“I can put art into the world that makes a difference”: Nekisa Cooper ’99 discusses her producing career

CHARLOTTE CASTLE / THE FLAT HAT

Thursday, Feb. 1, the College of William and Mary hosted award-winning producer Nekisa Cooper ’99. Currently taking a year off from producing, Cooper serves on the board of Chicken and Egg Pictures and is an advisor to Mindshare Partners and Masterclass. She has won multiple awards from the Sundance Film Festival – most notably for her film “PARIAH”– Independent Spirit Awards, NAACP and many others. 

Cooper graduated from the College as a government major and Japanese studies minor. She previously worked corporate jobs for Colgate and L’Oréal before becoming a film producer. Inspired by screenwriter and director Dee Rees, who left her job to begin a career in film, Cooper similarly moved on from the corporate world to become a producer. 

On her first day of class at New York University, Rees’s professor told her 36-person class only two students would make it in the film industry. When Rees told Cooper this story, Cooper shared some invaluable guidance and wisdom. 

“Your mentality has to be you and who else that is the mentality you have to have moving forward, no matter what,” Cooper said. “And so [Rees and I] became business partners. I didn’t know what producing was at the time. I was just helping her with logistics.”

Although going from the corporate world to the film industry seems like a discrepant career move, Cooper found her skills transferable. She found producing similar to making brushes – it was just a different product, language and business. 

Rees included the first act of Cooper’s most well-known film, “PARIAH,” as part of her graduation thesis for NYU’s film program. It took two or three years to finance the entirety of the film through grants, funding from various organizations and the personal finances of both Rees and Cooper. “PARIAH” was shot over 19 different 12-hour days, and later accepted to the Sundance Film Festival. 

“If you’ve got a film that’s in the festival, you’ve got to be concerned about the legal aspect,” Cooper said. “You’ve got to be concerned about the sales aspect. And the thought is you want to build your team with people who know more than you and have a proven track record. So that’s what we did.”

Following “PARIAH’s” acceptance into the Sundance Film Festival, Cooper hired a sales agent, publicist and lawyer to help with marketing the movie and foster relationships with distributors. This exposure resulted in IFC, Focus Features, Searchlight and The Weinstein Company expressing interest in Cooper and Rees’s work, culminating in their collaboration with Focus Features for their next project. 

“By the end of the development cycle, when we had the script ready and polished and ready to turn in after we’d been working with them the entire time, they put it into turnaround, meaning they evaluated the script and said, ‘Hey, we don’t feel like we can do this,’” Cooper said. “Why do they feel like they can’t do it? Because it had too many people of color in it, and it didn’t have enough folks to justify the budget because the cast, based on all the algorithms, sales agents, etcetera, has a certain value.” 

Although the racial barriers Cooper faced at the beginning of her career have lessened to a certain extent, she believes inclusion is still a widespread issue in the film industry. 

“I mean, across all the ways you can define the word diversity, it’s still a thing that needs to be talked about and worked on and all that,” Cooper said. “I think the fact I can be sitting here and not having an MFA and all this other stuff and talk about the success of my career means that maybe some things have changed, but not enough.”

When asked about advice she would give to students hoping to pursue a career similar, Cooper highlighted the importance of networking and meeting people as much as possible, as well as  others for career advice. Through this process, Cooper noted she discovered that she was not interested in writing or directing, but rather, producing. 

“When I found film I was like, ‘Wow, I can actually help support voices that need to be heard,’” Cooper said. “I can put art into the world that can make a difference, can make people talk about things differently, see things differently. That was everything. And so I wanted to pursue that wholeheartedly.”

Lauren Smythers ’25 and Sophie Rush ’26 attended Cooper’s talk as a requirement for their class, Introduction to Production, but also to learn from an alumna of the College who holds a similar position to what they hope to one day achieve. 

“I like seeing that somebody who went to this college was able to go out and do basically what I want to do,” Rush said. “It’s inspiring seeing that they’ve been successful and that I’m in the same place they once were.”

“I really love when alum that got into the industry come back and do talks,” Smithers said. “I just love to see people who start in Williamsburg, Virginia and then make it to LA. I think that’s really awesome.”

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