In 2001, Gordon Bobb, now a partner at Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano, attended his first Sundance Film Festival. Bobb had joined the prestigious entertainment law firm the previous year and was accompanying one of his early clients, a Black filmmaker whose film was screening at the event. It was an exciting experience, Bobb recalls, but a somewhat disorienting one.
“The film screened and premiered, and there was press around it, but that was pretty much it,” says Bobb, who will be recognized with Variety’s Power of Law honor at the online Power of Law breakfast April 9. “There wasn’t any kind of support around the film and the filmmakers. And we were just kind of left to wander around Park City, up and down Main Street. There were other Black filmmakers that had similar experiences — there was no place to come together and network. There was no organization supporting the film and the filmmakers.”
This lack of tangible on the ground support for Black filmmakers was the impetus to create the Blackhouse Foundation, a nonprofit organization that develops new opportunities for the Black community in the movie biz and at festivals around the world.
Founded in 2006 by Brickson Diamond, CEO of Big Answers; film producer Carol Ann Shine; and Ryan Tarpley, chief strategy officer at Wilson Family Office and Why Not You Foundation, Blackhouse has been instrumental in advancing the presence of Black artists in the film, TV, digital and multi-platform space.
In 2007, the newly formed org launched as an official partner of the Sundance Institute and fest, hosting a series of panels, discussions and networking soirees.
Bobb became involved with Blackhouse a year after its founding and was invited to join its board of directors. Bobb left that position in 2020 and currently sits on the organization’s board of advisers.
“Blackhouse is a space for filmmakers and those who support those filmmakers to come together and have an environment and an open space to network, learn about educational opportunities and, just in general, receive support,” Bobb says. “That was the genesis of it. For me, it dovetails perfectly with my personal mission and why I got into this business, which is to support those under- represented voices. I eagerly jumped right into it.”
Bobb, born and raised in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood to “first-generation immigrant parents who were from London by way of Guyana,” graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he majored in government, He received his juris doctorate from Columbia University School of Law. Like many immigrant parents, Bobb says, his mother and father were pretty insistent he become “either a doctor or a lawyer.”
But he was always drawn to film and TV.
“I always knew I wanted to be in the arts. I remember in the summer of 1989 as an undergrad, I saw ‘Do The Right Thing’ in a theater. That was the first film where I saw myself on-screen. These were my neighborhood people. These were characters with whom I could relate. I saw Spike Lee’s movie and I was like, wow, I want to be able to tell more stories like this. That was my mission, to help bring about stories from and about diverse backgrounds. And there was this kind of spark that led me to where I am today.”
At Del Shaw Moonves, Bobb maintains an impressive and varied roster of showbiz clients, the bulk of whom “are in the writer, director and producer space.” This client list includes Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay, “Dear White People” creator Justin Simien and producer and screenwriter Sascha Penn, whose latest project, “April 29, 1992,” which revolves around the infamous L.A. riots, is in pre-production, with Ariel Vromen directing. On the comedian side, Bobb represents such superstar performers as Cedric the Entertainer, Arsenio Hall and Kenan Thompson.
It’s not only through his lawyerly duties, but his involvement in Blackhouse, that Bobb continues the critically important work of expanding the media platform for people of color in the entertainment industry. “If you look at Sundance, for example, in terms of the actual number of films by people of color, that number has skyrocketed, and I think in large part that’s because of Blackhouse,” says Bobb. “One of the things we wanted to make sure of was that we were not tangential to Sundance — or any fest, for that matter. We wanted to be part of the Sundance that everyone was experiencing. It was never just about being there to support, but also about the programming of the fest itself.”
Bobb has seen a lot of advances. “If you look at the progression from 2001 to 2021, Sundance is much more inclusive, much more diverse. For the first 10 years, we were the only game in town,” he recalls. “Blackhouse was the only place to go for Black filmmakers at Sundance. It was one of the few places on Main Street where you could go and not just be standing outside behind some velvet rope because you weren’t on some exclusive list. Now, we’ve spawned other events, other lounges and spaces. Since the founding of Blackhouse, Sundance has become a much more welcoming space.”
But Blackhouse is not just for Black filmmakers, Bobb notes.
“That was originally our target demo, but we welcome everyone,” he says. “We believe in accessibility for everyone.”
Accessibility has proven itself especially key this past year as the pandemic raged, forcing the film biz to rethink its entire business structure. Through it all, Bobb has remained a steadfast pillar of both professional and personal support for his clients, many of whom had to shift their career objectives in the wake of global chaos.
“I would say that attorneys and their clients do share a special relationship, and that started to become even more so before the pandemic, with the whole Writers Guild signatory dispute, and writer clients not having agents,” Bobb points out. He also notes that it’s because the relationship between attorney and client is governed by the ethics and confidentiality rules of the state bar that such an affinity can exist.
“The clients feel — and they should feel — that we are the ones that they can turn to and speak candidly and frankly about anything that’s going on in their life,” he says. “So we’re not only attorneys, we’re also counselors. That’s literally our title — counselor. So we take that responsibility seriously. And we’ve had to counsel our clients, whether it’s through the WGA dispute or through this pandemic. What’s going to happen? What do they do? How do they navigate their careers through such uncertain times?”
Uncertain though these times may be, Bobb and the entire firm of Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano “are busier than ever,” says the attorney.
“There has not been a slowdown in our workflow. For example, some of our clients who would normally be in production now have more time to do all their development. There was a moment where development was really ramping up, where everyone wanted to be ready to go once again when production opened up. So that was a very busy time. And then once projects did start going back into production, there was a lot of work in terms of dealing with the protocols and on-set regulations.”
There were also surprises. With Warner Bros’ recently moving its entire slate of 2021 movies to a simultaneous release in theaters and on its streaming platform HBO Max, “that was a huge shock to the system, and another paradigm shift to deal with,” says Bobb. “So we’ve been very busy, and our clients have turned to us during this time to help them navigate.”
While the coronavirus pandemic has been challenging, going forward, Bobb is focusing on “the positives” that have emerged from what has been a global crisis.
“The industry has adapted to the disruption and that’s what we’ve come to expect,” he says. “There is always going to be one disruption or another. The idea is to keep in front of it, figure out how best to serve our clients, and, as content creators, work out new and creative ways to participate in that innovation.”