Reel Talk

The Story Behind The Success Of HBO Film Powerhouse Sheila Nevins ’60

By Melissa Phipps

If you have ever laughed or, more likely, cried watching a documentary on cable television, you should probably thank Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films. Widely considered the most powerful person in non-fiction filmmaking, Nevins has spent more than 30 years supporting and overseeing the development of fascinating documentary features for HBO and Cinemax. Within a few minutes of watching selected clips from a handful of the 500 films she has helped produce, it’s easy to see why Nevins is such an important figure in the world of documentaries. From the eye-opening examination of gays in film, The Celluloid Closet, to the justice-serving story of the wrongfully accused West Memphis Three in the Paradise Lost series, to the wildly entertaining act of Elaine Stritch at Liberty, to racy real-life series such as Taxicab Confessions, and on and on, Nevins has helped change the scope of what we watch on TV. At last count, Nevins’s productions have garnered 23 Oscars, 52 Emmys, and 35 Peabody awards. She has a personal Peabody for excellence in broadcasting, a 2009 Governor’s Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and a 2011 Directors Guild of America Award for supporting the advancement of documentary as a genre. In the first Athena Center Power Talk of 2013, the outspoken Nevins opened up to Barnard President Debora Spar about her remarkable career and why she still doesn’t consider herself a success. 

In her introduction, Spar referred to Nevins as a Barnard legend and started the conversation by asking what the audience wanted to know: How did she do it? Like so many trailblazers, Nevins’s career path did not go as planned. A New York native, she had always wanted to work in the theater. She studied dance at the High School of Performing Arts, and after “working very, very hard at Barnard” as an English major, Nevins went on to get a master’s degree in theater directing at Yale University drama school. At Yale, she met and married a lawyer who was hoping for a doting 1960s housewife. He discouraged the theater idea, so Nevins joined the more 9-to-5 world of public television instead. “I just wanted a job,” Nevins said. “I wanted a paycheck.” After working on a few educational shows for children, she took a risk on the nascent Home Box Office in the late 1970s. The concept of paying for commercial-free television was new and unproven. “Cable?,” asked Nevins. “I went to the 42nd Street Library and looked it up. It sounded good, so I went and got the job, and I’m still here.” 

While it may have been unplanned, her career ascent was no fluke. She proudly and often repeats how very good she is at what she does. Calling herself ruthless, she also told the audience she is fair. She has developed an ear for stories, and a gut that tells her what people will want to watch, not just today but 18 months from now and beyond. Most importantly, Nevins said, “I’ve earned the right to be wrong, which is a great right to earn, and that’s probably what success is: the right to be wrong.” 

However, it is not easy for Nevins to admit to her success. Her first marriage ended, and she could have spent less time at work during the years her son was growing up. She does not let herself off the hook, “I failed a lot. I failed as a mother. I failed as a wife. I consider myself very accomplished but don’t consider myself a success.” Even in her career, she said, she could have strived for more, “I drew a circle around myself, a protected area where no one could get me.” She added, “At the time I started to work, I wanted to limit myself to a world where I could be successful.”

Nevins’s perspective is important, said Spar, and is a major point in an ongoing conversation. Do we demand more advancement and responsibility at work or more balanced working lives? Spar has followed the topic closely as she researched her forthcoming book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this fall. You can have it all, but you can’t have it easy. There are trade-offs. Said Spar, “If anyone tells you there aren’t, they are lying. Sheila’s not lying.” 

To young women starting out on a career path, Nevins keeps her advice simple and straightforward: Don’t be defensive about getting someone else’s coffee. “Getting coffee for other people is part of life. That shouldn’t be something wrong.” In other words, you can be hindered by your own sense of entitlement. “No one,” Nevins said, “is entitled to success.” 

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