At Variety’s Power of Women event last October, honoree Ava DuVernay focused part of her speech on her representatives – those agents, managers and lawyers, or “whoever speaks for us in the industry.”
Top among these reps, for DuVernay and many others, is entertainment attorney Nina Shaw, who, in nearly four decades in the business has been a key dealmaker, particularly for members of the creative class trying to break in and then endure in a white- and male-dominated business.
Shaw, who will be the keynote conversation at Variety’s Power of Law Breakfast on April 6, has a client list that, in addition to DuVernay, includes Raoul Peck, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” John Legend, Laurence Fishburne and Lupita Nyong’o.
She has never hesitated to offer her perspective on and pointed criticism of the industry, particularly when it comes to women and people of color. That includes, as DuVernay noted, an artist’s team of representatives, where diversity is scant.
Shaw knows that through her own experience.
After earning her law degree from Columbia Law School in 1979, she joined law firm O’Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles, where she worked for clients such as Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin’s Tandem/T.A.T. Productions. At the time, the company was thriving with such sitcoms as “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Facts of Life,” and it was, Shaw says, a “tremendous, immersive experience.”
Lear also was “very much at the forefront of hiring women,” adds Shaw. “The business side of his world was so far advanced in hiring, and frankly [even to] right now,” she says.
Shaw later became partner at Dern, Mason, Swerdlow and Floum, and in 1989 started her own firm with Ernest Del — Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka & Finkelstein.
That move was her “best option at the time,” she says, because small boutique entertainment firms, those representing the top of the business, were “hard to get into.”
“I found them to have virtually no interest in someone like me,” she says, even though she was a graduate from a top law school. “It was disappointing. It wasn’t surprising.”
Shaw did not fear going out on her own — nor did she entertain another career path. “The idea of just giving up and going back home — not one moment did that come to mind,” she says.
Shaw was born and raised in Harlem, and remembers watching “The Defenders” as a kid. The acclaimed legal series was one of the few successful topical dramas of the 1960s, a decade otherwise known for escapist fare. “I had this sense of lawyers who righted wrongs and who were advocates and counselors to people,” she says.
She knew even in law school that she favored transactional law rather than litigation. She also always had an interest in entertainment. “I got on a path that led organically and naturally” to entertainment law, says Shaw.
The attorney notes that even though she is often asked to speak on panels about trends in business transactions, she also sees the importance of speaking out on race and gender. “Righting those wrongs means a great deal to me,” she says.
Before this year’s Oscar ceremony, Shaw wrote in an op-ed piece in Variety:
“Often, when we support the ‘right’ causes and candidates, we fail to recognize that with progress comes sacrifice. That sacrifice might mean that you are no longer the obvious choice for the job. Your job security may no longer be a given. You might lose your position at the top of all the lists. Then, the question becomes: ‘How much is progress worth to you?’
“Yes, we should celebrate this Oscar season, but if we rest on our laurels and fail to see the enormous job still to be done, then our progress will be fleeting, and we will face a future that can easily look more like our past — perhaps the cinematic equivalent is ‘Make Movies Great Again.’”
She says that one reason that Hollywood’s progress has been so slow is the way that the industry passes on job opportunities, via networking and nepotism. The “end result is that it’s an exclusionary business [although] people very rarely see it as exclusionary. They think of it is as a little club. If you’re in, you’re in. In fact it is actually shutting people out.”
Hollywood has gone through other periods where the focus has been on lack of representation, but Shaw is hopeful that this, at last, is the time for meaningful change — especially with the growing number of new distribution outlets and the demands of the marketplace.
People need to seize the opportunity. “I hope that my experience in my own law firm, and being in charge of my own destiny, has cleared the way” for more inclusion in this portion of the industry, she says.