“It happened by accident,” says Nekisa Cooper ’99 about her career as an independent film producer in Hollywood. “If you asked me five years ago what I would be doing today, I would have had absolutely no clue that this would be it.”
For Cooper, who played four years of basketball at the College and continued in the field of athletics as an assistant coach, the way she fell into the film industry was ultimately partly because of her yearning to tell those stories that are not often told in popular media. But it was ultimately her keen organization skills that made her career in independent film possible.
“I feel like everything that I’ve done has led me to producing,” she says.
While she was studying at the College as a government major, Cooper said that her experiences were filled with “growth.” She feels that the time at William and Mary forced her to be more well-rounded, as she dealt with both her studies and basketball.
“I had to persevere,” says Cooper. “Coming out of high school and being highly recruited and stepping onto the William and Mary campus — I don’t think I was prepared for what I encountered. That lesson was reinforced through academics, and through being on the basketball team, and through my own internal struggles.”
After graduation, Cooper stayed within the realm of athletics and served as an assistant coach at Christopher Newport University and the University of Richmond. But her abilities caught the interest of people around her at Richmond, and her career path suddenly started taking a new shape.
“In addition to my on-the-court duties, I also put together our community outreach events as well as managing our travel,” says Cooper. “Some of the people in the Richmond athletics department noticed my skills at organizing and finding resources and thought that it would be great to talk to me about business school.”
At the time, Cooper thought that she might want to be an athletic director, but ultimately she did decide to go to business school.
“I didn’t really know what business school meant, other than I was going to go there and learn a skill set that I could bring back to the athletics world,” says Cooper. “Eventually I thought I could work my way up to becoming an athletic director somewhere.”
She wanted to combine her passion for athletics and an emerging talent for making sound business decisions. Cooper decided to attend Clark Atlanta University to get an M.B.A. During her studies at CAU, she focused on brand management and marketing, which led to a job at Colgate-Palmolive in New York. For the next five years, Cooper worked in one form of brand management. It was during this time that she met a good friend, Dee Rees, who left Colgate to attend graduate film school at New York University (NYU).
“It was sort of a strange thing to do at the time,” says Cooper jokingly. “All of us were making good money, living in New York… and she left all of that to become a poor artist.”
Cooper stayed in touch with Rees and lent her organizing and logistics assistance on her second-year film project.
“Putting together a film is like running a business,” says Cooper. “I realized that what I was doing with that film was very similar to what I was doing in brand management. Instead of toothpaste and bodywash, the product was something that I felt much more passionate about.”
It was at that point that producing became a real option. She started sitting in on a few classes at NYU to get more acquainted with all of the steps involved when a film is created. When she left Colgate to work for L’Oreal, she took a three-month break to produce a short film. From L’Oreal she was lured over to work at General Electric and she took another break to work on a short film. In the summer of 2007, Cooper left GE to pursue her dream of working in film full-time as a producer.
“An independent film producer a lot of the time has a broader role than a producer of studio projects,” says Cooper. “I am involved in getting the financing and crystallizing the [plot] ideas and concepts. I collaborate with the director to make sure all of the elements are in place.
“I am also responsible for seeing the whole process through from the beginning to distribution,” says Cooper, which is beyond what a studio producer is responsible for. “It’s very much like running a little business, and bringing a product to life. They are not much different than the process that a new toothbrush would go through — from concept to distribution.”
Cooper’s business skills and savvy have helped her realize a dream to create films about people who are either misrepresented or underrepresented in cinema. The most notable being her short film PARIAH, which made the rounds on the independent film festival circuit. PARIAH, which is a short film that details the changing life and challenges of a African-American teen who is adjusting to life as a lesbian, is now part of the prestigious Netflix “Find Your Voice” film competition, which could net the winner $500,000 in prizes. If all goes as planned, PARIAH will be reborn, starting in the next few months as a full feature-length film.
Other projects include Eventual Salvation, a feature-length documentary that chronicles the journey of an American-born woman to Liberia to rebuild her life after the devastating Liberian civil war. Eventual Salvation will air on the Sundance Channel in fall 2009. She is producing La Muneca Fea (The Ugly Dolly), a feature documentary that won the Creative Promise Award at the 2009 Tribeca Institute All Access Program. At the same time, she is currently in postproduction on a short narrative film, Colonial Gods, about the displacement of the African community in Tiger Bay, Wales. The film was shot both in the United States and on location in the United Kingdom.
Working on many projects at the same time might seem like it makes the process more difficult or complicated, but working on multiple projects is essential. Cooper says that her production company, Northstar Pictures, takes on only as many projects as she feels that she can handle, but she also keeps an eye out for new ideas
“You want to always have projects in different stages of development,” says Cooper. “It’s very much like brand management. You always want to have something in the pipeline that is about to go and something that is a little more long-term and even something just as a concept. That is the same philosophy that I take with filmmaking.”
And though her successes have come early, she cautions those who would follow in her footsteps into the world of filmmaking. It is a difficult business that requires multiple skills beyond just the ability to tell a story by way of motion picture. Her advice is simple.
“Make as many films as possible,” says Cooper. “Find things that mean something in life and document them. Making films is the best film school money can buy.”
This was originally written for The College of William & Mary.