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What Lisa Nishimura’s promotion means for indie films on Netflix

The longtime Netflix exec has shifted roles and will likely try to make the company even more of an awards engine.

What Lisa Nishimura’s promotion means for indie films on Netflix
Lisa Nishimura [Photo: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images]

Netflix just announced a big exec shakeup–weeks after another similar changing of the guard. Lisa Nishimura, who had been its VP of content acquisition and the person credited with its dominance in everything from documentaries to standup comedy to food TV, will now oversee Netflix’s independent films. According to the Hollywood Reporter, she’ll run both narrative and documentary features–as well as short-run documentary series and documentary shorts.

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Essentially, Nishimura is now the person behind Netflix’s grab for accolades and critical acclaim.

In some ways, this is Nishimura going back to her roots. She first joined Netflix in 2007 as its VP of independent content acquisition. Though the company wasn’t making original programming just yet, she was tasked then with discovering the best independent films and shows and adding them to Netflix’s roster. Now that the company has become such an entertainment juggernaut, the strategy has certainly evolved. It’s no longer wooing content creators to take a chance on a fledgling platform, but rather choosing the right mix of artistic talent to scale the company’s grandiose ambitions even further.

I recently chatted with Nishimura about her now former role as the brains behind Netflix’s documentary food series. She spoke with passion about indie film, as she explained how Jiro Dreams of Sushi led to Netflix’s entry into docuseries.

In the course of our conversation, she provided some insight into how she makes her programming decisions. Where other film executives and producers may look at talents’ cultural cachet and filling programming gaps, Nishimura has generally done the opposite. The guiding theory she seems to go by is what hasn’t been made and what doesn’t conform to cinematic trope. Chef’s Table, she said, was a prime example of this. She was pitched by a documentarian to do a series about high-end chefs that was more aesthetic than, say, formulaically dramatic. She jumped at the opportunity. “We had just never seen [something like Chef’s Table] before, no one had ever seen it before,” she told me. “So it made perfect sense for that to be the very first documentary series that was ever green-lit.” Nishimura described her professional imperative as finding the best artistic talent and giving them complete creative license.

In the world of television, it presented a rare opportunity for filmmakers. They were asked to produce genre-bending concepts and tell new and different stories. Indeed, that helped Netflix’s documentary series initiative stand out since the start. The impact wasn’t just from critics: Creators have also confirmed to me that under Nishimura’s watch, Netflix has become one of the most sought-after content distributors for documentary series.

Putting Nishimura at the helm of independent features means we should likely expect more risks and new types of cinematic storytelling, but on a grander, feature-level scale. “It’s incumbent upon us,” she told me, “to continue to do things that can’t be done in other places.”

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About the author

Cale is a Brooklyn-based reporter. He writes about many things.

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