With the burgeoning Golden Age of documentaries, top non-fiction talent has never been more in demand. After landing a big promotion at A&E that put her charge of series as well as television, Molly Thompson got snapped up by deep-pocketed Apple TV to run their documentary content; one of the Silicon Valley giant’s first big buys was upcoming documentary “Elephant Queen.” And now MTV Studios has hired ex-HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins to launch MTV Documentary Films.
There’s competition for top documentary talent and Nevins knows how to get it. Even in the specialty film world, documentaries are about the only thing working these days as theatrical narrative films are looking less and less commercially viable.
At HBO, Nevins reigned atop of the documentary pyramid for decades, adapting to more and more competition and new technology. Before Nevins’ exit from HBO a year ago, where she had served as president of HBO Documentary Films since 2004 (she joined the company in 1985), HBO documentaries had scored 85 Oscar nominations and 26 wins, with 11 nominations and 4 wins for Cinemax, not to mention dozens of Emmy and Peabody awards. She ran her independent fiefdom separate from the Warner Bros. corporate culture, she said in a phone interview, until recently as the AT&T merger loomed. “I was never bored at HBO.”
Her legacy includes such films as “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” “When the Levees Broke,” “Paradise Lost,” “America Undercover,” “Taxicab Confessions” and the Oscar-winning “Citizenfour.”
Nevins has always wanted to share, convince, score, and win. She’s fearless and confident, fiercely competitive and adaptive. An admitted workaholic who published her memoir in 2017 (“You Don’t Look Your Age…And Other Fairy Tales”) Nevins was not about to be satisfied with being put to pasture. Retirement was not in the cards. “No way I could graze,” she told IndieWire on the phone. “I can’t chew grass. I’m not good at it. My teeth aren’t good enough. I’m sick of looking at other people’s grandchildren. They all look alike. Why not be challenged? I am energized. I never read a book unless it was assigned for a documentary. My pleasure was work. That was my life. I wasn’t ready for suicide.”
While Nevins, who is 80, likes to joke that she could be MTV president Chris McCarthy’s great-grandmother, she was moved during a meeting when he told her he learned how to make peace with being gay watching her HBO documentaries. “This came up, it’s exciting,” she said. “It’s a spiritual and challenging face lift of a sort. I feel engaged. I’d like to take the 2020 election seriously, without being too polemic and political; we are in a sorry state and it’s time to inform without boring anybody.”
“Throughout her stellar career, Sheila has elevated documentaries into one of the most compelling, culturally influential forms of modern storytelling,” stated McCarthy. “As we grow and expand MTV, we’re excited for Sheila to bring a new generation of filmmakers to the forefront and continue to extend our creativity and cultural impact.”
Nevins has the resources to hire people, she said, and pull in filmmakers, even though most of the ones she knows are “already working.” She’s ready to take on the challenge of targeting non-fiction specials (not series for now) to MTV’s younger demo, “and watch their attention spans and not pander.”
She admires not only the narrative re-enactment filming of “Three Identical Strangers,” but adventure docus like 2019 Oscar-winner “Free Solo” and political documentaries like “RBG.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg “turned out to be a superman and an action figure, which doesn’t happen much,” she said.
As part of MTV Studios, the new division will develop documentary films and specials for third-party streaming services, premium networks and MTV platforms. MTV Documentary Films will target a new generation of filmmakers exploring the social, political and cultural trends and stories important to young people. It will build on the heritage of MTV News and Docs and MTV Films which, for more than 20 years, produced groundbreaking content including the Emmy-Award winning series “True Life,” Oscar-nominated “Tupac: Resurrection” and “Hustle & Flow.”
Nevins knows she’s up against some powerful competitors. “Netflix has swept everything up,” she said. “They’re a lot of rent-payers out there, a lot of series to make. That’s where the money is.”
She will focus on specials which “are rarer,” she said, “and feel the landscape. The first step is to engage the audience, in a world they can make a difference in.”