2015 Keynote Address
“The Underrated Element of Surprise”
Class & Charter Day Remarks by John Hadity ’83
May 11, 2015
Madam President, esteemed Trustees, highly regarded faculty, administrators, and staff, family (I have some here), and students, especially those from the Class of 2015...
Thank you for the warm welcome!
I can’t tell you how excited I was to be asked to deliver the Class & Charter Day address because this day, going back to when I was a student, had always been a favorite of mine. Truly. It was full of surprises. And I love surprises.
I remember attending as a freshman and had no clue as to what was really going on because I wasn’t familiar with the event, but I did enjoy seeing faculty I had never met receive awards. In my sophomore year, though, I was tapped for an award. I didn’t know what it was at the time (I still don’t really know what it is), but I loved the surprise.
I had lots of surprises when I was at Hamilton. I entered as a pre-med. Don’t roll your eyes at me. When I was a kid I was surrounded by people in the medical profession, so it seemed natural to pursue; it was the only thing I knew. Because I’m like that, I chose neurosurgery. It sounded good...until I was put on academic probation after my first semester freshman year (surprise...dad!). The Dean of Students told me I would never graduate with better than a “C-“ average. I actually think it was a “B”.
Believe me, I wasn’t heartbroken over dropping out of the pre-med program. I loved the arts, and the moment I shifted my focus and attention to the things I loved, my life changed. I loved playing the clarinet but I was awful. My roommates made me donate my instrument to charity. I loved playing the piano, and did so often. I directed the Buffers for 3 1⁄2 years, and for all 4 years I served as the musical director for the A.D. Play, which was an annual musical theater fantasia that took place every spring house-party weekend. They were lining up down Campus Road to get in! I sang in every singing group on the Hill... except Special K. Actually, come to think of it, I did sing with Special K on more than one occasion.
Anyway, my point is, I was in Heaven. I was passionate about all of it (I still am). I consumed music, I consumed theater (which I actually minored in), and I embraced every opportunity to speak in front of my peers. I was a showgirl! But I wanted to be a headliner. And I loved film. My mom used to let me stay up with her and watch old movies on TV because she knew I loved them, and my favorite night of the year was Oscar Night. I wanted an Oscar. All my life, more than anything, I wanted an Oscar. I needed to find out how you get one of those things.
Scott MacDonald’s class in cinema history changed everything for me. I felt like I was learning the backbone of the business that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in. It was one of those classes that I couldn’t wait to come around again every week. And now when I look at that spectacular Kennedy Center I realize that I probably would have skipped the pre-med part altogether! I loved it here, and learned a lot that was meaningful to me, and I couldn’t have been happier.
After graduation I headed to New York, to pursue my dream job in film. Problem was, I didn’t know what there was to do in film except produce (and I didn’t really know what that actually meant). I spent a lot of time going on informational interviews at all the studios and networks based in The City, but didn’t land anything as quickly as I had hoped. So I took a job to pay the bills, selling musical toothbrushes on the 5th floor of Bloomingdales. Surprise! I loved it. And I actually made good money (two dollars a brush, in cash). It paid the rent. And in some twisted way I actually think it helped me hone my interviewing skills.
Anyway, I did eventually get hired by a studio. And I tried a lot of different things (sales, advertising, marketing, publicity, distribution...ugh, I hated all of them and I could tell you horror stories about why we were not a good fit). But I was in the door, and that’s all that mattered.
And during those years, I CAME OUT, which was a surprise, to NO ONE EVER! My partner Scott is here with me today. I still giggle over a conversation we had years ago, just after I took over as President of the Alumni Association and Chair of the Alumni Council. I said, I’m not sure if there will ever be an opportunity to put on full regalia but if there is, I’m having a hood made “specially” for me, lined with Pucci or Armani. Scott said, “You can’t do that. It’s sacrilege! The hood is supposed to represent your area of concentration. What was your advanced degree in...Fabulousness?” Don’t encourage him; he went to Williams (bless his heart). Seriously, I did want to remember to say thank you. The most recent Hamilton Out and Ally campaign has almost 1,100 signatures on it, and I couldn’t be happier. That’s meaningful, and reminds me of how far we have come. I believe we are second only to Princeton in such a public list. Thank you.
Anyway, back to me. I tried all those other areas of the film business, didn’t fancy them, and then I found acquisitions. I loved acquisitions. At the time (mid-1980s), acquisitions meant buying, or acquiring by license for North America, films that others had made. And the purchase price was usually a percentage of the final cost of the film. Fair enough. If you were buying North American rights (at that time, it was maybe worth 70% of the cost of the film, though today is considerably less), and the film cost $10 million to make, then you had to budget for a $7 million purchase price. Get the math? But some disruptive things hit the market in the late 80’s. Those disruptive things were called Bob & Harvey Weinstein, and they changed everything. Back then, Miramax only acquired and distributed films, they didn’t make them. And in order to beat competitors like me, and take films off the market, they started buying them before they were finished. They would get on a plane, travel to the production office, and view some rough footage to determine whether or not they should make a preemptive strike and buy the picture out from under folks like me. This was a great strategy, except for one thing. Remember that formula, where the purchase price is a percentage of the overall cost of the movie? If you buy the film before it’s finished, and sometime during production the film starts to go over budget, then won’t the purchase price go up, too? Yep, it will. Fortunately, they had more hits than misses in those early days. But it forced me, as an acquisitions guy, to learn budgeting, and scheduling, and to read cost reports, and production reports, and understand the nuisances of production in general. That was my true introduction to production and production finance, and I eventually joined Bob & Harvey at Miramax during the glory days. I never looked back, and am proud to have my fingerprints on pretty much every Miramax movie you’ve ever heard of.
So why am I telling you all this? You know, it was very flattering to see that front-page story in The Spectator announcing that I would be delivering the remarks today. And I’m not going to lie, I love it when folks mention my Academy Award-winning films. But I made some bad ones too. Prophecy 2-3-4, Hellraiser 3-4-5, Children of the Corn 4-5-6-7-8-9-10. Lord, they can’t all be good. But the fact is, when you start out making a movie, you have to BELIEVE it’s going to be good. When you start out making anything you have to believe it going to be good. When you start designing your senior art project, or outlining your senior thesis, or composing your senior, well, composition, you have to believe that it’s going to be good. Or why on Earth would you waste your time in the first place. We all fail, and we all succeed...at STUFF. Neurosurgery...MUSICAL TOOTHBRUSHES...marketing...ACQUISITIONS...Halloween 8...SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE! Life’s full of surprises.
Look, today they’re curing some forms of brain cancer with a mutated polio virus. And pediatric leukemia with non-toxic HIV. People have been working on this stuff for longer than you and I have been around, and they tried and failed, and tried and failed, and they didn’t give up. They might have felt defeated, but they didn’t give up.
That’s my message. Hang in there. You get surprised.
When I used to raise equity for a film, my investors didn’t care about the story I wanted to tell. My investors only cared about 2 things: How am I going to get my money back. And when that doesn’t work, how am I going to get my money back.
The lesson here is they have got to believe in you (not your product). Are you the guy that’s going to get it done? Whatever it is.
So what’s next for me? I have my fingerprints on Oliver Stone’s new film about Edward Snowden, and Spike Lee’s film about Chicago gangs, and Tom Cruise’s film about drug running in the South in the 1980’s. Check in with me in a year or two and I’ll tell you if they were successful. I’m really hoping to be surprised.
I hope you have some surprises, too.