Why it’s sometimes better to start in a small company
Director James Gunn understands the pros and cons of working for a small company better than most people. Nineteen years before his 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy became the top box-office earner in the US, Gunn walked into a little company called Troma Entertainment, hoping for a position filing papers. What he ended up with was a 60-hour workweek and a crash course in movie-making at one of the trashiest outfits around.
Back in 1995, Troma Entertainment specialized in low-budget, schlocky, gleefully offensive films such as Surf Nazis Must Die, Redneck Zombies, and The Toxic Avenger (and the “studio” hasn’t evolved much since then). Immediately after being hired, Gunn was enlisted to rework the script for the film Tromeo and Juliet, a highly unsavoury update of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The film’s director (and Troma co-founder), Lloyd “Il Maestro” Kaufman, recognized a true talent when he saw one, and eventually promoted Gunn to head of production. This meant that the newcomer was responsible for constant content generation, since Troma had television deals in the Netherlands, Amsterdam, and the UK. With shoestring budgets and little sleep, Gunn found himself in an anarchic world of over-the-top violence, gratuitous nudity, and endless buckets of fake blood.
It was the best time he’d had in his life.
Gunn realized that one of the benefits of working for a small company (less than 100 employees) is that what you do matters. Sure, maybe the chance for career growth is limited, the R&D division is nonexistent, and there’s not enough money for legal, HR, or IT departments – but so what? That just means you’ve got a greater opportunity to show that you can make creative decisions and initiate projects. More autonomy, less boredom.
Since salaries are generally low at small companies – and shares might be offered instead of benefits – you can be sure that your fellow workers are there because they want to be, not because they’re in it for the job security. This often gives small companies an all-hands-on-deck feel, a sense of everyone working together on a vital project in which they each play crucial roles while juggling multiple responsibilities. And such jobs are terrific for building character. As Heather Huhman writes in Big Corporation Vs. Small Business, “employers love seeing small business experience on a resume.”
Still, maybe you’re the kind of person who considers things like vacation pay, formal training programs, and healthcare benefits desirable. Or maybe you simply don’t want to take on the workload of three people when you could join a company that pays you more to do the work of one. In that case, you might want to try your chances with a bigger company (one with, say, 500 employees or more).
Just make sure you’re prepared to compromise.
The reason Suicide Squad sucked
Big companies such as Warner Brothers like to let employees know who the boss is. At least that’s what the writer and director behind Suicide Squad, David Ayer, discovered.
Bigger companies are generally compartmentalized and stratified, with teams overseen by managers, who in turn are overseen by a constellation of executives who are ultimately responsible to the reigning monarch, aka the CEO. “Fitting in” is often preferable to “standing out.” They may reward you with benefits and perks galore, but when it comes to creative control and final decisions, it’s often their way or the highway.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, studio executives at Warner Brothers – especially Chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara – were extremely worried about repeating what was then perceived as an embarrassing misstep (i.e. Batman v Superman), and so decided to take a hands-on approach to Suicide Squad. When test audiences responded more favourably to the trailer than they did to the film itself, changes were demanded. Executives felt the film lacked humour and pizzazz, and thought there should be an infusion of new characters earlier on to shake things up a bit. More action!
Ayer, the director, was not amused. He had envisioned a dark, somber piece, and now his vision was being threatened.
So what did he do?
Nothing, of course. Whether it’s Warner Brothers or any other major corporation, keeping your job often means knowing your place in the company’s hierarchy. Accustoming yourself to the sometimes slow pace of decision making, bureaucracy, and the decisions of upper management are all part of the experience at a bigger company. Which is why, in the end, Ayer held his tongue, the studio ordered a few action scenes to be reshot, and then Suicide Squad was handed over to the production team that made the trailer, who completely re-edited the whole thing.
The sequel, directed by Ayer, is set to be released in 2017.
Which brings us back to James Gunn, who also has a sequel coming out in 2017 (albeit with Marvel): Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. He’s clearly playing in the big leagues now.
Still, according to Gunn, he owes most of his success to what he learned during those dizzying years with Troma. Hollywood, however, has taught him the value of “consensus” – of not holding on too tightly to his creations, but allowing them to be molded by interests other than his own. Big companies ultimately demand a degree of compromise.
If, like Gunn, you’re comfortable with deferring to others once in a while, and ready for a little more job security, a bigger company is probably the way to go. But if you’re seeking the challenges of joining a fledgling company – in a potentially chaotic environment where your contribution can directly influence the company’s growth – then you just might want to think small.