Lisa Nishimura Talks Pandemic Impact on Netflix's Indie and Doc Businesses

Lisa Nishimura was photographed Aug. 12 in her Mar Vista home office, which she shares with Norbu, her Australian Labradoodle. “He is often under my desk.”
RLJE Films

Lisa Nishimura was photographed Aug. 12 in her Mar Vista home office, which she shares with Norbu, her Australian Labradoodle. “He is often under my desk.”

The streamer's vp independent film and documentary features also opens up about Hollywood’s equality reckoning and the bygone "intimacy" of Netflix's early days.

Charlie Kaufman’s existential drama I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the Barack and Michelle Obama-produced documentary Crip Camp and a holiday romantic comedy aptly titled Holidate all have one thing in common: Lisa Nishimura.

As Netflix’s vp independent film and documentary features, Nishimura oversees a dizzying breadth of content that includes mid-budgeted genre films like thrillers, family features and rom-coms (Kissing Booth 2), as well as nonfiction features and miniseries (Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich) and acquisitions from festivals (Sundance’s 40 Year Old Version) and financiers (The Trial of the Chicago 7).

Nishimura, 48, expanded her purview in March 2019 after seven years heading Netflix’s comedy and nonfiction business, during which time she helped the streaming giant win its first Oscar, for the doc short The White Helmets. Nearly a year to the day into her new job, the pandemic shutdown threw the awards season into question, halted physical production and forced the fall film festival circuit mainly online. Despite it all, the 12-year Netflix veteran is emphatic that "we are trying to keep it as business as usual."

Shortly before departing on a socially distant vacation via camper van with her 10-year-old son, Nishimura talked to THR about the bygone "intimacy" of Netflix’s early days and her hopes for an equitable future.

As a woman of color, how has it been to watch Hollywood’s reckoning with systemic racism and sexism? What do you think Netflix has done well with regard to that?

We are in the midst of doing it. I think everybody has a very, very, very long way to go, and Netflix is certainly included in that. It’s about us all taking the time to really be reflective, to really hold a mirror up and look at yourself and understand that all of us have a bias. We are fortunate in that the company has been committed to this for some time. I often say to my team, "You don’t know what you don’t know." Which is why it is so important to ask for support, ask for a different point of view, and to have diversity amongst your colleagues and your peers. What heartens me is I feel that the commitment to learning and to being better is genuine. Again, we have such a long way to go, but we had 35 films in 2018 that were female-directed. And we have30 films helmed by women so far in 2020. It’s incumbent upon us to really broaden the aperture and the pipeline of who these storytellers are.

What’s the hardest you have fought for a story or for talent at Netflix?

Sitting with Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos; they had an outline and a couple of episodes sketched out for a series that became Making a Murderer. That was before we had formally announced Netflix original documentaries. We took a meeting that started out as a 30-minute coffee, and they started talking about this project. It was so abundantly clear that this was a phenomenal story. I was explaining to them what the vision is for Netflix original documentaries, and I didn’t have anything to point to. Any time you’re doing something new, it takes a certain kind of person to understand that you have a vision, that you have a commitment, and that you are going to deliver on that to the best of your ability. It’s a very different conversation today to sit with a filmmaker and to be able to point to some track record, some body of work.

Is there anything you miss about the DVD days of Netflix?

When you’re small, there is certainly an intimacy. I remember knowing every single person’s name and their story and their kids’ names. There’s something pretty great about that, which I think at our scale is pretty tricky to do anymore. 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. It was just one of the most brilliant educations for me. There were a lot of — at the time — pretty strongly held industry beliefs about the types of story-telling that "worked" or "didn’t work." The way that traditional distribution worked wasn’t always in favor of something that might be specialty or more nuanced. The beauty of Netflix is you can have a massive blockbuster next to an independent film, so it gives it equal opportunity. It allows the work to rise on its own merits.

After success in nonfiction and comedy programming, what was behind your move to indie film?

Before joining Netflix, I was at Palm Pictures in New York City, Chris Blackwell’s independent studio. During the course of my time there we probably did 70 to 80 independent films, both documentary as well as scripted features. I had the opportunity to work with some really incredible auteurs. We did the Directors Label Series, which was a series highlighting the work of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry and folks like Jonathan Glazer. So I have always had an incredible love of the scripted feature form.

Is it hard jumping between an Antonio Campos period drama and a movie like The Princess Switch?

It’s about understanding the mindset of Netflix. When you’re trying to service over 190 countries, individuals all around the world, you have to have depth and breadth of story. Think about how your viewing habits might change depending upon whether you’re watching alone or you’re watching with friends and family. You probably have completely different mood states, right? We start from that place. So how can you have The Devil All the Time and Princess Switch? I have a really exceptional team. They’re incredibly different and that’s entirely by design, because they have different lived experiences.

COVID-19 has caused major shifts in the theatrical release and awards schedules. Has Netflix considered shifting releases?

Our goal was just to ensure that we were continuing to provide an ongoing cadence of great films. So, to the best of our ability, we are working to really keep to our originally planned schedules. We had films in the pipeline such that, for the remainder of this year certainly, and into next year, our plans are intact. With respect to production, we are doing the best we can, but we’re with everybody else, right?

How will not being at a physical festival affect Netflix’s approach to acquiring films?

Festivals are incredibly important. We have been partnering with them for years and we will continue to do so. This is certainly a year unlike any other. That said, we have a really dynamic acquisition team that will continue to be incredibly busy going into the fall. So, we are having all the same conversations, whether it’s with producers or the different agents or festival programmers. We are committed to looking at everything and having the opportunity to engage in conversation. Given the extenuating circumstances, we are trying to keep it as business as usual.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

This story first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.