HBO Documentary Films

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
HBO Documentary Films
Company typeDivision
IndustryFilm, cable television
Key people
  • Nancy Abraham
  • Lisa Heller
ProductsFilms and miniseries
ParentHome Box Office, Inc.

HBO Documentary Films is an American production and distribution company, a division of the cable television network HBO that produces non-fiction feature films and miniseries.

The division releases between 10 and 15 documentaries per year for the network and provides limited theatrical distribution of certain films prior to their initial broadcast on HBO's linear television and streaming services.


The unit's longtime chief was Sheila Nevins, who initially served as Director of Documentary Programming from 1979 to 1982; upon returning in 1986, she headed HBO's documentary unit under various executive capacities (as Vice President of Documentary Programming, as Senior [later, Executive] Vice President of Original Programming and, beginning in 2004, as President of HBO Documentary Films) and served as executive producer of most of its documentary productions until she left the network in March 2018. Under Nevins, HBO's documentaries have won 35 News and Documentary Emmy Awards, 42 Peabody Awards, and 26 Academy Awards as well as 31 individual Primetime Emmy Awards honored to Nevins.[1][2] In December 2017, Nevins announced she would be stepping down from her position, with Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller set to replace her.[3][4]

The network's first successful documentary was the six-part 1979 miniseries Time Was, a Dick Cavett-hosted retrospective that took a historical look at an individual decade in the 20th century—from the 1920s up to the 1970s—over the course of each episode. 1981's She's Nobody's Baby—produced in conjunction with Ms. magazine—traced the evolution of the societal role of American women during the 20th Century; the special earned HBO its first Peabody Award, the first to be won by a pay television service and the first of many HBO documentaries to receive the prestigious award.[5][6] HBO also produced a series of informational documentaries in partnership with Consumer Reports starting in 1980, detailing information on subjects encompassing product safety, personal finance and health.[7][8] One such documentary, AIDS: Everything You and Your Family Need to Know..But Were Afraid to Ask, which aired in 1987 at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., was hosted by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and provided factual information on the AIDS and HIV viruses.[7][9]

In 2006, film director Spike Lee made a two-part four-hour documentary on Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Also in 2006, documentary artist Lauren Greenfield directed Thin, a feature-length film about four young women struggling with eating disorders seeking treatment at the Renfrew Clinic in Florida. 2008 saw the U.S. television premiere of Baghdad High, which depicted the lives of four boys attending a high school in the Iraqi capital city over the course of one year, through a video diary filmed by the documentary's principal subjects who were provided cameras to film the project.[10]

Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi and former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey at the New York City premiere of Pelosi's HBO documentary about McGreevey, Fall to Grace, in March 2013.

In November 2008, HBO paid low seven figures for the U.S. television rights to the Amy Rice–Alicia Sams documentary By the People: The Election of Barack Obama. The film—which had a limited theatrical release in New York City and Los Angeles, and aired on HBO in November 2009—covered Obama's 2006 trip to Africa, his presidential primary campaign, the 2008 general election and his first Presidential inauguration.[11] In November 2012, HBO aired the four-part documentary, Witness, which devoted each part to one of four conflict regions—Juarez, Libya, South Sudan and Rio de Janeiro—as covered by a team of photojournalists based in those regions.[12] On March 28, 2013, the channel premiered the Alexandra Pelosi-directed Fall to Grace, about the infidelity scandal that led to the 2011 resignation of New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey and resulted in him coming out as gay.[13][14] That same year, HBO produced and distributed Life According to Sam a documentary film based on the life of Sam Berns.[15][16][17]

In February 2015, HBO premiered a six-part documentary from Andrew Jarecki, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, chronicling the mystery surrounding the New York real estate heir's alleged involvement in the unsolved 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathie Durst; the 2000 execution-style killing of writer Susan Berman; and the 2001 death and dismemberment of Durst's neighbor, Morris Black. The miniseries gained broader exposure after Durst was arrested on first-degree murder charges in relation to Berman's death on March 14, 2015 (one day prior to the docuseries's finale). The evidence leading to his arrest included an envelope left by Berman after her murder and provided to the filmmakers for analysis by her stepson, Sareb Kaufman, with misspelled block letter handwriting matching an anonymous envelope sent to police in December 2000 to alert them to Berman's murder, and a rambling apparent confession by Durst—unaware that the microphone attached to him for his interview with Jarecki was still recording—to the murders of all three victims.[18][19]

HBO has also produced recurring documentary series, among the earliest and most notable being America Undercover, a monthly one-hour series of topical documentaries covering subjects in an un-sensationalized manner.[20][21] The America Undercover banner would go on to spawn two regular sub-series: Real Sex (a late night magazine-formatted series of specials that ran from 1992 to 2009, featuring frank explorations on a variety of mainstream and non-mainstream sexual matters[7]) and Autopsy (a series of specials that aired between 1994 and 2008, in which forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden provides analysis on criminal, suspicious and health-related death cases). One of America Undercover's most notable specials was 1985's Soldiers in Hiding, focusing on homeless veterans of the Vietnam War living in the wilderness, which was the first Academy Award nomination for a cable television service in the Best Documentary category (although HBO has had some of its documentaries enter limited theatrical release to qualify for Oscar nominations in later years).[7] HBO is also noted for its Sports of the 20th Century documentary brand. One of its most notable documentaries from that series was Dare to Dream, a 2005 film about the U.S. Women's Soccer Team and the roles of Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett and Julie Foudy in the team's rise to prominence in sports.

Through a partnership with Vice Media, the network ran a monthly docuseries, Vice, featuring in-depth reports from host/creator/Vice magazine co-founder Shane Smith and a team of correspondents investigating political and cultural topics and using an immersionist filmmaking style. Running for six seasons from April 2013 to December 2018, the show won an Emmy Award for "Outstanding Informational Series or Special" in 2014.[22] Vice was cancelled on February 1, 2019, as part of a broader corporate reorganization at Vice Media; a companion daily news show, Vice News Tonight, was cancelled on June 10, 2019, when HBO announced it would be terminating its seven-year partnership with the company. (The Vice docuseries moved to Showtime and Vice News Tonight moved to Vice on TV in March 2020.)[23][24][25][26]

In 2020, HBO premiered The Vow, a documentary series revolving around NXIVM directed by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer.[27][28] The series was renewed for a second and final season, which premiered in October 2022.[29]

In 2021, HBO premiered Allen v. Farrow, a documentary series examining the allegations made by Dylan Father against her father Woody Allen.[30] The first episode garnered over a million viewers, the most for an HBO documentary series since The Case Against Adnan Syed in 2019.[31] The series went on to earn several Primetime Emmy Award nominations.[32]

In 2022, HBO acquired television and streaming rights to All That Breathes directed by Shaunak Sen, and All the Beauty and the Bloodshed directed by Laura Poitras, both of which went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film.[33][34][35]

In 2023, HBO premiered Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York directed by Anthony Caronna, and executive produced by Liz Garbus, Dan Cogan and Charlize Theron.[36] and Telemarketers directed by Adam Bhala Lough and Sam Lipman-Stern, executive produced by Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, David Gordon Green and Danny McBride, revolving around two employees set to expose the telemarketing industry.[37]


  1. ^ Vicki Salemi (September 16, 2017). "Executive Producer Sheila Nevins Shares Five Career And Life Lessons". Forbes. Retrieved July 22, 2020.
  2. ^ "The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Announces Winners at the 38th Annual News & Documentary Emmy® Awards" (PDF). National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. October 5, 2017. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 7, 2017. Retrieved July 22, 2020.
  3. ^ Lewis, Hilary (December 16, 2017). "Sheila Nevins Stepping Down From HBO Documentary Films After 38 Years". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  4. ^ Petski, Denise (December 19, 2017). "HBO Taps Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller As Co-Heads Of Doc & Family Programming". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  5. ^ "41st Annual Peabody Awards". Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. May 1982.
  6. ^ "HBO Shows that Brought Home Peabodys". Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Archived from the original on June 7, 2020. Retrieved September 16, 2014.
  7. ^ a b c d Bill Mesce (October 11, 2013). "It's Not TV: HBO, The Company That Changed Television: An Original Voice". Sound on Sight. Archived from the original on December 17, 2013. Retrieved February 1, 2014.
  8. ^ "Monitor: CU on HBO". Broadcasting. October 15, 1979. p. 61.
  9. ^ Shayne Pepper (June 2014). "HBO and the Story of HIV/AIDS". Communication Currents – via NEIU Digital Commons.
  10. ^ Mike Hale (August 4, 2008). "Girls, Gunfire and Despair: 'Baghdad High' Chronicles Senior Year for 4 Iraqi Boys". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 19, 2019.
  11. ^ Michael Jones (November 6, 2008). "HBO inaugurates Obama doc". Variety.
  12. ^ Jakob Schiller (November 21, 2012). "HBO's Witness Goes Inside the Pulse-Pounding World of Conflict Photographers". Wired.
  13. ^ "Fall to Grace". HBO. Retrieved March 22, 2013.
  14. ^ Carl Swanson (March 22, 2013). "Jim McGreevey Needs Your Approval". New York. Retrieved March 22, 2013.
  15. ^ "Life According to Sam". Retrieved June 29, 2017.
  16. ^ Robin Marantz Henig (2005-01-30). "Racing With Sam". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-06-30.
  17. ^ "Sam Berns 10/23/96 - 01/10/14".
  18. ^ Mike Hale (February 6, 2015). "'The Jinx,' 6-Part HBO Documentary on Robert Durst". The New York Times. Retrieved May 18, 2020.
  19. ^ Catherine E. Shoichet; Eliott C. McLaughlin (March 24, 2015). "Robert Durst denied bail; new details emerge in case". CNN. Retrieved May 18, 2020.
  20. ^ "Cablecastings: HBO realities". Broadcasting. March 26, 1984. p. 7.
  21. ^ "Truth is steamier than fiction in new HBO documentaries". Broadcasting. April 2, 1984. p. 66.
  22. ^ "HBO's 'VICE' Wins Emmy for Outstanding Informational Series or Special". Sound & Picture. August 18, 2014. Retrieved May 18, 2020.
  23. ^ Keach Hagey (February 1, 2019). "Vice Media eliminates 10% of its workforce, including its flagship HBO show". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved May 18, 2020. (subscription required)
  24. ^ Denise Petski (September 24, 2019). "Showtime Acquires 'Vice' Weekly Newsmagazine For Spring Premiere". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved May 18, 2020.
  25. ^ Oliver Darcy (June 10, 2019). "HBO cancels 'Vice News Tonight,' severing relationship with Vice Media". CNN Business. Retrieved May 18, 2020.
  26. ^ Nellie Andreeva (August 16, 2019). "'Vice News Tonight' Lands At Viceland Cable Network". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved May 18, 2020.
  27. ^ Pederson, Erik (April 18, 2019). "HBO Sets Docuseries On NXIVM, Self-Help Group Tied To Sex-Trafficking Case". Deadline Hollywood. Archived from the original on August 28, 2019. Retrieved May 17, 2020.
  28. ^ "HBO Documentary Series to Look Inside the NXIVM Organization". HBO. April 18, 2019. Archived from the original on May 24, 2020. Retrieved May 17, 2020.
  29. ^ "HBO Original Documentary Series THE VOW Part Two Debuts October 17". WarnerMedia. August 29, 2022. Archived from the original on August 29, 2022. Retrieved August 29, 2022.
  30. ^ "HBO Documentary Films' Four-Part Documentary Series ALLEN v. FARROW, From Award-Winning Investigative Filmmakers Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering And Amy Herdy, Debuts February 21". WarnerMedia. February 5, 2021. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  31. ^ Maglio, Tony (February 23, 2021). "'Allen v Farrow' Has Biggest Debut for an HBO Docuseries in 2 Years (Exclusive)". Retrieved February 23, 2021.
  32. ^ Carey, Matthew (July 13, 2021). ""We Hear You, We Believe You": 'Allen v. Farrow' Director Says Emmy Nominations Send Message To Sex Abuse Survivors". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  33. ^ Ravindran, Manori (May 19, 2022). "HBO Documentary Films Buys Cannes Title and Sundance Winner 'All That Breathes' (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  34. ^ Carey, Matthew (September 8, 2022). "HBO Documentary Films Acquires Laura Poitras Oscar Contender 'All The Beauty And The Bloodshed' Ahead Of TIFF North American Premiere". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved September 8, 2022.
  35. ^ Lang, Brent; Moreau, Jordan (January 24, 2023). "Oscar Nominations 2023: 'Everything Everywhere' Leads With 11 Nods, Followed by 'Banshees' and 'All Quiet'". Variety. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  36. ^ "HBO Original Docuseries LAST CALL: WHEN A SERIAL KILLER STALKED QUEER NEW YORK Debuts July 9". Warner Bros. Discovery. June 21, 2023. Retrieved July 2, 2023.
  37. ^ "HBO Original Docuseries TELEMARKETERS Debuts August 13". Warner Bros. Discovery. July 26, 2023. Retrieved August 9, 2023.