USC announces ‘Wicked’ commencement speaker: Jon M. Chu

The filmmaker and School of Cinematic Arts alum will deliver the University’s 2024 commencement speech.

Jon M. Chu graduated from the School of Cinematic Arts in 2003. Since then, he has directed blockbuster movies such as “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018). (Art Streiber)

At the 2003 School of Cinematic Arts commencement address, a graduating senior named Jon M. Chu sat and listened to a speech from Ron Howard — best known for producing “Arrested Development” and “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), as well as directing “Apollo 13” (1995).

Twenty-one years later, Chu — now having himself directed a notable slate of films, including “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) and the upcoming “Wicked” film — will speak to the entire USC graduating class as the newly announced speaker for the 2024 University commencement address.

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“It’s very humbling,” Chu said in an interview with student media. “It is a daunting task, especially at this time, where so much change is happening all around us, but I feel so excited to share my journey and to share a little bit of wisdom … a little bit of insight into how it all came to be. I feel very privileged to be able to speak to these young people who are going to be changing the world in the future.”

Chu’s other work in Hollywood includes directing films such as “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” (2013), “In the Heights” (2021) and the “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” (2011) documentary, which have collectively earned more than $1.3 billion in global box offices. His upcoming film “Wicked” will be in theaters later this year.

In an announcement released Thursday morning, President Carol Folt said having Chu as a speaker will be a wonderful opportunity for students to hear from someone who values diverse, creative storytelling.

“Jon has brought joy to millions around the world, including me, through the dazzling worlds he creates as a filmmaker, producer and storyteller,” Folt wrote in the announcement. “He is deeply invested in ensuring diverse communities are represented in all that he does. It will be special for our students to hear from someone whose dreams and determination contribute so much to cinema and the creative arts.”

Chu said during the interview that he often thinks of his time at USC, as he has — and still does — work with other creatives who he met at the University. He told reporters on the call the story of how he met a friend when he competed against his 18-minute Russian opera in a USC film competition. 

“The biggest thing that I got out of coming out of ’SC was the community of filmmakers,” he said. “Alice Brooks, who just shot ‘Wicked’ for me, I met her at a Starbucks there, because she was a semester older than me at USC. We still work together. Ryan Landels is a writer that I still work with … There’s a whole community of people that I met there that helped me build my career and now have their own careers.”

Chu also said he often visits SCA to check in on his endowment as well as to find future filmmakers, including his current assistant.

“I meet with a lot of different mentees throughout the years,” Chu said. “We have a lot of young students that we’re helping there, and I find it really exciting. My newest assistant is a recent grad from ’SC … but honestly, [it is] less benefiting them and more benefiting myself to see how amazing this talent is. It always sparks new things when I meet young great energy and you get a little glimpse of the future.”

When Chu was at SCA, he got his start in the world of film when director Steven Spielberg — of the “Indiana Jones” franchise, “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and “The Fabelmans” (2022) — watched one of his short films. Chu said he recalled being unable to sleep when it was first rumored the director had seen his work. Eventually, he met with Spielberg at DreamWorks Pictures, and the rest is history. 

When he returns to his alma mater to speak in May, Chu said he has yet to really figure out what he wants to say, but he has some ideas. He said he’d like to speak about what students can do for the future, as they are the ones who have to write it. 

“I have given a little thought to it, but I haven’t locked it all down,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be big. It could be small, but we all have a place in writing what that future may be, and I’m excited because I know USC is a place that fosters those kinds of people.” 

Chu said one of the more important topics his speech may cover is speaking about the unique qualities that every student can bring to their work.

“The most important thing will be giving a piece of yourself to all of this. More than ever, the uniqueness of where you come from, who you are, what are your special things that no one else has, what are the weird things that you have,” Chu said. “Those are the things that are going to define what the algorithm thinks is life. The more we become comfortable with that and be proud of how to share that, the brighter the future will be.”

Chu also spoke about what representation in film means to him and how it led him to create the box office hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” which he said was a passion project amid a drive to diversify Hollywood. He said he remembers realizing that if he wanted change to occur, he was already in a position to do it. 

“I had to look myself in the mirror and be like, ‘Oh, I’m literally a part of this system.’ I had to reassess the meetings I’ve been in and understand and break down the rules that I was taught coming in of what a global audience wants,” Chu said. “I’m one of the only people who live this experience and can change it if I want to … I felt a personal conviction to confront the things that I felt personally that I needed to do as a citizen of this industry.”

When the movie came out, Chu said he was shocked by how well it did and specifically how well it resonated with the audiences he targeted.

“When I went to the movie theater and saw families there, saw grandmas and Chinese mothers who haven’t been to movie theaters in so long and young people dressed up, it reminded me of the power of movies that I had felt when I grew up,” Chu said. “I’ve heard the word ‘pride’ so many times, but I didn’t really understand the emotion of pride until I watched that.” 

Chu said he wants to tell students to be their own agents of change when it comes to fostering representation in their current or future industries in any way they can. 

“Keeping things in your head, doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t change anything. Speaking out and saying it out loud, at the very least even if it causes commotion, is the first step to making a bridge to everything else,” Chu said. “Make sure you’re putting those efforts and those hardships behind something that you believe in, that you love dearly …  Never underestimate the power of planting a seed.”

Chu will deliver his remarks to students during the University commencement ceremony May 10.

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