There is competition in the HBO documentary. These women do not seem to worry.

A central part of the national conversation with the documentary, it’s easy to forget that not only were they once relatively hard to find but they also had a deadly reputation as being good for you – the kiss of death in entertainment matters .

In the 1970s, a new player helped change it.

“HBO Documentaries That Were No Spinach, “said Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney, whose eight projects for the cable network” May Maxima Kulpa: Silence in the House of God “came back in 2012 and recently joined “Agents of Anarchy,” About the hacking of the 2016 election. “They were exciting.”

And such a person was in charge: flamboyant, larger than life Sheila Navins, Who had been with the network since 1979 and was the chief Documentary unit, Must watch TV and water-cooler fodder In early 2018, after Nevins left the network, Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller, who already worked in the company’s documentary division, stepped into the role and now HBO Shared the title of Executive Vice President of Documentary and Family Programming for.

Gibney said Nevis relied on colleagues such as Abraham and Heller to “deal with filmmakers on a day to day basis”. “By elevating Lisa and Nancy, HBO elevated people who have longstanding relationships with filmmakers – they know how to work with them, which is extremely important.”

Just as important is to learn how to navigate a documentary landscape that has evolved rapidly over the past decade. Audience’s appetite for nonfiction has increased as new funding sources such as Kickstarter have emerged, and new formats such as podcasts. New and inexpensive technology at the same time has helped democratize the medium, and competition has exploded amid deep platforms hungry for documentary content. The biggest game-changer, Netflix, distributed the three most recent Oscar-winners for Best Documentary Feature.

Abraham, 55, and 52-year-old Heller, turn out to be low-key, pragmatic and methodical, an easygoing attitude when you oversee a department that accounted for nearly 30 features and a half-dozen series last year Was – a constant speed. Right now, HBO is in the middle of a block of five features, released weekly, focused on bad deeds: “Baby God” (December 2) is still to come, about a fertility doctor who gave his clueless patients Planted; “Alabama Snake” (December 9) about a Pentecostal minister who attempted to assassinate his wife with a snake; And “The Art of Political Murder” (December 16), about the murder of a Guatemalan activist.

Abraham and Heller recently said in an interview about the genre of video what they see in documentaries and whether some of them are too long. (Hint: His answer fits his approach to a T.) These are edited from excerpts of the conversation and a follow-up email.

We are in the middle of a programming block focused on true crimes and crimes. Is this part of a new strategy for HBO?

Nancy Abiram We had a bunch of crime films, or linked to crime last year. We do not have a mandate to develop any specific content areas, but stories about crimes and their refinancing have always been part of the HBO documentary DNA. It is a way to explore the complexity of human nature and the profound impact on crime and the criminal-justice system that can have on individuals and society at large.

Lisa Heller I think weekly crime blocks are a way of experimenting with whether viewers want to come back to a different story every week. We’ll see if that’s a good way to do it – usually we’ve spread them throughout the program. One way to indicate, “If it’s your jam, we’re going to give you something new and different every week, and a lot deeper and broader stories than you might expect.”

How has Netflix changed the dock game? Is it harder to get the stuff you want now, competing with Hulu, Showtime, FX and others?

Abraham: This is great for the region that already has more outlets that recognize the value and appeal of non-value; This creates a lot of opportunity for the documentary community. It also means that we are competing for people’s time and attention more than ever, but in many ways that make work better.

What do you think is a good documentary?

Abraham The question of where the story takes you, and its clues and the events that are happening, is open to being able to take advantage of it, and then looking back, may be able to almost concoct a story. Often in retailing or looking at archival footage, a new perspective will emerge, or something you did not expect. Sometimes it is the aesthetic style that enhances the look in new directions. We have a series coming from the Duplass brothers, “The Lady and the Dale”, in which directors Zacary Drucker and Nick Cammillary use innovative animation that melts seamlessly with the subjects’ memories.

Heller The surprising thing is this: something that changes the direction of your film, or on a story that is so deep and so broad after you get some headlines. Historically too, the best sounds as if you are revealing them in real time. “Atlanta is missing and murdered” Such a good example – just these things being ticked means a film versus a film that is actually unfolding in front of the camera in real time the way “The Wave”. [about the Nxivm cult] Does.

“Oath” There were nine episodes, and there is going to be another season next year. What do you understand by the explosion of the daughters-in-law?

Abraham We always did the occasional series, but I think it was after 2018 when we were really given the opportunity to expand into that subcategory.

Heller There were several factors, including the belief – or good guess – that this material could engage in the same way that it plays out over time. It was a big challenge to think about, and a great way to think of the nonfiction kind of expanding on real estate in a way that keeps people coming back for more.

Abraham When we go into a project, we do not necessarily have to be a feature or a series. We need to understand what collaborative the story is with the filmmaker.

What do you think some chains look like?

Abraham There may be instances where something is too far-fetched for some people to taste. We are trying to pay attention to that. For our purposes, now is no better.

Heller It is the separation between the audience about what we want and whether we will be left forever to our own devices. We try to find out where the story is going and let it drive as much as possible.

What do you believe that a director can translate a good pitch into a good film?

Heller A telltale sign of a successful documentary filmmaker if they are down the rabbit hole on something – they are clearly observing the storytelling and looking deeper. [James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte], Of “McMillions,” Were so down. [Laughs.] I think they put in a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] The request was probably three to five years before we even met him.

Abraham Another example is Mutali Mohammad, who directed “Joseph Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn,” Regarding the murder of Yusuf Hawkins in 1989. He spent years gaining the trust of the family in that matter.

Heller When the filmmaker attacks the treasure of the collection, there is nothing better that they did not know. This is the tastiest thing in the production process that can happen in a documentary.

Is it more palatable when a suspect self-destructs something on camera, as it happened “Jinks”The

Abraham It’s all delicious – it’s part of the meal. [Laughs.]

Can you give me an example of a film that succeeded in balancing a complex, perhaps morally ambiguous case with engaging storytelling?

Heller Liz garbus And his teamI will be gone in the darkThey were able to fold into several different threads without compromising the content or pulse of the show. The same with “Atlanta’s Missing and Murderred” – the story was created by all the voices, including the one you lost in the woods until now. We try not to be too short. If it sounds too simple or too pat, then it’s probably not a match for us.

The show neatly shows how many of your docs take the micro to get into the macro – you don’t really do a la Ken Burns in big surveys. Is this a conscious decision?

Heller We are interested in looking younger and wider. We find a story that is often myopic in a way, and that sheds light on a larger social issue or more universal theme. We are not going to survey any given topic – which can be very interesting, but there are other houses for it.

Abraham It is about understanding that these big systems – economic systems, social systems, race systems – affect individuals without us, necessarily being fully aware.

Are you getting offers about Kovid-19?

Heller Oh yes. March 13, we got, I think, about five. There was real compulsion to try to document what came out.

Abraham We have many things in the works.

Heller A Kovid block. [Laughs.] No, we are not going to block Kovid.

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