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CLARK SPENCER - After 27 Years at Disney, The "Zootopia" Producer Is Now The Studio's Go-To Guy

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Clark Spencer isn’t the first guy to start out on Wall Street and end up in the producer’s chair. But he may have taken the most roundabout route to get there.

The traditional Wall Street-to-Hollywood journey generally involves making a boatload of money, then providing equity financing to make independent films. (In the best-case version of this story, the financier actually learns something about story and production in order to earn the producing credit.)  Clark Spencer did it the hard way. After growing up in love with the movies, thanks in part to his early days helping his grandparents operate their old school, one-screen movie house in Tacoma, Spencer abandoned Wall Street after only a few years. Committed to working in a business he loved, he found his way to Hollywood intending to become a movie producer—despite arriving in town with minimal connections and even fewer production skills.

Relying on his finance background, he took the first job that came his way, working in strategic planning for Disney. Spencer admits he had no particular passion for Disney or animation before taking the gig. “Had Warner Bros. or Paramount or Fox or anybody offered me a job, I would’ve taken it,” he freely admits. Spencer may have been looking for a job; instead, he found a home. In an era of unprecedented turnover and transition throughout the industry, Spencer is one of the shining exceptions to the rule. After that initial hire, he’s never worked for any other company, recently marking his 27th year at Disney.

Producer Clark Spencer (bottom left) at a voice recording session
for Zootopia with (top) screenwriter/co-director Jared Bush, director
Rich Moore, cast member Jason Batemen and (bottom right)
director Byron Howard.

So Spencer’s journey to producing is, as much as anything, a journey through a single studio, and those 27 years are a testament to the scope of opportunity that Disney can offer to a talented and determined individual. With a career that touched, in various stages, financial strategy, Broadway musicals, cable television and studio management, Spencer had all but reconciled himself to a purely executive career when a stroke of fortune saw the directors of Lilo & Stitch turn to him with an invitation to produce the film. That show of trust—as well as the essential experience the job provided—proved to be the pivot point in Spencer’s career. Today he’s among the most successful producers of animated features in the world, with credits that comprise the backbone of Disney’s John Lasseter era, including Wreck-It Ralph, Bolt, Winnie the Pooh, and the Oscar-winning Zootopia, the capstone on a career that’s come so far, you can’t even see Wall Street in the rearview mirror.


So, how did you find your way from Wall Street to Los Angeles?

I woke up one day and thought, “I don’t want to be 20 or 30 years down the road making a lot of money but not loving what I’m doing.” It just didn’t make any sense to me. So I quit my job and I decided I was going to come to LA to work in entertainment. I couldn’t act, so that was obviously out of the question. I knew that I wasn’t a storyteller at heart so I knew that being a writer or director was probably not right for me. I didn’t come from an arts background so cinematography, production design, all those disciplines weren’t really going to make sense. So I thought, “The one thing I might be able to do is figure out how to bring people together and manage the creative process.” That seemed really interesting to me. But when I came out to LA, nobody saw me as a producer. All they could see was a “finance guy.”


Pigeonholed in Hollywood? You don’t say.

[laughs] I know! I tried and I tried. Everybody was lovely, but they told me “You either have to start out as an intern making no money, or you need to build off of your finance background.” I had school loans, so I took a finance job. Disney offered me a job 27 years ago, in the finance team, during the days of Michael Eisner and Jeffery Katzenberg. That’s where I started my career,  and I’ve been here ever since.

Clark Spencer (center) in a Zootopia meeting at Disney Animation Studios with screenwriter/co-director Jared Bush,
director Byron Howard and director Rich Moore.

So what was your job like when you first landed at your desk at Disney?

Well, I very quickly thought to myself, “I’ve found the right thing,” because I was working on questions that were really interesting to me. “How many movies are we going to make in a year?” “What should the budget size be?” At that time, “What types of films are going to sell well on VHS?” because the VHS market was massive and growing. I worked on the project that looked at “Should we buy Miramax?” Really interesting stuff.

For Sure. So how did you phase from finance to production?

I was hired as part of a strategic planning group, and eventually became the Senior Vice President of Finance and Operations for Disney Animation and for Disney Theatrical Productions. So, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King on Broadway. I had said to myself, “Clearly, I’m never going to be a producer, and that’s okay. I love what I’m doing.” Until my boss called and said, “Would you consider moving to Orlando, Florida to run the animation studio down there?” Honestly, I didn’t want to move to Orlando. I didn’t know anybody in Orlando. It wasn’t a part of the country where I had ever imagined living. It felt like I was going to go work in a theme park.

So I said no, and about 30 days later he came back to me and said, “I really think you’re the right guy to go do this, and I really want you to do it.” If your boss comes and asks you twice, you have two choices: you say “yes,” or you need to look elsewhere, because they’re not going to want to offer you other opportunities. So I moved to Orlando, and I was there for four of the most amazing years of my life. I loved it; it was the complete opposite of everything I’d painted it to be. But most importantly, six months into being the General Manger of the studio, they needed somebody to produce Lilo & Stitch, which was going to be made down in Orlando. They had a producer on it, but it wasn’t working out creatively. They needed someone new. One of the two directors, Dean DeBlois, after interviewing a ton of people in Los Angeles, figured, “We have two choices. We could hire a live action producer from California who’s never worked for the Walt Disney Company, never lived in Orlando, and never made an animated film. We could move them to Orlando and hope that they can figure it out 3,000 miles away from home base. Or, we could take that guy…”—that is, me; he didn’t really know me. We weren’t friends at the time. But Dean said, “We could take that guy, who’s running the studio down there, knows that studio, knows the Disney Company, but doesn’t know how to produce a film, and teach him how to produce it. Why wouldn’t we do that?”

When the company came and asked, “Would you consider producing Lilo & Stitch?” it was like that opportunity came to me from heaven. I was going to be a producer. Sometimes the line to your end goal is not straight and you have to be open to opportunities. Had I not moved to Orlando, they never would’ve asked me to make that movie.


So, you get the call… What was it like, stepping into your first day on the job that you’ve always wanted but honestly don’t know how to do?

In the front of my mind was that somebody else had not worked out on the project, and I went in with that fear that I might not work out. There was something that wasn’t working, so I had to make sure to figure out what that was. Ultimately, I learned the importance of providing calm, even in the face of a storm. It is critical for allowing the director and the other creative forces on a picture to do what they do best. And I learned that the producer is not the sole answer to anything. It really is all about the people you surround yourself with. I was lucky to have a great associate producer and a great production manager, who I could lean on heavily and ask, “Where do we need to go from here?”


What stage was Lilo & Stitch at when you were stepping in? How much art had been done?

They had done a bunch of early visual development art for the film. They were just starting to write the script and just starting to storyboard. So I really was on the ground floor for the true story development of the project. What was interesting on that film was that the two directors, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, were also the writers and even storyboarded the film themselves. That’s very unusual. Usually you have an outside writer working on the project with one or two directors, and you have a story team. So one of the hardest parts to balance was the fact that the directors had to split their time between writing, storyboarding and production. They needed to be storyboarding part of the day, doing production part of the day, maybe writing late at night, just to get the movie done.


As a first-time producer I’d imagine there must have been a sense of security in having such a closed circle of creative.

It was nice. In some ways it was just the three of us. We worked entirely together on a large piece of it. For the next film that I did, which was Bolt, I had to re-think how to do it, because it was a different process. It was my first time working with an outside writer who’s figuring out how animation works and how we do things at Disney, as well as working with the story team and with a much larger art department. So I had to make that adjustment. Bolt and Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia were way more the norm in terms of how to make these movies than Lilo & Stitch was… the challenge of finding the writer from the outside who feels like the right match for the directors and the story they’re trying to tell. And then trying to figure out who are the right artists to be a part of the show. Who’s the right art director, or production designer? Which artists are going to fit the style for whatever story you’re telling?

With Wreck-It Ralph, for example, we knew it was a world of video games, so we looked at artists who love video games. We had an incredibly talented guy we literally had just found from the gaming world named Cory Loftis, who joined the studio right at the beginning of Wreck-It Ralph. The minute I heard that he was being hired, I knew we had to get him on the show. And he just blew us away with what he brought to the table. He came from the gaming world and he loves it so deeply. He’s now working on the sequel for Wreck-It Ralph as the production designer, the top job on an animated film from a design standpoint. It’s just in his wheelhouse.

When it came to Zootopia, we looked to a gentleman by the name of David Goetz, who’s been at Disney for a fair period of time. One of the reasons we loved him for Zootopia was because he really has a strong sense of old-style Disney, and he loves the old-style Disney art. One of the two directors, Byron Howard, wanted to do a talking animal film because he loved the old Disney talking animal films and we hadn’t done one in a long time. We wanted the world to feel modern, but also have a warmth to it, like you find in those early Disney films. So Dave Goetz really felt like the right guy for that project.

What about voice casting? How do you approach that part of the job?

We have a great casting director, Jamie Roberts, who spends a lot of time brainstorming who’s out there and who has interesting voices for animation. But fundamentally what we do is ask, “Who is this character?” and “who tends to play this type of character?” We rarely go to someone and ask them to play against type. We much prefer the approach: “This is who you are. This is who you tend to play. Let’s play to that strength.” We also take early drawings of the characters and take the actor’s voice from movies or television or commercials. And we just listen to it with the still images and ask, “Can we imagine that voice coming out of that character?”

For Zootopia, when we were looking at Nick, the fox character, we considered a lot of people, but Jason Bateman was always at the top. Nick is this sly, cunning character, but you want to be charmed by him. That’s what Jason is so brilliant at. He can deliver the most horrible line in the most charming way, and you love him for it. When it came to Judy Hopps, we knew she needed to be a very open-hearted character. When you think of Ginnifer Goodwin, she is, as a person, very open-hearted and she plays those roles beautifully. And you love her because of that.

The interesting thing was how they both said yes right away, but for completely different reasons. Ginnifer said yes because as a child, it was her absolute dream to be a part of a Disney animated film. Ste told us that the day she got the phone call was one of the best days of her life, and we had the best time working with her. Jason did it because he had never been asked to do animation before. In fact, his wife actually has done a lot of voiceover work and she had always joked with him about, “You know, no one thinks you can do animation.” So he was excited to be a part of it, you know, “I’m going to prove to you that I can do this!” And he was amazing.

The interesting thing about animation is that you usually don’t get to act off of anybody else. There’s no set. There’s no costume. It’s a very naked experience. Some people love it because they can just arrive in whatever clothes they want—they might have just gotten out of bed—and just do it and have fun with it. For other people it can be an uncomfortable experience and they have to figure out how to make it work for them.

On Wreck-It Ralph, John C. Reilly said to us early on, “I don’t know much about animation, but if I do it, I want to act with the other actors.” So we made that the priority. He would come in and record with Sarah Silverman or Jack McBrayer or Jane Lynch. It’s hard to have three or four people in the studio just because we need to isolate the voices. But we can do it with two. So we would always pair John with another actor, and we got phenomenal performances because they were able to play off of each other. But other people enjoy coming in and just going into their own headspace and doing it.


That’s fascinating. As somebody who’s been here for a while, you’ve seen several changes in leadership, including when John Lasseter took over the studio.

To give a little backstory, in 1994, Jeffrey Katzenberg had left Disney and started DreamWorks Animation. Pixar was growing up north, and other studios were seeing the value of animation. Suddenly, people interested in animation had a lot of different places they could go. It got complicated. People who stayed got mad at people who were leaving. People who left felt like, “Why are you staying? You need to go spread your wings. There’s all these other great places to go.”

When I finished Lilo & Stitch and moved back to California, my eyes were opened to the fact that the studio here felt very broken, and that negative energy was really difficult. It didn’t feel like a productive creative environment. I was this close to saying, “I need to go somewhere else,” when the announcement came that John Lasseter and Ed Catmull were going to come in and run the Disney Animation studio. I didn’t know John or Ed. But I thought I’d be crazy to leave before finding out the direction they wanted to go.

So John and Ed came in and they did the smartest thing they could do: they just spent time trying to figure out the studio. They didn’t come in with a plan. They didn’t come in and say, “This is how we do it at Pixar. This is how you need to do it here.” They wanted to understand the environment. When they had a grip on that, they started to make some big shifts in how they wanted to encourage creativity. They really broke down the barriers and over the course of about a year, there was a lot of transition. I was on a movie called American Dog at the time, which ultimately became Bolt. It was the first project that John did from beginning to end. And it was my first time working with John Lasseter and my first time making a CG animated film. So I’m trying to learn CG, working alongside Ed Catmull, who basically created CG. [laughs] But the thing that was so phenomenal about what John and Ed did was they said, “This needs to be a collaborative environment.” So they figured out how to get the directors of different projects to help each other. Honestly, it’s taken 10 or 11 years for the team to really coalesce, but even back then it started to pay dividends. We screen our works-in-progress for the other directors in the building. Every three or four months, they’re brought in with us, we watch it together, and we go into a room with John for four or five hours and we talk about what’s working and not working in the film.

That kind of “peer review” practice sounds familiar from not only Pixar, but Marvel as well. That seems like an operating method that really works in the current studio environment.

I think it does. I mean, to be fair, if you have somebody who really has a vision and knows what they want to do, great. The risk is if they’re so focused on something that they can see but nobody else can, then that may not be as successful as it needs to be. It’s a process. Zootopia, for most of its production, was going to be a story told from the fox’s point of view, the Jason Bateman character. We did six screenings with Nick as our main character. And we would get the note that said “I’m having a hard time sympathizing with Nick, because even though he lives in a world that’s sort of broken, he’s so cynical. I know why he’s cynical but that’s not helping me to get behind the character.” We kept putting more backstory on the Nick character, to the point where it actually got kind of dark.

Finally, someone said, “You know what? You have to flip your two main characters. If you make Judy your protagonist and you see the world through her eyes, and if she goes to Zootopia and feels like it’s the most perfect place ever, as an audience we’re going to believe all that to be true, until we slowly start to see the world is not what we and Judy think it is. And we even reveal that she herself, despite believing that she’s not biased against anyone, actually has some unconscious biases.”

That was the awakening moment. Everyone in the room started to feel it right away. And I’m sure all producers see that happen, how when an idea comes onto the table and it feels right, the room starts to change. Everyone gets really energized. The room starts to brainstorm; “If you do X, then Y will happen.” And people leave with this great energy. Had we never gotten together as a group, we wouldn’t have made that fundamental change. That was about a year before we were supposed to finish the film.


For an animated feature, that feels like very late in the game to suddenly discover who your main character is.

It is incredibly late to do that.


So as the producer, how did you shift the flow of the “production river” so that the material is supporting this new conception of the story? How much did you guys have to lose and how much were you able to keep in place?

We had to lose a lot of the work that we’d already done. The hardest thing was getting the crew to believe we could actually do it. Because it was a change so big, so late in the game, the instinct was to say, “Of course we’re going to have to push our release date.” We absolutely didn’t want to do that.

So as the producer, my job was to figure out how to get everyone to believe we could do it. We were all holding hands. We’re making this change. We’re going to rewrite the first act as quickly as possible. We’re going to get it in the storyboards. We’re going to put the first act up on reels. We’re going to put it back in front of that story trust—that’s what we call the “peer review” group—and we’re going to ask ourselves, do we feel good about this? If we do, we’re committed that this is the movie we’re making. And from then on we’re going to start writing scene after scene, getting them into the artists’ hands, trying to figure out how we keep production moving forward while we’re asking the writers and the directors to figure out the rest of the story. The benefit was, because we knew so much about the world in terms of the environments and the characters, we didn’t have to create any of that from scratch. But we were up-front that it was going to be really uncomfortable. We knew there wasn’t going to be the clear vision of how to get from A to Z. We were going to have to figure out A to Z over the course of time.


I have to say, the finished product does not feel like a movie where you figured out the story 45 minutes before midnight.

I know. You look back at it and it seems so obvious. So you wonder, “Why? Why couldn’t we have figured that piece out earlier?” But this is why I think a group like the story trust is so valuable. You can become too close to a project and assume that you only can view the story through the lens of one character. But if if you can allow others to poke at that, then you might open up new opportunities. Because it was the exact same story about bias, just told through a different set of eyes.


The growth of the international market is maybe the movies’ biggest story of the last decade. Given that the studio is now producing films with at least one eye on the foreign box office potential, how does that affect your approach to marketing or even storytelling itself?

It’s a fascinating question. The international market has become so big that it’s wrong not to ask that question. One aspect that we can do in animation you can’t really do in live action is trade out a character. We went to certain countries and acknowledged that we can’t have every animal in the world represented in the film, front and center. Like, we can’t guarantee what sequence a koala bear might be in. But there are two newscasters in the film. And if the team in Australia wants a koala in the film, we can reanimate this sequence so that a koala is one of the two newscasters. And then they can hire talent from within the country, a newscaster that the country loves, and have them play that role and have fun with that.

In the US market we actually chose a Canadian broadcaster named Peter Mansbridge, sort of the Tom Brokaw of Canada. For Canada, it was huge, because their news icon is playing the character, who’s a moose. It was a koala in Australia. It was a panda in China. It was a tanuki, which is a sort of beaver-like animal, in Japan. So that became a way to appeal to audiences around the world.

That said, setting out with the goal of making something that’s going to appeal to everybody is almost doomed to fail. For example, bias obviously exists all around the world. But everybody will tap into it a little bit differently. The phenomenal thing to watch over the course of developing the film—because it took five years to make—is that our world here in the US started to shift. You started seeing very charged moments between the police and the African-American community; that was really bubbling during the peak of our making this movie about a female who wants to become a police officer in a city that’s rife with prejudice, as she herself grapples with her own prejudices. That was really fascinating.

We went over to talk about the film in Europe, which was (and still is) experiencing the refugee crisis. So they were in the midst of trying, from a social standpoint, to come to grips with that really difficult problem. And so they were seeing this story in a completely different way. For them, it was all about refugees.

In China, it’s the biggest US animated film of all time. And it took off in China because that country is seeing one of the biggest population movements ever from the countryside to cities, especially among women. And of course there’s that moment in the beginning of Zootopia where Judy gets on a train, says goodbye to her parents, she’s moving to the big city, she has a dream and she’s trying to figure it out. So that was their entrance point into it. Now, we never could’ve guessed that. We never said, “We should have a train sequence where a young woman leaves home for the big city. That’ll work for China and Japan.” It doesn’t happen that way.

I just look at it and try to ask, is the storytelling universal? If it’s something that feels like the only people who ever experience this are in the US, or if the comedy is something that’s only going to work in the US, or if it’s a play on words that will only work in English, it’s going to become difficult to make it work overseas. So, think about your concept in terms of what story you’re telling. Can that be something that people around the world can see through their lens? And then, most importantly, can you create great characters that the world will fall in love with?

To that point, another fascinating thing about China is the way that marketing works over there. Social media drives it more than anything else, because the country is so big. Advertising is primarily focused in the biggest cities.  So you’re hoping people in the big cities are using social media to tell people “You have to go see this movie.” And in China, there was a tremendous outpouring on social media from women, who were talking about how Nick, even though he’s an animated fox, was the perfect boyfriend! Because he was clever and sly and funny, but at the end of the day, he came to Judy’s defense. They loved that. So everybody was saying “You have to go see this movie! You’re going to see this character and you’re going to say, ‘That’s the boyfriend I want.’”


Wow. That’s amazing.

Hey, it’s not like we set out to create a character who’s the perfect Chinese boyfriend. But you have to think about it. Your job is to figure out how to make something that could be universal, but with the full knowledge that you could become paralyzed if you allow that to be the single driver for what you’re trying to do.


- This article originally appeared in the April/May edition of Produced By magazine

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