Behind the Scenes of Hollywood Marketing With Brett Winn

Brett Winn is the Founding Partner and Executive Creative Director at The Refinery AV, an LA-based entertainment marketing agency that specializes in crafting compelling promotional materials for film and television. He began his career at Ithaca College, studying theater and film, and has since worked with major companies like FX Networks, Fox Broadcasting, and Disney before co-founding The Refinery AV in 2008. Brett is also known as the co-director and editor of the award-winning film “My Date with Drew,” which showcases his innovative approach to filmmaking and marketing on a tight budget. His passion for creative storytelling and entrepreneurial spirit have driven his success in the entertainment industry and garnered numerous accolades, including Clio Awards, Golden Trailer Awards, and Promax Awards.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • [02:40] How Brett Winn’s entrepreneurial journey began with selling Blow Pops
  • [05:19] Brett’s experiences with early technology, including camcorders and stop-motion animation
  • [06:28] How Brett’s passion led him to pursue studies at Ithaca College
  • [07:43] The strategy call that launched Brett’s breakthrough in the entertainment business
  • [10:10] Transitioning from a studio environment to The Refinery AV during the 2008 recession
  • [14:35] The making of “My Date with Drew” on a shoestring budget and its impact
  • [24:35] How the evolution of content consumption shaped the approach to marketing entertainment
  • [34:59] Addressing team concerns and business challenges amid the actors’ strike
  • [37:56] Marketing strategies for film studios and creative roles 
  • [44:31] How Brett applies his entrepreneurial lessons to lead effectively

In this episode…

Many aspiring professionals struggle to transition from academic environments to the highly competitive business side of entertainment, where making a mark often requires a blend of strategic thinking and creative execution. The industry demands not only creativity and innovation but also an entrepreneurial spirit to thrive. How can one navigate these complexities to build a successful career in such a dynamic field?

Brett Winn tackled these challenges head-on by leveraging his early experiences and academic background in theater and film. Recognizing his passion for film and understanding the importance of control over creative projects, Brett pursued a degree in film and television at Ithaca College. This foundational decision led him to roles at FX Networks and Fox Broadcasting and to eventually co-founding The Refinery AV, where he innovatively combined his creative talents and business acumen. His entrepreneurial journey was marked by a significant project, “My Date with Drew,” which he co-directed and edited, demonstrating his capability to handle multiple roles in production and storytelling effectively.

Tune in to this episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast as John Corcoran interviews Brett Winn, Executive Creative Director and Founding Partner at The Refinery AV, about building a thriving entertainment marketing industry. They discuss the strategic challenges of marketing major film projects and balancing creative integrity with commercial success. Brett also shares the impact of industry disruptions like strikes and the transformative role of community organizations like the EO.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Special Mentions:

Quotable Moments:

  • “I’d never thought of that as entrepreneurial, but now I see it was 100% entrepreneurial.”
  • “I really wanted to be creative; I wanted to be a writer and a producer of promos.”
  • “Making enough to buy like five or six bags at a time from selling Blow Pops was quite the experience.”
  • “Sometimes it’s more fun to do a great trailer for a terrible film than a great trailer for a great film.”

Action Steps:

  1. Embrace lifelong learning: Seek opportunities for personal and professional growth through organizations like EO. Continuous learning can lead to confidence and better leadership skills, as demonstrated by Brett Winn’s experience.
  2. Be proactive in networking: Reach out to industry professionals, even if it means following up multiple times or taking an unconventional approach. Persistence in networking can open doors, as shown in Brett’s strategic call to a vice president that jump started his career.
  3. Innovate in your creative processes: Experiment with different media forms and storytelling techniques, following Brett’s early explorations with a camcorder. Innovation in creativity can distinguish your work and appeal to ever-evolving audience preferences.
  4. Be prepared to adapt: Build flexibility into your business model to survive economic downturns and industry changes. Adaptability helped The Refinery navigate the 2008 recession, illustrating how resilience is key to long-term success.
  5. Prioritize clear communication: Especially during times of crisis or change, straightforward communication with your team is essential. As evidenced by Brett’s leadership during the actor’s strike, direct conversations and addressing concerns can stabilize and rally a team.

Sponsor: Rise25

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The Rise25 podcasting solution is designed to help you build a profitable podcast. This requires a specific strategy, and we’ve got that down pat. We focus on making sure you have a direct path to ROI, which is the most important component. Plus, our podcast production company takes any heavy lifting of production and distribution off your plate.

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We’ll distribute each episode across more than 11 unique channels, including iTunes, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. We’ll also create a copy for each episode and promote your show across social media.

Cofounders Dr. Jeremy Weisz and John Corcoran credit podcasting as being the best thing they have ever done for their businesses. Podcasting connected them with the founders/CEOs of P90xAtariEinstein BagelsMattelRx BarsYPO, EO, Lending Tree, Freshdesk,  and many more.  

The relationships you form through podcasting run deep. Jeremy and John became business partners through podcasting. They have even gone on family vacations and attended weddings of guests who have been on the podcast.

Podcast production has a lot of moving parts and is a big commitment on our end; we only want to work with people who are committed to their business and to cultivating amazing relationships.

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Rise25 Cofounders, Dr. Jeremy Weisz and John Corcoran, have been podcasting and advising about podcasting since 2008.

Episode Transcript

John Corcoran 0:00

All right, today we are talking about how to make it in a creative agency, how to build a creative agency and scale it up, get lots of clients, that sort of thing. My guest today is Brett Winn. I’ll tell you more about him in a second, so stay tuned.

Intro 0:14

Welcome to the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, where we feature top entrepreneurs, business leaders, and thought leaders and ask them how they built key relationships to get where they are today. Now let’s get started with the show. All right. Welcome everyone.

John Corcoran 0:31

John Corcoran here, I’m the host of this show, and you know, every week I talk with interesting CEOs, founders and entrepreneurs from all kinds of companies. We’ve had Netflix, Kinko’s, YPO, EO activation, Blizzard. Check out the archives. Lots of great episodes for you there. And we’ve had lots of digital agencies and agency owners, creative agencies on this show. So Carl Smith, David C Baker, Roger herney, those are all good episodes that you want to check out if you want to go into the archives. And of course, this episode was brought to you by our company Rise25 where we help B2B businesses get clients, referrals and strategic partnerships done for you, podcast and content marketing, and you can learn more about what we do over at All right, and my guest here today is Brett Winn. He hails originally from The Great Garden State, New Jersey, now based in Los Angeles, not too far where I’m originally from, la Valley area. He’s a filmmaker, founding partner, and Executive Creative Director at The Refinery, which is a LA-based entertainment marketing agency. And he started his career at Ithaca Ithaca College, where he studied theater and film and production, and eventually went on to work at FX Fox Broadcasting and at Disney, and a bunch of different roles before he co-founded the refinery in 2008 he’s also known as the co-director and editor of the award-winning fan-favorite film my date with Drew, which we’re going to talk about in a moment, which was an interesting story as well. 

But Brett, so great to have you here. And I love to, you know, talk to people that work in the entertainment industry. I did a hot minute in the entertainment industry, like most kids do when they grew up in LA, like I did. And I want to hear a bit about what your experience was like, but you as a kid discovered selling Blow Pops, and I could do a whole series on this, on this podcast with entrepreneurs who discovered Blow Pops, who discovered that, one, kids like to buy Blow Pops, and two, if you buy them in bulk, you can make a higher profit margin. So you actually did that. And of course, the inevitable getting busted by the principal. So tell us about it. 

Brett Winn 2:40

Yeah, yeah. I, you know, I realized my mom would go and buy those big bags of Blow Pops, and I bring them to school. And I think someone offered me a quarter for one, and I was like, Oh, of course. And I gave them one, and the next day, I came in with like, 10 of them, and then I sold 10, and then I think I sold 20, and before long, I was making enough to buy like, five or six bags at a time. And this went on for a while. I pocketed a lot of cash until the principal caught me, and of course, I pleaded innocent because I didn’t know that wasn’t a thing that you weren’t allowed to do, even though I kind of had an idea. But, yeah, it’s funny all those years later, I’d never thought of that as entrepreneurial, but obviously that’s 100% entrepreneur.

John Corcoran 3:18

Sure, for sure, it saw a need in the market and met that need. Yeah, was there something driving it? Like a lot of times I interviewed people that didn’t have a lot of money when they were growing up, or they had entrepreneurial parents that encouraged them, or it was just something they didn’t even know what it was. They can’t even identify what it was in them. It was just a natural reaction that they had Star Wars.

Brett Winn 3:39

Star Wars toys, you know, came out, and I had a best friend in elementary school, and we would always argue over who got the newest Star Wars toys, and he always won. And so I was always trying to save money to get the next one before anyone else. 

John Corcoran 3:57

So, motivator, yeah, it’s, it’s just bigger and bigger toys as you get older, right? Tell me about it, right? And you loved cars. You’ve had over 50 cars in your lifetime, so, and I see a collection of guitars behind you. So you like you. Like you like guitars also. But your first vehicle was you actually were mowing lawns and saved money to buy a tractor. That’s right, that’s riding tractors.

Brett Winn 4:22

Anything that I could, that I could ride or drive. And so, yeah, I mowed lawns, made enough to buy a tractor, and then would drive to all the neighbors houses. And really, I didn’t really care about mowing the lawn. I just wanted to drive my tractor. And so I had a sister who’s 10 years younger than me, and so I started early, also doing wagon rides with the tractor for her birthday parties.

John Corcoran 4:43

 So nice, charging your parents or charging the attendees at the birthday party.

Brett Winn 4:47

I think my parents paid for gas to take them around.

John Corcoran 4:54

Well, hey, at least I got the job. Yeah, and you also discovered film. I think you and. I am similar in age, and my father had a camcorder. Had a couple of different camcorders. When I was younger, you couldn’t do much with them. It was like, you could record something and stop, and then you could record something else and stop. It was very advanced. It wasn’t like today’s iPhones, but you discovered that, and discovered editing through an early video camera.

Brett Winn 5:19

Yeah. I mean, I obviously had a bunch of toy cars because I was a car net. And I realized quickly that you could set up the camera on a little tripod and hit record and pause really quickly and move the car a little bit. And I discovered stop motion animation, probably by accident. It’s the coolest thing ever. And then I realized, as you were transferring your video camera height to VHS, that it could actually hit record on the VCR and hit play on the camera and then pause on the VCR and switch to a different scene. 

And that was really my first introduction to editing. And found it was so cool that I could shoot anything I want in any order and then put it together on the VHS tape the way I wanted it, and it was incredibly exciting and made for I became a hot commodity in school when it came to projects, especially projects that we had the videotape with friends, I remember we recreated the opening to the Wonder Years, probably because I look so much like Fred Savage when I was in my early teens. 

John Corcoran 6:21

So, that’s great. I love that show. You end up going and studying theater and film at Ithaca.

Brett Winn 6:28

Well, I studied theater in high school, and when I graduated high school, I was looking for a place to go to college. I decided I would go for film and television to get behind the camera, because I knew early on that the only way anyone was going to hire me as an actor is if I hired myself as an actor. So Ithaca College to study film and television. I actually was in a soap opera, a college soap opera in Ithaca, which I later took over and wrote and produced and starred in.

John Corcoran 6:55

And it’s okay on campus soap opera, or this was in the city, no.

Brett Winn 7:01

It was on campus. Soap Opera in Ithaca was called semesters. And believe it or not, you can find some of them on YouTube. It’s embarrassing, but I had a huge mullet and big hair, and they’re pretty funny.

John Corcoran 7:14

Brave of you to mention that it’s on YouTube.

Brett Winn 7:19

But people who know me best already know.

John Corcoran 7:22

Sure it’s been used against you. And you found your way to Los Angeles, where you know, kind of the heart of the film industry. I love to hear stories of how bleak that is for someone who oftentimes shows up in LA and doesn’t have connections. And what did you do? Did you wait tables? Like many people, how did you break in?

Brett Winn 7:43

Well, I was pretty lucky. The very first production job I had was for a company called Weller Grossman, and they were doing home and garden shows. So I was a set PA, and I think I worked on props for a couple of those for a while, which was not not ideal. It’s not really what I had in mind. Although it was a great experience, I definitely have an aversion to donuts from being on sets every day early on.

John Corcoran 8:09

Donuts on the craft services table.

Brett Winn 8:13

And then I ended up getting a lead for a production assistant at a brand new network called FX. They launched, and I was telling this story just the other day, I went on five interviews for production assistant job, the

John Corcoran 8:27

Same one, the same job. They called you back four times.

Brett Winn 8:29

Called me back four times. 

John Corcoran 8:32

It was to explain to the listener that that’s usually not the type of role that requires four callbacks.

Brett Winn 8:38

By the way, I mean, if Yeah, it’s the kind of position where, if you have half a brain and can have a license and can drive around town and pour a cup of coffee, you’re probably.

John Corcoran 8:46

The job, yes, which I did one summer in college. By the way, it’s a really fun job when you’re covered. 

Brett Winn 8:53

So, after the fifth interview for a job in on air promotions, which, again, at the time, I didn’t even know what an on air promo was. For those of you who don’t, it’s just a commercial for a TV show, so that’s called an on air promotion. So after the fifth interview, I didn’t know any better, and I called the Vice President of Marketing at home on a Saturday morning and said, hey, it’s Brett. I’m the guy who’s been on five interviews for the production assistant job. Tell you what, why don’t you let me come in next week for free. 

I’ll work the entire week for free because I really want to work for the network. I’m really in love with what you guys are doing. Let me work for free this week, and then at the end of the week, if you don’t want me, I’ll leave, and if you want me, we can talk about it. And she said, Okay, come in on Monday at, you know, nine o’clock. And by the way, please don’t call me on Saturday morning ever again. And so on Monday she said, Listen, we have to pay you. I can’t not pay you, but let’s try for the week and see what happens. And the week turned into two, and the two turned into four, and the four turned into a year.

John Corcoran 9:54

That’s great.I love that. That’s such a great story. And so that was kind of your foothold. And. And tell us a little bit about how you worked your way up, because you eventually ended up as a vice president of creative film services at Disney. But you had a couple of stops along the way before you got there.

Brett Winn 10:10

Definitely a couple of stops along the way from FX, I went over to Fox and became a post production producer in the On Air Promotion Department. It’s a mouthful, but basically I supervised the online sessions. I supervised the mixed sessions. I directed voice over talent, but I really wanted to be creative . I really wanted to be a writer and producer of promos. And so one summer, I decided I was going to stay late, work really hard, and try to prove to everybody that I could be a writer, producer. And so I made friends with a creative director, and there were movies of the week at that time that ran all summer on Fox, and she really didn’t want to do them, and so I offered. I said, Hey, how about I do a couple of them for you? Take some weight off. 

And she was like, Okay, go ahead. And so I wrote a couple scripts. I sat in the edit bay, I cut a couple promos. I think the first one was for Demolition Man with Sylvester Stallone, which I’m a huge fan of. And so they got approved and got put on the air. And so she asked me if I would do it the next week, and they got approved and put on the air. And everyone thought that she was doing them. No one realized it was me working the night shift, even though I’d been working all day. And so after the summer, I had a full reel of promo packages. 

I probably worked on 10 movies over the course of the whole summer. And so at the end of the summer, I went to the president of marketing, and I said, Hey, listen, I’ve been writing and producing at night. I’ve cut all these promos. They’ve all been there. It seems like they’ve been successful. How do I make the leap from post production to writer, producer and step up the next level. And he looked me dead in the eye, and he said, I really think you should find another job. And I’ll tell you, it just crushed me. 

John Corcoran 11:51

Why? When that Gambit had worked, calling the woman on Saturday morning, you know, it turned into a job, and that you do come to something similar, was it just a different personality, but why do you think you got such a negative reaction at the time?

Brett Winn 12:06

I didn’t know. Looking back, I think they had tried to promote someone the same way, and it didn’t work out so well. So someone had come up from the post production into the writer, producer job, and it just didn’t work well. And I think he wasn’t trusting his instincts. Maybe, I don’t know. And so I was, I was pretty down, but a friend of mine said, Hey, why don’t you check out this couple of other companies you should check out. You’ve got pretty good, real stuff. Why don’t you check, you know, give them a call. And so I called over to a company called Studio City, which was a boutique agency that did on-air promos, and I walked in with this reel full of Fox promos, which he was impressed by. And it was a total Hollywood thing. 

He sat down, and we had a conversation. He’s like, wow, I really like you. I’d love to know you to consider working for me. I’m going to write a number on a piece of paper and slide it over to you, which he did. And I remember looking at the piece of paper, putting it back down, and saying, Thank you very much. I really appreciate the offer. Can I have 24 hours to think about it and get myself together and get back to you tomorrow? And he said, Sure. And I hopped in the car and drove down the street, and at the time, I stopped at a pay phone because no one had cell phones at the time. And I called my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and I said, Hey, listen, remember that three bedroom townhouse in Studio City we wanted but we couldn’t afford. Tell him, we’ll take it because I just doubled my salary.

John Corcoran 13:24

Wow, yeah, wow, wow. So about turning a bad situation into a better one? Yes, yeah. Was this guy when he slid the number over? Do you think he thought that he was lowballing you?

Brett Winn 13:39

I think he probably thought he was lowballing me. I think coming from Fox, if I had been a really, truly seasoned guy from Fox, it would have been a lower offer. But for me, making that leap at the time, it was perfect.

John Corcoran 13:50

Yeah, oftentimes making that switch from one place to another, just, you know, makes a big opportunity. 

Brett Winn 13:57

Well, that, yeah, that’s always hard, and again, not to totally take a tangent, but I’m sure you’ve gone through the process of hiring and firing, and firing is always so challenging, and yet, in the back of my mind, I’ve had every job I’ve ever left has always led to a step up. And there’s part of me, maybe I’m just the ultimate optimist, but there’s part of me, it’s like, this can be a good thing for you, if you only could take a step back and see that. You know you’re about to take a huge step forward, even though this feels like a step down. 

John Corcoran 14:22

Yeah, Now, where did the Date with Drew go? Come around you had been friends with the other filmmaker and the star of this movie, and it was actually made for around $1,000.

Brett Winn 14:35

$1,100 to be exact. But yes.

John Corcoran 14:37

Yeah, $1,100 and this is at a time when equipment was more expensive, when I don’t know if you were shooting on film or on video, but film was expensive. 

Brett Winn 14:48

So yeah, everything was expensive. At the time, I was working at a trailer park as a producer editor, so I was cutting movie trailers. I made a big step up. And my buddy Brian, who I’ve known since we were. Kids, and he had come out to LA, followed me out to LA, and he was an executive assistant to an executive producer. So he was in Chicago, hoping he was on Ally McBeal. And after Ali mcbeal, the executive producer, decided to take some time off. And so he found himself without a job for an extended period of time. And he called me one day, probably six, eight months later, and said, Hey, I really need to talk to you. Can we meet for lunch? And so we went to Hamlet, and I remember sitting in the booth, and he said, Listen, I came out here to make movies. 

We went to Ithaca College to make movies. I’m not making movies. I’m out of work, I’m out of money. I need to fold it in and move back to New Jersey. And I remember saying, You can’t do that. Come on, dude, you’re here to make movies. You can’t move back. We gotta figure it out. He’s like, how I’ve got nothing. I said, Well, what if we just made a movie on our own? What if we made a documentary and we’ll shoot it on a camcorder, and I’ve got some editing equipment, both in my office from cutting trailers, but I also had some editing equipment at home. And he was like, well, that’s ridiculous. What are we going to do and what are we going to make a documentary about? 

And the first thing that came to my mind was, quite honestly, he’s had a lifelong crush on Drew Barrymore. He’s tried to meet her a couple times, and every time he’s been in her presence, he’s gotten tongue tied and hasn’t been able to follow through. So I said, maybe we can just try and get you a date with Drew Barrymore, and we’ll document it and see what happens in best case scenarios you get a date. Worst cases, we probably have a pretty funny journey.