Avoid Burning Bridges

"Hollywood is a place where they place you under contract instead of under observation."—Walter Winchell

Continuing on the subject of working with certain individuals you'd rather not be associated with, I'd like to bring up the matter of burning bridges—or not. This goes beyond leaving a job or distancing yourself when necessary and touches on how you would leave or distance yourself.

I once worked for a company where neither of the two top executives could utter one complete sentence without using utterly foul language. Another time, I worked for a production manager who was taking kickbacks. And on yet another show, I worked for someone who was a lecherous alcoholic. And while I don't believe in having to put up with a great deal of abuse, having to do something you find unethical or having to work in an environment that is offensive, burning a bridge behind you is not the optimal way to walk away from situations like these.

You can tell someone off, make a scene, dramatically get your point across, bad-mouth the offenders, cop an attitude, walk out in an indignant huff or any combination of such, but you do this at your own risk. Your initial thought is that you don't care if you ever work with this person (or these people) again, and even though you may be thoroughly in the right, these rash and emotional reactions can have far-reaching consequences.

The person you've just told off may be more than willing to portray an uncomplimentary image of you should a potential future employer call for a reference. Taking that a step further, I once knew a producer who had heard that someone he had recently (and unjustly) fired had just landed a new job; and he called the producer she was about to start working for to strongly suggest he not hire her.

It doesn't matter how right you are and how wrong or disagreeable others may be, powerful people do exist with the ability (and sometimes the inclination) to ruin your reputation and damage your career. On the other hand, some of these same people may also be in a position to help or recommend you at a later time, if their benevolence is something you'd even be willing to accept. It could be the frustrating studio exec you're dealing with who has been acting like a complete jerk, but six months down the line, may decide it's the perfect time to greenlight your project.

The longer I'm in the business, the more discerning I've become about choosing my battles, and the more judicious I am about the way I fight my wars. I'm also not as judgmental as I once was, I spend more time putting myself in the shoes of others and have also seen people change. So while I've burned my share of bridges in the past, I'm now convinced it's much, much wiser to keep as many of them standing as possible.

When working with or for someone I don't like, I tend to finish the project but am conveniently unavailable to work with them again in the future. When I find a work situation too uncomfortable, I will find a plausible reason to leave. I'm not terribly good at keeping my opinion to myself but manage to disagree or get my point across without creating too many waves. It's possible to remain on cordial terms even with people you don't particularly like or respect.

You may find being pleasant to people you don't like is an affront to your integrity (many do), but you'd also be hard pressed to find any other business where the same kind of politics don't exist. There's a big expanse that lies between being overtly friendly and being dismissive, and your safest bet with people who aren't your favorites is to be polite and professional.

It's part of the game. Those who find the people or the work distasteful often opt for another line of work, like a former student of mine who left her job on the big movie because she found the script offensive. She eventually left the business altogether, because this just wasn't a game she wanted to play.

If you should find yourself in a situation in which your integrity is being challenged, then I say go for it and take a stand. But avoid burning bridges if you can, because relationships in this business are like gold; and unless the offense is consequential, no one ego-maniacal jerk or one miserable work experience is worth damaging your career.

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