Jon M. Chu

At USC, Jon M. Chu was president of the School of Cinematic Arts student council. (Photo/Art Streiber)


Film director Jon M. Chu to speak at USC commencement in May

The USC School of Cinematic Arts alumnus’ work includes the blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians and the upcoming film adaptation of Wicked.

March 07, 2024 By Leigh Hopper

USC is where filmmaker Jon M. Chu found his “tribe” — classmates who inspired him and who continue to be close collaborators.

Since he graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 2003, Chu has achieved a noteworthy body of work that includes the 2018 blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians and Part 1 of Wicked, the long-awaited film adaptation of the stage musical and book of the same name scheduled to premiere in November.

On May 10, Chu will return to his alma mater to deliver the keynote address at USC’s 141st commencement ceremony and will receive an honorary degree, USC President Carol Folt announced Thursday.

“Jon has brought joy to millions around the world, including me, through the dazzling worlds he creates as a filmmaker, producer and storyteller,” Folt said. “He is deeply invested in ensuring diverse communities are represented in all that he does. It will be special for our students to hear from someone whose dreams and determination contribute so much to cinema and the creative arts.”

Crazy Rich Asians
Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians was the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority cast of Asian descent in a modern setting in 25 years. (Photo/Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

A film career launched at USC

Chu catapulted to worldwide acclaim with Crazy Rich Asians, a box office hit and the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority cast of Asian descent in a modern setting since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. Chu also directed 2021’s In the Heights — a film shot by his former classmate Alice Brooks — based on the award-winning Broadway musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Brooks is the cinematographer for Wicked as well.

“There is a whole community that I met there [at USC] that helped me build my career, and now they have their own careers,” Chu recalls. “I’ve worked with Alice Brooks because I met her at a Starbucks there. Ryan Landels is a writer I still work with, and Avi Youabian is now a director but was an editor that I was working with for years, and we still keep it up.”

Chu’s interest in musicals and dance — which he pursued at USC as a member of a dance crew — led him to direct two Justin Bieber concert films, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and Justin Bieber’s Believe, and executive produce Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration. In 2013, he shook up airline safety videos with a production for Virgin America that featured singers and dancers and went viral. He’s also executive producer of the TV show The Company You Keep.

“USC was a huge jump for me, coming from a very small school to the big city of Los Angeles. My whole brain opened up,” said Chu. “To meet people from all around the world, studying all sorts of things, but specifically film, was inspiring and great. They became my tribe, and they pushed me to be better.”

Representing his community

Chu grew up in Los Altos in the Bay Area, the youngest of five children. His parents arrived in the United States as non-English speakers — his father from mainland China and his mother from Taiwan — and started a restaurant called Chef Chu’s in Los Altos. When he was in grade school, Chu’s mother gave him a video camera to record family vacations. Instead, Chu made science fiction and murder mystery movies; his siblings were the stars.

In a TED Talk, Chu described sitting his family down to watch a home movie he’d shot and edited, “and they cried. And cried.” For the first time, they saw themselves on screen “as a normal family that fit in and belonged.”

“And I remember, as the youngest of these five kids, feeling heard for the first time,” Chu continued. “And I knew from this moment on, I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”

Jon M. Chu does Fight On gesture
Chu shows his Trojan pride during an online interview. (USC Photo)

At USC, Chu was president of the School of Cinematic Arts student council and earned praise — and the attention of Steven Spielberg — for writing and directing the short musical When the Kids Are Away (2002), a comic look at the daily lives of mothers when their children go to school. His student work won several awards including the Princess Grace Award, the Kodak Student Filmmaker Award and the Jack Nicholson Award.

“From his time as a student, to his early days as a filmmaker, and now as an accomplished, trailblazing creative, Jon Chu uses his talent to connect and inspire audiences. And he does it with enthusiasm and an obvious love for his craft,” said School of Cinematic Arts Dean Elizabeth Daley. “Our students couldn’t ask for a better role model of how to pursue one’s dreams.”

Helping Trojans tell their stories

Chu has maintained close ties to USC, screening his films on campus, chatting with students and extending support to students who are following in his footsteps. In 2018, USC supporters Karen Wong and Scott Lee renamed a scholarship they had previously established in Chu’s honor, the Jon M. Chu APAA Cinematic Arts Scholarship, for students whose projects focus on Asian Pacific culture in film, television and interactive media.

Chu also recently funded his own scholarship, the Jon M. Chu Endowed Student Fund, with the inaugural group of Chu Scholars just selected — School of Cinematic Arts master’s students Yennefer Fang and Renyi Qi.

Fang describes herself as a transgender independent filmmaker who wants to be a beacon of hope and support for others. Qi is a director, producer and sound designer creating media that explores urban love relationships, family bonds and the challenges confronting Asian characters.

Becoming a father — Chu and his wife, Kristin Hodge, have four small children — has added a new dimension to his storytelling. With Crazy Rich Asians, he experienced a sense of pride and a connection to his identity he’d never experienced before.

“When I went to the movie theater and saw families there, grandmas and Chinese mothers who hadn’t been to movie theaters in so long, and young people dressed up … as silly as it is, it reminded me the power of movies that I had felt when I grew up,” Chu said.

“It was really my own awakening. So now after that movie, it’s hard to go back to not wanting that feeling again … and feeling that there’s more to do. I don’t feel pressure. I feel privileged — because I feel built for this.”