and social, from a sociological perspective, as you look at food and culture and how that affects different cultures.”

Strategies: Things have changed since Nishimura started licensing indie movies nine years ago, when they were shipped in red envelopes to Netflix DVD subscribers. “If you make content available to people in a very accessible way, they will engage,” said Nishimura at her glass-walled Netflix office in Beverly Hills. “I learned early on that documentary was a category from the get-go that our subscribers are keen to engage with.”

Her first original documentary was “The Square,” which Netflix acquired at Sundance 2013. Director Jehane Noujaim updated the film through the year, until it opened in October. Her cinema verité work covering the Arab Spring earned multiple awards and a 2014 Oscar nomination. Not bad right out of the box.

While another Netflix department still licenses docs, Nishimura creates original content in a wide array of formats, all using all the Netflix intel. She can accord a small budget for a film like teen social media and rape documentary “Audrie & Daisy” (which reaches both teens and their parents, and gets them talking) or make the extensive investment and time required by “Making a Murderer,” the first home-grown original she signed up three and a half years ago.

While “Making a Murderer” went on to capture national attention, it began as a risk. Nishimura recognized it as a unique, close-up examination of a story that could unfold in great detail — but Netflix had never produced anything that would stretch over 10 one-hour episodes.

“It really is a place that leads to innovation,” said Nishimura. “We’re not afraid of risks. It starts with a conversation with our creative partners. ‘So what is the thing that you are really so excited to share? Like, what is the vision?’ And then we talk about the ambition of the vision, and then the question is, ‘What is the form that best serves what that ambition is?’ We’re incredibly fortunate here because we have a diversity of choices.”

"Amanda Knox"

“Amanda Knox”

Strengths: Nishimura pushes filmmakers to go bigger. She called Ava DuVernay for a general meeting around the late 2014 release of “Selma” and began to discuss DuVernay’s wish to examine mass incarceration (a topic that she touched on in her second film, “Middle of Nowhere”). However, over repeated discussions the idea evolved into a graphically enhanced historic study of the criminalization of African-Americans as well as an ardent argument for changing government policy. “13th” became the first documentary to open the New York Film Festival.

“She’s going to have a point of view, and I like that in a filmmaker,” said Nishimura. “I like filmmakers that have strong vision, strong points of view, and a real sense of what it is that they’re trying to accomplish.”

Nishimura is “pushing us to dream bigger,” said Dawn Porter, director of the abortion documentary “Trapped.” She’s developing something she initially pitched to Netflix as a smaller feature; now, she said, her idea is morphing into a more ambitious, sprawling series. “That comes with bigger budgets, and comes with a belief, when Netflix says they think it’s big, that they’re going to put it in the whole world. They can pick anything. It’s, how are you fitting into their vision? Lisa’s got a lot of eyes on her.”

In Contention: Four Netflix docs made the DOC NYC Shortlist of 15, including “13th,” Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani’s pulse-pounding anti-poaching thriller “The Ivory Game,” Werner Herzog’s volcano adventure “Into the Inferno,” and Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn’s attempt to find truth behind sordid headlines, “Amanda Knox.”

Prime Asset: That Netflix algorithm. It targets docs to the right movie lovers among its 86 million subscribers, and predicts success across the globe. The division has grown organically, adding resources in marketing and promotion, and it has become the envy of its rivals. From “The Square” in 2013, Netflix released seven originals in 2014, and eight in 2015; this year, when you include series and features, there’s 19.

Last Quote: “We’re successful, which comes with scale,” said Nishimura. “I have a lot of latitude to tell a lot of stories.”

Sheila Nevins

Sheila Nevins of HBO

Sheila Nevins of HBO Docs

Photo by Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Title: President, HBO Documentary Films (since 2004)

Year She Joined the Company: 1985

Oscar Nominations: 85 HBO, 11 Cinemax

Oscar Wins: 26 HBO, 4 Cinemax

Special Flavor: Movies about show business. In 2016 alone, HBO debuted “Becoming Mike Nichols,” the Nora Ephron documentary “Everything Is Copy,” and Cannes entry “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” (2017). The first two films were about remembering Nichols and Ephron after they are no longer around, Nevins pointed out, “while Debbie and Carrie are trying to kick it as hard as they can. It’s about the courage of beating down Hollywood, time, and mental illness.”

Robert Mapplethorpe Look at the Pictures

Robert Mapplethorpe in “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures”


Strategy: Nevins is well aware that times are changing. “It’s quite challenging, but not frustrating, oddly,” she said. “It’s like a call to duty to get up earlier and work later, if that’s possible. It’s not that I didn’t work hard, but now I work more competitively. Is this idea going to find a place in the many suns? There is no one sun anymore.”

She asks herself several questions before she greenlights a film: “Is this idea strong enough to break through? Is it a celebrity like Frank Sinatra, a name we already know, which has a front place in the market, and we know people are going to recognize, so we don’t need marketing money, and it has an audience? Or is it something like ‘Class Divide,’ which is fighting an uphill battle? I want to tell stories, but if I tell a story, how will anyone know if it doesn’t punch through?”

And in this market, every detail matters. Case in point is “Tickled,” a Sundance pickup by rookie New Zealand filmmaker David Farrier. Something got lost between the title, which didn’t communicate what the movie was really about, and audiences. The movie turned out to be less about online videos of tickling contests than about tracking down a strange and nefarious con man who was defrauding people.

“‘Tickled’ sounds like a porn film,” Nevins said, “while it was really about interesting investigative reporting. It’s a catch-a-crook film. I said to everybody I work with, ‘You’ve got to put in final say over titles from now on.’ You can’t sell a subtle, brilliant title. A title has to cut through, has to give away the stuff inside, has to say, ‘Watch me.’ It can’t mislead.”

Market shifts are even reflected in award campaigns. “It’s sort of like gender fluidity — the distinction between what is and what isn’t eligible for any of these awards,” said Nevins. “The way a story is delivered … you stream it, DVR it, see it in a theater, and at home, where the television set is bigger than your bed. What exactly is it that you are looking at?”

And, as Nevins knows, “fundamentally, filmmakers want their film in theaters, so it’s a talent-relations thing. The rules have such fluidity that you put it on screen and qualify it, put it on television and qualify it. I try and nurture the best of all worlds.  It feels awfully good to win and awfully bad to lose, but I have to step back and ask myself, ‘Am I making good product? Am I pushing forward what’s noisy?'”

Strengths: Her drive. She wants to share, convince, score, and win. She’s fearless and confident. She relies on a strong cadre of executives and filmmakers (but she also may go back to them too much). And she is fiercely competitive and adaptive. Never underestimate this woman. Writer John Anderson (“I Wake Up Screening”) describes her as “P.T. Barnum with a social conscience. She is interested in ‘stories that matter,’ but she also knows what sells, how it can be sold, and what the people in her audience are apt to buy.”

Nevins acquired Porter’s public defenders documentary, “Gideon’s Army,” before there was even a rough cut. “One of her great skills is how she can push a filmmaker,” said Porter. “It’s not always fun to be pushed, but she gets results. She said, ‘Your movie is all heart’… so that became a guiding principle with the editor. Her insightfulness was liberating. We kept pushing to think of the characters as people. Look, Sheila can be quirky, she’s not predictable, but if you let her, she’ll respond to your film with a unique honesty that helps you push yourself.”

In Contention: HBO has two films on the DOC NYC shortlist, “Jim: The James Foley Story” and Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” which timed its April 2016 release to coincide with museum shows at LACMA and the Getty, as well as a coffee-table photography book. That film began when Nevins went to HBO’s “Absolute Wilson” producer Katharina Otto-Bernstein with the idea to tell the story behind the controversial photographer.

READ MORE: HBO’s ‘Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures’ Doc Raises Questions, Producer Has Answers

The James Foley film was already inside the HBO family; animator Brian Oakes had worked on many HBO shows, going back to “Shouting Fire.” Oakes grew up next door to Foley in Rochester, New Hampshire, and he watched his friend become an intrepid freelance journalist who fearlessly covered war zones around the world. In August, 2014 Foley was kidnapped and horrifically killed by ISIS terrorists.

“Foley had access to the family,” said Nevins. “I don’t know that a stranger could have moved in there. It needed someone close to Jim.” Also on the team were producers Teddy and Peter Kunhardt, who worked with Oakes on HBO’s “Living with Lincoln.”

Last Quote: “Donald Trump has done great things for women,” said Nevins. “The next generation is not going to pinch [your ass] if they want to succeed. They’ll be scared shitless. This could be best thing to happen, if every guy who makes a pass is scared if he wants to be head of the company. Trump has exposed the game.”

Diane Weyermann

Alex Gibney and Diane Weyermann

Alex Gibney and Diane Weyermann

Photo by Amanda Schwab/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock

Title: Executive Vice President, Participant Media

Year She Joined the Company: 2005

Oscars Nominations: 4 (“Food, Inc.,” “The Look of Silence,” “Murderball,” “The Square”)

Oscar Wins: 2 (“CITIZENFOUR,” “An Inconvenient Truth”)

Strategy: Weyermann carries an equal passion for story (with an accessible narrative) and for justice. “My focus is on the best way to tell the story: sometimes through observation, sometimes it’s more of a polemic, sometimes it’s a more poetic approach.” While style and access are important, they serve in the end “the quality of the storytelling and filmmaking and the capacity through that process to touch and reach people and effect the way someone sees something about the world, a person, or a condition.”

Participant gets involved at many stages, from development through acquisition, partnering in some festival buys like Toronto’s “Presenting Princess Shaw,” which Magnolia released. They usually handle four to seven docs a year (Jonathan King runs the narrative side; they both report to CEO David Linde).

When Davis Guggenheim moved from running documentaries at Participant to directing Al Gore’s call to arms on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” Weyermann took his job — and supervised his movie, which went on to win the Oscar. “An Inconvenient Truth” altered the way many people see global warming, while Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winner “Citizenfour” took us inside the mind of Edward Snowden.

Weyermann has also backed “The Great Invisible,” Margaret Brown’s exploration of the Deepwater Horizon debacle; Robert Kenner, who won an Emmy for mind-boggling “Food Inc;.” Errol Morris’ portrait of Donald Rumsfeld, “The Unknown Known;” and Guggenheim’s education expose, “Waiting for Superman.”

Strengths: She is beloved. Filmmakers seek not only Participant’s financial largesse and social outreach, but also the former filmmaker’s nourishment, guidance, and support. However, Participant can be controlling with documentarians who sometimes want to do things their own way.

“She’s empathetic, has impeccable taste, and she’s fun,” said Porter, who knows Weyermann from the festival circuit. “She has the heart of a teacher. The ego of a documentary person can be fragile. You stay in your cave and don’t come out for months and months, facing glaring scrutiny. She’s thoughtful and kind and encouraging. I’d love to work with them.”

The Music of Strangers

“The Music of Strangers”

HBO/The Orchard

In Contention: “The Music of Strangers” came about during the editing of “The Great Invisible,” as Margaret Brown shared L.A. space with Morgan Neville, who told Weyermann about his Yo-Yo Ma road movie. “It’s about how a story focuses on the power of music and culture to bridge divides,” said Weyermann, “when politics and nothing else can bring people together. It’s a group of musicians in conflict zones who create incredible music and inspire each other and all of us.” It’s also the third-highest grossing doc of the year ($1.17 million), behind “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” ($2.7 million) and “Weiner” ($1.7 million).

Alex Gibney went to Participant at the start of the process of making terrifying Stuxnet thriller “Zero Days” (Magnolia), which required real resources as he reported ahead of the journalism curve. Weyermann isn’t sure the movie would have been made otherwise: “The reporting was critical on that, because so many people didn’t then and still don’t want to talk about it.”

Prime Asset: Weyermann seems custom-made for her role at Participant, a production company that defines itself as dedicated to issues of social justice. After representing indigent clients as a public interest lawyer, Weyermann earned an MFA in film from Columbia College in Chicago. “I was interested in justice, equality, and human rights,” she said in a phone interview. “I was always focused on documentary from day one. What interested me was stories about people and the human condition.”

After film school, she doled out grants for the now defunct J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Soros Documentary Fund before running the documentary program at the Sundance Institute, where she not only granted funds but also conducted editing and composing labs. At Soros, she backed the Oscar-nominated “Calling the Ghosts,” South African filmmaker Andy Jacobson’s look at war crimes and rape in Bosnia, “one of the first films that took that on,” she said.

Last Quote: “When I meet someone who has seen ‘Food Inc.’ they say, ‘it changed the way I see food,’ whether they read labels all the time, only buy certain types of produce depending on where it was grown. Something connected with people that got them to consider the choices they make in their daily lives.”

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