Our Diverse 100: Meet Lisa Nishimura, the executive finding audiences (and Oscars) for Netflix comedies and documentaries
As Netflix's vice president of original documentary and comedy, Nishimura is, in part, responsible for the streaming service’s success in those genres. On her watch, documentaries including Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square” and Liz Garbus’ “What Happened, Miss Simone?” have not only found audiences, but earned Oscar nominations. This Q&A is part of a special series examining diversity in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Read more profiles here.
How have you felt your gender or your ethnicity has impacted you professionally?
I’m the child of immigrants. My parents lived through World War II in Japan and came to the U.S. because my father received a Fulbright scholarship to Berkeley; my mom was a classical violinist. English was never spoken at home. A lot was instilled in me with respect to the value of the arts and sciences together.
There’s explicit bias and implicit bias. There have been plenty of rooms where I’ve been the only person of color and you feel it. And when you look at images of boardrooms, it’s almost always men. It’s great that we’re in a moment in time that we’re starting to talk about it.
What was your first job in the industry?
I thought I was going to go to med school, but instead I got an internship in the music industry, at Windham Hill Records in Palo Alto. Then I ended up working for Chris Blackwell at Island Records. Chris understood the value of women and had a lot of women in positions of influence, which was rare in the music industry at that time. The same is true at Netflix right now.
Was there a person you saw in the industry who looked like you and made you think the film business was a field that was open to you?
To be honest, there wasn’t really someone who looked like me. But [Netflix Vice President for Original Content] Cindy Holland was probably the first person I saw and said, “She’s forged her own path.” She greenlit “Orange Is the New Black.” Would any other studio have made that? That show has done more for the conversation around diversity, human rights, transgender. It’s exciting to see someone like Cindy greenlighting big series.
What’s your favorite Oscar moment?
Chris Rock’s opening in this year’s Oscars was pretty monumental. I went to the Comedy Store the night before the Oscars and he was working out the material. I remember seeing it and thinking it was incredibly courageous and really honest. I wasn’t sure how much of it was going to make it to the big stage the next day. At the [Dolby Theater], people are dressed to the nines. You felt that unsettling, “Whoa, did he say that?” The courage to take that on the biggest stage in the world, that’s something. For the academy to support him as the host, these are not small decisions.
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