Netflix’s Lisa Nishimura is One of the Most Powerful Asian Americans in Hollywood

If you’re the type of person who reads credits, you’ll notice Lisa Nishimura’s name listed as executive producer on so many of your favorite Netflix shows: Ali Wong’s “Hard Knock Wife,” “Ugly Delicious,” the Academy Award-winning documentary “Icarus” and literally scores of others. As the vice president of original documentary and comedy programming at the world’s largest streaming service, Nishimura decides what we’ll watch when we “Netflix and chill.”

As you can imagine, she is incredibly busy. We caught up with her just before she hopped on a plane to London. She considered our probing questions and gave us insightful answers that helped us understand her powerful role in a powerful place.

How significant is non-fiction programming in the overall viewership of Netflix?

Documentary has always been a part of the DNA and the fiber of Netflix. This company started out as a DVD-by-mail company 19 years ago; the library of documentaries was a very big part of it, so I would say that non-fiction storytelling from the get-go has been incredibly important. Today we’re a global service in 190 countries. Around 104 million accounts have been engaging with documentary in the last 12 months. That’s a pretty astounding number with respect to being able to connect people globally with documentary stories, whether that’s feature films, doc-series or shorts. I think it’s really, really resonant for people around the world.

Was there ever a time when you wanted to be a documentarian or a filmmaker?

Umm … you know, I write, so perhaps one day. I think the thing that I love is being able to identify voices, and to cultivate their own point of view and a distinct medium through which they want to convey their story on screen. And if they’re looking for help, I help them be supported by the right team — it’s sort of like alchemy — and connecting people to the right partnerships across the creative process to bring something really exciting to life.

You said that you write, what does that mean?

It’s something I’ve done my whole life, so I think that I’m drawn to documentary and to stand-up because of the distinct type of creator who makes those forms of storytelling. I find the best documentarians and comedians are hands-down some of the smartest people you’ll ever meet. They’re tireless with respect to their curiosity; they are endlessly observant of the world around them. And they’re unsatisfied with anything surface-level, and want to understand what’s the intent, what was the cause of this, what was the cause of that cause, and the deeper-rooted cause of that cause of that cause of that cause. They allow people to enter a distinct experience to help us try to better understand the world around us. You know that adage, if you really want to understand, spend a day in somebody else’s shoes? These storytellers are able to do that. That type of storytelling, that type of observation and that type of self-reflection are something that I’ve always been drawn to. But I, by and large, keep my writing to myself.

Ali Wong (Ken Woroner/Netflix)
Ali Wong’s “Hard Knock Wife” (Ken Woroner/Netflix)

For comedians you’re probably the most powerful person in Hollywood. How does that make you feel, and how do you deal with saying no to deserving, talented and hardworking people?

I never think about myself that way at all. I think about the responsibility of what it is to connect an artist to a platform of 190 countries and the power of that. Thinking about our global membership is really the driver. That’s the north star: What’s going to bring the member joy? What stories are going to be really resonant? The key is to potentially review and reflect upon who is your audience, and we are continuously growing around the world, where well over half of our membership base is now [outside the U.S.]. When you think about the experiences that people want to see on screen, you have to continue to broaden your aperture around what those stories should be. Our process is really about trying to find the top-of-craft storytellers that can bring that kind of deeply personal engagement to that ever-evolving global audience.

What if what appeals to the masses is not really your taste in filmmaking?

We’re not programming Netflix for me. In fact, we’re extremely deliberate about it. I have one of the best teams hands-down for documentary and for comedy. The staff are all wildly experienced and incredibly qualified, but they come from different paths, and they have distinctly unique personal points of view. The best part of the job is to sit in a room with these great minds and debate and really talk through, is this really the right story? I will often ask in that room: I love it, but am I programming for myself? I want people to call me on it, and we call each other on it. We also have this great fortune of having a global company, so we have offices and teammates all around the world. We spend a lot of time engaging them and getting their feedback on whether something feels true to the story of a particular country or region. When I’m thinking about authorship, which is wildly important, the last thing I want to be doing is programming global stories from an office in Los Angeles, right? It’s incumbent on us to get out there, to meet filmmakers and comedians around the world, and to inquire and to really interrogate their point of view and the story they want to tell. We each have our own passion, but we’re definitely not programming to our own personal taste.

How big is your team?

I think about 25 people, pure creatives, and the thing that is unique and that I feel wildly fortunate about is that we have cross-departmental teams that are dedicated primarily to documentary and to stand-up. I don’t know of another organization that has that level of global commitment across all the different departments to support these types of storytelling.

How much does your Asian American identity or experience play a role in your creative decisions?

I was lucky in that I grew up in a bilingual household. In addition to having American television, we had NHK in our house. I think it was the idea that each story is completely different — the craft and form and the resonance — and therefore the importance was ensuring that the right people to tell this story were given that opportunity. I think it’s understanding that there’s not just one way to tell a story and understanding that someone’s personal experience is really distinct and unique and valid and important. A great example is Sandi Tan and her film “Shirkers.” I don’t know if you had a chance to watch the film—

I saw it and reviewed it. I loved it so much. It resonated with me so deeply because I started a zine in like 1990, as well.

Oh, come on! Did you really?

Yeah, I grew up in L.A. and went to Fairfax High School where I made a zine called The Protozoan, and I was totally into the same kind of music, like super new wave, alternative. I was like, “Shirkers” is so me!

The thing that I find so fascinating is that [Tan] was doing what you were doing here in L.A., in Singapore, in this isolated nation. Like, how does that happen? Audiences around the world are really resonating with it because it’s about artistry. It made me think about the passion of a teenager, and how I think too often you’re dismissed, like, “Oh, they’re just kids.” The reality is that, for all three of the main characters in that film, the process of making “Shirkers” was not just formative, it changed the course of their lives. If you look at social media, she’s getting engagement from people around the world whether they’re teenagers who say, “OK, so what I’m feeling is my passion and my vision. It’s a real thing that can be something one day,” and from others who have gone through that process and say, “I wish I wasn’t as dismissive of my youthful self, because it was really far truer to where I am most joyful or most productive.”

David Chang in "Ugly Delicious" (Netflix)
David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious” (Netflix)

OK, cool, so how does power move through the halls of Netflix?

Unlike a lot of studios that I think are vertically integrated, where there’s sort of one nexus of power that has to greenlight everything, [Netflix Chief Content Officer] Ted Sarandos has really empowered his direct reporting team to make those decisions across all the different verticals, whether it’s feature film, series, documentaries or comedy. In fact, there has been a couple of times when he and I have really disagreed on whether something makes sense to pursue — yet at the end of the day, he said, “It’s your group, it’s your decision.” He, like all of us aspire to do, has to check himself and remember that it’s not about his personal opinion at any given time. That’s what’s really different. He said that each of these teams have resident experts that know storytelling better than anyone else, and we’re going to give them the resources and empower them to make those choices.

When did you realize you had power, and what did you do with it?

I think what I started to recognize was that the Netflix platform had a unique power. Documentary and comedy in particular, for different reasons, had traditional distribution self-limiting ceilings that Netflix does not have to be restricted by. Documentaries traditionally had a disaggregation of distribution. A documentary might come out at a festival, be beautifully reviewed, and people would be excited to see it. But if it didn’t get distribution — except for the handful of people who were lucky enough to see it at the festival — nobody got to see it. Or maybe it got a limited release in theaters, but if you didn’t live in New York or L.A., you didn’t get a chance to see it. Netflix as a platform is global and simultaneous. If you’re a Netflix original documentary or comedy, you’re released around the world all at once and connected to this global audience. Through the way the platform works, the stories are presented to the right person at the right time, so you’re connecting with people when they’re most excited to hear your story. As a storyteller and filmmaker, it’s a very big game-changing way to connect. The original documentaries and movies live forever, so as a storyteller you’re able to point global audiences to a place where people for all time can access your stories perpetually. It’s an incredibly powerful thing that did not exist previously.

I’ve read articles about how scary and competitive and almost cult-like a place like Netflix is. How much of that is true?

It’s not my experience, but it’s a high-performance culture from the perspective of people who want to come here distinctly to do the very best work possible. It’s a candid place. It’s a very debate-oriented place. It’s a place where you have to have a point of view and be comfortable sharing what that is, but also be able to listen to and understand others’ POVs. As we continue to grow internationally, I’m perpetually learning, particularly from my colleagues internationally, how to better understand those marketplaces and the kinds of stories that are going to be the most resonant. I’ve been with the company for 11 years, and a huge part of the way my role has evolved since joining the company is working in an environment that is incredibly dynamic and responsive to opportunity. When I joined the company, I was buying DVD content from around the world for U.S. audiences. Then it evolved into streaming, then going from U.S. to international, and then of course from being a platform for completed works to creating our own original stories.

For many Asian women, it’s challenging to own our power. So what do you do to own your power, to feel powerful or to access your inner power?

I think it’s about being confident in your own voice and your own point of view. I think it’s about knowing that you’ve earned a seat at the table and that what you contribute is valuable and distinct and unique. That’s a process that takes time because all of us are hopefully continuing to grow and evolve. But I think it’s through having the opportunity to try and to fail. That’s another thing about the culture at Netflix — it’s a place where you’re encouraged to take at-bats. I remember early on being told, “Hey! Your metrics look really good,” and I thought it was just going to be a little compliment at the end of the sentence. But the comment was, “I wonder if you’re taking enough risks!” That was my first year at the company, and I thought, “OK, this is a different place.” That was both intimidating and exciting, especially if you grow up in a culture where failure is not something to embrace. For me, it’s been the opportunity to evolve and grow into that. Having had that opportunity, how do I provide that to my team? So, I think about examples of when something didn’t go as planned in a production or in a launch, and encouraging the team in an open but safe way. Let’s talk through a post-mortem, see what worked and what didn’t work. I have an adage: Let’s make mistakes; that’s what we’re here to do — to push and try new things, and there’s no way to do that without making mistakes. My whole thing is, let’s not make mistakes over and over again. Let’s make new mistakes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


This article appears in KORE’s December 2018 issue. Subscribe here.