By Wendy Carlson
Claire Brooks '07 is adept at making quick transitions. By the time she graduated from NYU film school in 2011, she had 12 internships under her belt. After college, she immediately flew out to Los Angeles to work at Illumination Entertainment as an executive assistant to the company's founder, Chris Meledandri '77, a producer and creator of award-winning animated films. There, she worked on marketing campaigns for The Minions, Despicable Me 2, and The Lorax. Last December, she founded SuperSwell, a New York City production company that partners with startups and businesses to create live events, like music and film festivals and multicity pop-up events. But Brooks is never one to sit still for too long. This fall, she is juggling her career with graduate school at Columbia, where she's working toward an MFA in film production.
She first learned to switch gears during her childhood in Queens, when she was accepted to the Prep for Prep program, a highly selective academic enrichment program in New York City that identifies the city's most promising students of color and enrolls them in independent schools throughout the northeast. She attended the The Nightingale-Bamford School, which opened her eyes to a world of possibilities.
"I was commuting from Queens every day to the Upper East Side; the transition was just so intense," recalls Brooks.
Eventually, she realized she needed a space away from home and from the city where she could go to grow and flourish on her own. That place was Hotchkiss.
"The adjustment was tough at first. No one in my family had attended boarding school, so it was up to me to pursue the experience on my own," she says. "So I started game-planning what I was going to accomplish at Hotchkiss, because that's what I've been doing since I was a kid — looking for ways to move from one challenging environment to the next."
At Hotchkiss, she fell in love with theatre. She wrote, directed, and produced some of her own work; she was also on the board of the Hotchkiss Dramatic Association for four years and stage-managed over a dozen student productions. While she felt certain she wanted to pursue a career in the arts, she knew it wasn't a sure money-making endeavor. In fact, she says, "I was the only person in school who wanted to be a producer."
As a prep, she began networking, reaching out to alumni in the entertainment field for internship opportunities. Not only did she secure internships; by connecting with alumni who were successful in the arts, she started to gain confidence that she could succeed in that field.
"My first internship was with Eric Falkenstein '87 (a Broadway producer) and my first job out of college was at Chris Meledandri's Illumination Entertainment. Both opportunities provided the foundation of my career," she says.
While learning the ropes in film production at Illumination Entertainment, Brooks also began working with an underground art collective, producing events during her time off. She soon found herself trying to manage both jobs at the same time.
"I was counting cash from a music event in some back room by night and working as an assistant in Hollywood by day; the disparity in my life was huge," she says. "I'd be in the bathroom, standing on the toilet seat so no one would recognize my shoes, making phone calls to raise money for an art event while I was rolling calls for my boss!"
Eventually, she had to make a choice between staying at her job or becoming a full-time cultural arts event producer in LA. She decided to make the leap and be her own boss, but there were fits and starts in the business. Although she learned to roll with the punches, it wasn't as lucrative as she had hoped. Eventually, she decided to return to New York, where she landed a job in marketing, first for the National Basketball Association, then for an ad agency as a producer.
"So it took me a number of years, two different industries, and four different jobs before I was officially a producer," she says, wryly.
Meanwhile, she had gone from producing $50,000 events in Los Angeles to producing multi-million dollar projects almost overnight.
"At one point, I looked at the numbers and I realized I could do this myself," she said. So, once again, she struck out on her own by starting SuperSwell. Now, she receives calls from clients like actress/singer Zendaya, for whom she curated a three-city pop up event to launch the entertainer's first fashion line. One of her Fortune 100 clients even asked her to produce an even more outrageous event that involved flying a helicopter rigged with cameras to film a flash dance mob happening in Times Square.
"They wanted to know, can I do it?" she says, with a laugh. "I said, 'Sure. With enough money and time, you can do anything.'"
This story appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.