The exits of film executives Lisa Nishimura and Ian Bricke from Netflix late on March 30 shocked the documentary and indie film world. Not only were they Netflix stalwarts — Nishimura joined in 2007, when it was a DVD business, and Bricke joined in 2011 — but also for how admired and how defining of a voice they’ve been at Netflix in the last decade.
“Both of them are the foundation of the kind of programming that is both commercial and also tasteful, and not just pure fodder for the masses,” one documentary producer who asked not to be named told IndieWire. “Lisa and Ian were the foundational DNA of Netflix as a company.”
IndieWire spoke to multiple sources who worked with Nishimura and Bricke and they all offered variations on the same theme: They’re great people with great taste who have done great work, and they’re shocked by the departures.
In a statement, Netflix film chairman Scott Stuber described Nishimura as “a champion for inclusion on and off screen, a leader and mentor to countless colleagues, and a trusted partner to the creative community,” and credited Bricke wth attracting filmmakers like Tamara Jenkins, Nicole Holofcener, and Mark and Jay Duplass, and establishing Netflix’s Emerging Filmmaker Initiative. “We thank them both for their contributions to making us a world-class film studio and wish them the best for the future,” Stuber said.
So why would Netflix do such a thing? That documentary producer may have answered their own question.
“In the past year, they’ve been buying less, going for the bigger things and not taking the risk on smaller, more-awards driven titles,” they said. “[Nishimura and Bricke’s exit] just feels like it’s a way of saying, we’re past the foundational DNA of where we were at the beginning, and unfortunately I think they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater and removing people who have genuine taste and were well loved,” they said. “I don’t know what they’re exchanging them for, but it seems like a mistake to me.”
Added another source in the documentary space, “[Nishimura] was really an early supporter of data-driven decision making with the subjectivity of understanding and connecting with creative. Literally, she was one of the first. It’s unquestionable they were there first, and they helped to create this robust marketplace. It’s unfortunate that she has to leave.”
Nishimura oversaw some culture-shaping hits on Netflix, including “Making a Murderer” and “Tiger King,” and brought home Oscar gold with the Best Documentary Feature for “American Factory” and “My Octopus Teacher.” She also contributed to Netflix’s narrative work, including “The Power of the Dog;” Jane Campion won the Best Director Oscar for that film.
Nishimura is also responsible for building Netflix’s stand-up comedy business, which recently brought subscribers the controversial Dave Chappelle special “The Closer” and the streamer’s first foray into live programming, Chris Rock’s “Selective Outrage,” which may serve as the unofficial starting point to the Oscars or the NFL on Netflix.
However, in 2019 Nishimura shifted her attention to doc and independent features. Dan Silver, who previously reported to Nishimura and joined Netflix in 2020 from Disney+, now oversees documentary features at Netflix in the U.S. and longtime exec Kate Townsend still oversees UK doc features. While Nishimura’s team was not immune from the layoffs that hit Netflix last year, which included “The White Helmets” producer Jason Spingarn-Koff, those who have worked closely with Nishimura still believe Netflix is serious about docs.
“Her reputation was, rightly, stellar. She was absolutely great to work with, a pleasure in fact. I have absolutely no doubt that there is still a place for our film,” said producer John Battsek, who is behind Netflix’s doc from this year’s Sundance “The Deepest Breath.” “Lisa was a champion of it, but there are many others still there. The doc landscape today is what it is in no small part down to Lisa’s contribution. She has been, and I’m sure will continue to be, an immense influence.”
Joe Berlinger, who has an exclusive, overall deal for unscripted series with Netflix said he was “shocked that Lisa is leaving because in particular I associate her with the DNA of pushing this volume of documentaries into the global business. Do I think that Netflix is going to make documentaries less important? Absolutely not.”
One Netflix insider told IndieWire that Nishimura’s and Bricke’s departures are part of Stuber’s intention to simplify the structure for Netflix Film’s new “growth” phase. All live-action movies will now roll up to Kira Goldberg, Ori Marmur, and Niija Kuykendall. Goldberg and Marmur joined Netflix in 2021, with a focus on big-budget, premium, commercial-facing movies. Kuykendall joined shortly after following a stint at Warner Bros. and has focused on mid-budget movies.
Netflix has not been shy in admitting that it’s making fewer films, and acquiring fewer films out of Sundance (it did acquire the Sarah Snook thriller “Run Rabbit Run” and “Fair Play,” which was Sundance’s biggest splash in a $20 million deal). Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos still values movies that win awards; Netflix picked up six Oscars this year. But Netflix now targets movies with global appeal, and that applies to documentaries and indies.
Bricke backed acclaimed dramas like “Private Life,” “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and “The Land of Steady Habits,” among others, and championed new filmmakers.
“We saw there was a real audience for all shapes and sizes of movies,” Bricke told IndieWire back in 2018. “Even modestly budgeted films in the Duplass zone. The economics of buying aftermarket from distributors tends to drive up the cost, and we had a challenge getting access on a worldwide basis. So we said, ‘Let’s engage early to help the movies get made, and have access to all rights.’”
His biggest needle mover may be the “Kissing Booth” trilogy. The week “Kissing Booth 3” came out on Netflix, it was the No. 1 film on the service with more than 90 million hours viewed. At the time, that was Netflix’s top film since the list began (granted, at that point the list was seven weeks old). It would remain that way until Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s big-budget movie “Red Notice” debuted in November.
IndieWire reached out to Nishimura and Bricke for comment but did not receive a response.
Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.