History Department
History Department

History Commencement 2012: Rob Thomas explains the 'Significance of Failure'

Thu, June 21, 2012
History Commencement 2012: Rob Thomas explains the 'Significance of Failure'
Rob Thomas. Photo credit: Emily Kinsolving Photography.

On May 18, the Department of History recognized the graduating class of 2012 at Bass Concert Hall.

Mr. Rob Thomas, renowned screenwriter, television producer and author gave the Commencement address. Thomas grew up in Texas and graduated from UT with a major in history in 1987. After graduation, he taught high school journalism in Austin and advised UT students with the student magazine Utmost.  

While in Austin, he played in three bands in pursuit of his first dream to be a rock star. After he began writing fiction, he was “discovered” and asked to join the writing staff for Dawson’s Creek. Mr. Thomas is best known for producing two popular and acclaimed television series, Veronica Mars and Party Down. He has also written for 90210, Cupid, and Space Ghost: Coast to Coast.

His movie credits include Drive Me Crazy and Fortune Cookie.  He has written four novels and one short story collection. The American Library Association selected two of his novels as Best Book for Young Adults: Rats Saw God (1996) and Doing Time: Notes From the Undergrad (1998).

Thomas' keynote on the importance of "embracing failure" was, paradoxically, uplifting, entertaining, and inspiring.
Printed below is a transcript of the speech in its entirety, as penned by Mr. Thomas:

"A couple of weeks ago, the history department people sent me an email letting me know that the graduation theme was “Unlimited Possibilities.”

It’s a shame this news didn’t arrive sooner as I’d already set off in a slightly less-upbeat direction. My working title was “Embracing Failure.”

I considered changing direction, but then opted to stick with my edgier, less-commercial version. This goes a long way in explaining why I’ve never had a hit TV show. I’m not a sell-out.

A big part of the reason “embracing failure” appeals to me is that I’m something of an expert in the field. Most television writers are.

They say that the best hitters in major league baseball — the all stars, the hall of famers — still fail seventy percent of the time they come to the plate. Television writers can only dream of batting .300.

Here are the odds we face every time we have an idea for a new TV series...

Your typical broadcast network will hear 500 verbal pitches on any given year. Out of those 500 pitches, they’ll order around 70 pilot scripts -- maybe 45 dramas and 30 comedies. Out of those 75 scripts, the network will usually shoot 7 or 8 drama pilots and 4 or 5 comedy pilots.

If your project survives this far, you can’t help yourself: you start believing you’ll be on the fall schedule, but this optimism just makes what happens next that much more soul-crushing.

Before a network orders any pilot to series, they scrounge up 50 people they find wandering the back alleys of Burbank  to come and serve as a test audience for your lovingly crafted pilot. These derelicts are generally out of work writers and actors who are absolutely positive they would make a much better pilot than you.

Each audience member is given a box with a dial on it and is instructed to dial up if he is enjoying the show. Dial down if he’s not enjoying the show.

Despite the instructions, people invariably dial up when it’s a happy scene and dial down when it’s a sad scene. The network’s solution in the aftermath? Cut the scenes in the show where the audience dialed down.

I’m certain that if they’d had such sophisticated audience testing 75 years ago, Bambi’s mom would’ve survived the picture.

You want to scream, “don’t you get it, the pain is what makes the pleasure possible!”

Which, coincidentally, is sort of the theme of my speech today.

A footnote: test audience members also dial up when there’s a dog on screen. You will find a lot of dogs in my pilots.

I’ve never experienced failure so potently bottled and distributed as in a network pilot testing session. You’re standing behind two-way glass watching these people judge your work, your baby. You’re surrounded by network executives. Above you, on a television monitor, is a graph, and it’s showing a composite of all the dials in the room, and there’s a moment when the line starts a steady descent downward as people turn against your show.

All these thoughts race through you’re head. Maybe they were right. Maybe my characters should’ve been more aspirational. Maybe less-talented but prettier actors would’ve been a safer bet. Maybe the ending was a little ambiguous. People don’t want bitter-sweet. They want sweet-sweet.  

You feel your show dying... Your dream dying... It happens in slow motion. It happens with an audience. It’s a particularly excruciating sort of pain.

For those keeping score, I’ve had seven pilots die in this manner. As I’ve said, I know a lot about failure.

But some times you do survive this gauntlet. Of the 12 or so pilots a network makes in any given year, they might order three new dramas to series and a couple new comedies. The network heard 500 pitches. They’re putting 5 new shows on the air. I was a history major -- my math skills are limited -- but I believe that’s a 1 percent success rate.

Those are daunting numbers, but the attrition doesn’t stop there. Usually only one or two of those shows will be around for a second season.

But the ultimate prize? The brass ring that every TV writer and every network executive is looking for? Syndication! And the windfall that comes with it. A show that lasts a hundred episodes. Most networks would consider it a good year if they launch one show a season that makes it into that rarified air.

I’ve had five television series make it on the schedule. Two died in their first season. PARTY DOWN was cancelled after season 2. VERONICA MARS lasted 3 seasons.

I also wrote the pilot to 90210 which was just picked up for a fifth season. Funny story about that, though. 90210 was picked up the same season as one of my other projects. I could only stay on one of the shows. I made a fateful decision to stick with my other show, my passion project. 90210 was, after all, a remake, something I wrote for the cash. I might have even considered it slumming.

The show I stayed on? It was cancelled it after six episodes. 90210, on the other hand, will hit the magic syndication number this year. My stupid, naive, artistic integrity cost me millions of dollars.

I guess what I’m saying to you, graduates, is whatever you do -- don’t follow your passion.

No. I’m kidding. But for best results, follow your passion either before you have a family or after you’ve banked some cash. I have a reputation for producing shows that cult audiences and television critics enjoy. I would chuck all of that for one middle-brow hit show that would pay for my kids’ college education.

When I was a young and single staff writer at DAWSON’S CREEK our offices were right next to Vin DeBona Productions, the company that has cranked out 22 seasons of AMERICA’S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS. The writers used to play this parlor game. Ask each other and ourselves -- if you could reap all the enormous financial rewards of that particular slice of pop culture, but that would be your entire legacy — you would always be known as the football in the groin guy — would you do it?

The bright-eyed single writers on staff were horrified by the idea. The veteran writers, those with families, had to think longer and harder about that Faustian bargain.

What I’m trying to say here is NOW IS THE TIME. Embrace failure today. It’s tougher to do later.

In failure’s defense, it is, by its nature, an act of discovery. I believe it was in the 2008 film KUNG FU PANDA that Master Shifu tells Po, “Each failure is another stepping stone on the pathway of success.”

No. That’s a lie. I just made that up. But Master Shifu, had he said it, would’ve been right.

By way of a rambling example -- I transferred to UT mid-way through my junior year of college. I transferred for a very specific reason, a reason why many a lad has made his way to Austin. I wanted to be a rock star.

My rock star back up plan was to be a journalist. I pursued a history degree because professional journalists were advising us at the time to write for our college publications, but to broaden our horizons by majoring in something else besides (or in addition to) journalism. I knew I wanted to write, and the best of my history professors were fantastic story-tellers. I’m probably one of the few history majors who treated his tine in the program as though it were an extensive course in non-fiction.

Let me take the drama out of my rock star saga right now. There is a rock star named Rob Thomas. I’m not him.

I ended up devoting nine years of my life to a failing pursuit. There was a major obstacle on the path to rock stardom that it took me a long time to face up to: I had no talent.

But like I said, failure is an act of discovery. I discovered I have no ear for music. I just liked it a lot, which, it turned out, counted for little.

Not all of my discoveries were depressing. In those nine years in a band, I realized that I would never be satisfied as a journalist. Journalism was about other people. I was an artist now which is code for wanting it to be about me. I came up with a new plan.

I was a fan of movies. I was a fan of TV. I knew the alphabet... All the requirements one needed for film school.

It would be so nice if I could tell you that, I learned my trade in graduate school and transitioned seamlessly into show business. Not exactly. NYU rejected me. USC. AFI. And, yes, Texas, my alma mater, my safety school -- they rejected me, too.

But as I believe I’ve pointed out, “every failure is just a stepping stone on the pathway to success.” Trademark.

Some good came of the application process. The NYU film school application required me to write a short story about one of several specific emotional arenas. I chose “jealousy,” but only because “schadenfreude” wasn’t on the list. The film school application was another epic fail -- even though that descriptor had yet to be coined. The short story, however, was really my first stab at fiction, and I liked it.

By this point, I had a real job. A day job. But I made a deal with myself. I would get up every morning before work and write one page of fiction. I finished my first novel a year later. It was my NYU short story about jealousy expanded to novel length.

After nearly a decade of beating my head against the wall playing in a band, things started happening for me very quickly. I got an agent. Simon & Schuster bought my novel, RATS SAW GOD.

Then I got a call from the president of CBS television who had read RATS SAW GOD. He told me he’d passed it along to the producers of a new show called DAWSON’S CREEK, and he asked me to develop a show for television. In the span of a year I went from writing young adult novels here in Austin — trying desperately not to sink further into credit card debt — to having my own show on ABC.

It was thrilling. Fifteen episodes later it was cancelled, and it was back to the drawing board.

Everyone is ready to embrace success. That’s easy. Embracing failure is a trickier proposition, but it’s one I highly recommend.

You know who fails a lot? Ambitious people... Dreamers...

When I told my friends that I had agreed to give a commencement speech and that I was starting to sweat what I was going to say, they seemingly all thought it wise to send me the YouTube link of Steve Jobs giving his seminal Stanford Commencement address. As if that would ease my nerves.

It’s like saying, “Oh, you’re nervous about painting. Take a look at this Rembrandt. That should help you out.”

But I’ve read the Steve Jobs biography, and there’s a litany of failure in there. The Newton. The Lisa. The Cube. The Apple TV. Jobs even managed to get himself fired from his own company.

But as we know, he got Apple back. Turned it into the most successful company in the world.

Failure makes you tough. And there’s no better motivator than failure.

You’re heading out into the real world. You’re going to get knocked down. Embrace it. Learn from it. Get angry. Get back up and dictate the terms of your own future.

Hook ’em."


Rob Thomas' official site, Slaverats.com.

Rob Thomas on IMDB.

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