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Reel Deal

  • Alumni
Reel Deal
Eliott Grover ’06

In 2022, Dede Nickerson ’86 was inducted into Tabor’s Circle of Excellence. Having lived in Beijing since 1990, Nickerson has been a steadfast supporter of Tabor’s international student community. She has also pioneered the rise of China’s now booming film industry over the course of a remarkable career that she never anticipated.

“Film and entertainment wasn’t the plan,” says Nickerson. “I was headed to Washington.” After Tabor, Nickerson studied international relations at Trinity College in Connecticut. She had multiple congressional internships and intended to go to law school. But after she added a second major in Chinese studies, she spent her junior year in China to practice her Mandarin. That’s when the plan started to change.

While studying in China, Nickerson interned with CNN. Her timing coincided with the historic Tiananmen Square protests, and she was thrust into the exhilarating world of covering breaking news. She returned to the States only to find herself fixated on returning to China. After graduating from Trinity, she deferred law school to pursue a one-year fellowship in Beijing, where she also landed a part-time job with the Wall Street Journal. One of her first assignments was to help produce a documentary film.

“That’s how I started working with filmmakers,” Nickerson says. She had a knack for the work. More importantly, she loved it. One year passed and then another, and Nickerson was still in China. This was right when the country’s sleepy film industry was showing signs of life. “It was like one arm was out of the straightjacket,” Nickerson says. “The studios were starting to look at China. I knew all the players and had also been writing about the head of the Beijing Film Studio, so that’s when Warner Brothers asked if I could help them figure it out.”

Over the next three decades, Nickerson led the Asia-focused production and acquisition efforts of several major studios, including Warner Brothers, Paramount, Sony, and Miramax. While she initially covered several markets, including Japan and Korea, the explosion of the Chinese box office prompted her to focus exclusively on China. One of the strategies Nickerson pursued to grow China’s film industry was producing remakes of popular American films, including Chinese versions of What Women Want and My Best Friend’s Wedding.

“Good ideas are good ideas,” she says. “When you look at What Women Want, there’s enough there that was relevant to a Chinese audience. It’s a great way to fast track a production. I’ve also found it’s a great way to work with younger, less experienced filmmakers since the foundation of the story is already there.”

Another key element of Nickerson’s success has been her ability to connect the American and Chinese film industries. While the two countries are often portrayed in adversarial terms, their entertainment leaders have worked together to achieve impressive results. “There was a real collaboration between China and the United States in building this business and building creatively,” Nickerson says.

As a producer and studio executive, Nickerson has operated at the center of this union. During her time at Miramax, she worked with Quentin Tarantino as a producer on his Kill Bill films. Tarantino initially planned to shoot in Hong Kong and Japan, but Nickerson thought he should consider China.

“Beijing in the early 2000s was like New York in the 80s,” Nickerson says. “It was wild. I brought Quentin there and he was like, ‘We’re making the movie here, make it happen!’ So I did. It was brilliant and it was wild, it was like a giant party, but it was also the best of American film crews working with the best of Chinese crews.”

This level of cooperation has receded over the last few years as tensions between the United States and China have risen. Nickerson has had a front row seat to the changing dynamic. Throughout her career, her work has frequently intersected with politics, which has made her a valuable resource for many American businesses. “I give a lot of advice about navigating that orbit,” she says.

When the National Basketball Association (NBA) was almost kicked out of China in 2019, the league asked Nickerson for help. She maneuvered behind the scenes to smooth relations. One outcome of that work is that she is now producing Basketball Diaries, a docuseries for the NBA that is set in China.

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On set with Director Jiang Wen of Gone With the Bullets and Oliver Stone

Basketball Diaries is just one of the many projects Nickerson is currently producing. Since leaving the studio world in 2016, she has worked as an independent consultant and producer. Her clients include streaming platforms like Netflix and media conglomerates like Condé Nast, with whom she has a deal to adapt multiple stories from their vast publications catalog. To hear Nickerson rattle off a list of all her active projects is dizzying. “Right now I’m very much in a development phase,” she says. “It’s a little non-stop, but that’s okay.”

One of the series she is producing is based on a New Yorker article called “China’s Mistress-Dispellers.” It’s about a company that specializes in helping individuals get rid of their spouse’s paramour. “ I think it changes people’s perceptions of China in a funny way but also a truthful way because this is a real thing,” Nickerson says. “It’s fun but it also talks about relationships and what marriage means in the 21st century and a lot of social issues as well.”

The rise of the streaming platforms has fueled a paradigm shift in the entertainment industry. Series have supplanted movies as the dominant form. “That’s what the platforms are focused on because they generate more subscribers,” Nickerson explains. “And that’s what the audiences want too. I’m very excited about it. It gives you more room to tell a story.”

As part of this shift, Nickerson has found that the nature of her work has evolved. “In film, the director has a lot more control and creative input,” she says. “As a producer, you’re more of a facilitator. You give notes. Whereas what I’m finding with series, I’m having to dive a lot deeper on the creative end, which I like.”

Having more creative control has given Nickerson an opportunity to tell the stories she is most passionate about. While her projects explore many different subjects, an overarching theme is social impact. She is drawn to character-driven narratives, particularly ones with strong female leads.

“I really like stories that teach us about ourselves in ways where we are not afraid to change,” Nickerson says. “A lot of what I’m doing now has to do with power because I think people become addicted to power. With the leadership in the world we’re living in today, I see it as a big problem.”

By using her influence to produce content that shines a light on this problem, Nickerson is harnessing the power of storytelling to make a positive impact.

Kirkland Moody ’88

No business rewards the combination of hustle and creativity more than show business. Kirkland Moody ’88 discovered the value of these traits long before he became a successful casting director. At Tabor, Moody captained the speech team. “I had great teachers, one of whom pushed me into doing speech, which is basically acting,” Moody says. “I think that piqued my interest in the acting and arts universe.”

He matriculated at the University of Miami, where he originally planned to study marine science. “They have one of the best programs in the country,” Moody says, “but within a month I was like, ‘Nope, not for me!’” He decided to pursue a business degree instead.

“My dad was very much a businessman and I’ve always been more business minded, but I’m also somewhat artistic,” Moody says. “I always did things like speech or small parts in plays because I just like being around the theater. But in college I saw how good the actors were and realized I would never act for a career because they were way better. But I also realized there was a business side.”

Moody wasn’t exactly sure what part of show business he wanted to pursue, so he used his time at Miami to acquire as many skills as possible. “I talked my way into a lot of upper level film classes, like film marketing and entertainment law” he says. “I didn’t have any of the prerequisites they normally required, but I still managed to get into them.”

After graduating, Moody took a sales job in Tampa. It wasn’t related to entertainment, but it paid the rent while he kept his eyes peeled for a foothold. When he learned that a film crew was coming to town to shoot a CBS Movie of the Week, he applied to be a production assistant. He didn’t get the job, but he made a point of calling the team to thank them for their time and let them know he was around if they needed help. Four hours later they called back and said they did. Moody was determined to seize the opportunity.

“Very few films come to Tampa, so I schmoozed everybody I could,” he says. “I was trying to make friends with every department on set. The casting director and I just happened to get along. He was based in Orlando. At the end of the project he said if I moved to Orlando, he’d hire me as his assistant.” Two months later, Moody moved to Orlando and started his career in casting.

He has a similar story for how he ended up in Los Angeles. While he enjoyed his job in Orlando, he was keenly aware that it was not the center of show business. After a year-and-a-half, he decided to visit Los Angeles to see if he could find work. Before traveling, he reached out to every contact he had made during his brief time in the industry. Instead of sending a standard cover letter, Moody mailed storyboards, pitching himself as if he were a commercial. “It was pretty cheesy,” he says. “But everyone sends cover letters. I wanted to find the people who were interested in somebody who stands out." 

The storyboards helped Moody secure a number of interviews. When he was leaving one of his meetings, he noticed a large building across the street called “Cole Avenue Studios” and decided to peek inside. There were signs for different studios with names like “Budweiser” and “Pantene.” Moody realized he had stumbled upon a huge casting operation and proceeded to strike up a conversation with one of the executives.

“They told me to let them know if I ever moved out and maybe they would try me out for a day,” he says. When Moody moved to Los Angeles two months later, he called the company. “They told me to come in for a day to see how it goes. I came in for a day and I never left.”

Almost thirty years later, Moody has enjoyed a long and versatile career working in commercial casting. He was involved in five ads that aired during the 2022 Super Bowl, including the popular Flamin’ Hot Doritos spot, and he’s worked with many high-profile directors such as the Coen Brothers and Larry Charles. For commercials, casting directors cast roles on behalf of directors who have been hired by ad agencies. “It’s a funny process,” Moody says. “It’s definitely a who-you-know kind of thing. The food chain normally goes, ad agency to director, and then the director—through the production company—calls us once they get the job.”

For a single commercial, Moody receives thousands of headshots from agents. “Let’s say we get 3,000 people submitted for a role,” he says. “There’s 300 we’re interested in and then we’ll audition maybe 100 of them. Maybe 20 will get a call back. The second audition will be with the director and they’ll choose one.”

The numbers reveal the steep odds actors face to land a role. Moody can empathize. Over the course of his career, he’s acted in roughly 40 commercials. “When I was a session director, a lot of directors would ask me to act in their commercials,” he says. Session directors are the people who direct actors during their auditions. Moody enjoys the creative aspect of that work. “I try to figure out what makes this person interesting,” he says. “A comedic beat that you would do, someone else might not be able to do. I try to find things that work for the actor who’s in the room. Help them, throw ideas at them, or see what ideas they come in with.”

Clock Work Casting logo

Decades of experience and passion for his work inspired Moody to hang his own shingle. He founded Clockwork Casting in 2020 with his longtime colleague Bobby Bolton, whom he met when working with longtime mentor Francene Selkirk. With the onset of the pandemic, the timing could not have been more challenging, but Moody says they weathered the storm thanks to their connections and adaptability.

In casting, Moody found a side of show business that fits his strengths. “It’s a nice balance of business and creativity,” he says. When asked about his favorite part of his work, Moody doesn’t hesitate. “Booking actors. I love being able to send emails booking actors for jobs. Especially if it’s someone you’ve known for a while, someone who’s really talented but just hasn’t had a break yet. And you believe in them so you keep bringing them in. And then they book one. I love that feeling.”