“You don’t have to be an asshole to succeed,” NBCUniversal Vice Chairman Ron Meyer told students in his commencement address today to USC’s School of Cinematic Arts grads (see full video below). One of Hollywood’s most respected and longest-running executives advised: Lose your ego. Lose your pride. Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions. “No one is irreplaceable.” Treat others well and don’t think of kindness as weakness. Follow through. Safeguard your integrity. Be positive. And, finally, “it may be the most valuable thing I say to you today: Assumption is the Mother of all Fuckups,” he said. “Think about what that means … it can pertain to so many things, I promise, if you remember it, one day, it will make a difference.”
Seeing that phrase on a sign somewhere, made a lasting impression on him throughout his life and career. “It means that if you ask someone to do something for you, never assume it will get done — or done right. You have to be responsible for what someone else does or doesn’t do for you,” said Meyer. “Double check everything that you will be responsible for. You need to do the things you say you are going to do. People should know they can depend on you.”
Meyer’s address was thoughtful, anecdotal and, at times, downright funny as he spoke today to students at the Shrine Auditorium. He came at the invitation of Elizabeth M. Daley, Dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Meyer said that you will make mistakes. “I’ve made many and continue to do so. Early on in my career at Universal, when we were in desperate need for a successful film, I turned down Titanic, which up until Avatar, was the highest grossing film of all time.” The Jim Cameron-directed Titanic, which launched Leonardo DiCaprio to global stardom, grossed $2.81B (with a B) worldwide at the box office. “I made that decision 21 years ago and I’m just getting over it now,” he joked.
The executive talked about he got his start in Hollywood, working as a messenger and a driver (basically a gopher) for the Paul Kohner agency. He got the job, he said, “because my mother’s best girlfriend’s husband’s sister was married to Paul Kohner’s brother.” He said that being repeatedly verbally abused by one of his bosses, he got up and shouted “loud enough for 10 people” who worked with him to hear it that he refused to be treated this way and then quit.
“I walked out the door knowing that everyone would come running after me, pleading for me to return, after all in my mind I was an irreplaceable, great messenger. I walked down the street slowly for about 10 minutes until I realized that no one was coming after me.”
He said he had to make a decision. To suck it up and continue in show business or to go back to selling men’s clothes. so in true George Costanza (Seinfeld) fashion, he went back to his desk and acted like he never quit. “The lesson was never let your ego get in the way of your future. Always try to see the big picture. I’m not suggesting any kind of abuse is acceptable but you have to pick your spots and try to think ahead about the outcome. I fortunately chose to lose the battle and win the war, having realized that no one is irreplaceable.”
With hard work and follow through, and learning some valuable lessons about persistence, he eventually moved up the ranks in Hollywood as an agent in the TV department, then film, then helping to found Creative Artists Agency and then, eventually at Universal and now NBCUniversal. Meyer is one of the longest-serving studio heads in Hollywood history.
He ended his speech with an anecdote about his great friend and former client Sylvester Stallone who became an icon with the roles Rocky (which Stallone wrote and starred in) and Rambo (which he helped write and starred in). Meyer said they were looking for locations on the sequel for Rambo and they were deep in the jungles of Thailand when Stallone was recognized by the locals who lived in huts and small homes without much of anything. They were traveling up the river when suddenly they heard the chanting of “Rocky! Rocky!” and looked over to see villagers running alongside the river bank and cheering for him.
“It’s hard to comprehend the impact that film, television and movie stars have on our culture,” he said. “The business you’ve been studying and dreaming about, is truly an amazing business, and you will have a great responsibility to tell compelling stories to audiences around the world. You will have the opportunity to help shape the future of our business with new, clever, inventive and different ideas and ways to entertain.” There is a responsibility that comes with success, he was saying.
This is not the first time Meyer has spoken to students at USC. He also did a Q&A two years ago at the school. Meyer now joins a long list of those who have been asked to give commencement speeches to the new graduates; others have been Sumner Redstone, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Barry Meyer, Jim Gianopulos, Paul Feig, Jay Roach, Stacey Sher and the late Laura Ziskin.
In addition, filmmakers Suzanne and Jennifer Todd — who were known around town as Team Todd — were honored with the Mary Pickford Alumni Award which pays tribute to men and women of USC whose extraordinary achievements bring special distinction to both the school and to the industry.
In another inspiring speech, Suzanne Todd began first paid tribute to Hillary Clinton, saying “Secretary Clinton, I’m still with you and I think that Mary Pickford would be, too.” Her comments about Clinton were loudly cheered by the grad students.
“My father received a graduate degree 50 years ago,” she said and before talking about the importance of being present and the importance of mindfulness. “Stopping twice a day for 20 minutes to seemingly do nothing completely increases my productivity,” said the working mother of three. She also spoke about the power of kindness and creative integrity and gratitude. “Fear kills creativity, but you cannot escape fear by out-running it … only by facing it down … the only person you need to impress is yourself. Your power lies in your authentic voice.”
Here is her entire speech:
Past recipients have included Kevin Feige, William Fraker, Brian Grazer, Conrad L. Hall, Ray Harryhausen, Alan Ladd Jr., Jon Laudau, Michelle Manning, Walter Murch, Shonda Rhimes, Jay Roach, Gary Rydstrom, Stacey Sher, Bryan Singer, John Singleton, Lee Unkrich, Matthew Weiner, David L. Wolper, Robert Zemeckis, Laura Ziskin, Melissa Rosenberg, and last year’s recipient was Susan Downey.