New York: HBO’s Sheila Nevins documentary programming

Sheila Nevins

In the  US and overseas two organizations have become more prominent over the last few years at film and television festivals: the French-German consortium arte, and the U.S. based HBO. A growing number of their productions have been selected and received a disproportionate number of awards. HBO and arte are now leading funders and producers of outstanding documentaries and feature films. This article covers HBO and a different one will cover arte.    For HBO much credit for the success and expansion of the documentary film division goes to its president Sheila Nevins. Since she joined the company 30 years ago, she has honed her considerable skills and has become an undisputed expert on audience trends, documentary competitive edges, relevance and the crafts of production.

Nevins is probably the most powerful executive in the US documentary industry. Under her stewardship, documentary productions for HBO and HBO2 rose to 45 in 2010, up from the 27 documentaries Nevins exec produced for HBO and Cinemax in 2001.  This extraordinary record has to be seen in the context of a crashed commercial market for feature length documentaries, the steep decline in PBS documentary funding, and the virtual absence in the US of documentary support from foundations.

Her achievements are reflected in the large number of awards HBO received for documentaries which have included to date 21 documentary and short Oscars, 47 Emmys, and 31 Peabodys.  Driving this success is Nevins’ embrace of controversial, sexy, but relevant ground breaking themes others would not touch and HBO’s track record of superb production values.  She has been opening new thematic territories and as she has stated, no topic is sacrosanct provided it can be presented as an outstanding documentary.  Among her best known productions are REAL SEX, BORN INTO BROTHELS, HURRICANE KATRINA, THE FALLING MAN, ALIVE DAY MEMORIES, the just released WARTORN 1861 – 2010 and the forthcoming SECRETS OF THE TRIBE. What further fosters her success is a growing orientation to universal themes and international topics which is beneficial for HBO’s rapid expansion in foreign markets.  For established filmmakers HBO has an obvious professional and funding appeal, though up to 70% of HBO’s documentaries originate in house, 15% receive completion funding and the remainder is outright acquisitions.

On Veteran’s Day 2010, HBO programmed Wartorn: 1861-2010, a solid and most appropriate contribution analyzing the consequences of war.  WARTORN is a superbly crafted documentary on post traumatic stress disorder as experienced by American soldiers from the civil war on with a special emphasis on the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As Homer suggested in The Odyssey “Must you carry the bloody horror of combat in your heart forever?”. Through case studies, interviews and   outstanding archival pictures and footage, WARTORN is sobering and disturbing, forcing the viewer to face the fact that most soldiers return from their war experience with rarely healing invisible psychic wounds.  Only soldiers without compassion and empathy can go through the horror and violence of war without interior scars.  U.S. Army generals Ray Odierno in charge of troops in Iraq and Peter Chiarelli, Vice Chief of Staff readily admit that up to 30% of the combat troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post traumatic stress disorders. Killing   enemy soldiers and civilians in military and counter terrorism actions leaves haunting memories and nightmares.  There is no effective army program in place reaching all veterans affected by PTSD, nor is there testing of recruits to identify those likely to suffer from traumatic stress once in war. Each third soldier coming back is psychologically damaged and many of these veterans commit suicide, end up in prison or mental institutions. Of veterans in prison 39% have been diagnosed as having PTSD.  As succinctly stated by Cheryl Pierce whose son Noah shot himself after two tours of duty in Iraq “The United States Army turned my son into a killer but they forgot to untrain him.”

The success of Nevins feature length documentaries plays a crucial role for HBO’s owner, Time Warner cable enterprises, since HBO generates about 25% of the revenue.  New distribution platforms like Netflix serving now 17 million mail and internet subscribers and the recent decline of pay TV subscribers in the US pose new challenges.  Correspondingly the international operations of HBO are becoming more important and are growing at a fast rate. Thus, more documentaries are produced appealing to an international audience such as recent film about the protest movement in Iran FOR NEDA, the fence along the US-Mexican border THE FENCE / LA BARDA, and now WARTORN. HBO Central Europe provides a model for the new orientation.  HBO is most active in Eastern Europe and covers currently HBO services in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Serbia/Montenegro, Moldova and Slovenia.   Programming is provided on a 24 hour basis in most of these countries. The impact of the daring and challenging   HBO documentary tradition can be seen in the recent Central Europe series Without Censorship.  It included productions from HBO Romania,  Czech, Hungary, and Poland  and featured  THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ION B. (on an  obscure  Bucharest Collage artist who suddenly rose to fame) recipient of the 2010  international Emmy for best documentary, SAVE EDWARDS  (struggle of a handicapped child),  HEAVEN HELL (people practicing bondage, sadism, masochism), BODY TEMPLES (cult of perfectly shaped bodies), LETS RUN AWAY FROM HER (attitude of an imperfect  family’s  members towards death),  LIFE IS AWESOME  (mother searching for the recipients of her son’s donated heart),  LOVERS ( friendship and sexuality of the disabled), INVISIBLE STRINGS (bond between two sisters who are  virtuosi violinists). In the recent Rumanian Film Festival in New York, three documentaries from HBO Romania figured prominently.  HBO Central Europe emphasizesBO Central Europe  locally produced or adapted programs such as BI TUPLI based on an Israeli drama format and IN TREATMENT. The latter will be available in Romania, Polish and Czech versions.  HBO Central Europe plans to produce 40 documentaries a year for local, regional and international distribution drawing on the long tradition of film making in Poland Hungary and the Czech Republic and benefitting from production costs which are much lower than in the United States. In contrast HBO Asia does not encourage local productions and carries English or subtitled documentary and film programs which originated in the U.S. As Sanjay Prasad a Time Warner Global M&A senior executive put, it new acquisitions in India by Time Warner will foster local and regional productions.

HBO in the United States and its international branches are setting quality markers for the competition and have become essential for the success of documentary feature films.

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