Powerhouse entertainment attorney Nina Shaw is a rep for the stars, but also a rep for diversity. At Variety’s Power of Women event last October, honoree Ava DuVernay shouted out her representatives: agents, managers and lawyers, or “whoever speaks for us in the industry.”
With nearly four decades in the business, Shaw has been a key dealmaker, particularly for members of the creative class trying to break into a white- and male-dominated business, with a heavy emphasis on women and people in color. In addition to DuVernay, her prominent client list includes, but is not limited to Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro director), John Legend, Laurence Fishburne and Lupita Nyong’o.
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, per Shaw, it was a “tremendous, immersive experience.” Shaw added that Lear also was “very much at the forefront of hiring women” noting that his initiatives were advanced at the time, even compared to current times.
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, which Shaw cited as her best option, “I found [small boutique law firms] 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.”
Throughout the many challenges she faced, Shaw was unrelenting, never entertaining 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 acclaimed legal series The Defenders as a kid, of which she drew inspiration noting, “I had this sense of lawyers who righted wrongs and who were advocates and counselors to people.” In law school, Shaw confirmed that her law school path led “organically and naturally” to transactional and entertainment law.
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.
One example of such, in which she made use of her platform writing an op-ed piece in Variety before this year’s Oscar ceremony:
“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 pointed out one significant reason for Hollywood’s slow progress, which is the infamous way 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.”
Even throughout the ups and downs of fighting against the lack of representation, Shaw is hopeful that this is the time for meaningful change — especially with the growing number of new distribution outlets and the demands of the marketplace, “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.
Shaw is set to be a keynote speaker at Variety’s Power of Law Breakfast on April 6. Shaw is definitely a leader in the diversity and inclusion movement and we’re sure she’ll continue to be integral to many positive changes to come!