By seeking talented directors — and inviting them to tell the stories that keep them up at night — a Netflix exec builds a solid documentary brand.
Since Netflix began commissioning original documentaries four years ago, it has released acclaimed content like Making a Murderer, 13th and The Keepers.
Lisa Nishimura, vice-president of original documentary and comedy programming, has had a hand in developing and producing all of it.
“I would say it’s art and science,” Nishimura offers, when asked how she decides which projects to invest in. “I think there’s a bit of a misnomer about Netflix just being a black box, an algorithm. That’s hardly the case,” she maintains, noting that she works with very creative staffers — almost all have directing experience — and, like her, they proactively set meetings with filmmakers in search of projects.
“What we want to do is sit down and listen,” says Nishimura, who joined Netflix 10 years ago as vice-president of independent content acquisition after a stint as general manager of independent film house Palm Pictures. “Those meetings are about: ‘Tell me what’s keeping you up at night, the story you’re burning to tell. How do you want to tell it?’”
Nishimura recalls reaching out to director Ava DuVernay after the success of Selma to ask if she had stories she was eager to share. DuVernay quickly sold her on what would become the heralded documentary feature 13TH, which explores the mass incarceration of black men in the United States.
It isn’t just big-name talents who get her attention. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, creator–executive producers of Making a Murderer, were first-time filmmakers when Nishimura talked to them; she was sufficiently confident in their story and abilities to commit to producing a documentary series.
“It was before the doc series was a thing,” Nishimura recalls. “They had done a soft sell [for Making a Murderer] around town and had been told repeatedly, ‘You have to figure out how to make this a movie.’ Anyone who has seen the series understands it would be very hard to do that story justice in a feature. I had the incredible fortune to be able to say, ‘Don’t worry about the format — what does the story need?’”
Given the buzz that surrounded Making a Murderer, it’s no surprise that Netflix will continue the story via Making a Murderer 2, currently in the works. In the meantime, this February will see the release of the new Netflix documentary Seeing Allred from Emmy-winning executive producer Marta Kauffman (Friends, Grace and Frankie); the doc series Wild Wild Country from executive producer Mark Duplass will debut in March.
As for how original documentaries are performing for Netflix, Nishimura demurs: “We don’t release numbers, but we wouldn’t keep doing it if it wasn’t successful.” Pointing out that Netflix has 104 million subscribers around the world, she adds, “Seventy-five percent of them have engaged with a documentary. That’s an extraordinary number.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2018