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Episode 267: Interview with Manager Spencer Robinson

business tips Jan 17, 2024

New Voiceover Masterclass!

About Spencer: 

Spencer Robinson is a literary and talent manager at Art/Work Entertainment who's been in the industry for over 20 years. He represents writers, actors, producers, and also a full book publishing company.  Spencer’s writer clients have been on the writing staff of shows for Netflix, Amazon, Max, HBO, Comedy Central, and many more.  He’s also sold clients’ features to studios as well as brought in financing for independent projects.

Spencer’s actor clients have been in films with directors Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Clint Eastwood, Gore Verbinski, Jeff Nichols, and more. In the TV world, his clients have been regular cast members on shows for Netflix, HBO MAX, Amazon, Disney+, HULU, The CW, NBC, FX, Starz, Nickelodeon, EPIX, and more. Spencer’s clients have also recurred on series for PeacockNetflixFreeform, TNT, AMC, Showtime and many more.

I'm a manager. 

I'm a talent and lit manager. So I manage actors, writers, producers, and I actually also represent a fully functioning publishing company for all of their IP.  

How the heck did you get there?  

It was almost by accident actually, kind of accident when I was growing up I was a musician and I'm still a musician, but I played music And I love movies and television and I knew I wanted to do one of those two things. So I went to film school for exactly one year. 

I grew up in Los Angeles and I went to San Francisco, stayed for one year. And I was sitting in a class where they were teaching us how a camera works. And I was like, I don't care about this at all. Don't care. I was really bored. And I realized I don't want to actually shoot things myself. I don't want to, be the person that does that. 

And I don't really need to know how a camera works. So I actually ended up dropping out of school. And came back to LA and I'd realized at that point too, that I left Los Angeles to work in the film industry, which was probably pretty dumb. So I came back and I had no actual real connections to the film industry, even though I grew up here. 

My mom's an elementary school teacher. So I asked her, I said any of the parents at the school you work at, do they do any television or film? And she goes, one of them does commercials. I said, great. Can I have her phone number? It was okay. I called and I introduced myself and I said, please, will you give me a chance as a PA? Can you give me one day? And she said, okay. And it was a 23 and a half hour day on a car commercial. And it was very long.  

But it was cool. It was like, I'd actually never been on a set before. So for me, it was really cool to see, crane shots and very serious people doing very serious things and craft service and all that kind of fun stuff. 

And I liked it. And then for the next year and a half to two years, she hired me and everything she did. So I got, a lot of commercial work, a lot of independent film work. And I did anything that I could to pay the bills at that point. 

I think I worked in a costuming house for a couple of weeks. I just, whatever I could possibly do.  

And I realized after about two years that I did not want to be on set for the rest of my life. I actually wanted to learn how Television and movies were put together. So I wanted to get into an office. 

And I knew that like you could be an office PA or a mailroom person. I knew that was a thing that existed. So I entered an ad in the reporter, the Hollywood Reporter back when it was still a magazine, and it was a million years ago. And it was an ad in the back that said, looking for a mailroom employee at a management company. 

And I was like, I don't know what that is, but I'm going to go try. And because I've been a PA for a couple of years at that point, I've been delivering packages and then on set, I was actually qualified to sort mail and deliver packages. So I got a job at a management company called MBST, which is not around anymore. 

But at the time, they were a cool place to work. They had Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, they managed the Beatles affairs, and they had a development deal with Disney. So it was a great company to learn at for me.  

Just because I got a chance to see how it all worked. And the owners had produced a bunch of movies, and they represented all these very big people in their careers. 

It was really cool, and I learned what management was and I delivered packages all day and I build it at people's desks and did all the things that you do when you're the bottom of the wrung. And after being there for a couple of years, one of the partners broke away and started his own company and asked me to go with him. 

He liked me and he said, you do a really good job. I want to put you on a desk working for two mags X and I said, great. So I worked, I got put on a desk at that company working for a talent manager and a lit manager. So I was watching somebody pitch actors all day and watching people take out scripts and do the whole thing and give notes and it was really cool. 

And after being at that company for about a year and a half, they started getting more into doing film distribution, which I did not care about actually like management and I wanted to stay in it.  

And one of the actors left that company to go to a company called Howard entertainment and refer me to his new manager and said, “Hey, if you need an assistant, this guy's good.” 

And I was really good. I was good at everything except for filing. I never filed anything. I had a big stack of papers. I just sat on my desk and I refused to file them, but everything else I was very good at. I read scripts and I, yeah. Was aware of what was going on and all that kind of stuff. And when I went to the interview for that job, I gave the worst interview of my life and got hired anyway. 

But the upside was that, this person that I went to, that I went to interview for who eventually became my mentor she represented a lot of comedians and comedic writers. 

And I knew all of them. I was a comedy nerd and I knew all of her clients, I knew her business really well. So she was like, Oh yeah, I'll hire you. Like you already know what I'm doing.  

Ask questions, sit in my office, and answer them. 

Yeah. And I did that every day for two years, two and a half years. I read every contract, I asked every question, I sat in her office, like at her desk next to her and watched her work and learned as much as I possibly could. And it was a great, really amazing experience that I still have today, and really great relationship. 

And after being there for two and a half years with her, the head of that company said to me, “Hey, I'm never going to promote you just so you know.” I was like, cool. That's really great. So I talked to Cindy and I was like, look I'm never going to get ahead here. She goes, I know she'll look, I'm probably not going to be here much longer either. 

So you should probably leave and we'll figure something out.  

And I said, okay I'm going to quit then. So I quit and I didn't really know what to do with myself at that point because I'd been, an assistant at a lot of companies. I didn't want to go start somewhere else. And I was a little bit burnt out on the idea of trying and never being able to actually get that job as a manager. 

So I took a break. And I joined a band and I went on the road. I joined a band that I was a fan of the band had one record out like on an independent label, but pretty quickly after the band was called the Lords of Altamont. Still around not in the band anymore, but they are still around. 

And pretty quickly we got a French record deal. So we started doing European tours, like three times a year, every year. And I did five years of going to Europe three times a year and then doing some shows in the U S and we would play for a couple hundred people in LA and maybe, eight or nine people in the middle of the country. 

And then we go to Switzerland and pay for 40,000 people. And I played with the Pixies and the Who and Depeche Mode and all these really cool bands all over Europe and made a little bit of money doing that, not a lot.  

So when I was back in the US, I played professional blackjack for a living to pay the bills. 

So if you've seen the movie 21, the MIT blackjack team movie with Kevin Spacey, I was on an offshoot of that team. 

At the time, we were the biggest blackjack team in the country. There was 40 of us. And the team was started by some attorneys and some people that were tired of practicing law and wanted to make some money a different way. Started driving around the country and counting cards and winning money, and they built it into this massive enterprise. 

And I joined, and we were, we had a million dollar bankroll for a weekend in Vegas, and we had smaller bankrolls for these little trips in the South and the Midwest, and I would go to Las Vegas for a weekend, make a bunch of money, and then I'd go on tour for six weeks and make very little money, and I'd come back and do it all again, and basically, or I'd go to Biloxi, Mississippi or, Gulfport, Mississippi or Tunica or whatever, somewhere in the South and play river boats and wear disguises and get kicked out of casinos and go next door and do it all again. 

And for three years I was on that team and I loved it. It was really great and exciting. And, we would mostly win, lose sometimes, but mostly win money because you're, you're playing with the edge, of course, that's how counting cards works, but you don't win every time. But it was a really cool experience. 

And I met a bunch of very smart people that are very good at math.  

And after being on the team for three years, we actually ended up folding the blackjack team, not because you weren't winning. 

It's because the wins weren't as big as they had been because people were getting better at catching card counters.  

There'd been a lot of movies that came out and television shows and books and. Everybody was talking about card counting, so they just got better at catching us. And we could still win, but the wins were getting smaller, and we no longer needed a team of that size to go in full force, because we were going into Vegas and we couldn't go back for months, because they knew us and they threw us out. 

I started walking into casinos and they'd be like, “Spencer, no,” before I even sat down. So it was like, oh my god! Yeah, and if you can't play, then you can't win, right? So it got to the point that we couldn't go in this big full force with, and heat up the entire state of Nevada at once. We had to pare it back. 

So I needed a job. And Cindy had left Howard Entertainment and started her own company. And I went back to her and I said, can I please have a job?  

And she goes, okay, yeah, you can come back and work for me. You can still go on tour with your band, be my assistant, and I'll get a temp when you're gone. 

And finally she said to me, look I wanna promote you. I want you to be a manager of my company, but you have to be here. You can't be gone half the year. So if you wanna stop touring. The job's yours. And I thought about what I wanted to do with the next, 20, 30 years of my life. And the band that I was in, I love, and I could keep doing those same tours, but I was always going to be scrounging for money when I got back. 

And I love music. I love playing, but I also wanted to, be in one place for a while and actually have a little bit of financial security. And I really love management. I wanted to do it already. I just got stopped at one point. So I said, okay, let's do it. And I left the band that I was in on very good terms. 

I'm still very friendly with the guys. I saw some of them last night, and took a job. And I said to Cindy, when I first when I first got promoted, I said, look, I want to work with writers. I love writers. I love giving notes. That's my thing. And she was like, cool, you're starting with actors. 

And I go, but I said, writer, she goes, I know. And the reason why she said that is because. Calling a casting director, and at that time we used to call casting directors because they were in their office. And they didn't know who I am, they didn't know my clients, and getting them to actually stop and listen to a pitch, and give auditions to this person they don't know, to actors that they didn't know yet. 

Cindy was like, if you can do that, you can do literally anything. And she was really right. And it took me about six months to get really good at that.  

And then she was like, okay, now manage whoever you want. So I've always stuck now. And I actually really, as much as I wanted to work with writers, I love working with actors too. 

And I didn't, I wouldn't have known that I had to not forced me to do that, which is really good. So I've always represented actors and writers. And about two and a half years ago, I took on producers and a publishing company. And I've just been doing all that ever since. And she merged with Artwork about 14 years ago, and I came along with her. 

And when we merged with them, they were all lit. And we had actors, writers, and comics. And we were a little more comedy focused, they were a little more drama focused. So it was a really good marriage of the two companies. And now it's great. There's four managers there. It's a boutique company, and we all work as a team for all the clients. 

And me and one of the other managers run the talent department.  

And then I have a bunch of lit clients and some producer clients.  

You never know where anything is going to lead you to. And another thing that I am a big one on when talking to actors we're talking to anyone is just ask. Yeah. Just freaking ask. You'll survive the no.  

And the funny thing about doing my job is I hear no all day for my clients. I hear, I pitch actors. No, I pitch writers. No. A thousand times. And then you get the one. Yes. And it's okay, then the last thousand knows are worth it because now someone got a great opportunity or a great audition or a great job, or someone's willing to read their script, whatever it is, that you go through a lot of nos, but. 

At some point they start, they stop really hurting, the nos. It's okay, another no, fine. They're wrong.  

I remember when I think it was the Golden Globes or I think it was golden globes or maybe the Emmys or Mike White won for White Lotus. And he was like, we went to everyone and you guys all passed on this, and pointed to the room. 

And I love that. Cause it's true. It's like people pass out a bunch of really good things until somebody doesn't. And they pass in giving actors auditions until somebody doesn't, and I love that you have to just keep trying.  

What would you say is your biggest piece of advice to actors? 

I think, obviously always be training in some kind, always be in some kind of class, learning to do something, always working that muscle. 

That's a really important piece. And this is the fun thing is be aware of the industry, watch TV, watch movies, know what's out there.  

If you, when you get an audition and you only have a day and a half to do it, if you've already seen the show, you've now saved yourself two hours of having to go watch that show to learn the tone. 

You know what I mean? It's those kind of little things.  

And always be off book when you're doing an audition.  

Make sure that your self tape stuff is in the top shade that it's ready to go at all times.  

Most of the actors that I know have their self tape corner set up at all times and they don't have to worry about setting it up. 

And it becomes a time management thing.  

Always have someone to read with you.  

All of those things that they sound like they're obvious, but all of those things together make for really great auditions.  

And I do think too, and I have a client of mine that is an acting client that for me is the best actor I've ever seen. 

He's phenomenal. He works nonstop. He's somebody that the biggest problem we have with him is that we get more offers than he can actually take in because there's not three of him, and he started doing self tapes. I started, I pulled him out of the room eight years ago from auditions because he wanted to self tape and he was always somewhere else in the world anyway. 

But he, what I've seen for him is he's somebody that when that tape starts, he's already 110 percent in character and he always is.  

And what I mean by that is. Some actors, when they're doing self tapes, you can see them waiting to speak. You can see their eyes go dead when they're not talking. 

You know what I mean? And it's you have to really, when we're having a conversation right now, we're both engaged with each other. And that's the way it should be when you're acting too. It's really to have, to be in it 110 percent all the time. Even when you're just reacting and you're not the one speaking. 

Any interesting success actor stories that you'd like to share? 

That client I mentioned his name is Damon Harriman. 

He's an Australian actor. He already had a career when I signed him, he had a great career in Australia and he was just starting to have a career here in the U.S. but he was recurring on a show on FX, which was great.  

And I met him and he's a phenomenal actor. And we said, look, we're coming in. We're new people coming into this company. And he was deciding if we wanted to stay there or not, because they really weren't repping actors before.  

And I said, “look, give me a chance.” I said, “what do you want out of your career?”  

And he goes, “I really want to do features. I've only done television here in the U.S. and I really want to do movies.”  

I said, “cool, give me six months.”  

And within, four months I had him in a Clint Eastwood film. 

And from then on, he's just been working on some ever since doing television and movies. And it's not just because of me, it's because he's so damn talented, but it was just a matter of, he needed somebody to just champion him and make sure that every casting director and producer in town knew how talented he was, and now they do. 

So now it's a matter of him, just doing one thing after the other in Australia and America.  

And like I said before, it's just the biggest problem we have is that there's not enough of him to go around.  

Talk to me about actors and content creation in terms of actors becoming multi hyphenates. 

I think it's great. I love when actors are also writers. But I also, cause I represent writers too, right? So I love when someone wants to take it on, I take writing very seriously. I think structure is really important and learning all of those things. 

So when somebody wants to take it on. Like actually learn it, learn how to do it, learn the proper way to write a script, learn what the structure is, learn how to do it, learn the formatting, all of those things, and do it properly. So I think it's a great idea to do, but I think you got to be smart about it. 

I think if you want to write a script for yourself to be in that's fine, but write a couple of other roles that are also big size roles to cast some more well known actors if you're not well known.  

As because we all know we have to get financing for your movie, right? And that's going to take some people like that, things like that. 

I think it's really important. I think it's a great thing to do. I think that it's really smart. And on top of that, if you're an actor, that's still building your reel and you haven't booked a lot of jobs yet and you're new and that's great. You can write a short film for yourself, write a sketch, whatever it is, all that stuff, as long as it looks good, it can go on your reel. 

So besides just being someone that wants to sell scripts or write a movie for yourself. Write a sketch and use it on your reel, write a short film or whatever it is and use that as a calling card for yourself too.  

So that kind of content creation also comes in really handy.  

How the heck does a manager represent a producer?  

It's a good question. And it ends up being a very kind of wide ranging job because these producer clients that I have had their own slates of projects, they'll be like, Hey, here's the 20 scripts that I found that I liked. And one of them will be in the first draft. One of them will be 10 drafts in one of them maybe has an actor attached. 

One doesn't, whatever it is. And we go through their slates and we go, okay, we feel like this one's ready to go out. So now I'm going to help them take out that, that television show and sell it. Or I'm going to help them take out that movie and find financing for it. Or I'm going to help them attach a showrunner to this show. 

It also means that I'm reading all the scripts and giving notes on all the scripts. And that means I'm giving notes to the producer I rep, so they can give it to their, to the writer. 

Or we're all meeting and giving it to the writers together.  

Yesterday morning, I read three features before work. 

So I've read about, about 15 scripts a week, the last few weeks. 

When you're on the top, you're working at such a high level in terms of, yeah, I'm reading three scripts before I even start my day. That's just mind boggling. 

You know what we always say to like we have, cause we get paid 10%. That's what a manager makes, but what our clients make, which, that's fine. That's the job. And that's what we do. And that's cool. So that means, look, we have a 10 percent commitment in your career. You should have a 90 percent commitment in your career. 

So what does that mean? That means be on top of your game, keep yourself healthy. So keep yourself energetic so that you have the energy to do all the things you need to do. Get yourself tapes in on time. And all, if you're a writer, finish those scripts, meet your deadlines, all those kinds of things. 

I can't make a client do that. I just love when they do that because it makes my job easier.  

I had a client once that a really good actor and he turned in a self tape and he was kept looking down while he was acting. And I was like, picking a swap because I watch all the cell tapes before we send them in. 

And I was like, Is he not off book? And finally I saw the paper come into the screen. And I was like, so I called him. And he said a couple days before it was due. And I'm like, hey I noticed you weren't off book. I think you should do it again. I think that you should, you could actually, because other actors are going to be off book. 

And he started yelling at me. Yelling at me and he was like, how dare you? How dare you tell me what to do? And I'm like, okay I'm not representing you anymore. And not because of the off book thing, because you yelled at me. It's Yeah, like I would never yell at you. I don't yell at people, right? 

So that's not cool. I'm calling because I want you to get a job and you're making it harder on yourself by not taking the extra time to learn the material.  

So I just think that you have to do the work. You just got to. 

In this new negotiation, they are not requiring you to be memorized. And I hate what I'm about to say. You can not be memorized and you can also not get the job. Yeah, I know. And I think, I absolutely despise That I am saying that.  

Yeah, but if you think back to, like, where acting started on stage, right? 

You didn't get a chance to stop on stage and grab your script. You had to actually know the material, and that's the entertainment. I know we're lucky today that everything isn't live, you can do things different, but that commitment has been there for, a very long time. We're talking hundreds of years, right? 

And I don't know why all of a sudden people don't need to be committed anymore.  

We have a client of ours who's an actress who's been on a million things. 

She's been around for a long time. It's phenomenal. But when she, you should go in the room now when she sells tapes for stuff, she makes really bold choices every time.  

Now what that means is sometimes it's the wrong choice, right? She makes really strong, bold I'm gonna really go for her choices, right? 

So sometimes, it's way wrong for the role. So she doesn't get everything she auditioned for by any means. No one does. But she, she, half the time it's really very off. But everyone loves her. Because they always go, oh wow, that's different. You know what I mean? And if they want something different, they'll bring her in. 

I've seen her go in for roles where she was so against type, but they're like, we want to see what she's going to do. And then she'll book the role and they'll rewrite it for her.  

Because she goes in there every time and she's I'm going to do something that's so out there that no one else will have thought of this. 

And it's still, she's doing a great job acting and doing all the right things, but it's making a really cool, strong, different choice and doing it at 110 percent so that people will either give her the job or they'll love her and remember her so that the next time there's a role they'll bring in for that. 

Let's talk about your screenplay coaching. What do you offer actors who want to write?  

So basically if somebody is just starting getting writing and they want to learn how to write a pilot or a screenplay, I can work with somebody from idea. 

Into a finished piece, books, book time to talk about how you start doing it, talk about structure and all those kinds of things. I teach classes on structure anyway, and I love, I'm a total structure nerd. So I think it's very important, like to know when things are supposed to happen and you can play with it and bend it, look, an hour long television show follows the Shakespearean play structure. 

Like I didn't make it up. It's been around for a long time. You know what I mean? So it's like. Following it is important and movies with reacts and that's the way that it is. And all those kinds of things. So I work with people to actually teach them how to start and get going into writing and what you do in what order. 

And then it's the kind of thing that once you know how to do that, you can do the same thing every time.  

You only need to learn it once you just do that same process every time for each different piece. And it works great.  

Once you have a piece and you want notes on it, I can read somebody's script and then I'll set a set of zoom and go over with them and basically. 

I give really detailed, actionable notes. And without being, too braggy, I think that my notes are as good if not better than anyone else I've ever seen.  

And I mean that in the sense that I really do try to help somebody make the script better by not letting them know what's wrong with it, by saying, “hey, I bumped into a thing here, let's talk about why, let's talk about what you're trying to do, and let's figure out a way to make it better.” 

I'm not going to rewrite it for somebody, but yeah, it's, and I always give broad thoughts first, hey, Act 1's a little too long, it'd be better if you could make it end here, Act 2 starts a little late, whatever it is, and then go through the script page by page. And really point out, hey, on page 22, I bumped into this thing. 

Let's talk about what you were trying to do here and figure out a better way that this can actually work.  

I think that being an actor and a writer, being a storyteller of some kind is maybe the greatest job you can have.  

And the reason why I think that it's not just because you can make a lot of money doing something that's seemingly fun, right? And something that you love to do. It's just because being able to elicit a reaction from somebody, a laughter, a cry, a feeling, whatever it is, make somebody's day brighter, what, make somebody feel something that they didn't feel before.  

I think it's really powerful and I think it's really important.  

And on top of that, I think being able to get ideas across to people like, I've been rewatching the show will and grace. 

And you think about how, when that show came out, how maybe the middle of the country didn't have a lot of people in their life that were gay or, part of the LGBT community and how that show made it feel more normal to people, and I think, so being able to hide the peas in the mashed potatoes like that, to get across an important social message is also a really cool thing you can do.  

So I think being a part of that is just amazing. And I feel like it's something that's worth striving for. And with as much content as there is out now for both actors and writers, why not you? Someone's going to get that job. 

So why not you?  

So yeah, I just think that it's a really great way to think about it. And just don't give up. Keep trying and just be smart about the way you do things.