Film Independent Forum 2015: Jon M. Chu Weathers Box-Office Disappointment, Advises to Never Say Never

The 11th annual Film Independent Forum took place on October 23-25, 2015 at the Director’s Guild of America.

The L.A.-based nonprofit Film Independent put on the three-day conference for independent moviemakers. This year’s forum featured a screening of Trumbo and discussion with director Jay Roach, panels on arriving at the perfect budget and marketing to your target audience, in-depth case studies that dissected the year’s most successful indies features, and an executive conversation with Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions team. For this attendee, though, the highlight of this year’s forum was the inspirational keynote address from director Jon M. Chu.

Saturday, October 24 was not an easy morning for Chu. His latest film, the Blumhouse-produced Jem and the Holograms (a live-action musical feature based on an ’80s animated TV series), had opened the night before and flopped both commercially and critically. He immediately addressed the elephant in the room. “This is a bit awkward, as I’m supposed to be here this morning talking about how great it is to be in the movie business… but this morning specifically hasn’t been the greatest. So you might get some real shit today.”

At first, Chu sounded as if he was going to justify his decisions and tend to his wounds, but this wasn’t the case. Chu was not cynical—on the contrary, he leveraged his recent setback and shared some lessons about being an indie filmmaker and storyteller. Here are our highlights from his address:

1. “You are what you do every day.”

Shortly after graduating from USC film school, and learning that Bye Bye Birdie, a musical project he’d been trying to bring to life, wasn’t going to happen, Chu entered a period that he termed “his five-year drought.”

“This idea, ‘you’re going to make a movie,’ eluded me,” Chu said. “I didn’t fulfill that part of my body. It was the longest time of my life that I wasn’t making stuff, physically.”

At this stage, Chu’s own pride was his enemy. Offered the chance to direct 2008’s Step Up 2, sequel to the 2006 Channing Tatum dance hit Step Up, Chu’s first instinct was that the franchise installment, sans the star power of the original film, was beneath him. At the Forum, he sarcastically mocked his younger self: “‘I don’t do direct-to-DVD. You know, Steven Spielberg saw my short. He loved it.'”

Around this time, his mother told him, “You trained to be a storyteller and a storyteller can use anything… so what makes you think you’re so good?” Chu asked himself why he was sitting around and waiting. Instead, he entered a “new age of no excuses,” one that didn’t involve asking for permission. He tried to pick up the camera with the same fundamental enthusiasm he’d had as a child, filming family vacations and weddings in his community. “You are what you do everyday. If you’re a director, you direct everyday. No one is going to give you that label.”

2. Failure Happens, and it’s OK

Chu went on to direct six more studio movies over the next seven years, including Step Up 3D, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Yet: “At a certain point, things start to cement and you get really comfortable. And that comfort can really haunt you… as artists we know that when you stop feeling anxiety or the struggle, you can get lost.”

Chu’s fears led to a stream of questions that attacked his conscious like a virus: “Am I good enough? What if critics don’t like [my work]?” And these worries were, for him, “the death of creativity. It’s the biggest enemy of our art.” Being afraid is OK; failing is OK, he eventually decided.

3. Be a Storyteller

One epiphany that helped Chu let go of his fears was the realization that his profession extended beyond the individual—it was his job to make things for others. This meant defining himself first and foremost as a storyteller instead of a filmmaker, i.e. someone who “puts the purpose of the message first and the medium second.” Chu started to see himself as a “deliverer of a message,” and this small change of mindset made “doors open all over the place.”

Whether you work with sound, photography, sets, costumes or makeup, placing story above all else injects an urgency and integrity into your work.

4. Relentlessly Pursue New Experience

A cynical independent, perhaps, might find a lack of artistic substance in some of the shlockier parts of Chu’s filmography. Yet, Chu said, all of his choices were guided by a will to experiment and learn new things. He directed Step Up 3D to learn 3-D; he directed Justin Bieber: Never say Never to learn to make documentaries; he directed G.I. Joe: Retaliation to learn about world-building (and filming explosions). He is currently directing Now You See Me: The Second Act to get the experience of working with an ensemble cast, including Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, Lizzy Caplan and Michael Caine. Take whatever opportunity to learn that comes your way, Chu advised. Charge at challenges with an open mind and a hunger for new experience.

In between his studio fare, Chu remains busy: He has made a web series for Hulu (The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers), posts content to YouTube, Instagram, and Vine, and even directed an in-flight airline safety commercial for Virgin Airlines. “It’s more important than ever that we see ourselves beyond just what we grew up with,” Chu told Forum audiences, “because things have changed.”

5. When Pitching, Sell the Listener on Tone

Throughout the address, Chu mentioned the frequency at which he gives pitches in his career. How did he hone the art of the elevator pitch? Chu trained by watching clips of Steve Jobs giving keynote speeches. He suggests that you should talk as if to an audience, even if you’re talking to just one person.

A look book is great to have because “it’s good to paint the picture,” but a good film pitch always communicates a project’s tone in the fullest detail. Relate the characters, setting, and look of the film—even the imagery of the music—to the tone that you hope to achieve. It is the “essence of what the project will feel and be like.”

Chu also recommends that you get specific. Pick out two to three scenes from the script and analyze them. Explain in detail what you would do to realize them.

Despite that morning’s unfortunate news, Chu lived up to the contents of his address by proving that box-office results do not define who he is as a person—an inspiring message for any moviemaker who has tasted disappointment as well as success. MM

Photos and video courtesy of Wireimage and Film Independent. Read our coverage of the 2014 Film Independent Forum here, and of the 2013 Forum here.

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