How HBO Executive Sheila Nevins Helped Usher in a Golden Era for Documentaries – Fortune | Episode Movies

Good morning broadsheet readers! Oprah supports politician John Fetterman, female unemployment rose in October and a new book explores how an HBO exec created a golden era for documentaries.

Felix Gillette and John Koblin are the authors of It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO. Her new book, out this week, examines how HBO became a cultural force and a cable juggernaut. In this exclusive excerpt, the authors outline the impact one executive — longtime HBO President of Documentaries Sheila Nevins — has had on the medium.

– Golden era. One morning in 1993, Sheila Nevins, HBO’s documentary director, was reading a news service article about three teenagers in West Memphis, Arkansas. The teenagers had just been arrested for allegedly murdering three 8-year-old children, and the small town on the west bank of the Mississippi was in turmoil.

Police declined to comment on a possible motive. But the city was filled with rumors of satanism, devil worship and the occult. Nevins was intrigued. She suspected that a documentary about devil worship could attract a large audience for HBO. With few for-profit institutions funding documentaries at the time, Nevins was able to make her choices of filmmakers to commission.

Nevins began working for HBO in 1978. In the early 1990s, she headed a department responsible for delivering a slate of programming that was relatively inexpensive and aimed at keeping existing HBO subscribers engaged with the service during the many breaks between HBO’s more expensive, high-profile trade shows, like the Premieres of recent Hollywood movies, boxing matches and original series.

Under Nevins, HBO had become a well-funded platform for filmmakers willing to delve deeply into the lives of those on the fringes of society. Drug addicts. cult members. Cheater. serial killer. And because they were on HBO, it could all be R-rated.

She reached out to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who had recently been fired brother’s keeper, a documentary about a murder in a farming community in rural New York. Berlinger and Sinofsky liked the idea, and a few weeks later they headed to the Mississippi River town. Over the next few months, they embedded themselves in the grieving families of the victims. Then they interviewed the three defendants who were locked up awaiting trial. The more they talked to the boys, the more their doubts about their guilt grew. They got in touch with Nevins on HBO. She advised the filmmakers to follow the story wherever it took them.

Three years later, HBO aired the resulting film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The debut of the HBO documentary sparked a firestorm. Critics balked at the heinousness of the crime and the community’s seemingly unjust rush for judgment. The teenagers quickly became known as the “West Memphis Three”. At film festivals, viewers crowded into question-and-answer sessions to pester the filmmakers with more details about the indictment and what could be done to help the teenagers face a new trial.

The state of Arkansas tried to discredit him paradise lost, which portrays the HBO film as a flash of sensational entertainment. But Berlinger, Sinofsky and Nevins were not going away that easily. Her commitment to history was just beginning.

Four years later, HBO aired a follow-up titled Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. But despite growing outrage, the West Memphis Three remained behind bars. Again, Nevins encouraged the filmmakers to follow the story to the end.

They did – for another 11 years. They premiered in 2011 Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the final film in the HBO trilogy. In the film, the lanky, fresh-faced teenagers of the first part are showing signs of middle age. The men, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Lloyd Misskelley Jr., who were released from prison after serving more than 18 years, watched the film alongside Nevins and her crew to a rousing ovation of sadness, anger and relief.

The HBO trilogy not only helped free three wrongly imprisoned teenagers, but also helped launch an ongoing and far-reaching boom in commercial true-crime documentaries. The years that followed saw a plethora of popular multi-part crime series, ranging from HBO’s The Staircase to Netflix’s Making a Murderer to This American Life.

For those who believed in the loftier parts of HBO’s mission — particularly the channel’s stated desire to embody some sort of muscular, Dickensian social consciousness — it was arguably the greatest night in the network’s history. Here was proof that heavily promoting video art can mean something more meaningful than the usual self-interested focus on ratings, profits and awards. Sometimes HBO could deliver justice.

“It felt good,” says Nevins. “It felt right. I felt like we had done something important and that we had given these children some kind of life.”

It was also a validation of the HBO method Nevins had inherited from Albert and David Maysles — the pioneering brothers behind influential direct-to-film documentaries like give me shelter, salespersonand Gray Gardens– and refined over decades. Point the cameras at everyday people. Capture their struggle to survive whatever life has thrown at them.

“The belief that if you stick to it and sit long enough that this session with a real person or experience will produce something very valuable is sort of our motto,” Nevins says. “We are very patient for a very impatient medium.”

It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO, by Felix Gillette and John Koblin.

Courtesy of Viking

excerpt from It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO by Felix Gillette and John Koblin. Copyright © 2022 by Felix Gillette and John Koblin. Published in consultation with Viking Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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