Robert De Niro to Film School Graduates: "You're F@#&ed"

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When legendary actor Robert De Niro delivers a commencement speech, he doesn't mince words about the harsh realities of making it as an artist. In his commencement speech for NYU's Tisch School of the Arts this past week, De Niro struck a brutally honest and utterly hilarious tone that was absent from Scorsese's inspiring send-off last year. Here's an excerpt:

When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense. You weren’t just following dreams, you were reaching for your destiny. You’re a dancer, a singer, a choreographer, musician, a filmmaker, a writer, a photographer, a director, a producer, an actor, an artist. Yeah, you’re fucked.

And that's just a taste of the humorous cynicism in De Niro's speech. He also talks about why he would advise his kids to go to school for accounting instead of art, and his hilarious and anecdotal disappointment in not getting cast as Martin Luther King Jr. in the recent Oscar-nominated Selma.

The day wasn't all doom and gloom masked as humor, however. De Niro had some great advice for the graduates about the realities of navigating the world of making art for a living. In essence, it's about accepting the reality that when you work within an inherently collaborative medium like film, often getting rejected has little to do with you. It's about the people in charge – the directors, the producers, the folks with deep pockets – and their expectations.

Rejection might sting but my feeling is that often it has very little to do with you. When you’re auditioning or pitching, the director or producer or investor may have something or someone different in mind. That’s just how it is. (...) By the way, there will be times when your best isn’t good enough. There can be many reasons for this, but as long as you give your best you’ll be OK."

All in all, De Niro's isn't the most uplifting commencement speech out there, but it's certainly one that doesn't shy away from the sometimes unpleasant realities of making a living in the arts. The truth is that we're drawn to this way of life not because we expect it to be full of riches (unless we're completely delusional), but because we have something to say and the desire to say it through the medium of film.     

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My favorite pieces:

7:30 The way the director gets to be right is you help him be right.

9:08 Power does not come from the title, the power comes from trust, respect, vision...

12.52 Rejected? Next!

May 23, 2015 at 4:33PM



May 23, 2015 at 8:15PM

Tommy Plesky
Director / D.P / Editor

What De Niro alludes to, but doesn't quite say, is that film-making is first and foremost a business. He talks about all the other professions that have PAID jobs, and later talks about all the people involved in a production and the roles played - including producers/financiers.

We all chase the dream of fame and fortune in film-making. Few, however, really approach it like it is - a BUSINESS!

Those who do have a much better chance of success than those who do not.

May 23, 2015 at 6:04PM

Ian Nicholson
Head Tutor at Sydney Short Film School

Right. It's the movie business.

That said, where is the business in short films, other than teaching people how to make them?

May 24, 2015 at 1:49AM

Charlie K

I think you just answered your own question. lulz

May 25, 2015 at 8:38AM


Creation comes first from passion!

May 23, 2015 at 9:51PM, Edited May 23, 9:51PM

John Kaweske
Film Student

I liked the zoom in as De Niro approached the lectern.

A shame that the editor cut out the sound of De Niro blowing his nose. He's such a legendary figure, that it's nice to see the human moments -- blowing nose, fudging the words, etc.

Wonder why the editor bleeped out the first F-bomb, but not the second. A mistake, or was he/she permitted a certain quota of F-bombs per video?

May 23, 2015 at 10:34PM

Adrian Tan

I don't know why but this gave me so much inspiration, like right after I read it I started writing ideas for a script.

May 23, 2015 at 11:54PM, Edited May 23, 11:54PM


Powerful, inspiring speech. Really like how he stresses relationships and collaboration and how important each persons role is. I've been working with the same crew for years and we have our ups and downs, but the chemistry and collaboration we have is priceless and when we fail we move right on to something else and never let it discourage us.

May 25, 2015 at 12:30PM

Brad Watts
Filmmaker/Creative Director - Redd Pen Media

Art vs Business. To treat it like a business you still have to be good so it is difficult to separate art. However it is still possible depending on the client such as the public sector and the filmmaker has an exclusive contract to shoot cheesy corporate talking head videos with no artistic merit that nobody watches.

May 25, 2015 at 10:44PM

Simon Chan
Director of Photography

It is all about business. It is very risky, competitive and unstable business,so only passionate people can choose this pass.

May 26, 2015 at 1:28AM, Edited May 26, 1:28AM

Einar Gabbassoff
D&CD at Frame One Studio

What? I thought I was guaranteed the cash, plump breasted young strumpets and my own honey badger for sure!

May 26, 2015 at 12:00PM

Julian Richards
Film Warlord

These kind of speeches should be a requirement for entrance into a program. When you sign up all you hear is how much graduates are making and how much opportunity there is. Only when you get to the end with a load of debt is anyone actually honest with you.

May 29, 2015 at 6:30PM

Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker