By Joe Flint 

Lisa Nishimura's job is to be on the lookout for the unusual story that even the Hollywood fantasy machines can't make up.

"So many of the richer stories live in nonfiction," says Netflix Inc.'s vice president of independent film and documentary.

Ms. Nishimura, 48, has had a knack for getting those stories on Netflix, which is becoming as well known for its documentaries as it is for original movies and television shows. The true-crime miniseries "Making a Murderer," "Taylor Swift: Miss Americana," Ava DuVernay's critically acclaimed "13th" and Errol Morris's genre-bending "Wormwood" are among the documentaries Ms. Nishimura has greenlit over a decade plus at the streaming-video giant.

Now, in the pandemic, she has become a tastemaker with quarantine streaming's must-see: "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," another project Ms. Nishimura championed. It has become one of Netflix's most-viewed original shows ever since it premiered in March.

Ms. Nishimura recently spoke to The Wall Street Journal by video from her home in Los Angeles, where she has been in lockdown since mid-March. Here are edited excerpts:

WSJ: Are you hearing pitches now?

Ms. Nishimura: Most definitely. Some either via Zoom or through Google Hangouts. It's always wonderful to be able to see one another. It's helpful to see certainly if they have visual materials. But more than anything, I just love seeing the filmmakers' expression. You understand their enthusiasm. You get a better sense of what the vision is.

WSJ: Documentaries seem to be gaining popularity. What in particular is bringing more awareness to the form?

Ms. Nishimura: We've always had a recognition and appreciation for the craft and the form. Historically, however, documentaries have fallen victim to inconsistent funding and a very disaggregated distribution model. What we bring to the table is a scale and a global arena for filmmakers to engage audiences. We make it pretty convenient for people to sample.

WSJ: When many of us were kids, our eyes would glaze over at the word 'documentary.' Now it's a genre often more innovative than traditional movies and television. How has storytelling changed?

Ms. Nishimura: Not every documentary has to feel like seventh-grade science class, right?

We worked with Errol Morris on his very ambitious series, "Wormwood." He has 12 different camera angles trained on one subject, all because it is in relation to this idea of the collage. We're very complicated beings as humans. We're multifaceted, multilayered and he has a visual language that's attached to that. Then he goes further and has scripted, fully narrative elements that he's interweaving.

Bringing innovative storytelling, bringing these new techniques, and being really rigorous about the storytelling universes people want to explore is incredibly important to making stories that can be broadly enjoyed.

WSJ: How surprised were you by "Tiger King's" success?

Ms. Nishimura: You can never truly know. You can have an intuition and an instinct. When I heard the first pitch on "Tiger King," there were elements reminiscent of "Making a Murderer." The filmmakers had been committed to their subject over a long horizon of time and had an incredible amount of footage that was vérité and first-person.

WSJ: If I were pitching a documentary to you, might I look at Tiger King and say, "Well, clearly the more outlandish, the better?"

Ms. Nishimura: We're not trying to be sensationalistic in our storytelling. The way in which a filmmaker chooses to handle and present a story that's sensitive, whether it happens to be something in the judicial system, whether it's somebody's own quest to recognize and realize who they are in the world -- these are deeply personal stories.

WSJ: How comfortable are you with re-enactments in docu-storytelling?

Ms. Nishimura: There are some cases where a re-enactment is enhancing. Every story is different. We have documentaries like "Crip Camp," (about how Camp Jened, a camp for disabled children and teens, helped inspire the 1970s disability rights movement.) There are no re-enactments. It's not necessary because they cracked open this remarkable archive for us to swim inside and we had access to current subjects. Same with "Wild Wild Country," (a documentary about a cult and its clashes with the Oregon community where it resided.)

This is the fun part of sitting with a creator and understanding the story you want to tell and the tools that you have to tell them.

WSJ: Do you have enough docs to get everyone through the rest of this year and into next?

Ms. Nishimura: We have a pretty rich pipeline. We have a whole release schedule of films and series that are either complete or near complete. We're also active in the acquisition market. So we still have folks who have finished films coming to us and we are evaluating those as well.

WSJ: How are documentary filmmakers -- who already operate on shoestring budgets -- affected by the economic fallout of the coronavirus?

Ms. Nishimura: The whole filmmaking community is going to feel the effects of this for a long time. And it's not just documentary filmmakers. It's people who work day-to-day, job-to-job. We've created a $150 million hardship fund, primarily focused on our productions and that includes our documentary productions.

WSJ: Have you been pitched any coronavirus documentaries?

Ms. Nishimura: What do you think, Joe? Think I've gotten a pitch or two? Yeah, we've certainly heard some pitches. For us, it's about: Can this be done safely? And how do we think about it? We're not in active news, so a lot of the consideration is around what is the perspective and what is the take? The benefit of time is going to give more of a rich story of exactly how all of this has come about and the global response to it.

Write to Joe Flint at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 10, 2020 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)

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