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Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

HBO Documentary Films’ VP Lisa Heller at Sheffield: “We look for observational films that are action-packed”

Sheffield Doc/Fest Session
What Do U.S. Broadcasters Want? How Much Do They Pay? Who? When? 2/3

U.S. channels spend more than $2.0 billion / year on Factual productions. But how can producers get a sliver of that huge pie? They need useful tools to analyse the channels and then to pitch the ideas that networks are most likely to buy. This session focuses on the ‘business of the documentary business.’

Lisa Heller, Vice President, HBO Documentary Films, the peak U.S. documentary broadcaster
Alex Graham, Chief Executive, Wall to Wall, a major UK producer whose is charging into the U.S.
Dawn Porter, Trilogy Films, an AETN Legal/Business Affairs exec who recently gave up her regular pay check to establish a new production company
Tom Koch, Vice President, PBS International, and a veteran distributor
Moderator: Peter Hamilton

(In Part 1, Alex Graham discusses how Wall to Wall approaches the huge U.S. market.)

Lisa Heller
Vice President, HBO Documentary Films
Lisa Heller oversees development, production, and promotion of HBO documentaries. She has served as programming executive on a range of films that have garnered major festival and award recognition. Lisa has worked on a number of independent documentaries and currently serves as board member of Creative Capital.


Yours would be the dream job for lots of the talented, young people who we enjoy meeting here at Sheffield, and who are at the beginning their journeys out into the documentary field. How did you find your way to HBO?

I started my career in public affairs in a small public TV station in Wisconsin. I did everything, including powdering noses before the newscasters went on air. On the side, I was also involved in an independent film collective.

When I moved to New York, I worked in the local public TV station, WNET, and then went to PBS’s P.O.V. strand, which seemed to marry the extraordinary reach of public television with my interest in independent social issue programming.  Eventually I became executive producer of P.O.V.

In the frenzy of preparing for the season at P.O.V, a contract had not yet been signed by a young producer, and she sold it to HBO before we aired it.

I met HBO’s president of documentaries, Sheila Nevins while we tried to work this out.  A few years later I was offered a  job at HBO, though I was uncertain about the move to corporate media. 

Now, ten years later, I continue to be surprised every day by this company’s deep and ongoing commitment to taking on serious social issues

HBO’s average prime time audience is more than a million viewers. This is more than Discovery’s. Yet HBO Docs seems more like a craft shop than a competitive hothouse. How would you describe your work environment?

HBO Documentaries is a very protected unit:

  • We are a pay TV service, so we are not advertiser-supported
  • There are no commercial breaks, and we are not constrained by minute-to-minute ratings or rigid lengths
  • The company allows us to do what we want, and need to do, in terms of the narrative of our films

What’s your level of staffing?

There are around five people like me who look at what’s going on in the world of films and documentaries. We’re very humble. We work closely with producers – we’re always looking at stacks of DVDs. We’re really about editorial.

There are separate business affairs, budgeting and promotional departments.

The Pipeline

In a recent New York Times interview, your president Sheila Nevins said that your unit will screen 45 films in 2010.

We complete 30-50 docs a year. It varies. They range ‘from the profound to the profane’. It’s a good, balanced mix, though really very small in comparison to the output of UK channels.

Are you actively involved from the beginning in all of these films?

About half of our projects are developed from scratch, and the other half are either acquisitions or they fall somewhere in between. For example, each year we contribute finishing funds to several projects.

We invest development funding in about half (7-12 projects) of the films that we commission from scratch.

What in particular are you looking for?

We look for observational films that are action-packed.  We like stories that capture life as it unravels in front of the camera.

It’s not a science – and generally we’re looking for somethig that’s hard to describe – i.e. something that moves us. And that is something that you don’t always know until you see it.

All Sizzle?

You win Oscars and nominations year after year. Do you screen for docs with Oscar potential?

Awards are a very important part of our investment because they help get attention for this work in a crowded environment.

  • But we don’t require that each film come with award guarantees attached
  • We like films with ‘noise’ potential
  • We rely on editorial coverage because we don’t have a big marketing budget

Our viewers are HBO subscribers who pay us a monthly fee to make and air programs.

  • We show a film many, many times over the course of its license
  • We premiere films with a lot of fuss
  • They might get 6-12 plays in the first six weeks, and we might end up playing them at all times of the day and night on all our channels

Many viewers are seeing our docs through our On-Demand service because people can view them whenever they want. Cumulatively the films get great exposure.

The Money Thing?

You spend a lot of money. Do you wholly own your films? That is the strategy for, say, AETN’s networks, including History.

Our investment is related to our level of ownership. We prefer to own all rights, but the rights are relative to how much of the budget we’re providing.  A separate department from ours works on making deals with filmmakers.

We won’t ask you about your budgets for particular films. But what is the range of budgets for HBO Docs? We have heard that very special ‘event’ features can be budgeted up and beyond the million dollar level. An example would be a film in your the 2012 multi-part Obesity project.  

There is a very wide range. Our budgets depend on the project:  the location, the time expended, the talent involved, rights, music, and so on. 

We’re in the editorial department and not the budgeting unit, so that’s not my focus.  There may be films that are budgeted at a very high level, but they’re unique. And the range below that depends on many factors, especially rights.

(According the recent The New York Times feature on Sheila Nevins: “On average HBO pays in the “mid to high hundreds of thousands per hour, equal to the highest end of PBS,” said one executive who has worked in both worlds. The difference? HBO pays immediately, while public television can take five years.”

(Also at the top end, Variety reported that HBO paid “low seven figures for U.S. TV rights” for By the People: The Election of Barack Obama ).

Bringing on New Talent?

How would you work with a producer who is unknown to you, but has a great idea?

First, there is a small group of producers who we work with again and again. Jon Alpert is a good example.

An excellent case study of a new producer is Gemma Atwal who directed Marathon Boy (Shows Clip 2). It was a co-pro between her company, One Horse Town Productions and Alan Hayling’s Renegade Pictures.

We didn’t know Gemma, but we did know Alan. She gave him a 5-minute clip, which he sent on to us. She had already won some BBC support, and had shot material.

We came in when the cutting started, and got them to come to New York. Gemma had already spent 5-6 years on the project.  We love that – working with deeply-committed filmmakers! The footage played like a movie, very dramatic.

Gemma was so passionate that we knew it would be a great film. Of course we’ll take full credit for it (laughs), and we’re heavily promoting Marathon Boy at festivals, and so on.   

Out of the 45 or so films that HBO Docs airs each year, how many fall into the ‘international’ category, or have a setting or dimension outside the U.S.?

The range varies over time. I would estimate that about 16 of this year’s films have international content. Of these, 12 or so are non-U.S. films, and many them are acquisitions.

A recent example is For Neda, the Antony Thomas film about Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who was killed during the 2009 Iranian protests. We were involved in that project from the very beginning.

We usually pair new talent with experienced producers, and we use as many newcomers as veteran producers.

We usually get to know the new talent by acquiring a film from them and rolling it out on the channel. That’s a very intense experience! Next time around it’s much easier to pitch new ideas to us because the relationship has been established.

Many thanks to Jan Euden (reeljems) for taking notes at our  session.

Coming Next / Sheffield

  • Dawn Porter: Breaking in (as an independent producer) after breaking out (of the good life as a senior AETN LBA exec)
  • Tom Koch: Trends at PBS
  • Q&A


World Congress of Science and Factual Producers
Tuesday, 30 November, 3:30PM, Dresden, Germany
Panel: Profiles of U.S. Science & History Commissioners
Susan Werbe
, History Channel
Michael Hoff, Hoff Productions
Dawn Porter, Trilogy Films
Peter Hamilton, Moderator

If you are attending Dresden, contact Peter Hamilton now to schedule a conversation about your strategy.



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