From Film School Reject to Three Oscars

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Steven Spielberg‘s name is synonymous with “director” in modern Hollywood. As one of the most successful film directors of all time and a net worth of $3.6 billion, it’s hard to imagine a principal partner of DreamWorks as a film school reject. But the rumors are true: Spielberg was rejected from the USC School of Cinematic Arts not once, but twice. (Some sources even say three times!) His obsession with creating films as a teenager left him with a C average in high school, and the University of Southern California wouldn’t accept such low grades. But with a building on campus now named after him, it seems Steven Spielberg has the last laugh.

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Childhood Creativity

Spielberg’s passion for film started early in life. After filming his dad’s trains crashing into one another, Spielberg began making little one-reelers to entertain himself and his friends. He started screening his films for the neighborhood kids, charging 25 cents admission while his sister handed out popcorn. As a Boy Scout in 1958, he created a nine-minute 8 mm film called The Last Gunfight to earn his photography merit badge. Spielberg recalled in a recent interview, “My dad’s still-camera was broken, so I asked the scoutmaster if I could tell a story with my father’s movie camera. He said yes, and I got an idea to do a Western. I made it and got my merit badge. That was how it all started.”

His interest piqued, Spielberg continued to pursue his passion for film. At 13, he won a prize for a 40-minute war film titled Escape to Nowherebased on a battle in East Africa. He wrote and directed his first independent feature length film in 1963, with a budget of $500. The science fiction adventure film Firelight would later inspire Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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Road to the Oscars

Spielberg attended college at California State University Long Beach from 1966-1970 as a BA in film/production student. He interned for Universal Studios as an unpaid intern seven days a week while attending classes. Realizing he needed a higher quality short as his calling card, Spielberg shot the film Ambling’ in 1968 on a $15,000 budget. The short film’s theatrical release in LA brought several awards, and eventually got the attention of Sidney Sheinberg. Sheinberg offered Spielberg a 7-year TV director contract, making him the youngest director signed with a major Hollywood studio.  Spielberg dropped out of CSULB to take the contract with Universal Studios (although he returned in 2002 to complete his BA).

Despite his lack of formal education, Spielberg excelled in his role at Universal. After several TV projects, he landed in the director’s chair for the 1975 movie Jaws. As the first “summer blockbuster” in the history of Hollywood, Jaws made Spielberg a household name across the country.  The film won three Academy Awards (for editing, original score and sound) and grossed more than $470 million worldwide at the box office, creating what the press called “Jawsmania”.

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With Jaws’  financial and critical success, Spielberg had the autonomy to choose his projects. He followed with some of the most iconic movies of the time, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E. T. The Extra Terrestrial, The Goonies, Jurassic Park, and Schindler’s List. Spielberg has won two Oscars for Best Director, for his work on Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, as well as a Best Picture award for Schindler’s List. 

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Work Toward Your Goals

Spielberg’s success didn’t appear overnight. Despite the stinging rejection he must have felt when he was rejected from a prestigious film program, he kept working toward his goal. Can you imagine if he had given up after his third rejection letter? Instead, he put his nose to the grindstone and believed in himself. Talent can only take you so far; it is the work that is put into the talent that makes a success story.

Don’t let rejection (or the fear of it!) keep you from striving toward your goals. From making a great spreadsheet to directing a Hollywood blockbuster, hard work and determination are the name of the game. There will always be voices telling you that you aren’t good enough, but you don’t have to listen. Someday, those voice might be conferring you an honorary doctorate and naming a building after you!

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