EXCLUSIVE: The documentary film team at Netflix might be popping champagne corks together right about now, if Covid didn’t inhibit the whole in-person office scenario. They’ve got a lot to celebrate.
For the third week in a row, The Tinder Swindler – the true-life story of a serial fraudster and the women he ensnared – has claimed the top spot on the Netflix list of its most popular films worldwide. It’s the first documentary to achieve that distinction. Not only that, another documentary cracked the Netflix top 10 this week, Rory Kennedy’s chilling expose Downfall: The Case Against Boeing.
“It’s incredible for our filmmakers, our documentarians,” Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s VP Documentary and Independent Film, tells Deadline in an exclusive interview. “To be in a place where we have two of our films and two of our filmmakers in the top 10 of film — not just documentary film but all of film — it’s really exciting.”
The Tinder Swindler, directed by Felicity Morris, racked up 34.5 million viewing hours in the past week, outpointing the number 2 film on the list, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which accumulated 29.2 million viewing hours. Testifying to the global appeal of the film, it was number one in places as disparate as Argentina, Venezuela, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Russia, Israel, Kuwait, Nigeria, and South Africa, among many other countries.
International intrigue is woven throughout The Tinder Swindler. The alleged swindler himself, Simon Leviev (aka Shimon Hayut) is an Israeli national who took to the dating platform Tinder to meet attractive women in Holland, the U.K. and elsewhere. He claimed to be a billionaire’s son and swept some women off their feet (35,000 feet, more or less, as he dashed from point A to point B on a private jet), before coming up with sob stories that convinced his victims to empty their bank accounts and take out loans for his benefit. (Leviev denies he defrauded anyone; he tells Inside Edition he’s a “legitimate businessman… I’m not this monster that everybody has created.”).
Nishimura identifies several ways in which the film captured the zeitgeist.
“So much of our daily lives have moved to being online and in the virtual space, including and very robustly, the world of dating,” she noted. “Particularly during Covid, I think it’s probably grown exponentially. So that’s incredibly relatable. Just the notion of who is the other person on the other side of the text and on the other side of the photograph, is it really that person or not?”
Nishimura praises Morris for telling the story from the point of view of women who were swindled by Leviev. They took action that eventually led to his arrest.
“When you think about being conned, it can feel quite shameful. You can feel quite embarrassed by it if you’ve had money taken,” the Netflix exec observed. “And then you add emotion because for some of these women, they really thought that they had met the man of their dreams in a lot of ways. The idea of being ‘taken’ or foolish, I think in a lot of instances you would go inward. You might hide from that. And, instead, these women showed a remarkable sense of resilience and fight and tenacity and intelligence and an ability to actually commune and come together.”
Downfall: The Case Against Boeing tallied 7.4 million viewing hours, to occupy 8th place on Netflix’s list of most popular films worldwide, fiction or nonfiction. The film meticulously investigates the flawed design of Boeing’s new 737 Max aircraft, which led to a crash of a Lion Air flight in Indonesia’s Java Sea in 2018, killing everyone on board. Boeing insisted pilot error was to blame, and it did not ground the fleet to determine whether the fault instead rested with an “MCAS” system created for the Max series that could send an aircraft into a nosedive. Then, in 2019, the MCAS system caused another crash, of an Ethiopian Airlines flight, killing all 157 passengers and crew.
Nishimura sees good reason Downfall has resonated with people around the world.
“To realize and recognize that one of the most storied and trusted companies [Boeing] may have had information that led to these crashes is something obviously of deep relevance and importance globally to anyone and everyone who travels,” she pointed out. “We rely on that level of transparency and we rely on that level of accountability and safety every time we or someone we love gets on an airplane. So I think there was an enormous amount of interest to better understand what were the events that got us here and led us here.”
Nishimura joined Netflix in 2007 from Palm Pictures, where she served as general manager.
“I used to be at a film studio that sold to Netflix. And I sold documentaries to Netflix. I remember from the earliest days of engaging [with Netflix] that, wow, this is a place that really respects and understands the documentary form,” she recalled. “It’s not a niche. It is a storytelling form that is treated equitably. If you take a film like Downfall or Tinder Swindler and you release it as a Netflix original documentary with us, it has distribution in 190 countries on the exact same platform that you will find something like Red Notice or Don’t Look Up.”
Those fictional films, of course, come with budgets vastly greater than for a documentary.
“We’re really driven by what’s going to provide joy for audiences,” Nishimura said, which includes both fiction and nonfiction content. “With respect to cost and value, the costs are really driven by its proportionate audience size. Something like a Don’t Look Up that has a massive engagement, a huge, huge audience, is actually incredibly high value for us as well.”
Nishimura divides her focus between the fiction and nonfiction arenas.
“My remit is I oversee documentary feature, but I also oversee scripted feature film — the Independent Film Group — as well. My typical day, it’s split between those two worlds,” Nishimura said. “I tend to get up pretty early and that’s when I like to do my creative work as much as possible. I’m watching cuts, writing notes. That’s the time on the scripted side when I’m reading material, I’m reading scripts, or reading pitches if it’s docs… Then, during the day, there’s a lot of meeting with filmmakers and listening to new potential project pitches and a lot of work with respect to active production and making sure that the filmmakers have what they need and ensuring that the productions are moving smoothly. It goes without saying trying to produce during Covid is a whole other set of challenges.”
She credits her “remarkable team” for their efforts to bring projects to fruition. Pressed to talk about upcoming documentary films, Nishimura mentions a few that might one day find their way onto the Netflix top 10 global list.
“It’s so hard for me to pick my children, my babies. I love them all,” she insisted. “I can speak to three very different kinds of films that I’m certainly very, very excited about. One of them is a documentary we’re working on right now with R.J. Cutler on Martha Stewart… So many people know parts of her story, but to really understand the totality of her story, I think, is just absolutely gobsmacking. Another one, which I have to say is really exceptional, is we’re getting to tell the story of Bill Russell, an incredible legend in the world of sport… and civil rights activist… with Sam Pollard at the helm. And then I am working again with Nadia Hallgren, a director that we worked with on the documentary on First Lady Michelle Obama, Becoming. She’s actually been following [civil rights attorney] Ben Crump for quite a long time. When we think about all the things happening in the world today, I can’t think of a more relevant story.”
She added, “Those are all still very much actively shooting. It’s going to be a minute. Yeah, but very excited.”
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