'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Lisa Nishimura (Netflix)

The vp of original documentary and comedy programming for the world's top streaming service discusses how she came to the company when it was still in the DVD-by-mail biz, how docs and comedy have evolved since and the stories behind her most lauded projects — including four doc features ('Chasing Coral', 'Icarus', 'One of Us' and 'Strong Island') and two doc shorts ('Heroin(e)' and 'Ram Dass, Going Home') that have been Oscar-shortlisted this season.
Photographed by Christopher Patey
Lisa Nishimura

"I often get the question, 'Why in the world would one person manage what seem like two radically disparate groups?'" says Lisa Nishimura, Netflix's vp original documentary and comedy programming — as well as one of The Hollywood Reporter's 100 most powerful women in entertainment in 2017 — as we sit down at the offices of THR to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "And," Nishimura continues, "my answer to this is that, if you think about it, the best standup comedians and the best documentarians are truly social commentators of the day. What they do, I think better than almost anybody, is to take everything that's swirling in the world, and they synthesize it and present it in a way that we can actually engage."

Nishimura, 46, joined Netflix in 2007, back when it was still in the DVD-by-mail business, and has been an integral part of its growth into a company that has 109 million subscribers worldwide, making it the world’s dominant streaming platform. She was a primary force behind documentary features like the Oscar-nominated The Square (2013), Virunga (2014), What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015), Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015) and 13th (2016), as well as this season’s Oscar-shortlisted Chasing Coral, Icarus, One of Us and Strong Island; documentary shorts like the Oscar-winning White Helmets (2016) and this season’s Oscar-shortlisted Heroin(e) and Ram Dass, Going Home; documentary series like the Emmy-winning Making a Murderer (2015); and stand-up comedy specials like the Emmy-winning Patton Oswalt: Talking for Clapping (2016).

* * *

LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 15:50], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Alison Brower, THR's deputy editorial director, about her path to journalism, her prior work at women's magazines and THR's coverage of President Donald Trump and Hollywood's sexual misconduct scandal.

Click here to access all of our 196 episodes, including conversations with Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Lorne Michaels, Gal Gadot, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, Jennifer Lawrence, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Snoop Dogg, Elisabeth Moss, Jerry Seinfeld, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Kate Winslet, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Aziz Ansari, Jessica Chastain, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, Warren Beatty, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, Robert De Niro, Judi Dench, Tyler Perry, Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone & Jimmy Kimmel.

* * *

Nishimura, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, was raised in Silicon Valley. She initially planned to pursue a career in medicine — psychology or psychiatry, specifically — after graduating from UC Santa Barbara, where she had managed bands on the side. But, during a hiatus between college and graduate school, she returned to the Bay Area and wound up working in the music industry, doing marketing and consumer relations for a Palo Alto record label. From there, she went to work — for the next dozen years — for Chris Blackwell, who had been a key player in the indie film boom of the 1980s, starting a small record label for him and then joining his Palm Pictures in New York, for which she helped to produce art house films. DVDs of some of those films soon began to be bought by an upstart DVD-by-mail company called Netflix, which is how Nishimura first crossed paths with Cindy Holland and her boss, Ted Sarandos.

Nishimura was particularly impressed by Sarandos' vision for the future. While others imagined that content was destined to become "boxes on shelves," she says, "Here was a person that was talking about this idea of, 'No, no, no, there's infinite shelf space, and we're gonna figure out how to personalize it, and allow people the opportunity to understand what a film is all about, and give it a shot." She was further wowed by his and his team's knowledge about and passion for not just films, but also standup comedy, documentaries and all sorts of other content. Holland and Sarandos, in turn, were impressed by Nishimura, and recruited her to the company in 2007 to serve as vp of independent content acquisition, overseeing relationships with content creators around the world and handling deals to bring product to Netflix. The exec recalls that she interacted with 400 to 500 companies around the world at that time.

As Netflix transitioned into a streaming service, the thing that set it apart from its competition was not just the quantity of content that it had to offer (almost all of it licensed until the drama series Lilyhammer hit the service in 2012), but also the effectiveness of its algorithm that determines what content is suggested to subscribers when they visit the service. "Everything's personalized specifically to you," Nishimura explains. "They review who you are every 24 hours." This can be hugely helpful for things like documentaries, which someone may not choose to go to see at the theater on a date night, but might choose to check out at home if one catches his or her interest. "The huge game-changing piece for us is that documentary is available 24//7 on-demand, and we're gonna present it to you at the moment when we think you're actually gonna love it and be the most amenable to it," Nishimura emphasizes. "And we've seen that play out in the numbers. We've seen that close to three-quarters of our membership base has engaged with documentary — that's a massive, massive number."

Netflix also studies the viewing habits of its subscribers. The service was the first to release full seasons of its shows all at once, having concluded, from its DVD-by-mail service, that people appreciate the option of binge-watching content that they love. It further concluded that people don't care about the length of a film or show, as long as it serves the material. All of this background knowledge proved useful when Nishimura was approached by her employers about taking on new challenges at Netflix. She recalls, "Ted came and said, 'What other categories of content do you think, if we migrated towards original production, could also bring incredible consumer joy and then, on top of that, help the space and the industry and the creators?' And it was half a second before I was saying 'documentary and standup comedy.'" Soon thereafter, Nishimura was made a vp in charge of those two areas.

The year 2013 was a big one for Netflix in both docs and standup. Netflix had always licensed docs and standup content from others, but starting that year, it decided to make its own, release it globally and keep it available to subscribers in perpetuity. This was a revolutionary idea, before which, Nishimura says, "It was near impossible to conceive of a documentary releasing in every market in the world. It had never happened." Netflix, however, reaches 190 countries, something that no theatrical distributor could or would offer a doc. This means that docs and standup content, like everything else on Netflix, instantly has the potential to find a massive audience — and, in this age of social media, it often does so very quickly. Netflix's original docs soon began delivering major results. In 2014, its first feature documentary, The Square, garnered a best feature doc Oscar nomination; every year since, at least one Netflix feature doc has been among the five nominees. In 2015, one of its first docuseries, the 10-part thriller Making a Murderer, became a cultural phenomenon and wound up winning an Emmy in 2016. And, in 2017, when The White Helmets was awarded the best documentary short Oscar, Netflix, for the first time, could claim to have helped to originate and distribute an Oscar-winning film.

In 2017, Netflix's docs division had its biggest and best year yet, originating and distributing an unprecedented number of projects. Four of them recently wound up among the 15 films shortlisted for the best documentary feature Oscar, and two others were among the 10 shortlisted films for the best documentary short Oscar. These announcements, which Nishimura says she finds "wildly humbling," came just days before HBO Documentaries chief Sheila Nevins retired from the post which she had held for decades, leaving Nishimura with virtually no competition for the title of Queen of the Doc World. She emphasizes that she greatly admires Nevins, as well as the many other women who are among the most powerful players in docs, not to mention the male and female filmmakers they get to work with. In short, Nishimura says, "I love this community."