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5 Lessons From Sheila Nevins, President Of HBO Documentary Films

– Posted in: Interview

I had the privilege of attending a Power Talk at the Barnard Athena Center between Barnard President Debora Spar and President of HBO Documentary Films, Sheila Nevins. Nevins’ projects have won 24 primetime Emmy Awards, 28 news and documentary Emmy Awards, 23 Academy Awards, and 35 George Foster Peabody Awards, including a personal Peabody in 1999. The candid and spirited discussion covered diverse topics including the film industry in general, the state of women in filmmaking, management and career advice and work/life balance issues. Here are five of my favorite takeaways:

  • Great careers can be stumbled upon opportunistically.

Nevins shared that her first TV job was intended to be research, except that she saw the call for auditions, attended that instead and founder herself with a role that last three years. Since she already knew people in TV, she used that network to get to HBO where she stayed for 30 years

  • You don’t know if a film will be good but you do know if you should pursue it.

Nevins focuses on whether the decision to green-light a movie is sound, recognizing that the movie itself after it comes out may or may not do well. Besides, the metric for whether a movie is a success can change. (Critical acclaim? Audience? Profits?) In deciding to pursue films, Nevins looks for a story with lasting interest since it takes 18 months before the film debuts

  • Dream big, but follow what’s possible

I found Nevins’ remarks around the topic of succeeding in the film world frighteningly candid. She talked about “self-limiting” herself and credited it with her survival in the business. For example, she worked on documentaries when she wanted to do fiction, and she said she didn’t want to run a company when she in fact did. “I wasn’t going to step over the line for any passion,” Nevins said at one point when she talked about focusing on keeping her job and salary over creative pursuits.

  • “I long for an off/on switch, but they don’t make it anymore”

Nevins talked about how the work hours are relentless. She referred to it as having no schedule because you are on 24/7.

  • “‘Every day is a challenge, and I’m always nervous”

When asked for a time when she overcame a career challenge, Nevins declined to answer that question, saying that it implied a linearity that isn’t there – i.e., one challenge, then rest, another challenge, then rest. Instead, she talked about constantly trying to improve and not resting on her laurels. “I’m old,” Nevins confessed, “but so what? I’m good.”

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