Comedy, documentaries ignite Lisa’s soul
As vice-president at Nextflix, she sources global material to keep 125 million subscribers riveted, writes
GROWING up as a child of Japanese immigrants to the US, Lisa Nishimura never thought it would be her destiny to end up in the media space.
She thought her world would be medicine – a field that she loved and in which many of her family members were already practising.
“It’s an interesting thing being in the position that I am today, and to remember that vividly. The idea of being able to see ourselves, whether it is on screen or just in the world. I grew up in a space where it was an immigrant mentality: work hard, do that much better, keep your head down and don’t make waves.”
Even though Nishimura didn’t go into medicine, she ended up exploring it through a different medium – documentaries and comedy.
“I have always been deeply moved by the human condition,” she said.
“Medicine, in particular psychology and psychiatry, were compelling for me, because it was about understanding the deeper drive in all of us to synthesise information around us in a certain way.
“It was just an endlessly fascinating world for me.”
The work at hand
Nishimura is vice president of original documentaries and comedy programming at Netflix. The internet entertainment service has 125 million subscribers of whom 75% watch their documentaries.
“I think both those fields are connected in a way. Documentarians and comedians are the best commentators of our day. They have many things in common… they’re tireless observers of the human condition. It’s the thing that drives them. The best of them use their observations and synthesise them in a way that viewers can relate to.
“Because people tend to be a little uncomfortable with the unknown, comedians and documentarians can provide that information for analysis and reflection.
“Humour in the right hands wraps it in safety because you are laughing, but it can be subversive as well. I think in any art you often take from it what you’re able to take in the moment and reflect on it later.
“The exploration of those things in film and great comedy is fascinating and necessary for me. It helps to make sense of the world around us, and it’s my hope that it also helps us understand one another more.”
The award-winning executive producer for works including the 2017 documentary The Keepers, Making A Murderer in 2015 and Al Midan in 2013, is serious about ensuring that the hunger for documentaries of Netflix’s audience is fed.
Career in music
Just as in medicine, she was surrounded by a family that loved the arts. Her mom was a violinist.
“I grew up with music, but I never thought it was something that I would end up in. I was doing international music distribution for a while.
“Then I started my own record label (she was one of the founding members), and we received a production distribution deal through Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records and Island Films.” Her relationship with Blackwell became a mentoring one.
“I’ve been fortunate in my career, gravitating towards people who really value art and champion the arts.”
Chris, the man behind legends like Bob Marley and Grace Jones, was a huge influence on Nishimura. After selling Island Records to PolyGram Entertainment, Blackwell started Palm Pictures and asked Lisa to join the company. She ended up working with him for about 12 years, and merged into film-making.
She met her Netflix family while she was general manager at Palm Pictures.
Ted Sarandos, chief content officer and Cindy Holland, vice president of original content for Netflix, met her at a time when they fancied the films Palm Pictures was making and they were buying their DVDs.
Netflix, an entertainment company that provides streaming media and videos on demand online, started out as a DVD by mail company in 1997.
“They knew their stuff. They were very bright, but they were also fans. I met them in 2003, and eventually they created a brand new role in the company to buy content from all the major studios in the world and that’s a big job,” Nishimura said.
The decision to buy content from studios around the world was the beginning of recognising that when you make those types of shows – everything from Japanese Anime, Scandinavian television shows to French drama – available, people are fascinated and keen to engage, she said.
Working with comedians
Her adoration for comedians is based on her respect for their work. Having worked with the likes of Dave Chappelle, Marlon Wayans, Craig Ferguson and DeRay Davis, among others, Nishimura was taken by their “never-give-up attitude”.
“It’s the most thing in the world.
“I find it amazing that it doesn’t matter if you are at the top of your game or just starting, you can’t cheat – you have to write the material and perform it.
“You go out night after night. And the sheer amount of work that goes into it… they are radical communicators.”
When people find a comedian that resonates with them, they begin a fanship.
“It’s really deep, because you feel like you have found someone who has added to your experience or words.” terrifying
Authorship is vital
Nishimura uses Ali Wong as a prime example. The comedienne taped her first Netflix special stand-up show, Baby Cobra, when she was eight months’ pregnant.
“She is so candid about her experiences – dating, getting married, pregnancy and being a mom.”
On Mother’s Day her second special – Hard Knock Wife – debuted on Netflix.
“Ironically, she is pregnant again. She flies in the face of expectation; you would not expect that from an Asian woman. She represents that which says you don’t lose aspects of yourself just because you are married. You’re still a whole, complex person.
“It is through these story forms that people have the ability to fully participate in, experience and observe as a viewer. There’s a richness.”
Awards are important
“Documentarians are in it for the passion. They care about the recognition from their peer group that they respect and admire. The reality with recognition is you can change the trajectory of somebody’s career and because it is so important to film-makers, it becomes a priority for us.”
She said film-makers should know that when they work with Netflix as partners, the company has the capacity, resources and desire to support them to the full potential of their work. Awards result in more coverage.
With the White Helmets campaign, the coverage given to the film allowed the film-makers to speak to the cause and what was happening in Syria.
There is no box to tick for the perfect documentary
“It’s about what the story is telling the universe. Is it an immer-sive, engaging, interesting world? Then it centres on the storyteller – are they qualified? What is their point of view? I get nervous when someone comes in and says ‘what do you want, what is Netflix looking for’?
“No. It should be the thing you can’t get through after five minutes of meeting somebody. That thing that sets your hair on fire.”
She uses an example of renowned American filmmaker Errol Morris, who she met more than three years ago.
“He is one of the greatest living documentarians. I asked him what hasn’t he done? He is one of the most imitated documentarians today,” Nishimura said.
Morris, at that time, had an idea he had been thinking about for over a decade and thought it would be impossible to make. “It piqued my interest. I asked him why, and that’s how we started talking about what became Wormwood.”
Nishimura remembers how Errol’s ambitions were huge for the project. “It was exciting, and an example of the value of innovation in film-making. We sit with a film-maker and we talk about how you want to tell the story. And we let the story direct the format…”
Documentaries should never be descriptive
“Documentaries can take a lot of different forms, with documentarians it’s a lot of subjective views, you’re stepping into somebody’s world and it is not intended to be journalistic. It’s experiential and it’s about ensuring that the audience is clear about what it is they are watching.
“There are film-makers who come with heady journalistic credentials and that’s what they are there to do, so we spend a lot of time talking to understand the intent.”
Listening is one of the biggest lessons for Nishimura: “I have been humbled and impressed by the creators that I work with. There’s passion and conviction.”