Editor’s Note: Five years ago we had an idea. Being a woman-owned publication, it made sense to us to celebrate women who were making a difference in the industries we cover. So, we started a “little” feature for Women’s History Month called “Reel Women.” To say it blossomed into something special would be a vast understatement. It exploded. Over the last four years, we have gotten to know leaders, mentors and visionaries from a variety of creative industries. We have learned about their ups. And how they get back up after being down. This is our 5th Annual REEL WOMEN. For the month of March, let us introduce you to some very special women like Tinygiant’s talented director Jenn Shaw.
Jenn is an award-winning commercial, documentary, and narrative filmmaker specializing in sports, coming-of-age and dramedy content. Her bold and cinematic filmmaking has both distinctive humor and dramatic instinct.
As an award-winning producer, Jenn headed up production at ESPN’s Creative Works before establishing herself as a director. At ESPN, she spearheaded multi-million campaigns including Nissan Heisman House and Infiniti NCAA Coach’s Charity Challenge.
Her passion for crafting strong character-driven stories for a variety of platforms is evidenced in her directorial campaigns for brands including Kia, Hyundai, Facebook, Capital One, USAA, Complex, the NFL Network, Pizza Hut, and Verizon; as well as in her narrative and documentary films. Recently, she directed a national commercial spot for Hyundai working with Culture Brands.
She has directed several films exhibiting at major festivals including Pan African, Hollyshorts, Edmonton International, and Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival. Her ESPN film $15 Kicks was executive produced by the legendary Spike Lee and earned her a selection in the 2017 Shoot Magazine’s New Director DGA Showcase and a Black Reel Award. Shaw is an alumna of the Fox Network’s Diversity Writers Program and participated in Gotham’s 2020 Episodic Program with her pilot and upcoming scripted series Afro.
Recently, she directed two short films I Won The Lottery… and Charlie and the Hunt starring Lauren Ridloff (Eternals, Walking Dead). Jenn’s other accolades include three appearances at the American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival (2017, 2020, 2022).
In other words, Jenn is a formidable talent. In other words, Jenn is a badass!
Let’s meet Jenn!
What’s your origin story?
I’m the underdog. My origin story feels like something out of a classic teen movie – it could be comedy or horror at moments… take your pick. I grew up with a quieter middle-class upbringing in Kentucky. No connections. No understanding of production or the industry. Nada. It’s that whole small-town girl escapes to the big-city narrative that describes me the most, but it wasn’t all bad.
I learned how to handle myself as a young lady and dealt with racism, sexism…all the isms, but honestly, I am proud of where I come from and the lessons I learned. I’m a better artist because I had to discover my voice and discover who I was in a place where most people didn’t look like or understand my interests. I live for being the underdog.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Oh man, that’s a tough question to answer on how I got into being a filmmaker because I was an avid creative from the womb. However, once I transferred to New York University Tisch, I really got the “wind beneath my wings” to pursue being a producer. After graduation, it was years of producing in the advertising and television space before I caught the commercial directing bug.
As a producer, I was able to see all aspects of production and build the confidence to direct my own short films and really go for the director role in the commercial and narrative spaces. I saw all these guys doing it (some horribly).
I thought – why not me? I had the work ethic and creativity, so I just went for it despite those barriers for Black female directors. I had to pivot my career, make mistakes, and find community in order to thrive as a director.
Who were your mentors?
How much time do you have? I say this because SO many people have touched my career and mentored me along the way. I had this fantastic lady, the late Marie Morrealle at Scholastic Magazine, support me when I was a newbie to New York City. As her intern, she encouraged me to keep pushing despite failing. I remember so many moments I got frustrated trying to get my career off the ground, but she would not let me quit.
Years later, I worked at ESPN, and a lot of our brand spots were directed by this phenomenal comedy director, Evan Silver. Evan championed my transition to be a director and was always a kind ear in a sea of naysayers. He’s that colleague that wants you to win. Spike Lee gave me a shot directing my first ESPN 30 for 30.
He served as my executive producer on my film $15 Kicks. Neema Barnette, the legendary episodic director, is a phone call away, so I can ask questions and compare notes. The word mentor can mean so many different things but we all need them to succeed. They say it takes a village to raise a child… but the same can be said for a breakthrough director.
While there will be others, what do you consider your biggest achievement to date?
My biggest achievement to date is being a working director. I know that sounds so basic, but hear me out… I get to do what I love and make a living without doing side gigs or worrying that I can’t make ends meet.
That’s huge. Sure, I executive produced and directed my own series last year sponsored by Adidas, just had a film air on BET, won an Anthem award, a Black Reel Award, and got to do some big commercials for major brands such as Hyundai, Brach’s and Hershey’s but there’s nothing better than saying you are a director and knowing that it’s 100 percent. It’s a gift, and I’m proud to say I’ve earned it. I will never take my reality for granted, and you bet there will be other achievements because I’m out here working my a** off.
What drives you to create?
I’m driven to create because I don’t always see the type of stories or characters that I want to tell portrayed on screen. It’s that void of stories that show Black or diverse individuals in joyful narratives or across all genres that keeps me on my toes.
Whether it’s commercial or narrative, I know I have a unique way of seeing the world that’s universally appealing to the masses. Maybe it’s ego? Maybe it’s something deep within me that’s unexplainable? I honestly feel like being creative is a calling…kinda like if I wanted to be a nun or something.
Award you crave, but haven’t won
I’m going to need someone to run me that Emmy or Oscar. I’ll take an NAACP Image award too.
What shows/movies/songs are doing the best job of portraying strong women on TV?
It depends on how you define strong. I like my women multi-dimensional. Strong is alright I guess, but women are also vulnerable, smart, and layered, which is a harder task when it comes to our medium. Abbott Elementary is a comedy that nails it.
The women on the show are fierce, different, and relatable. I also just started watching the show Ginny and Georgia and feel it’s grounded in womanhood. Shonda Rhimes’ shows handle female characters with care.
Is there still a boys club in film and TV?
Hell Yes. There are some men…especially CIS White men, out there that do one successful short film; the next thing you know, they’re doing a studio-funded film. Meanwhile, my women and minority peers out here are shooting top film festival shorts, doing fellowships, shadowing, and still competing over a small pool of mid-level gigs.
Don’t even get me started about how I get mistaken as a production assistant on my own film sets. Unfortunately, executives and those in charge still have a stereotypical image of a director in their heads, and that image doesn’t look like me. This bias makes the route to director more difficult so there is no denying there is a boys club.
Stats don’t lie when it comes to who gets to tell our stories and who’s getting those big director gigs…mostly male and mostly White. However, I have chosen not to let it stop me. I’ve decided to push to the point where my work is undeniable. Then I’ll start my own club where everyone is welcome.
Coffee, Lunch or Happy Hour. Name a famous woman (living or dead) you would like to attend each function with
Lunch. Nothing like a good meal that allows you to go home and get your sleep in before a long production day!
Michelle Obama, I want to know all the tea over tea. Hope everyone gets that pun.
What keeps you up at night?
Nothing, I rest well. I’m a deep sleeper. I fight for equality when I wake up.