Marvel Studios’ president reveals his top career tip and how the studio made billions from an underdog mindset: ‘Get comfortable with failure’

May 17, 2023, 10:37 AM UTC
Kevin Feige delivers speech at University Of Southern California's 140th Commencement Ceremony at University of Southern California
Kevin Feige remembers when Marvel Studios was operating out of a "dingy office"—and said he's never lost his underdog mentality.
Unique Nicole—Getty Images

As the boss of a firm studio estimated to be worth $53 billion, it’s hard to believe that Kevin Feige ever struggled to get into the industry.

But the president of box office giant Marvel Studios revealed this week he was not only rejected from the film program at his alma mater, the University of Southern California, he had to apply to the course six times before he was accepted.

Speaking to the graduating class of 2023, Feige recounted that story and the key lesson it taught him: “My wish for you graduates is that you get comfortable with failure, with rejection. Accept that it’s a possibility but never let it define you. Never let it hold you back.”

A quick scan through Feige’s resume proves that adversity never dampened his professional trajectory.

Feige began interning at a production company for free during his studies—paying the $40 shuttle fee to the studios himself—before landing a role as producer on the X-Men film in 2002.

In the coming years Feige worked on projects like Spiderman and the Fantastic Four, and in 2007 was named president of production at the company. Then, 2008 saw the launch of projects like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, characters which went on to define the Marvel universe in later years.

In 2019, Feige was given an additional title, chief creative officer, meaning he now informs the creative direction of the entire Marvel brand across film and TV.

In his commencement speech, Feige highlighted the need to adapt, either in response to change or off the back of failure, and credited this skill among those which got him to his position as arguably one of the most influential people in Hollywood.

Origin story

Feige, who was given the honorary doctorate this year by his alma mater, outlined in his speech he dreamt of working in film at the age of 10 and what he hoped would be the “greatest job in the world”.

His Hollywood dream was simple, he recalled: “You get accepted to USC, you get accepted to the School of Cinematic Arts, you make a student film that gets turned into a major motion picture, you make Star Wars and then you become George Lucas.

“It didn’t work out that way.”

Instead, Feige struck “sixth time lucky” getting into the School of Cinematic Arts, and then landed his first “glamorous job” as a production assistant.

“I picked up hundreds of lunch orders, washed dozens of cars, watched people’s dogs, chauffeured people to meetings, chauffeured people’s dogs,” he remembered.

“If your story’s similar to mine and you know what you want to do, that’s fantastic. If you’re unsure of your next chapter, that’s also fantastic. If you only have this degree and a few scraps of an idea, that’s okay.”

The main difference between those who succeed and those who won’t is action, Feige added: “Success comes from doing. It comes from trying new things, by taking risks, by leading with ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’.”

Underdog mentality

Marvel’s heroes fail on both small and “spectacular” scales, Fiege said, but what’s important is that failure is “never the end of their story.”

That was a lesson Feige learned early, and took it with him to Marvel Studios—which is part of Disney.

Remembering the studio 15 years ago, Fiege recounted “a scrappy group sitting on top of a dingy building in a car dealership” trying to create a cinema phenomenon out of lesser-known characters when “many in Hollywood thought [they] were doomed to fail.”

“We were close to agreeing with them,” Feige admitted. “But you know what you have to lose when you’re an underdog? Nothing.”

That mentality is “relished” at Marvel Studios, its president continued, and has been engrained in the company since the beginning—despite creating the biggest movie franchise in history.

“We never forget where we came from,” Fiege said. “It pushes us to keep challenging ourselves and try new thing, to work with new filmmakers and try new types of stories. Even after you establish yourself having that mentality can really serve you well.”

Know who you are

Whether it’s the spirit of Spiderman’s Peter Parker, the confidence of Avengers character Black Widow, or the genius of Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, Fiege said the most important thing was to be sure of who you are as an individual.

“To be successful you must understand you strengths and your weaknesses whatever they may be,” he explained.

Quoting a Marvel movie he adds: “The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.”

He advised the graduates to “lean into” their flaws and “embrace failure”, as well as understanding the power of teamwork and collaboration.

He finished his speech with a revelation about the casting the Iron Man lead—Tony Stark—and a “stroke of luck” that put Robert Downey Jr. in the role.

“Being our first Marvel film out of the gate, the stakes could not have been higher,” Fiege said. “The success of the film and the future of our entire studio rested on the shoulders of this one person.”

They pinpointed the “right guy”, an actor who they were “confident would be a huge hit”—Clive Owen, a British actor best known for his work in Children of Men.

“He was not interested,” said Feige. “Not getting your first choice might just be the greatest thing that can happen to you. You know what’s better than getting your first choice? Getting the right choice. In our case of course that was Robert Downey Jr.”

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