Okay, so I'm a little behind with entries. Life get busy, what can I say? I still think Sheila Nevins is worthy news, even if I am almost a week late with it. Last Tuesday morning at 10am, Thom Powers walked on stage and introduced Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films. This introduction began IFP's Independent Filmmaker Conference's two day focus on documentary film.
The enthuseastic audience swooned and readily applauded, not just at Sheila Nevins' entrance, but over the entire hour she graced us with her presence. That included me, for Ms. Nevins is a force and she brings with that power a certain amount of undeniable charisma, which I believe speaks to at least part of why she has been so successful. And as a woman, it is incredibly energizing to see someone like her have an audience at her fingertips. But of course her body of work is so much more than her persona.
Ms. Nevins appears to balance her documentary sensibilities between risk and realism. She takes chances on certain pieces and this is in large part, I'm guessing, where her talent lies. Ms. Nevins seems to have the innate ability to see something coming and then see where it could lead. No doubt now that she's established this reputation, there is much pressure to maintain it. She even confessed that they (meaning her and her HBO team) are in fear of missing something. It's a rough business. I would think anyone in her position would feel that way.
Her practical side is her understanding of the market. She stated herself, people don't subscribe to HBO for docu's, but people will watch them. The films have to make "noise" though. It's not enough that it's a good story, or even good characters. Those stories and characters have to be delivered in a compelling new way, a fresh angle. She has an excellent point, with all the content out there and the growth of documentary films, each film has to be very special to stand out.
Gasland (2010) was sighted as a recent "noise" maker and Sheila Nevins referred to it as a piece that had a slow ripple effect. Another film which she noted as a risk, but not in a political way, was the Elaine Stritch documentary, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty (2004). It was an example of something that brought an audience that weren't normally docu aware. That being the theater crowd, and older female viewers. Ms. Nevins said, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty developed maybe not a noise, but a rumble.
Another topic Ms. Nevins talked some about was a documentary subject that's already been saturated or is considered dated. She brought up Haiti and the sheer amount of media coverage out there, which makes it difficult to find a new angle on it. Another point in particular to Haiti, and one that I found interesting, is when she said that HBO had started a production on Haiti and ended up bringing it to a hault. They realized they couldn't add to the sorrow of the situation in a constructive way. I wish the general media would consider this when doling out their trauma coverage of anything.
What I found most interesting about Sheila Nevins' food for thought that morning , was when she said, "You can't rattle the cage if it doesn't make noise." In other words (getting back to the "noise" reference), there is so much product out there, that if your project doesn't have something fresh to offer in terms of the way something or someone is perceived, that you may not have enough to get it from concept to distribution. Each piece has to offer discovery and Ms. Nevins used the word "discovery" several times throughout the hour. If your documentary can't make noise, whether it's a slow rumble or an explosion, it just might sit there, very quietly on a shelf.
That's just the reality of the market. Too much product, not enough venue. In a situation like that, many get edged out. After all, Ms. Nevins told it like it is - 95% of her job is saying "no" to people and it's not fun because people's heart and soul goes into these films. On the bright side, she did say the few discoveries they find are worth having to say all those "no's".
HBO Documentaries Films fills 45 slots each season which are a mixed of HBO productions and outside works. Ms. Nevins said they look at everything they are sent, so their next discovery could be you. That is if you can made some noise.