Netflix axed its doc, indie DNA with Lisa Nishimura and Ian Bricke
The surprise exit of veteran executives from the streamer on Thursday casts doubt on what form smaller films will take moving forward.
The departure of filmmakers 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 in the DVD business, and Bricke in 2011 — but because of how much they were admired and the defining voices they had been at Netflix over the past decade.
“Both are the basis for the kind of show that is both commercial and tasteful, and not just pure fodder for the masses,” an anonymous documentary producer told IndieWire. “Lisa and Ian were the core DNA of Netflix as a company.”
IndieWire spoke to several sources who worked with Nishimura and Bricke, and they all offered variations on the same theme: Great people, great taste, great work, and shocked by the departures.
In a statement, Netflix film president Scott Stuber described Nishimura as “a champion of inclusion on and off the screen, a leader and mentor to countless colleagues, and a trusted partner in the creative community,” and credited Bricke with attracting filmmakers like Tamara Jenkins. Nicole Holofcener, Mark and Jay Duplass, and the creation of the Netflix Emerging Filmmaker Initiative. “We thank them both for their contributions to making us a world-class film studio, and we wish them the best for the future,” said Stuber.
So why would Netflix do this? That documentary producer may have answered his own question.
“Over the past year, they have been buying less, aiming for bigger things and not taking risks on smaller, more premium titles,” they said. “(Nishimura and Bricke’s exit) feels like it’s just a way to say we’re past the basic DNA we were at in the beginning, and unfortunately I think they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater and removing those , who have real taste and were very loved,” they said. “I don’t know what they’re replacing them with, but it seems like a mistake.”
Another source in the documentary space: “(Nishimura) was really an early proponent of data-driven decision-making, with the subjectivity of understanding and creative connection. He was literally among the first. There is no doubt that they were there first and helped create this robust marketplace. It is unfortunate that he has to leave.”
Nishimura has overseen some culture-shaping hits on Netflix, including “Making a Murderer” and “Tiger King,” and brought home Oscar gold for best documentary for “American Factory” and “My Octopus Teacher.” . He has also contributed to narrative work for Netflix, including “The Power of the Dog”; Jane Campion won the Academy Award for Best Director for this 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 can serve as an unofficial starting point. for the Oscars or the NFL on Netflix.
However, in 2019, Nishimura turned his attention to docs and independent features. Dan Silver, who previously reported at Nishimura and joined Netflix from Disney+ in 2020, will now oversee Netflix’s documentaries in the US, and longtime exec Kate Townsend will continue to oversee documentaries in the UK. While Nishimura’s team wasn’t immune to the layoffs that hit Netflix last year, which included The White Helmets producer Jason Spingarn-Koff, those who worked closely with Nishimura still believe Netflix is serious about the docs.
“His reputation was, rightly, stellar. It was great to work with him, a pleasure in fact. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is still room for our film,” said producer John Battsek, who is behind this year’s Sundance Netflix doc “Deepest Breath.” “Lisa was a champion of this, but there are many others. The doc’s landscape today is what it is in no small part thanks to Lisa’s contribution. It’s been a huge influence and I’m sure it will continue to be.”
Joe Berlinger, who has an exclusive overarching deal with Netflix for unscripted series, said, “I’m shocked that Lisa is leaving because I associate her in particular with the DNA of pushing this documentary volume into the global business. Do I think Netflix will make documentaries less important? Not at all.”
A Netflix insider told IndieWire that Nishimura and Bricke’s departures are part of Stuber’s desire to streamline the structure of Netflix Film’s new “growth” phase. All live-action movies now feature Kira Goldberg, Ori Marmur, and Niija Kuykendall. Goldberg and Marmur joined Netflix in 2021, focusing on big-budget premium commercials. Kuykendall joined shortly after graduating from Warner Bros. and focused on mid-budget films.
Netflix hasn’t been shy about admitting that it’s making fewer movies and acquiring fewer movies from Sundance (it bought the Sarah Snook thriller “Run Rabbit Run” and “Fair Play,” Sundance’s biggest hit in a 20 in a million dollar business) . Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos continues to appreciate award-winning films; Netflix won six Oscars this year. However, Netflix is now targeting films with global appeal, and that includes documentaries and Indian films.
Bricke has supported acclaimed dramas such as ‘Privacy’, ‘I Think of the End of Things’ and ‘The Land of Extraordinary Habits’, among others, as well as championing new filmmakers.
“We saw that there was a real audience for movies of all shapes and sizes,” Bricke told IndieWire back in 2018. “Even low-budget films in the Duplass zone. The economics of buying aftermarket from distributors tend to increase costs and we’ve challenged access worldwide. So we said, “Let’s join early to help make the movies and get all the rights.”
His biggest needle mover may be the “Kissing Booth” trilogy. “Kissing Booth 3” was released on Netflix this week, becoming the service’s number one movie with more than 90 million hours. At the time, it was Netflix’s top movie since the list’s inception (admittedly, the list was seven weeks old at the time). That will remain the case until Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s big-budget film “Red Notice” debuts in November.
IndieWire reached out to Nishimura and Bricke for comment, but did not receive a response.
Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.
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