EXCLUSIVE: The near future for 2020 college graduates is very much akin to a horror movie filled with an immense amount of uncertainty. They leave the great halls of knowledge into the biggest pandemic of the last 100 years, with 43 states currently seeing record unemployment.
Knowing a lot about horror, and surviving uphill battles in Hollywood and winning, three-time Oscar winning and Purge blockbuster producer Jason Blum delivered the virtual Commencement Address to the 2020 class of his alma mater, Vassar College. He offered warm, hopeful advice on how to navigate today’s daunting world, using his own ups and downs throughout his career as inspiration for the 600 graduates — including the time he was booed off stage at the 2018 Israeli Film Festival for his comments about President Donald Trump. Blum graduated from Vassar, located in Poughkeepsie, NY, in 1991.
Titling his commencement address “Lessons You Need to Survive and Thrive in a Horror Movie,” the producer of such socially conscious genre movies as Get Out and The Invisible Man told grads not to be discouraged, rather remain solid in oneself, and to “go invent.”
“I am sure that when you entered Vassar you had plans post-graduation that did not involve a global pandemic. That must hurt. It must hurt a lot. And it must feel unfair. Because it is. I would be pissed. But try and embrace those feelings. Don’t do what I did when I graduated and let the future scare and intimidate you. Embrace it and hold it close. It is your new friend,” said Blum.
“Use those feelings to do things that make you squirm, and cringe and struggle. Use them to explore new ideas. To discover what really moves you. Don’t jump at the Jump scares. Don’t let moments of failure and frustration distract you. Let them empower you and make you stronger. Pandemics, like all crisis are the mothers of invention.”
Blum dispensed advice in six different lessons for the Vassar grads, the first being “Be True To Who You Are” in which the producer shared his humble beginnings. Though he applied to four graduate schools and didn’t get in following graduation, Blum headed to Chicago with hopes of becoming an actor, landing a walk-on role in the 2000 Charles Bush-scripted feature Psycho Beach Party and doing community theater with his Vassar pals. It was there that a young Blum became a door-to-door salesman for Prime Cable. But the job had its takeaways.
“From selling cable, I learned the value of making deals where both parties win, and also that business is about a lot more than money. But most of all, it taught me the value of telling the truth. People think that in order to succeed, you need to fudge the truth or pretend you’re something you aren’t. People think to hustle means to lie. That’s not hustling; that is lying. No one gets anywhere lying to the world. Or more importantly, lying to themselves. That’s the wrong path to take. I was a broke actor selling cable TV door to door to support myself. That’s what I told people, And they believed me, and I sold a lot of cable TV.”
Blum’s second axiom, “The Importance of Friendship” guided Vassar grads to “find the people you would want to be stuck with in a cabin in the woods,” essentially the posse that you want to work with. It was through one of Blum’s Vassar friends, Alexia Landeau, and her boyfriend at the time, playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman, that the producer at the age of 25 met a group of artists and formed the theater company Malaparte.
“The experience at Malaparte helped teach me how to produce and how to work with and relate to artists,” said Blum. It was also during this time that Blum met his longtime onscreen collaborator of a half a dozen projects, Ethan Hawke. “We are so close that he has been willing to die for me twice,” said Blum to footage from Sinister and The Purge in his speech.
Blum’s third lesson, “Sometimes Jump Scares Are Just Jump Scares” recounted the anxiety he faced at various points of his career, i.e. getting out of school, asking his parents for money, and finally getting a job in the movie business and being fearful about making movies that matter, only to see some of them. Blum finally achieved his dream, and became a producer on the 20th Century Fox movie The Toothy Fairy with Dwayne Johnson, but it was a “nightmare” with “40 meetings literally about The Rock’s tooth fairy costume” and the studio boss at the time nixing the get-up after everyone signed off on it — including Johnson.
“The movie was a success. But the process of making it was soul-crushing and I considered quitting the movie business altogether,” said Blum. This led him to discover the $15K made movie Paranormal Activity, which he shepherded to become a $193.3M global-grossing record cash cow.
“Paranormal didn’t happen because I had a bunch of prior successes that built toward that big success. It happened because I had a bunch of prior failures. My whole company grew out of those failures. And because of those failures I was able to recognize when a process and a product was actually successful. I combined my missteps in independent and studio production into a new way of making films. This was an idea that I built our company on: by lowering the budgets, we give filmmakers total creative freedom and have studios release our films. That idea, which sprung from failure, led to movies like Get Out,” explained Blum.
In his fourth pointer, “Don’t Celebrate Too Early” Blum detailed how he was fired from Paramount eight months after the success of Paranormal Activity, but rather than be distressed about it, the door closing gave him the get-up-and-go to launch his own studio Blumhouse.
In Blum’s fifth lesson, “Speak Your Mind,” he shared the night he was kicked off stage while accepting an honor at the 2018 Israeli Film Festival for his remarks against Trump. To this day, Blum has no regrets about what went down. “If you think you know who the bad guy is, say it! You just may be right and it may save your life!” beamed Blum.
Recalling that night, Blum said “the audience began to boo and hiss at me” and “as the volume rose, a voice deep inside me, informed by my education at Vassar as well as by the fortitude instilled in me by my mom and dad, told me to stand my ground, even as I was physically removed from the stage.
With well over half the audience applauding the use of force to get me off that stage, it wasn’t easy to stay calm, but I finished my speech with dignity and conviction…That night, notes of congratulation and support poured in. I actually printed out all the emails I received and you can find them on a coffee table in our reception area at Blumhouse. Those emails were actually way better than any of the Oscars or Emmys that Hollywood gives out.”
In Blum’s final note, “Capitalize on Luck”, he told Vassar grads that “You can’t get lucky without trying again and again. The more chances you take, the more times luck has to work its magic.” Despite any intimidation that lies ahead in the great expanse which college graduates are facing, Blum said “Opportunities will be there for you, I promise but they will not always be appealing. For others, you may also have to chase them down. Some will be off the beaten track, out-of-the-box, off-the-rails, but don’t judge. People passed judgement on me and they still do, for producing horror movies. If I had been threatened by that judgement, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Said Blum, “If you can survive a scary movie, you can thrive in life.”
The graduates today were represented by Senior Class President Heather Nguyen. She and her classmates were welcomed into the Vassar community of graduates by Steve Hankins ’85, president of the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College. Vassar President Elizabeth Bradley thanked the graduates for what they had taught her over the years. “I learned that students are fearlessly consequential here,” she said. “They care and are deeply engaged in the life of the school, its culture, and its community.”
You can watch Blum’s Commencement Address to Vassar College’s 2020 graduates below: