Divorce yourself from ego in this industry. I learned that the hard way with my first PA gig. Nothing is guaranteed. Get as much experience as you can, even in the most menial of things. It is all about being tenacious.
As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing K. Rocco Shields.
K. Rocco Shields is an award-winning filmmaker with a demonstrated passion for pushing the envelope through controversial projects, each crafted with the intention of lensing socially conscious subjects in a new light. Shields is driven to bring essential stories that are evocative and dynamic to audiences of all ages. At a time when female filmmakers’ voices are vital, she has made a career of creating provocative and engaging content that has been beloved by audiences and critics alike. Shields has over 20 years of experience in the Film and Television Industry and created a company that fuses traditional Hollywood Storytelling and online learning to make unique and engaging content for e-Learning.
A Film Theory major at UC Santa Barbara, Shields cut her teeth editing before transitioning into script supervising and working her way up the ladder. She quickly became a highly coveted script supervisor in the industry, working with directors including J.J. Abrams and Gore Verbinski, before moving on to direct and produce her own projects. She went on to form her own production company Wingspan Pictures in 2008 and began her run of producing groundbreaking digital media.
In 2014, Shields exited Wingspan in order to direct a passion project that highlighted the irreparable damage of intolerance and bullying. The groundbreaking, perspective-flipping short film, “Love Is All You Need?”, immediately became a viral sensation, generating over 200 million views (and counting). The world-wide popularity of the short — along with the dialogues that followed — prompted Shields to immediately begin work on a full-length version of the film, with “Love Is All You Need?” wrapping principal photography in 2017.
The feature version of the short, supported by a versatile celebrity cast including Briana Evigan, Tyler Blackburn, Emily Osment, Elisabeth Röhm and Jeremy Sisto. The film serves as a stark, raw examination of toxic elements in society, including bullying, prejudice, and injustice. The powerful film has been used as a lesson tool by schools and organizations around the country to create conversation, generate support, and inspire change, and Shields has become an in-demand public-speaker, giving talks about the urgent need for compassion and support of young adults, especially in the LGBTQ community.
Inspired by her work as an activist filmmaker, Shields founded Genius Pictures under her commitment to promote social change through filmmaking. Genius Pictures created award-winning commercials, music videos, and content aimed at changing the world for the better. Shields decided to take that charge one step further and pivoted to the educational sphere, noting the lack of engagement and retention rates of online students. She aimed to make educational content that was accessible to all audiences and carried the same level of immersion and engagement as any film or television show.
This vision and foresight into the changing plane of online education birthed Genius Produced, the leader in creating, high-quality, engaging educational media. To refine processes and maximize the production value of their content, she meticulously designed and invested in the creation of their custom-built base of operations, a giant, multi-purpose motion picture production complex, spanning 15,500 square feet. Housed within the facility is a studio-sized soundstage, state-of-the-art green screen and motion capture facilities, and a complete in-house post-production department. Few if any, other production companies in the entire industry can claim they have access and control over such resources and facilities. Her team of artists and creative professionals have essentially no limitations on what they are able to do, whether it be filming Cinematic Narratives, like you would see in film or television, or stylistic, Enhanced Lectures, like you would see in a TED Talk presentation, or even something filmed in their exclusively developed “Black Void” set, which is a highly effective presentation style Genius has been refining for scripted educational content over the past decade.
Shields is involved with numerous educational programs and online institutions, including StartEd, Tulane University, SMU Cox School of Business, and 2u. Through her work on the feature film, she has become heavily involved in the nonprofit world as well, partnering with organizations including The Matthew Shepard Foundation, The Tyler Clementi Foundation, and Boo2Bullying among others.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up with a single mom in Los Angeles, and I spent a lot of time under the care of my grandmother. She had one of those old 80s camcorders — well, they were brand new at the time — and my favorite game was to make her record me. We called it “Make a Movie”. Now when she’d ask if I wanted to be a movie star when I grew up, I would cry and say no, I want to make the movies! And I still have the video to prove it! I just wanted to play with my dolls and have her film it as I manipulated the elements, so to speak. I’ve never had any intention of ever being in front of a camera. In fact, I didn’t really speak a lot until I was about ten years old, which anybody who knows me now, would have a hard time believing! My other inspiration and motivation growing up was my aunt, who was a Hollywood film producer. She produced a bunch of those “Creature Features” in the 80s like Tremors and Short Circuit, among others. I always saw her as a very strong woman: she chose to focus on her career and carry her own weight in such a male-dominated field back then.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I worked in the entertainment industry for a long time as a freelancer. Like most people, I started off as a PA, which I failed at horribly. That had to do more with my “just graduated from college” ego, when you realize that pricey education doesn’t do much for you in an industry that’s all about experience. Once I divorced myself from that, I worked my way up through experience to become an editor, then a script supervisor on 30 movies, over 100 episodes of television, and a ton of commercials. At that time we were still shooting on film which was not only expensive but the equipment was hard to use. And your creativity was limited by your film quality and your budget level. But then it happened: The Digital Film Revolution. And all of the sudden, filmmaking got a lot less expensive and the tools were put into anybody’s hands. Well, anyone who could afford them which ended up being mostly trust fund kids with no filmmaking experience. So there I was as a script supervisor, sitting with these directors and watching over their shoulders and getting inspired — to do my own content! So. I opened my first production company at 25, and just started making content. Shortly after that, I was then introduced to a gentleman who had this crazy idea of putting the first major accredited university online. So I pitched him the equally crazy idea that educational video did not have to be the boring film strips and movies you fell asleep to in your high school history class. I pitched him the idea that they could look like a Hollywood production, have that great production value, and could ultimately be engaging. So, he gave me a shot. I did one video, which then turned into ten thousand videos, which then turned into my specialty at my company Genius Produced whose mission is to create broadcast-quality, “binge worthy” content for online education.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
With the change-agent content I was creating in the educational field, I saw how it could transform and enlighten people. So during the last big writer’s strike, I was able to pull in some of the best talent in Hollywood to help with the vision I had for change agent content which made us quite profitable. Since we had all the resources, I decided it was time to really start making my own change-agent content. I had this idea for a feature film to shed light on racism, prejudice, and human rights by using a reverse lens where gay is straight and straight is gay. And yeah, it had been tried before in Hollywood, but wasn’t very well executed because of the comedic approach. My vision was to do it in a way that didn’t stigmatize the viewer — where it actually created a parallel reality without harping on stereotypes. Since that was going to be a very tough sell in Hollywood, I decided to do a short film as proof of concept. So in the midst of my production company making hundreds of digital content assets, we created Love Is All You Need? as a short film. And not only did it do quite well on the festival circuit, but it was able to wake up society and make people think differently. And with that, it instantly was hailed as an educational tool. Teachers all around the country wanted to use it to shed light on bullying and prejudice in their classrooms. With that in mind, I started looking for a distribution deal for the short film. Around that same time, it got leaked on the internet and overnight was viewed by over a hundred million people and started a worldwide debate on human rights and prejudice. And as a result, as the filmmaker, I was suddenly put into this role as an activist. Which is why I call myself an “activist by default”, because all of a sudden, I had to start rushing around the country, saving teachers’ jobs who were showing it without lesson plans, as a way to stimulate conversation but were getting fired for it. There was such a huge uprising about the short, that I began to receive death threats. And so, you know, I became labeled “the Harbinger of Christ’s Return” by the Westboro Baptist Church. I was thrust into this activist role. So, going back to being scared to speak until I was ten, not only am I now a filmmaker, but now I’m in front of the camera being this activist. And I would say that’s the most surprising thing. I think when you create content to change the world and it enlightens people, it takes on a life of its own, and you have to trust that path. So that path of it leaking on the internet was never a path I imagined, but I went with it and it’s changed my life.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Yeah. I talked about failing my first job. My aunt gave me my first shot out of film school. You know, here I was — this film school graduate — thinking I could get a job as a director. It doesn’t work like that. No one chooses a director right out of film school, unless you’re the top .001% of white males that get recruited by a studio just to, like, control you, but that’s another story for another time.
I got a PA job, and I was a great production assistant. Much to my horror, it was being yelled at and treated like a sub-human person and having to make coffee for some weaselly guy named Roger, who probably got bullied himself when he started because he wasn’t too nice. He asked me for coffee one too many times and I freaking quit on him. And ultimately, I ended up getting other jobs after that and fell right back into being a PA. And once I reentered as a PA with a good attitude, I started to climb the ladder. I had to learn how to divorce myself from my own ego. And that’s something that needs to be learned by everyone that enters this industry.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I would like to think that my company is completely self-made. No one handed it to me. I did it all by instinct. But what has really helped me is having an amazing team around me and an amazing group of people that really believe in me. And I think when people believe in you, it becomes something bigger than yourself.
Most specifically, my Senior Vice President of Development, David Tillman, has been a game changer in believing in me and my vision, and helping me co-write Love Is All You Need?, and working sleepless unpaid nights for years and years with me and encouraging me and being my sounding board over and over again. He is a pinnacle of dedication and an amazing collaborator, and I thank him the most.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Yes. Failure is all part of it. What you have to do is iterate. I always share these words of wisdom to my staff: “Amazon was not an overnight success.” It started as an online bookstore. Jeff Bezos changed the direction of it so many times before it became the Amazon it is today. As you go out and try and do something, always look at it as, “Okay, this is how I’m going to try to get there.” It’s about looking at your end goal and figuring out what steps you could do to get there. And if the steps don’t work, you have to figure out other steps to get you there. And it’s about never giving up. It’s about perseverance. It’s about iterating the steps to get your angle.
What drives you to get up everyday and work in TV and Film? What change do you want to see in the industry going forward?
What gets me up every day is the realization that I have achieved the most amazing gift: I’ve figured out how to use the power of Hollywood to instigate change and awareness in the content that Genius Produced creates. And within that change, film is the most powerful medium to inspire and to motivate and to create empathy. The fact that I get to do that every day, for every single product I create, is what keeps me going.
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
Right now, with the recent events of the world, online education is no longer an option. It’s a necessity. We are finding amazing partners that are realizing that the content Genius Produced creates is unparalleled to any other content provider in the world. We’re gearing up to grow Genius Produced to be the biggest educational studio on the planet! Beyond that, once that’s grown, we have an original content division that’s designed and geared toward creating films much like Love Is All You Need? that create social change. The one I’m most excited about is PANCHO, which is a film about a one of the greatest aviators in American history. She’s a woman in a man’s world who defied the status quo. Everyone knows Amelia Earhart, but no one knew who Pancho was, and she actually changed aviation history. I think that story could inspire women and girls all over the planet more than any superhero movie that could ever be created.
We are very interested in looking at diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture and our youth growing up today?
First and foremost, film is a reflection of society as a whole. And people learn from what they see. When people look at film, they see themselves in it. It actually is a method used to drive empathy. That was the whole impetus behind Love Is All You Need? where the stigma behind being gay was flipped to where straight relationships were stigmatized. For the first time, people could look at it and see their own lives in a new light and empathize. Ultimately, as people look at film and society as a reflection of themselves, diversity is the most important thing because we are a rainbow of people: all races, creeds, classes, and orientations. Without that perspective, the world feels skewed, one-sided and out of place. People want to feel seen and heard and understood, and our art should reflect that. No two people share the same story. And if we’re only showing a specific ethnicity or a specific gender demographic in these roles, how can we truly look at ourselves in the world and affect global change? We don’t grow if we don’t recognize the world outside of our bubble. Diversity helps pop the bubble. As filmmakers, we have a responsibility to show the world as it truly is, for good or bad. And that’s where the change comes. We can show the youth that it’s okay to love, it’s okay to fight for what you believe in. It all boils down to empathy.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Divorce yourself from ego in this industry. I learned that the hard way with my first PA gig. Nothing is guaranteed. Get as much experience as you can, even in the most menial of things. It is all about being tenacious.
2. You have to not be afraid to shamelessly promote yourself. That’s been the hardest thing for me. I’ve always been behind the camera and I always thought, you know, people would recognize hard work. Unfortunately, you have to be your own rep in this industry. You have to be your own manager, agent, banker, press agent. You have to learn how to do everything yourself and to create a brand as an artist. And so the more you can figure that out, the better.
3. Never ever, ever give up. I have so much respect for actors. I honestly think actors have it harder than filmmakers because if you want to make a film, you have to find the filmmaker to do it and filmmakers need to find the resources to do it. Actors, on the other hand, have to go on a thousand auditions before they get one solid project. The more they put themselves out there, and get called in, and get rejected, and repeat the cycle over again, and the more they are able to defy the odds.
4. Never compromise your integrity. I know a lot of women that have, and you’re hearing the stories of Harvey Weinstein and others, and you’re seeing this all come to light now, but when I started in the business, it was all kept quiet. I tolerated a lot of talk, although I never compromised my integrity, and that’s ultimately why I’ve had to forge my own path. I’ve never regretted it. The more integrity you keep, and the more you can put that in your work and hold onto your values and your self-esteem, the more you will be respected. That is the culture we cultivated for Genius Produced: one of respect, tolerance, and equality. Never compromise your value, not for a second. Nothing is worth it.
5. Treat everybody with respect. I don’t care if you’re talking to a PA or any assistant. You’d be shocked at how many assistants actually run studio execs’ lives! Never discount someone based on their position. You never know when they’ll turn around and hire you for a project! I can’t tell you how many people that weren’t that nice to me when I was an assistant came looking to get jobs from me later on down the road. Fortunately, I keep a blacklist, so sorry guys!
Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.
Massages. Those are my drugs of choice. I’ve watched a lot of Hollywood directors and producers get sucked into like the Hollywood glam: the drugs, the alcohol. Ultimately that’s not going to carry you. It’s going to just disappoint you. It’s not going to make you the beautiful human you are. Self-care is important to help you remain your best self. Massage is a great release, much more than drugs and alcohol can elevate. So, if you’re looking to have a release, try and get a massage instead of a drink.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m a big fan of the book The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz. It’s the idea of shedding some of the hurtful mindsets that people often create for themselves and breaking down some of your fears to live a happier and more fulfilled life in spite of what may be happening around you. It boils down to four agreements you have to make with yourself: Be Impeccable with Your Word, Don’t Take Anything Personally, Don’t Make Assumptions, and Always Do Your Best. By letting go of the worry and the negative thought processes, I found so much happiness in this industry and in my personal life by just abiding by it.
You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It’s a movement I’ve already created! Although I’ve already created what I like to call “The Moviement” with LIAYN?, and generated national and international change in relation to human rights and prejudice, there are so many bigger issues to tackle. There’s still more work to be done. I plan for all of my future projects to be just as controversial and raise the same level of awareness as the first one did. And I can’t wait for the next picketing or social uprising that happens because of one of Genius Produced’s films.
You don’t create change without controversy. People will not wake up and question their beliefs unless you create a dialogue. All of our films create a dialogue to inspire change and sometimes it’s uncomfortable. Change is uncomfortable. But only through discomfort will we actually be able to progress as a human race. So that’s ultimately the legacy I want to weave through all of my work. And that’s the common through-line, whether I’m talking about bullying or I’m talking about a woman that defies the status quo, or I’m talking about the deep web or I’m commentating on racism. The goal is to get society as a whole to start questioning our long-held beliefs and start to think about if it’s truly correct.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Yes! I would love to have lunch with Oprah. I read about Oprah. I am inspired by Oprah. She started her own production company. Oprah started her own path. Oprah is a hero to me. If I could sit down for five minutes and talk to her about some of the amazing things she’s been able to do with her life against all odds, I would be honored.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
Yes! You can follow me on
You can also follow my company Genius Produced on Instagram: @Genius_Produced and check out our groundbreaking content at www.GeniusProduced.com.
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
This was great! Thank you so much for the opportunity!