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Lisa Nishimura’s Netflix Exit Shocks Documentary World: “She Has Massively Helped Grow This Industry”

Netflix executive Lisa Nishimura backed some of the streamer’s biggest successes – Tiger King, The Tinder Swindler, The Power of the Dog, Making a Murderer, and American Factory – but in an era of corporate cost-cutting, it wasn’t enough to save her job.

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Her imminent departure as VP of independent film and documentary features, after a 16-year stint at Netflix, has come as a particular shock to the nonfiction film community, which saw her build Netflix into a dominant force in documentary and become, in the process, one of Netflix’s most visible execs.

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(L-R) Lisa Nishimura, Taylor Swift and Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos attend the Netflix 2019 Golden Globes After Party on January 6, 2019 in Los Angeles.
(L-R) Lisa Nishimura, Taylor Swift and Ted Sarandos attend the Netflix 2019 Golden Globes After Party

“Lisa has hands-down been one of the most influential people to bring non-fiction film into the popular mainstream,” said award-winning filmmaker Jeff Orlowski-Yang, director of Netflix documentaries The Social Dilemma and Chasing Coral. “She championed documentaries and elevated them to the same stature as scripted narratives. She has massively helped grow this industry.”

Added Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, “I find Lisa to be one of the smartest creative executives in Hollywood.”

Nishimura weathered several earlier reorgs, but the cold winds of austerity sweeping the industry enveloped her and fellow exec Ian Bricke, VP of original independent film. The chill hasn’t been limited to Netflix – last month, Vinnie Malhotra was let go as EVP of nonfiction programming for Showtime Networks, and late in 2022 CNN Films ended its distinguished 10-year run acquiring outside-produced documentaries (including this year’s Oscar winner Navalny). That sent CNN Films SVP Courtney Sexton back to Participant, where she had worked before.

In a statement bidding farewell to Nishimura and Bricke, Netflix acknowledged Nishimura’s pioneering work in documentary, as well as her previous oversight of standup comedy specials.

“Lisa Nishimura joined Netflix in the DVD days, and as the company moved into streaming, she built our original documentary and stand-up comedy divisions from the ground up and established Netflix as a powerhouse in both spaces,” said Scott Stuber, chairman of Netflix Film, to whom Nishimura reported.

Taking Netflix To Oscar Glory

Ted Sarandos, Netflix co-CEO, and Lisa Nishimura, Netflix VP, Independent Film and Documentary Features, attend the 94th Annual Academy Awards on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood.
Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and Lisa Nishimura attend the 94th Annual Academy Awards

Nishimura came to Netflix in 2007 from Palm Pictures where she served as general manager. At the time, virtually the only significant distributors of documentary content were PBS and HBO. Under Nishimura’s tenure, Netflix became a major player in the space, scoring the platform’s first Oscar nomination in 2014 for the documentary feature The Square and first win for the doc short The White Helmets in 2017. Netflix began to own the Oscar doc race, winning for the features Icarus (2018), American Factory (2020), My Octopus Teacher (2021), and short doc Period. End of Sentence. (2019), as well as raking in nominations for films including Virunga (2015), What Happened Miss Simone? (2016), Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2016), 13th (2017), and The Edge of Democracy (2020).

“It was Lisa and Adam Del Deo who loved the first rough cut of the movie I brought from Ukraine in 2014,” said Winter on Fire director Evgeny Afineevsky, “and it was them who helped me with their notes to complete it. I definitely learned a lot from Lisa while working together with her and Adam on Winter on Fire. She gave great notes and it was a great school for me as a young filmmaker, who was starting my way in Hollywood.”

Nishimura’s collaboration with the Obamas’ production company Higher Ground yielded an Oscar for American Factory and an Oscar nomination in 2021 for Crip Camp, the documentary that examined the rise of the disability rights movement.

(L-R) EP Priya Swaminathan, EP Tonia Davis, director Nicole Newnham, EP Howard Gertler, director Jim LeBrecht, Lisa Nishimura, Ariane Wu, and Adam Del Deo attend the ‘Crip Camp’ premiere during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival
(L-R) EP Priya Swaminathan, EP Tonia Davis, director Nicole Newnham, EP Howard Gertler, director Jim LeBrecht, Lisa Nishimura, Ariane Wu, and Adam Del Deo attend the ‘Crip Camp’ premiere during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival

“We will be forever grateful to Lisa for her visionary championing of Crip Camp,” filmmakers Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht told Deadline. “In partnership with Netflix and Higher Ground, we were able to make a film that represented a landmark moment for disability representation—dispelling misperceptions around disability and making impact that has been felt globally.”

Newnham and LeBrecht added, “You can’t make that kind of change without respect, listening, and learning. Lisa and her team listened to our team members with lived experience of disability and thought outside the box with us so we could bring Crip Camp into the world in a way that harnessed the potential of the story—including finding ways to push the industry forward in making streaming films more accessible. We are so proud of the work we did together.”

The last two years, however, have witnessed Netflix’s retreat from dominance in the Oscar documentary feature race. The streamer failed to claim a single nomination in that category in 2023 and 2022, although it won this year in the doc short category for The Elephant Whisperers. Much of the thunder lately has been stolen by National Geographic and HBO Documentary Films.

Leading Netflix’s Foray Into Docuseries

“A couple years ago you would’ve thought Netflix would be definitely in the running [for Best Documentary Feature],” said Simon Kilmurry, former executive director of the International Documentary Association. “It’s surprising… NatGeo has a number of big films this year and Netflix not so much.”

Nishimura also oversaw documentary series for Netflix until 2020 when she moved to the film group. Nowhere has her influence on the documentary field been greater than in series, given how vital true crime, more than any other genre, has become to every streaming platform.

'Making a Murderer' poster
'Making a Murderer' poster

“You look at doc series and it was really under Lisa’s vision that Making a Murderer became a breakout [in 2015],” observed Kilmurry. “That has transformed the field for good and maybe not so good because of the kind of formulaic burgeoning of true crime docs. But, certainly, you can’t argue with the impact it has.”

Nishimura’s sudden exit compounds anxiety in the documentary community about the shrinking range of content that interests streaming platforms and other distributors. Instead of betting on gifted filmmakers to come up with compelling content, some leaders in the field see decision making driven by algorithms that predict what will be popular with subscribers.

“I think under Lisa’s tenure, they had a well-earned reputation of being supportive of filmmakers’ visions,” Kilmurry said, citing Oscar nominees Yance Ford (Strong Island), and Petra Costa (The Edge of Democracy). “I think that’s shifting. The kind of commercial pressures might narrow the space for risk-taking.”

A senior independent publicity executive, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said, “What a loss for Netflix. It’s become less and less shocking to see top tier talent shed from the Netflix roster as they continue to navigate their ever-changing prioritization structure and content strategy. Lisa and Ian [Bricke] are class acts—incredibly talented, thoughtful and innovative executives who are so well respected across the industry.”

Netflix’s Cutbacks and Nishimura’s Legacy

As Deadline reported Thursday, all Netflix live-action film content now will be overseen by Kira Goldberg, Ori Marmur and Niija Kuykendall, reporting to Scott Stuber. Deadline understands Nishimura’s responsibilities in the doc space will be assumed by Dan Silver for the U.S. and Canada, and Kate Townsend for the U.K. (Adam Del Deo – VP, original documentary series – and Brandon Riegg – VP unscripted and documentary series – will continue to oversee episodic nonfiction content).

It was just a year ago that Nishimura celebrated one of her biggest successes – the documentary The Tinder Swindler, which for several weeks in 2022 ranked as the most popular film on Netflix, fiction or nonfiction. In an interview at the time, she told Deadline, “I used to be at a film studio that sold to Netflix [Palm Pictures]… I remember from the earliest days of engaging [with Netflix] that, wow, this is a place that really respects and understands the documentary form.”

Netflix stock has regained some of its luster after a precipitous fall last April that wiped $50 billion of value off the books in a single day (it has been trading around $345 a share of late, up from a low of $166 a share on May 11, 2022). But that shudder from last spring, combined with continued headwinds impacting the broader economy, has prompted an industry-wide retrenchment. Netflix has taken a harder look at budgets, and earlier this month cut loose a Nancy Myers-directed romantic comedy over ballooning costs.

Nishimura’s comment to Deadline just a year ago regarding budgets seems quaint in retrospect.

“We’re really driven by what’s going to provide joy for audiences,” Nishimura told us last February, referencing both fiction and nonfiction content. “With respect to cost and value, the costs are really driven by its proportionate audience size. Something like a Don’t Look Up that has a massive engagement, a huge, huge audience, is actually incredibly high value for us as well.”

Her mark will still be felt at Netflix. Stuber, in his statement, noted her role in the upcoming narrative features They Cloned Tyrone, Rustin and NYAD. And many admirers are predicting bright things in her post-Netflix future. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Adam Benzine wrote on Facebook, “That’s a loss for Netflix, but I imagine streaming and premium rivals will be lining up with offers for her.”

Recommendations won’t be hard to come by.

“Lisa has always been such a joy to work with,” said Orlowski-Yang. “She has trusted us as artists to tell the story in the way we wanted to tell it, always encouraging us to trust our instincts and allowing us to do our work the best way we know how. Working with her has truly been one of the highlights of the doc industry for me.”

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