The Steven Spielberg Three Step Guide to Rejection

The Steven Spielberg Three Step Guide to Rejection

The first time Steven Spielberg applied to film school, he was rejected. It turns out, he did just fine for himself. So let's take a look at how Spielberg handled his rejection and, ultimately, used it to propel himself to Hollywood success.

Back when I was looking into film schools, I was lucky enough to get a private tour of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

It was incredible. The complex for the school’s film program is huge and is largely because of donations from a growing stable of well-known USC alumni donors. Included are thoroughbreds Robert Zemeckis, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg.

In fact, Spielberg loves USC so much, that at the time I was visiting, he was attached to a class in which students studied all his films before a Q&A session with the filmmaker himself at the end of the semester.

But it wasn’t always like that.

How Steven Spielberg was Rejected

The tour guide recounted a story to me about Spielberg’s history with USC that I’m going to share with you today.

It turns out that the first time Spielberg applied, he got rejected because an admissions officer deemed his C level grade average too low.

He tried again and got rejected again. This is Steven Spielberg we’re talking about — the most notable filmmaker of the new Hollywood generation!

Even after a third and final attempt, Spielberg was denied admission.

Spielberg’s Three Step Guide to Rejection

Seeking his education elsewhere and applying himself full force into the industry, the man went on to direct Jaws, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, the Indiana Jones series, and a host of other critical and commercial successes.

Spielberg is now worth over $1 billion to his production company Dreamworks.

So how did Spielberg take the rejections he faced from USC and turn them into a blockbuster career? Easy — he wasn’t lazy, he had a good attitude and he worked hard for it.

Revelatory? Not really, but Spielberg’s experience does have a lot to teach those who are struggling to make a career in film.

Step 1: Prevent Laziness

It’s easy to become jaded as a freelancer with all the rejections or simple no-replies. I have been through it and the poison that it spreads is laziness and a lack of passion. After sending out so many responses to job offers, you can settle into an attitude of disappointment.

Don’t let this affect you.

So maybe you’re not the next Steven Spielberg, but you don’t have to be since success is what you make of it.

For you, that could mean working low budget indies the rest of your life on a decent income.

For others, they want all the pizazz and showbiz perks of working through the ranks in Hollywood.

Steven Spielberg could’ve gotten lazy, but then we wouldn’t have movies like Jurassic Park. Basic lesson: you’re never going to get what you want by becoming lazy.

Step 2: Overcome Your Attitude

It’s tough to do, but eventually you have to overcome the disappointment and the feelings of failure and regain your passion. What if Spielberg had decided that after three rejections, maybe he wasn’t cut out for the film thing after all?

He very well could have, but do you know why he didn’t?

Because he loved film. He was passionate about it. He was driven to make great movies.

He didn’t do it because he wanted to get famous. Or get rich. Or hob-knob with celebrities.

Those were all results of his stellar career, but what got Spielberg up each morning to send letters to USC in spite of rejection was a simple love for the art of filmmaking. To him, USC was the chance to become better at his craft.

Whether you’re a PA, a grip, a camera assistant, or an aspiring director, there is a passion that exists in all of us to contribute to the art of filmmaking.

Don’t let go of that.

Instead of deciding that you shouldn’t apply to any more jobs because of rejection, decide that you will send more resumes out in spite of the rejections.

That’s what Spielberg did. When he was told “no,” but wouldn’t accept it.

When you turn negatives into positives, even the bad news has a silver lining attached and you can push yourself even further.

A good attitude in your mind and unprecedented passion in your soul will push you ahead in this industry over those who may have settled too comfortably into the “job.”

This isn’t a job — it’s a lifestyle and a career.

Step 3: Make your eventual success, enjoy it, and share it

So after being rejected three times by USC, why did Spielberg decide to donate money? To teach a class? And how did he earn his honorary degree?

It was a long road that required years of Spielberg going to a different college, dropping out, getting a job at Universal and making multiple short films until one was finally noticed by an employee of the studio. Even after that, Spielberg underwent tremendous pressures putting together the films that built his career.

Once he gained his success, Spielberg was invited by USC to accept an honorary degree. As a cherry on top, he said he would only accept if the person who had rejected him signed the degree themselves.

One signature later, Spielberg was a USC Trojan.

With his success acknowledged, Spielberg began to donate money to the school to help the generations of filmmakers set to inherit the artform from him.

Don’t expect to have success land in your lap — you need to make it. And once you have it, you won’t have to prove how good you are anymore (you can have other people do it for you — like Spielberg did). Instead you can enjoy your success.

But Steven Spielberg took this a step further: instead of gloating, he accepted his degree and started to pass the craft onto others.

Spielberg turned his success into an opportunity to share and helped others who, like him, had faced rejection.

Once successful, you will have the chance to help others in a position similar to what you are in right now. Seize it and share your knowledge.

The Next Spielberg (Sort of)

I hope this three-step guide helps you get your next job, transition into a new department, or simply helps you pay the bills. Or at the very least, take rejections and turn them into something positive.

Not everybody will end up being the next Spielberg. Statistically, it’s improbable. Realistically, it’s not feasible.

But in at least one way you are exactly like Steven Spielberg: You have faced rejection and you have the ability, the drive, and the strength to overcome it.

  • FB

    very nice, honest and “real” post, Evan!
    when all is said and done, it all comes down to one thing: perseverance. (Of course, you have to be good, too, that’s maybe the other side of it). Sometimes it takes years and tears to just barely put a foot in the door, and sometimes that’s not even enough.

    Persistence, in my (few years and not American) experience, is exactly what sets apart the ones who really really really (3 times) want to be in this industry and those who, simply put, don’t, even if they think they do. I’ve met some who seemed to be extremely passionate about “cinema” and then gave up after spending 2 days on set, not to mention those who decided they had had enough of it all, after years of actually being in the industry, and moved to different careers.

    • Evan

      Thanks Francesco!

      You write very well about perseverance which is an important quality to have — especially if your chosen career is directing.

      Not only is the job difficult, but finding jobs once youre good at it is difficult too! It takes years to work up the ladder and many simply give up.

      Of course, quitters will always exist, but most people are somewhere in the middle.

      I hope this post serves to show to some of those people who are on the fence that maybe you should give it one more shot, one more push.

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  • Alex

    Great article… very motivating. Fight on!

    • Evan

      Thanks Alex, Trojans fight on!

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  • Mike

    People need to not focus on being Spielberg…  They need to focus on being themselves and making their own mark on the world.  We already have a Spielberg…  Great article, Evan.

    • Evan

      Thanks Mike. I love what you said: “We already have a Spielberg.” It’s important to learn from the great ones, but differentiate from them where it seems natural. I believe a lot of the creative process is this: mimic what you love/who you love, learn from it, apply it with your own personality.

  • Nick Josh Karean

    It is said that Michael Bay got rejected by the USC and other notable film schools as well. If this is true, could you write a piece on that one too? I’m sure it will be as motivating as this one. :)

    • Evan

      BOOM! CRASH! BANG! … One hero in a smalltown BOOM!! … He won’t take no for an answer

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    This is a provocative article; one of those that I really take to mind. I need to think about all this some more. I appreciate it, Evan.

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  • Karl Stelter

    I may be a little late to the conversation, but I read the article at just the right time. It can definitely become wearing as you wade through a few projects that you aren’t quite as passionate about, and in those times the most important thing you can do is find a way to remind yourself why you got into the business in the first place.

    As a side note: it can be very challenging finding ways to actually accomplish ideas such as “don’t be lazy” when compared to Spielberg – people will find excuses that he had advantages not afforded to them, etc etc. I recently read a book called “The Power of Habit” which was a real game changer for me – and has helped me push the things I want to forward first.

    Another side note: We all have weird ways of procrastinating and living in our dreams – and a favorite example I heard recently was about a conversation with a girl who wanted to run 3x a week. When the person she was talking to suggested she just try running once a week, she dismissed it as worthless. She would rather DREAM of running 3x a week than ACTUALLY RUN ONCE. Crazy – but we find ourselves doing that same shit. Time to own up to it, and start with something we can be successful at and work up to that dream.

  • Bradford Richardson


    Here’s a comical rejection post I wrote a while back:


    1. Assume the rejection is a complete mistake. Several quick phone calls/voicemails,
    texts, & follow-up emails should clear-up the misunderstanding.

    2. A sudden rush of rejection-rage, “The audacity, the empty-headed arrogance.”
    This feeling inspires several clever revenge plot lines, two of which you jot down
    for that Misfit Detective TV Pilot you’ve been developing.

    3. It’s make-over time. You’re going to surprise that decision-maker at their office with
    a hip new look & attitude, plus the biggest box of Krispy Cream
    donuts fourteen dollars can buy & a carefully rehearsed new pitch
    which includes the changes you’re certain they want. Plan B – Sell your
    soul to Satan in exchange for a do-over, and tighter abs.

    4. Chased by a team of Security Guards on bicycles into Runyon Canyon, you
    wind-up sharing the donuts with an all-knowing coyote and also that
    barefoot guy who lives there who talks into his hand like it’s a
    cellphone and claims to be one of Spielberg’s top producers. Your
    Manager calls & fires you and while you’re on the phone you bump
    into your ex who’s now dating that actor you despise.

    5. You discover that crying while throwing-up in public in the mid afternoon is
    a remarkably freeing experience. It’s only one little rejection after
    all. Someday, when you’re on stage, under the spotlight, receiving your
    Academy Award for Best Screenplay, you’ll thank that decision-maker,
    who’s obviously now living in his parents’ basement, for making you even
    more determined to succeed.

    – Bradford Richardson

  • Busta Ruckus

    Further proof that our further education is a joke and a profiteering scheme. It’s not about producing capable professionals, but justifying common sense re-written into complex technical terms to fill mandatory textbooks. It’s not about your potential to produce quality works, but how good you are at playing professors’ study and exam games.

    • Evan

      Well, it really depends on what type of education and what type of professionals you are talking about producing. It also depends a lot on your expectations going into and coming out of any sort of schooling.

      To be fair, I don’t think you can use Steven Spielberg – an astoundingly successful filmmaker in most contexts – as evidence or proof on its own that education is failing. Sure his specific situation shows flaws and failure within the system, but his case could be an outlier, just as his career and success are.

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  • VR

    I was just rejected from USC School of Cinema 17 minutes ago. This has kinda blunted the pain a bit. Thanks for the article man