Everyone told Shawn Rech it wouldn’t work in Cleveland. He couldn’t be a filmmaker here—he’d have to go to Hollywood.
Rech was unphased. His first project, a local TV program, focused on unsolved crimes.
“People told us we’d never have the production values,” he said. “[They said] we’d never get it on TV.”
Rech’s program not only got on TV, but it also led to tips that solved 10 murders and won nine regional Emmy awards. Soon, several top-20 markets were calling, asking Rech to bring the show to their city. From there, he gained momentum.
Today, Rech, 56, has directed films such as “A Murder in the Park” and “White Boy,” which explore themes of wrongful convictions and over-sentencing. He also directed “American Gospel: Christ Alone,” an in-depth look at the negative effects of the prosperity gospel. Each has found a home on Netflix, and Time named “A Murder in the Park” one of the 15 most fascinating true crime stories ever told.
Those who have watched Rech’s films might be surprised to learn that he didn’t become a director and producer until the age of 43.
Once the founder of a laser engraving company, he moved on to sell educational software, followed by a few years as the editor of a trade magazine. But then, he got the entrepreneurial bug.
“I thought, ‘If I’m going to start something and make it, or possibly fail, then it’s going to be something that I’ve always wanted to do and that I love,’ ” he said.
So he and Ralph McGreevy co-founded Transition Studios, an award-winning documentary production company based in Cleveland.
“A Murder in the Park” is their most recognized film. It examines the conviction of a man who served more than 15 years in prison for a double homicide after a false confession. It’s a convoluted journey, broken down with mind maps, interviews and dramatic reenactments.
These types of stories appeal to Rech, he said, because of his devotion to justice and his qualms with journalism. His films often document people he sees as overzealous storytellers who try and fit the facts of a situation into a narrative they already crafted. In “A Murder in the Park,” for example, a journalism professor hires an aggressive private investigator to get a forced confession from someone who was innocent.
“I think you can consider us journalism critics,” he said. “What draws me is educating the public on how [some journalists or other storytellers] got it wrong. And to be leery of storytelling.”
But he and his team often look beyond true crime. Rech has more recently directed “Unsanctioned,” a miniseries about the struggle of sanctioning high school girls wrestling.
He also directed a historical series called “People in the Pictures,” which tracks down individuals captured on camera opposing the civil rights movement in hateful or violent ways to see if, and how, they’ve changed. The project, he said, has been both enlightening and encouraging.
“I’m not trying to be too self-important,” he said. “But I see [this] as cathartic for our country. We’re understanding that people can change.”
“People in the Pictures” will premiere on TruBlu, a boutique streaming service with factual programming that Rech is launching . TV personality Chris Hansen is collaborating with Rech and Transition Studios on content for the platform—and yes, they’re doing it from Cleveland.
Although he travels for meetings and to film his pieces (he said he knows Beverly Hills as well as he knows his hometown of North Olmsted), he’s been able to make a lot of meaningful work in Ohio. And he’s proud of that.
“There’s been a myth since I was in high school: Go west and make your dreams come true,” he said. “You don’t have to do that anymore.”
Taylor Starek is a Senior Storytelling Strategist at Kristy Eckert Communications.