The film industry is notoriously one of those patchy playing fields where Black women struggle to succeed due to the intersecting obstacles of race, class and gender oppression. So when a Black woman like Shayla Cowan works her way up from being Hollywood superproducer Will Packer’s executive assistant to his chief of staff and now a producer of the 2022 Academy Awards alongside him, we have to celebrate. Shayla’s name may not be a household one just yet. Oh, but it will be.
“I'm supposed to be in this position,” Shayla told xoNecole over Zoom one sunny Saturday morning. It’s one of the few windows of time she has to chat while preparing for Hollywood’s biggest night. “I don't really get caught up too much in the hard work of it all. It's more about getting it done,” she said. We’ll get to witness all of Shayla’s and Will’s hard work pay off when the 94th Oscars airs live on ABC this Sunday, March 27 at 5PM / 8PM ET.
But we’ve already seen massive changes from the Oscars’ 93 years of being “so white.” Not only will this be the first time in history that the Oscars will be produced by an all-Black producing team, but Will and Shayla have made sure the night will be inclusive and historic, from the red carpet journalists, to the hosts and presenters and even the chefs at the famous post-Oscars Governors Ball.
This will be the first time in history that three women will host the Oscars: Regina Hall, Wanda Sykes and Amy Schumer. While Wolfgang Puck has been the chef for the Ball for years, this year, Bronx-based culinary collective Ghetto Gastro will collaborate with Puck on the menu. HBCUs will also be represented on stage with Mr. & Miss N.C. A&T University Zaria Woodford and Joshua Suiter serving as awards presenters. Following in the footsteps of Quincy Jones in 1971, Pharrell in 2012 and Questlove in 2021, Adam Blackstone will be the Oscars musical director this year. And Beyoncé, BEYONCÉ! is performing her Academy Award-nominated song from King Richard, “Be Alive.” Ok, #OscarsSoBlack!
Shayla Cowan and Will Packer at the 94th Oscars Nominee Luncheon in Hollywood
Courtesy of AMPAS
Will and Shayla’s focus for the Oscars is to make it about the people. “With what we've gone through in the last two years, it was so important for us [to do a show for the people], which we've always done with our projects because we've always had a specific demographic. But for this, it was like, one thing is for sure, across the globe, everyone loves movies. So why not bring everyone together for this special night, celebrating some of the best movies of the year with people who really have an opinion and who enjoy them?”
This is one of those stop and smell the roses moments for Shayla, who has been working with Will for over a decade. “To bring me in [as an Oscars producer], first of all, it just goes to show who [Will] is as a person…just always [with] the elevation and wanting to empower me in any way he can. I'm just forever grateful for that,” she said.
Shayla said she went from being a crew member on Will Packer Productions’ Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming in 2008 to being Will’s executive assistant, to being his chief of staff in 2018 and now co-producer on the Oscars because of how she showed up to work. “I think the best way to describe me is consistent,” she said.
Consistency is king, especially when it’s mixed with one of Shayla’s other powerful characteristics: “I’m fearless.” It’s that fearlessness that led her to walk up to Will on the set of Stomp the Yard 2 and strike up the conversation that would change the course of her life. When the billion-dollar box office producer subsequently asked Shayla to be his executive assistant, she felt empowered enough to tell him yes, with one condition: “When you go make movies, I want to go with you.” Shayla went on to be an associate producer on box office-topping movies, Think Like A Man, Little, Girls Trip, and so many more. “We [Will Packer and I] literally built this,” she said.
The ability to build up to this magnitude in Hollywood hits different for a Black woman. Shayla shared, “I don't take it for granted. Every so often I wake up like, ‘this all could be gone tomorrow.’ So everyday I put my best foot forward to know that I am here for a reason.”
One of those reasons close to her heart is to help those coming behind her understand the business. She shared, “My job on this planet is to empower, support and connect because I am in a position to do so. Like with the Oscars, being able to bring in some of these folks, the Adam Blackstones of the world, who have done a musical moment in the show, but to be a musical director of the entire show? That's a moment!”
Shayla’s meteoric rise in the industry could be seen from the outside looking in as if she’s just been lucky, but that ain’t all it’s taken for her to get here. She said, “None of this was handed to me. Every inch of this journey literally was earned. As a Black woman in this town, it has not been easy, with all the mistakes, all the headaches, all the frustration – but also those special moments. Those history-making moments will be there forever, including this one with Will and I being the first Black producing team to produce the awards in Academy history.” Those are the moments that make her climb worth it.
When it comes to equity in the industry, “there's still more work to be done,” she said. Ever the optimist, she added, “There are more Black women in these chief of staff positions and high-level executive roles – I think we're being seen differently.”
Shayla shared a story about a woman recently asking her about being Will’s assistant despite the fact that Shayla has been his chief of staff for the past four years. “I was like, ‘Ma'am, what else do I need to do so that I can be seen as an executive?’ Not to take away from [that], because if I wasn't his assistant [first], I probably would not be in this position today, with the growth and all of the wisdom that comes with it. But sometimes I'm like, ‘What do I need to do to make sure that people know that growth has happened?’”
Whether folks see it or not, Shayla Cowan will continue rising. She’s a marvel whose Midas touch is opening Hollywood’s doors that have been locked to Black people for too long. When asked to give advice for those who see her career and want to be just like her, Shayla said, “I don't want them to be just like me. I want them to be better than me.” What she has is drive, determination and confidence, but she’s also got these other secret weapons that are her saving grace: humility and patience.
“You have to be okay with waiting for your turn. And I think oftentimes people are so quick, they just want to run to the top. You can't just run up that mountain. You’ve got to take your time. Slow and steady wins the race.” Good thing she’s a runner, she’s a track star–except when it gets hard, she faces the work and gets it done. And as Shayla continues to succeed in her career, she’s also building a beautiful life that she’s proud of. “I literally am living and dreaming in color, and I'm so happy, inside and out,” she shared. Who wouldn’t aspire to that?
Editor’s note, xoNecole is a subsidiary of Will Packer Productions.