10 Questions

10 Questions: Entertainment lawyer and documentarian knows where the good bars are

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Robert Darwell

Robert Darwell. (Photo courtesy of Sheppard Mullin)

As Sheppard Mullin’s LA-based head of global media, Robert Darwell makes deals for companies like Disney, Amazon MGM Studios, Nickelodeon and Meta, and he’s helped make hundreds of movies possible, including Brokeback Mountain and Selma.

But it’s not just Darwell’s law practice that earns him attention—he’s also recognized for his work as a documentary filmmaker. His latest film, Black Uniform, premiered in October and has since won multiple awards for its portrayal of patriotism, racism, sacrifice and service through the eyes of 12 Black veterans, including a Tuskegee airman and the first Black woman to become an Army Ranger. His first film, The 90s Club, which centers on near-centenarians, won best documentary at the Manhattan Film Festival in 2022.

He also has a popular Instagram account, @TheDailyServer, where he posts photos of waitstaff and bartenders.

Let’s talk about The 90s Club first. How did you get the idea to make this documentary?

I always love hearing people’s stories. When the pandemic hit, work-wise it was busy, but it was different not going into the office. I had more time to reflect on the type of things I wanted to do. This project had been at the back of my mind, to interview people who were well-aged and talk to them about life, love and loss.

There has been so much needed attention paid to various social justice issues over the past decade, but I felt that one area that hadn’t been tackled appropriately was ageism. There are all sorts of assumptions one makes based on age that would not be made based on race or sexual orientation, and that was the grand purpose. Then on a selfish level, it was for me to obtain some personal guidance on how to live the next 30 to 40 years of my life.

The film features a diverse mix of people—a former beauty queen, a Holocaust survivor, a secretary. But you also include the legendary civil rights litigator Fred Gray and the actor Dick Van Dyke. How did you find your subjects, and did you already know Dick Van Dyke?

I knew I wanted to interview real people, but I also wanted to include one famous person. Dick Van Dyke was my No. 1 pick—my “wish list” interviewee. I mentioned that to someone at the office, and they happened to run into him at the gym in Malibu, so they asked him, and he said yes. I only knew one person in the film previously; everyone else was recommended to me. One person is the great aunt of the firm’s marketing director; another is the grandmother of one of the lawyers on my team.

Where did the inspiration for Black Uniform come from?

It was toward the end of filming The 90s Club, and I was enjoying the process and learning about people’s lives. I knew I wanted to do another documentary when this one came to an end. My father had recently passed away, and while I was cleaning out the house, I came across his uniform from when he served during the Korean War. This was not a period of his life we ever talked about, and I decided I would interview veterans for my second film.

During my final interview for The 90s Club with civil rights attorney Fred Gray, who had a very complicated history and experience with the draft that plagued him much of his life, I realized this is the veterans documentary I wanted to produce. I would focus on Black men and women who served their country.

You funded both documentaries yourself. Why did you do that, and was it expensive?

With Black Uniform, there could have been some people I could seek to bring in, some bigger names to help with funding, but you’re going to yield a certain amount of control unless you go at it yourself. It’s not inexpensive. Music licensing and editing are the most significant expenses. I have made some money back through licensing—The 90s Club was licensed by AARP, and it is available on Amazon Prime—but I think of it as my pro bono work.

Do you think making documentaries has made you a better entertainment lawyer?

Not in terms of legal skills, but I’ve become a better colleague in terms of becoming a better listener.

You’ve recently begun working on artificial intelligence initiatives for Meta in addition to your work involving movies, music, art and your Instagram account. How do you stay current on the law and technology in your practice area?

I work with two dozen talented junior lawyers who are great at feeding me information! That definitely helps me to keep up with developing law and technology, but they come to me for bar and band recommendations.

Right, because you’re a DJ! Tell me about that—how did you get into it?

My decision to become a DJ arose out of a dispute. I had just spoken at a film festival in Argentina, and there was an after-party. The DJ had salt-andpepper hair. I said to my wife, “That could be me!” And she said, “Yes, but you don’t have the beat.”

At that point, it became a challenge: I am going to learn this skill. Three months later, I was deejaying at an event in LA. Since then, I’ve gotten to DJ in Zurich, Mexico City and Paris. I DJ like a lawyer, meaning I put way too much time and energy into it. I like to DJ on a theme, like a particular word or feeling, like heartbreak. But it’s true, I still don’t have the beat.

You went to Georgetown Law. How did you arrive at an entertainment law practice in LA from a school known for international law?

That’s why I went there—I thought I wanted to do international trade. During my first year, I worked in the French embassy, and I was a summer associate for a firm that did international trade. In my second year, though, I took the only entertainment law class that the school offered. We had to write a paper, and it was while we were expecting our first child, so I wrote about children in the entertainment industry and the laws affecting them, like custodial trust accounts, work-hour limitations and safety. This was right after two children had been killed on the set of the Twilight Zone movie. The article got published, and I shifted my interest to entertainment law.

I love entertainment—who doesn’t—and I continue to be fascinated by the law. There’s always something new to learn. You have to be fast but also practical. Years ago, I was working on a film where we were set to burn down a winery, but we didn’t get the permit. Everything was rigged, and we couldn’t lose money. The legal answer is, you need the permit. But the practical advice is, burn fast! I say that jokingly, but you have to apply the law and be practical in terms of risk analysis. If you operate too slowly or you’re too cautious, competitors can overtake you. You have to balance that all the time.

That sounds exciting.

There definitely have been some fun, exciting highlights, like going to the Cannes Film Festival and attending premieres and parties. But there’s always the other side. I’ve been at the Sundance Film Festival working on the sale of a movie that was subject to competitive bidding. So I’m at this place where there are a bunch of parties, but I’m stuck in a hotel room with contracts going back and forth. I also remember there was a night when I ran out to the mall to get dinner to eat at my desk so I could work through the night on loan documentation, and I passed a movie premiere. I realized it was for a movie I had worked on, but they didn’t invite the lawyer.

I’m not sure this will deter any aspiring entertainment lawyers—it’s such a hot practice area.

I get at least 20 emails a week from people who want advice. I can’t meet with everyone, but I will try to make the effort for the people who can show they know me or my practice, people who can bring something to the table. Like, “I just wrote an article about the latest [Federal Trade Commission] cases, and I’d love to share that with you.” Then I’m going to get something out of it.

The phrase, “I want to pick your brain,” drives me crazy. Also, I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life, but everyone wants to take me for a cup of coffee. Every once in a while, someone does their research and says, “I’d like to take you for a margarita.” That’s the person I’m going to meet with.

This story was originally published in the June-July 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Cinema Scope: Besides making deals and documentaries, this lawyer knows where the good bars are.”

Jenny B. Davis is a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University, a fashion stylist and former practicing attorney. Her most recent book is Style Wise, a guide for aspiring fashion stylists.

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