Campus & Community

Movie producer Birnbaum encourages new grads to take chances

“To be anything short of excited and engaged and optimistic in this world is just a dumb, childish and small-minded way to be,” Roger Birnbaum told graduates at DU's undergraduate Commencement ceremony Saturday. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Roger Birnbaum had two words of advice Saturday for the 952 students who attended DU’s 2012 undergraduate Commencement ceremony at Magness Arena.

“I’m in.”

“This is the big lesson in my life, and it comes down to two words—‘I’m in,’” Birnbaum, co-chairman and chief executive officer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and co-founder of Spyglass Entertainment, told undergraduates at DU’s 148th academic year commencement.

Birnbaum (attd. 1968-71), said those two words started him on his career path, when a chance encounter on a street in New York City with a friend from DU who managed a band led to a job offer.

“He offered me $120 a week to become his assistant. I had just landed a job at NBC that I was very, very lucky to have,” Birnbaum said. “I didn’t know what to do, but something told me, ‘Roger, it may be risky, but music is where you want to be,’ so I said, ‘I’m in.’”

That job started him on a career that led to vice president positions at A&M and Arista records and film-industry jobs at United Artists, Twentieth-Century Fox and MGM. In the music business he has worked with artists including Cat Stevens, Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees. He has produced dozens of films, including Home Alone, My Cousin Vinny and Seabiscuit.

“The truth is I left this school because I didn’t know where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do, and I was looking at everyone else for the answers,” he said. “I got to New York and realized the problem was me, and now instead of being on a campus with a bed and a course packet, I’m in Manhattan with a couple of twenties in my wallet and a couch to crash on.”

The lesson, he said, is this: “No one can tell you what to do with your life. No one knows better than you. If you don’t know yet, that’s OK, that’s wonderful, that’s being young. But don’t wait for others to tell you. Don’t wait for the answer to appear in a city or a boyfriend or girlfriend because it won’t—or worse, you’ll be given the wrong answer. Many office buildings are filled with people fulfilling other people’s expectations.’’

“I’ve had and continue to have an absurdly cool career,” said Birnbaum, a New Jersey native who received an honorary doctorate of humanities from Chancellor Robert Coombe at the Commencement ceremony. “All it took was saying ‘yes,’ a willingness to take a chance on a band, or a job or a career that could end in success.”

Birnbaum also passed along a piece of advice. When he was in his 20s, a close friend died. At his memorial service, a mutual friend gave a eulogy that said, in part: “Whenever I was with Peter he made me feel like I was the best possible version of myself.”

“That changed my life,” Birnbaum said. “I made the decision then and there that I was going to avoid negativity or sarcasm, that I would actively pursue a life where my friends, my family and my colleagues would never feel anything less than encouraged by me to reach their potential.

“To be anything short of excited and engaged and optimistic in this world is just a dumb, childish and small-minded way to be,” he continued. “The truth is, none of us can avoid life’s pitfalls. We stumble, we get in car accidents, we’re victims of violent crime … there are a million things that can stand in the way of your success. You don’t have to be one of them.”








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