LOS ANGELES >> Sheila Nevins, the grande dame of documentary film, who left HBO in 2017 after nearly 40 years, has joined MTV to start a nonfiction film and specials division.
Nevins, 80, helped change the image of documentaries from stodgy to provocative during her reign at HBO, delivering the Oscar-winning “Citizenfour,” the ribald “Taxicab Confessions” and the incendiary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” along with roughly 1,500 other films and series. At MTV, a division of Viacom, she will develop projects for the network and for outside buyers, including streaming services.
“We couldn’t believe that Sheila would even take a meeting with us,” Chris McCarthy, 44, president of MTV, said in interview today. “As we grow and expand MTV, we see our role as amplifying young people’s voices. We’re excited for her to bring a new generation of filmmakers to the forefront.”
Nevins, true to form, gave a blunt answer when asked by phone why she was interested in the job.
“Somebody wants me!” she said. “Chris, who is my new boyfriend, did not want to put me out to pasture.”
Did that mean HBO had decided she was ready to retire? Her departure from the premium network had been positioned as her choice. (The network’s parent company, Time Warner, has since been acquired by AT&T, and its leadership has changed.)
“I’ll let my quote speak for itself,” she said dryly.
Nevins is joining an MTV that has battled its way back from near-irrelevance. McCarthy and Nina L. Diaz, MTV’s president of entertainment, have delivered seven consecutive quarters of year-on-year prime-time growth among viewers ages 18-34, according to Nielsen data. Successes include reality shows like “Ex on the Beach” and “Siesta Key.”
MTV Documentary Films will be part of MTV Studios, a division started by McCarthy last year to produce content for outside buyers, with an eye toward exploiting past hits. The first effort is a coming reboot of “The Real World,” which will run on Facebook’s Watch service. Facebook users will be able to interact with the cast.
Nevins said talks with MTV had come as a surprise. An MTV communications executive, Liza Burnett Fefferman, asked her to lunch; the two had worked together in 2014 on the publicity campaign for “Citizenfour.” A week after their reunion, Burnett Fefferman called Nevins to suggest meeting with McCarthy.
“It was like everyone else had expected me to go off and plant flowers and pad around in comfortable shoes,” Nevins said with a chortle. “Not even close!”