Jim Gianopulos to USC Grads: Great Films Are Made by 'People With Lots of Questions'

Behind the Scenes: THR's Executive Roundtable
Jessica Chou

Jim Gianapulos, Fox Filmed Entertainment

The 20th Century Fox CEO uses his commencements speech to tell the film school graduates that "technology is always in service of your story, never the end result," while Marvel's Kevin Feige is given the Mary Pickford alumni award.

20th Century Fox CEO Jim Gianopulos told the more than 400 graduates of the USC School of Cinematic Arts in his commencement address Friday that he didn’t have all the answers that they would need to succeed in Hollywood but that is alright, because the most important thing is to know how to ask the right questions.

"There is no formula to great creativity. Good storytelling isn't easy and there aren't any easy answers," Gianopulos. "If all it took to make a hit film were putting slot A into slot B everyone at Ikea would be an Oscar winner.”

Gianopulos, who is also a member of the USC School of Cinematic Arts Board of Councilors, was introduced by Frank Price, former head of both Universal and Columbia Pictures, who is a USC trustee and chair of the Board of Councilors.

Speaking to a SRO crowd in the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, Gianopulos said he grew up in Brooklyn the child of Greek immigrants and learned to love movies by going to them -- a lot of them -- with his grandfather.

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He said in his own life, and in working with and listening to great filmmakers like James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and the late Tony Scott, he learned that the questions are what become the stories that are told because “ultimately, filmmaking is story telling. And stories are told by people with a sense of wonder, a desire to explore new ways of looking at the world, to relate to what’s there and to explore what others don’t see.”

“The best filmmakers I know are always the most curious,” added Gianopulos. “They’re travelers, readers, lovers of art and food and music, of new experiences. They’re the explorers, the searchers, the inventors.”

Gianopulos cited Cameron as a role model. He said a few years ago in between doing the 3D version of Titanic and writing Avatar, Cameroon took off and became the first person “to sink to the furthest depths of the ocean, deeper than anyone had gone before,” said Gianopulos. “He did this because, well, you might say because he is certifiably insane.”

“But he also did it because he just couldn’t stop wondering what it was like down there. What the marine life might look like, if there was any life? How it would feel to be that alone, how to engineer something to get you there?”

“Great films -- great anything’s -- are not made by people who have answers,” said Gianopulos, “they’re made by people with lots of questions.”

Gianopulos told the class of 2014 that they have learned how to use a camera, how to choose the right images, the right words, sounds and music, but that is only a beginning. He quoted George Lucas, another USC graduate and a kind of patron saint to the modern university, who said, Learning to make films is very easy. Learning what to make films about is very hard.”

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Gianopulos told them not to worry about making a masterpiece, but instead to just get a camera, friends and neighbors and even the neighbor’s dog and start making your own movies. “Tell stories, invent characters, or just show the world around you through your cinematic vision,” he said. “The rest you can leave up to your agent.”

This is a time when there are opportunities to make movies that are unlike any other time in the history of cinema because of new technological tools, which Gianopulos said was “an incredible gift.”

Gianopulos cited as an example the movies in the Planet of the Apes series. He said although there had been a number of versions, it was only in 2011 that they were able to use motion-capture technology for the first time to, in his words, “reinvent the franchise.”

“We still needed a great story,” he added, “in this case the origin tale, but our filmmakers had the tools to completely reconceive it.”

However, he added, “If all it took was using the latest gizmo in the flashiest way, then Bwana Devil would be the top grossing film of all time. What, you never heard of Bwana Devil?  Well, it was the very first 3D film ever shown in theaters, in 1952. I have a poster of it in my office, given to me by Jim Cameron, when we were prepping our own 3D extravaganza, Avatar, a few years ago.”

He said the forgotten film was a reminder of what he and Cameron wanted to achieve with Avatar.

"If you utilize technology like 3D only to scare an audience with flying axes and lurching creatures, you end up making a forgotten sideshow. Jim certainly didn’t do that, and in the process he reinvented cinema," he said.

Gianopulos also talked about Ang Lee's Life of Pi. He said that it could not have been made without the new technology.

“We tried making that movie with a real boy and a real tiger in the boat,” he explained, “but it turns out tigers don’t like either boats or boys, and we quickly figured out that wasn’t such a great idea. Once again, technology made the impossible possible, and that’s why people came to see that movie, and why Ang won an Oscar for his direction.”

“But remember,” added Gianopulos, “technology is always in service of your story, never the end result.”

He also said there will be disappointments and difficult times ahead for the grads, but they will be learning experiences.

"A life without pain is no life at all. If you can learn to welcome disappointment as the necessary cost of ambition and curiosity it can be a powerful source of inspiration and even personal transformation," he said.

Another Hollywood figure on hand was Kevin Feige, producer and president of Marvel Studios. A 1995 USC graduate, he was awarded the Mary Pickford Alumni Award.

Feige recalled growing up in West Hills, New Jersey, where all he wanted to do was make movies. “They were my fantasy,” he recalled, “my escape. But USC became a real dream for me, something palpable I could set my course to.”

USC was the only college Feige applied to, much to the chagrin of his guidance counselors and family, but while he was accepted by the university, he was rejected by the film school. He came anyway and each semester applied to the film school again and four more times he was rejected. He was finally accepted on his sixth try.

In the two decades since, said Feige, he has gotten married, had children, produced some of the most successful movies in the history of movies, but he still remembers getting into the film school as something very special.

“I swear to you getting the acceptance to this school,” said Feige, “still ranks up there with all those things. Rejection is a common occurrence in the film industry. Learning that early and often will build up your tolerance and resistance and help you prepare for this career.”