It couldn’t have been easy for Jon Chu to get up in front of an audience to deliver the Film Independent Forum keynote address the day after his film “Jem and the Holograms” opened, and quickly tanked, at the box office. But not only did Chu face the crowd on Saturday, October 24, he manage to inspire them.
“So this is a bit awkward,” Chu, a 2002 Project Involve Fellow, began as he stepped on to the podium and immediately addressed the elephant in the room.
The director of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Step Up 3D” told the audience that he had been working with producer Jason Blum on developing “Jem” into a feature film for the past decade. But, unfortunately, fans of the 1980s cartoon series weren’t supportive of the film version. “I get fans sending me hate mail, I get death threats, I get racist remarks — it’s a really fun business,” he said. “Reviewers have been harsh, to say it lightly.”
Though he credited the film’s studio Universal for being “one of the most successful marketing studios in the world,” the film is projected to earn roughly $1.2 million in its opening weekend at 2,413 theaters, which, The Hollywood Reporter points out, would make it “the worst opening ever for a major studio release playing in at least 2,000 theaters.”
“Yes, we only made the movie for five [million dollars], but it doesn’t get easy when you hear those [box office] numbers,” said Chu. “I’ll probably get some texts along the way today saying it’s not going well…So this morning isn’t the best kind of day.”
Watch the keynote in its entirety above and read some highlights from the keynote below:
Filmmaking is the best job in the world.
“From the bottom of my heart and wounded soul, I am so lucky. We all are. Because we have the best job in the world: we are storytellers,” said Chu, who grew up as the youngest of five children of Chinese immigrants.
He spoke about how his father dreamed of opening a restaurant in Palo Alto and when his first restaurant failed, Chu’s mother encouraged his father to try again. The restaurant became so successful, it ended up expanding. But his parents wouldn’t let him work in the restaurant — they knew he had another destiny, which was forged when his mother gave him a video camera.
“I started to learn how to use [the camera]. I started shooting our vacations. I’d get my brothers and sisters to act. It was a blast. Suddenly the things in my head had a way out.”
Chu attended The USC School of Cinematic Arts, where a number of shorts grabbed the attention of the industry, including “When the Kids Were Away,” which he made as part of Project Involve. “It sort of became my calling card in the business,” said Chu.
The film landed him an agent and screenings at the studios. After pitching the idea of a remake of “Bye, Bye Birdie” to Steven Spielberg at Dreamworks, Chu was attached to direct. But after two and half years of development, Sony pulled the plug on the film. A dry spell followed when Chu had to come to terms with the reality of the film business — and he signed on to take “Step Up 2: The Streets,” even though, at the time, it was slated to be a direct-to-DVD sequel. The film ended up being a modest hit, which led to other projects, including “Step Up 3D” and the documentary “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.”
We are storytellers regardless of box office results.
“What I find is, that I am the same person I was 36 hours ago. I am the same person that grew up in a family that loved to tell stories,” said Chu. “I’m still here. And [‘Jem and the Holograms’] is the same movie I’m proud of making 36 hours ago. I’m still excited for people to discover it, somehow, some way.”
“Ultimately,” he added, “we are not defined by our results; we are defined by the purpose of our pursuits. It’s about the whole journey—the collection of stories that define what you stand for. We are storytellers, in every sense of the word. We’re here because we love it.”