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With the exit of long-tenured film executive Lisa Nishimura on Thursday, Netflix has officially entered its austerity age — whatever that may mean for the streaming powerhouse.
Nishimura’s 15 years at the company have spanned the streaming boom, Oscar wins and multiple restructuring efforts. Noted one industry veteran that has long worked with Nishimura, “It’s a signal that the most thoughtful, taste-driven era is being driven out.”
Under film head Scott Stuber, the film division was long bifurcated according to budgets: tentpoles and indies, with the former sitting around the $30 million to $40 million and way upwards, and the latter sitting below that. Former exec Tendo Nagenda, who joined the streamer from the four-quadrant heavy hitter Disney, oversaw films like the Russo brothers’ The Gray Man and the Extraction films, as well as the Knives Out franchise and The Old Guard. Nishimura’s team oversaw, well, most everything else.
“When I joined, [my job] was to buy DVDs from all the non-major studios that were selling, whether it was English-language or foreign, fiction or nonfiction,” Nishimura said in a 2020 interview with The Hollywood Reporter. The output from Nishimura’s original film division ranged from film festival acquisitions and more auteur-driven features. It also oversaw the streamer’s rom-coms, which were the domain of Ian Bricke, who also exited as a part of this week’s restructuring. Netflix was credited with helping to revive the genre with original projects like Set It Up, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and the Kissing Booth films. Nishimura and Bricke were well-regarded in Hollywood, particularly in the indie filmmaking space, with the industry expressing general shock at their exits.
Nishimura long oversaw docs and docuseries, which earned the streamer its early awards success. Netflix’s first Oscar win came in 2017 with The White Helmets for doc short, and it was followed by Icarus in 2018 for best doc feature. Nishimura’s purview also included nonfiction series hits like Chef’s Table and Making a Murderer, and later, the phenom Tiger King. (Dan Silver will oversee documentary efforts, taking on projects previously overseen by Nishimura.)
Also notable about Nishimura’s tenure was her status as a high-ranking Asian American film executive. “As a Japanese person, as an underrepresented person, Lisa represented so much. She is one of the single most important Asian executives in the business,” says a sales agent and financier. In his note following Nishimura’s exit, Stuber described her as “a champion for inclusion on and off screen, a leader and mentor to countless colleagues, and a trusted partner to the creative community.”
An initial restructuring of Netflix’s film division came in 2021 with the elevation of Kira Goldberg and Ori Marmur, who were charged with making commercial films not terribly dissimilar to Nagenda’s mandate but functioning separately. Warner Bros. exec Niija Kuykendall also joined in 2021, with a mandate to focus on midbudget films that would fall above Nishimura’s indies but below the commercial fare overseen by the other vps.
Nagenda’s exit came in August 2022, at which point Goldberg and Marmur took over his slate. With Nishimura departure, Goldberg, Marmur and Kuykendall will oversee all original films. The restructuring has been billed as an effort to curb confusion and streamline all film efforts.
The industry has long voiced perplexity over Netflix’s org chart. Pitching a single project to multiple teams — and getting different answers from those teams — was not uncommon. Some insiders who spoke with THR suggested that Nishimura, whom one exec described as a “Netflix celebrity,” was spread too thin over too big of a slate.
The restructuring also comes as Netflix is looking to scale back production. It’s an about-face from when, at the top of 2021, the streamer was touting “one new movie every week” with a slate of some 70 features. That announcement came as the company was looking to bulk up its own originals library as other studios launched their respective streamers.
As of early 2022, the streamer’s mandate has been to do fewer films that are seen as bigger and of better quality, so as to maintain its consumer audience and reduce subscriber churn, a noted stock killer. This left Netflix’s indie films in a precarious position. “Unless you’re doing it for awards and being OK with losing money, that’s not a viable business to be in. [Netflix] is now about bigger budgets and bigger star packages,” says one rep whose talent often works on the Netflix film slate.
As for 2023, sources have told THR that the streamer has been pulling back costs on feature film projects, with budget concerns holding up productions (see: Nancy Meyers). Recently, the streamer offloaded two finished original productions.
Of course, this all comes as the industry is undergoing greater contraction as it weathers post-pandemic pressures and difficult macroeconomic conditions. Disney is in the middle of 7,000-person layoffs, which included high-ranking executive Marvel’s Ike Perlmutter, while networks and studios are offloading finished projects and rescinding renewals.
Borys Kit contributed to this report.
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