Sheila Nevins is an institution.
An American television producer and head of MTV Documentary Films division of (Viacom-owned) MTV Studios since 2019, the 82-year-old Nevins previously was the President of HBO Documentary Films, where she produced over 1,000 docs.
She is, and remains, one of the most influential figures in documentary filmmaking.
So why exactly did she leave HBO?
She says she was given the gate, pushed out after 38 years of meritorious service — 26 Oscars; 32 Primetime Emmy Awards; 35 News and Documentary Emmys; and 42 Peabody Awards.
She accumulated so much hardware that HBO created a Nevins trophy room and nicknamed it, “The Holy Shrine of Sheila.”
Spike Lee, with whom she collaborated on “When the Levees Broke,” a 2006 documentary chronicling the devastation wrought upon New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, admits that Nevins could be aggressively opinionated, but often right.
“She wouldn’t just let you go and make what you wanted to make and not say anything,” he remarked.
“More times than not, what she suggested was better than my original thought.”
Sounds interesting…and reasonable.
Spike’s pretty smart.
Nevins’ original story ran counter to the truth, which was that she was pushed out.
All of the accolades were not enough, apparently.
In 2017, The New York Times reported that Nevins, the “profane, glamorous and grossly inappropriate” president of HBO Documentary Films, had decided to step down.
She told the Times that “I have deprived my life of a life. All I did was work. I was, like, born at HBO and I don’t have to die there.”
But this was a lie.
In fact she was kicked to the curb after 38 years, and as she filled a garbage bag with her office belongings, she was torn.
She felt more confused than content about how her career was wrapping up.
“Why was I beaten up and kicked out the door?” she asked.
“Was I too old? Was I costing them too much money?”
By the 2010s, Nevins was one of HBO’s longest-tenured execs, but she didn’t stress over appearing old and out of touch, in what was a youth-centric industry.
“I knew they couldn’t afford to lose me,” she remembered.
“I was wily.”
She was right in her self-assessment, but wrong, it turned out, in her career path judgment.
Though she took no guff, and gave as good as she got, the dam began to show cracks in 2005.
Water was seeping through during the network’s negotiations with venerated ABC News anchor, Ted Koppel, whom HBO was wooing, to create original programming.
Nevins didn’t want him around and “went on a scorched-earth campaign, the likes of which you’ve never seen before,” according to Jon Alpert, a filmmaker and longtime Nevins collaborator.
The deal was never made, which didn’t sit well with Koppel or the HBO brass.
Ultimately, it was Richard Plepler, the two-decades younger HBO exec and newly-minted CEO in 2013, who greased the skids for Nevins.
“Richard knew how to work her,” volunteered Mike Lombardo, who served as HBO’s co-president with Plepler in 2007.
“He would do this for years, he would be like, ‘How old is she again?’ He was out to f — k her from day one. I’d watch him with her. He was a master at it.”
Age discrimination aside, Plepler and Nevins had different tastes in documentaries.
Plepler favored projects that were celebrity-oriented; Nevins gravitated toward the grittier and more journalistic down-and-dirty content.
As time went on, Nevins felt that she had to push harder than ever to keep HBO’s documentaries rooted in real-world subjects.
She was losing her clout and decisions were being made by going over her head.
It was a ticking time bomb scenario.
And many of the filmmakers who worked with Nevins knew the real reasons she left.
Nevins acknowledged her reputation.
“I never would have worked for me,” she freely and directly conceded.
“Never. Not in a million years. What a bitch!
But I felt that I had earned the right to be difficult because I was being difficult for the product.”
And “the foulmouthed truth-teller,” always knew — and understood — the product.
She was fierce.
Two years after she moved to MTV — who by her own admission “…didn’t care how the f — k old I was” — the network scored its first-ever Emmy Award for a documentary, with “76 Days,” chronicling the Wuhan lockdown in 2020.
The competition she vanquished to win it?
The sweetest revenge is kindness.
The best revenge is success.
Let the record show that Sheila Nevins opted for the best revenge.
On her own terms.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in November 2021.]