Team Downey President Says It’s Important to Nurture Early-Career Connections: ‘Build Your People’

·9-min read
Christopher Smith/TheWrap

Before joining actor Robert Downey Jr. and his wife Susan Downey to help oversee their production company, known for projects like “Perry Mason” and the “Sherlock Holmes” film franchise, Amanda Burrell rose through the ranks in independent film.

A key lesson she learned early in her career: “Build your people.”

“The people you meet when you’re young and you feel so adrift are going to be in your life forever,” she told TheWrap for this week’s Office With a View. “I’ve reconnected with people and talked to people, and it’s crazy how we’ve grown up together.”

One example is Beatrice Springborn, now president of Universal Content Productions and International Studios, whom she met during her indie film days.

“When we were in the early days of pitching ‘Sweet Tooth’ to the market, she was at Hulu running drama,” Burrell recalled. “We have such a deep friendship and trust from our early years that I wholeheartedly believe allowed us to take a leap on the wild idea and journey that is ‘Sweet Tooth’… I couldn’t imagine my career without her.”

The second season of “Sweet Tooth” premieres Thursday on Netflix.

Burrell still seeks out a “community of like-minded individuals” in building her teams — and then, as a producer, “fiercely” protects their “collective vision” on how to tell a story.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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How did you get started in the industry?
I grew up in New Rochelle. I started in New York, I graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts. While I was there, I interned at the mayor’s film office in New York, Miramax, Killer Films, all these indie film [studios]. And then after I graduated, I got a job at an agency in New York and then I worked in a company called Green Street Films that made indie films.

So I really came up that way, understanding the indie model and the international sales and that whole component of filmmaking at a very specific time. And then Green Street opened an L.A. office and I came out in 2009 as an executive and started producing movies. I produced this movie called “Frozen” about three people that got stuck on a ski lift that Adam Green did and then we had a deal at FilmNation and we made this movie “House at the End of the Street” with Jennifer Lawrence. And we were kind of figuring out genre in the indie film space.

And then I got a call from Team Downey. I was like, “What are they gonna do with me?” They had this big feature deal at Warner Bros., they had done “Sherlock,” “Sherlock 2” was about to come out. I had a lot of friends in the studio side of the business, but I never saw myself there. And then I met Robert and Susan, and we just really got along and connected, and talked a lot about their aspirations for the company. And it really fit well for me.

So I started on the feature side. The first thing I brought into Warner Bros. was this Jesse Armstrong “Black Mirror” episode called “The Entire History of You.” I was doing a lot of kind of junior executive stuff on other movies that they had. But for me, the feature side was really long. I would get to a place where I would feel like we were all really happy with the material and then it would just be kind of curious what the next step would need to be and it felt like you weren’t as in control as I think I was craving ultimately.

What excited me about positioning myself in television and what I started to really learn about that side of it was you get to pick your partner and the writer, that is the person that you fiercely advocate for and you’re gonna be in the trenches with throughout. So for me, that was where my love of television really deepened and then I felt like we were able to really get some momentum.

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Is there anything you had to learn or unlearn to adapt in your career?
I’m just kind of a momentum-addicted person. I want to be continuously moving and I want to keep pushing things and I tend to kind of really spend a lot of time thinking and problem-solving. And what Susan Downey always tells me is, just worry about what you can control. There are going to be things that are outside of your control and putting energy into those arenas is a lot of wasted time and effort. So even though my drive is valuable in the business, I also simultaneously had to learn to look at the nuance of that and then decide if that energy is worth expending or if I should direct it in a different way.

What is your advice for someone looking to break into the industry or advance in their career?
I would say for someone starting out, there’s no job that’s too small. Start at the bottom. I think being an assistant is so valuable. It teaches you so much of what producing is. It’s not just an apprenticeship but the problem-solving, the anticipating a boss’s needs… all of the things that being an assistant required is really great producing skills.

Once you’re there, I would say build your people. Go and meet everybody.

I would say also read and watch everything. Go way back. Watch all the old movies that anybody references in any meeting. There’s so much knowledge that you can get from just watching and reading. This business kind of requires an obsessiveness and you should just embrace that. Be a huge fan.

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What do you look for in pitches?
When writers pitch us, a lot of it stems from their passion. If they’re passionate and they love it and they’re not just servicing what they believe others want or need but it’s really something at their core that they feel like they have to tell, that’s what really excites us. I think passion is infectious and when it starts with that writer, we just kind of become obsessed ourselves.

We don’t pitch a lot. We get a project, we fall in love with it, we put it together, we package it with people that we believe are the people that are going to make it better and then we go out there and we sell it and we’ve had a really good record because we’re not trying a bunch of things, we’re committed and behind it.

What strikes you most about how the industry landscape has changed over the years?
It’s almost breathtaking how different it is, certainly from my indie film days but even just starting television at Team Downey. Streaming was not as big of a thing. So it’s been dramatic. I think the opportunities are vast and it’s an interesting moment.

The audience is there, they want to watch great storytelling. It’s now just navigating through different regime changes and different processes that are constantly shifting… I think it’s going to always change. You just have to be ready for it and you have to be OK with just committing to a story and the people and just fighting like hell through it… that is always going to be our true north.

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What is a common industry problem that you feel is being unaddressed? What is your potential solution to that problem?
I think the WGA strike is an interesting one because having writers on set is really vital. We’ve fought at every turn to have writers on set. I think it’s really important that they see how their words get to live once it’s on screen, be in those rehearsals, see what actors struggle with, see what directors connect to.

In the case of “The Sympathizer,” we brought our staff writer back and she was absolutely invaluable. You need to make sure that you’re getting the story right and you need someone there to switch the words and make it live. As a company, we would love to be able to provide that opportunity and fight for it.

How is Team Downey preparing itself for a possible strike? Are you concerned about a potential work stoppage?
There’s no question it’s already having an impact. I think for us, it’s not necessarily a negative impact. We’re in post [production] on “Sympathizer.” We have a lot of stuff already in the hopper and off the draft, but it’s certainly going to be tough.

But I also think the writers have a lot to be fighting for and in some ways, I think we might all collectively need time to recalibrate a bit. I’m not worried about us. Whatever comes out of it, I want us to be on better footing as an industry. These feelings that they have are obviously really valid.

Are there any trends you’re looking at?
I think “The Sympathizer” taught me specifically how centering other communities is so vital and excites everybody. The fact that it’s an entirely Vietnamese cast who are beyond incredible — even though it’s a spy thriller, it’s centering a different point of view. Going forward, we want to do more of that. I think it’s also finding content that is risky and scary potentially on the page and just going for it. If it scares you because you’re worried, I think you just should run towards it.

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