May 17, 2016
Alumni Paul Feig and Susan Downey Honored at USC School of Cinematic Arts 2016 Commencement Ceremony
PLUS: Feig's Eight Rules to Succeed
The School of Cinematic Arts held its commencement at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium on Friday, the 13th of May. The keynote speaker of the day was SCA alumnus Paul Feig, the award-winning comedy writer/director/producer known for groundbreaking work like the TV show Freaks and Geeks and the movies Bridesmaids and The Heat. Feig was joined by producer Susan Downey, the 2016 recipient of the Mary Pickford Alumni Award, which is awarded to an alumnus who has brought distinction to SCA. Downey is the producer of the Sherlock Holmes franchise, the third installment of which was just recently announced, as well as Iron Man 2 among other successful films.
Having the opportunity to hear from successful industry professionals who not too long ago were sitting in the same seats as this year’s graduates is certainly among the most anticipated traditions of any commencement ceremony. And Feig, known for a trademark humor that values the eccentric and unexpected, was expected deliver a memorable speech. Even for a veteran comedy writer like Feig, however, the responsibility of delivering a killer commencement speech can be a lot of pressure, particularly in a viral era.
Delivering a graduation speech that could land on a list of 2016’s best was likely not Feig’s top priority. Nevertheless, he did exactly that, producing a list of rules for success that had a memorable first entry: Don’t Be An A**hole. Rule Number One set the tone for a list that was characterized by the kind of insight and honesty Feig’s fans have come to expect from his prolific comedy mind (See the full list below).
Like Feig, Mary Pickford Alumni Award recipient Susan Downey also preached the value of hard work and persistence. “I know two things about myself,” she told the audience. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved movies, and I’ve worked hard.” She reflected on all the experiences—good and bad—she had while her way up from PA to Assistant to, now, producer for some the top franchises in the world—including being charged with keeping an eye on “a very talented, but ‘high-risk’ actor.” That was how she met her husband Robert Downey Jr., her partner in their production company, Team Downey.
All good things always come back to one goal, she told the graduates: Keep moving forward. “Be involved. Engage. Recognize an opportunity and seize it. Take an active role in whatever part of the process you find yourself in, even if your role evolves over time—and it should—the best people can do many things. Because no matter what technological breakthrough is coming next, there will be no substitute for hard work. Ever.”
Other speakers included SCA Dean Elizabeth Daley, who congratulated the newest SCA alumni, telling them, “All we ask of you now is the same thing we asked on your first day: take care of one another.”
The School of Cinematic Arts graduated almost 500 students this year—and one dog: Kona. The service dog of Film & Television Production division graduate Patrick Ivison received a special commendation for having attended all the classes needed to quality for a degree.
PAUL FEIG’S 8 RULES FOR SUCCESS
Delivered to the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Class of 2016
Rule Number One: Don’t Be An A**hole
The students, faculty, families, and friends filling the seats of Shrine auditorium met Feig’s top tip with roaring applause. “This business is really hard, and it’s great, but you don’t want to spend time with assholes,” continued Feig. “Everybody wants to make something great… So be cool while you’re doing it. Because if you screw up and you’re an a**hole, they won’t hire you again. But if you’re nice, and you screw up, they’ll go, ‘eh, let’s give ‘em another shot.’ It’ll buy you one free pass.”
It’s a rule familiar to anyone who has worked in entertainment, and one that laid the groundwork for Feig’s remaining __ pieces of advice to graduating students.
Rule Number Two: Love Your Actors (and Your Crew)
“The great director Richard Donner keeps a bust of Lincoln on his desk,” Feig recalled. “So I asked him, ‘why do you do that?’ And he says, ‘to remind myself that Lincoln was killed by an actor.’”
The anecdote may be in jest, but the advice is real: “Your job as a director is to create a safe environment where your actors can thrive. And that really extends to your entire crew—I think this goes back to rule number one. You really got to create an environment where people can thrive and have ideas and be open and be part of the process.”
Rule Number Three: Love The Audience
People work jobs, they have lives, they have kids—we’re their time off,” Feig said of working in entertainment. “We are their comfort food. We are their vacation... If they like something, that’s their prerogative. And it’s up to us to figure out how to make something they like that can entertain them and then, if we can, sneak all the other stuff in and teach them something or make them feel something or show them something they haven’t seen.
Rule Number Four: If you can, make them laugh
“Sometimes I see things that are so devoid of humor,” said Feig. “You can sell a lot more—and I don’t mean tickets; you can sell them ideas and all that—by making them laugh,” he suggested, letting his comedy bias shine through.
Rule Number Five: Don’t be a Control Freak
In other words: collaboration is key. “All this work and writing and getting stuff together is all about that moment when you hit the set and you’ve got the cameras. That’s when it starts,” said Feig. “You’re capturing lightning in a bottle when you’re shooting something. Don’t cut yourself off from anything… Because that’s the moment. That’s what makes a movie a movie. That’s what makes these moments work, is that they’re happening for the first time in front of a camera. Let those things happen.”
Rule Number Six: Don’t Try To Win Awards
Feig’s own experience with this came directing the Oscar-nominated film Bridesmaids. “The last thing in the world we thought was that we’d get nominated for two Oscars,” he said. “It’s just that we did the work, we had great people, and if it happens, it happens. But don’t let it drive you… The minute you start going into the project thinking, ‘I need this to be my Oscar winner,’ you’re going to underwhelm yourself, you’re going to underwhelm the audience. It’s just a bad goal.”
Rule Number Seven: Keep Making Things
“The industry used to hold two things over us: production and distribution. It cost a fortune to make something and you couldn’t get it out there,” said Feig. “Now, you can shoot for nothing, your laptop comes with editing equipment—you can make something, and then you’ve got the internet to distribute it… So the only caution is, make sure it’s good before you put it out there. Because if it’s not, it’s out there forever.”
Rule Number Eight: “For all the rules I just told you, there are no rules.”
“You will be hearing throughout your whole career, ‘You can’t do this, you gotta do this, you can’t do this…’” said Feig before recalling early in his career as an actor when he was advised not to take a job as a host. “They’ll never take you seriously,” he was told. “So then Greg Kinnear ends up hosting The Soup, and suddenly he became a big actor and he got nominated for an Oscar, I think.” Clearly Feig’s career turned out just fine, but his experience has taught him that some rules are meant to be broken. “Learn everything you can, get to know the rules, learn why they’re there—they’re there for a reason—but do not let them kill your inspiration. Do not let them put you in a box. Do not let them stop you from doing something you are passionate about doing.”
Watch Paul Feig's Full Commencement Speech: