How Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey Built a Company Free of the Ills of ‘Old Hollywood’

While Robert Downey, Jr. is perhaps better known as Iron Man, the actor spends much of his days as a business owner, working heads-down in a production company he co-founded with his wife, producer Susan Downey.

They met on the set of the 2003 film “Gothika,” and as their relationship grew, they found the weeks spent apart as Susan traveled for films she was producing were a “recipe for not just disaster, but heartbreak…The main motivation was to find things that we loved and to be able to be in a creative process together,” Susan said in a conversation at the Fast Company Innovation Festival Monday.

The couple formed the production company Team Downey in 2010. Over the past decade it has produced films such as “Dolittle” and “The Judge,” the televised series “Perry Mason,” and a documentary series, “The Age of A.I.”

Besides offering the duo a way to work together, Team Downey also offered them an opportunity to build a production company that aims to be the opposite of what Robert calls “Old Hollywood, which is a work-death syndrome gulag.”

The Old Hollywood model, as he describes it, is “where you are stuck in a job that seems cool on the surface, but there’s no trajectory toward not actually needing the production company and all of its facilities to thrive.”

Susan refers to Team Downey as more of a “mom-and-pop” organization: “That doesn’t mean that the scope of what we do is small, it just means the way in which we do it is very hands-on.” Because the organization is lean, and the Downeys also are busy with two kids, she says they have built a culture of intense exploration–they only take on a few projects that everyone adores.

“You ultimately realize if you’re going to take the time to do something, you have to love it,” she says. “You have to be willing to know where those hours are going to go, because they’re not going to go to something else.”

Susan’s theory of healthy company culture, she says, applies to any group–whether it’s on a set, in a relationship, or in a company (helpful, because her working life encompasses all three): the foundation is communication, trust, and respect. If you’re nurturing those three values well, you’ll build a culture of independence, in which everyone gets a hands-on education, and gets inspired. “No one has to sit at a desk for too long. Come in, do the work, absorb as much as you can. Take it in,” she says.

Robert says what’s evolved at Team Downey is an atmosphere that allows individuals multiple paths and options. Some employees dig in deep and become lifers. Others use Team Downey as a launch-pad for their own endeavors.

Unlike certain big companies, or old Hollywood studios, there’s no bitterness about employees who quit to pursue their own projects, Robert says: “Some take the experience and go out… and now we’re seeing the movie they are writing. We go, ‘great!’ It really is a bit of an incubation thing.”

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