Katie Koeblitz (C'09) Delivers 2020 Annenberg Graduation Speech
The filmmaker encourages the Class of 2020 to embrace ambiguity while pursuing their goals.
On May 17, following an introduction from graduating senior Toni Walker (C'20), filmmaker Katie Koeblitz (C'09) delivered the 2020 commencement address for Annenberg's virtual Communication Major Graduation Ceremony. Koeblitz works as a producer and director for both narrative and indie film.
The text of her speech is as follows:
Thank you, Toni, and thank you Graduates, Professors, and Dean Jackson for having me here today.
I’ll begin with a story about a preschool class in Cleveland, Ohio. An overworked hero- a teacher- is administering Rorschach inkblot tests to four year olds. One by one, the children’s eyes light up as they discern a meadow of roses or a family of rabbits out of vague blobs. Enter our protagonist: a round-faced young girl with the harshest bowl cut East of the Mississippi. She scrutinizes her inkblots, looks her teacher dead in the eye and reports, “it’s not anything.” The lionhearted educator pushes her pupil. Frustrated, the child wonders, “what is even being asked of me here? Was there any way to prepare for this test?” They enter a standoff, this young mind in a duel with the great unknown. Finally she surrenders an answer, which would appear printed for parents' night alongside all the others: “I guess it could be clouds....but it’s not.”
I’m talking about ambiguity today. As you sit here, graduates, you may be asking yourself the same questions that I asked the blobs when I was four. “What is even being asked of me here? Was there any way to prepare for this test?” The kind of questions that make your brain itch. Ambiguity is challenging, we are simply not wired to like it. And while graduating from college is challenging for every class, graduating into a pandemic is a page of inkblots. That is where I feel uniquely connected to you. Graduating in the great recession and graduating into a pandemic are completely different experiences, but they share a call to stare into the great unknown.
As it turns out my career deals in the great unknown 90% of the time, and I have good news: The practice of working with ambiguity breeds innovation and builds character for life. Befriending the unknown has actually been a key to success for me.
I graduated from this beautiful school armed with an elite education and a handful of internships with MTV, VH1, and CBS. I moved home to Cleveland and applied for entry level jobs at media companies in coastal cities.
Care more about the work that you’re doing and what you’re bringing to it at that moment. Care less about what others think about your job title.
Cut to two months later: I haven’t heard a peep. I’m still living with my mom. I’m starting to think that my email is broken, or maybe I’m awful at writing cover letters. Every morning I wake up in my childhood home. I give medication to our old basset hound, I apply again. Four months later: now I’m starting to think that I’m broken. I feel bad. I get more aggressive and make calls, ask for introductions. I get nowhere. This ambiguity is prolonged and torturous. It doesn’t look like the movies. I’m pale, my life is weird, my room has Hanson posters on the wall, and I am growing despondent. This is how ambiguity presents in its harshest form. It is relentless and it is muddled. Six months later. I realize the world that I’m in doesn’t match the one that I’ve long prepared for.
It was time to pivot. The flip side of ambiguity is opportunity. The state of Ohio had just received a tax incentive for film production, and I didn’t understand what that meant but I knew that movies were coming to Cleveland. I began to visualize a new path. I would build up a resume at home. And to do that, I’d have to be enterprising.
I got a retail job selling computers. I worked at the Apple Store- I had my blue shirt and walkie talkie and the whole thing. The retail training at Apple is incredible, and early on they teach you the importance of dealing with ambiguity. In some ways that means deal with angry shouting customers when we don’t have answers but the core of that lesson hit me viscerally So, now I had a job and a paycheck. With that plate spinning, I did my research. I found two Cleveland based Producers who had won the Grand Prize at Cannes Film Festival with a film called Take Shelter. That film was a masterpiece. Now I had a new target- I would find these successful independent producers, and I would learn from them.
I was finally on a path, but I worried that my road less traveled was a little too weird. My goal was to tell meaningful stories. I believed then - and still believe today - that visual storytelling is a powerful tool in expanding minds and increasing compassion. To that end, I wanted to create documentary or thoughtful narrative work. I wondered if the opportunities in Ohio would even get me back on track to that goal. I had to let those thoughts go. I reminded myself of the core calling and dug back in, really white knuckling the great unknown as I simply got started.
Between shifts at Apple I emailed and called those two producers, but I never heard back. But then one day, one of them needed a new computer and he went to the Apple store. In the traditional storytelling structure of the hero’s journey, this part is called Meeting with the Mentor. In my version, it was tubesock Tuesday at the Apple store and my neon striped socks were really setting off my blue t-shirt. But it was showtime! I sold Bob Ruggieri on myself enough to work for him for free.
Bob brought me into his world and introduced me to that other producer, Tyler Davidson. I was in, and now I had to earn my keep. I kept my head down and worked, slowly building a sense of loyalty with both of them. Meanwhile I was driving to the Apple Store for two years, getting my shifts covered when a short production job came up and asking for 3 months off when a longer one did. Of course to pull that off, I knew that I had to be an ace salesperson that they didn’t want to let go of. Good Lord, I sold so many iPads. But the plates kept spinning.
As I climbed my way up the production ladder- from assisting in every capacity, to the middle rungs of the ladder and ultimately to Producing and Directing. Now cut to your glamorous montage of Sundance and South by Southwest red carpets and working with Kevin Costner and John Travolta and all of the juicy stuff. I was producing meaningful narrative work that got into the top festivals. That documentary work that I’d sought from the beginning even became available to me. I produced a documentary with Snoop Dogg! The rewards of the great journey had finally arrived.
Those highlight moments are incredible but they are just that. Between exciting press releases and red carpet moments, I sit at home with dirty hair and my old friend ambiguity. I look for the next opportunity.
The practice of working with ambiguity breeds innovation and builds character for life.
A couple of years ago, a funny thing happened. In a familiar pattern, ambiguity gave way to opportunity yet again. But this opportunity presented a new reward. I had my first and only opportunity to produce alongside a female director. Melanie Laurent was our Director on a film called Galveston starring Elle Fanning and Ben Foster. Produced, by the way, by Tyler Davidson- one of my initial targets. Melanie is a genius Director, and watching her work gave me the ultimate aha moment. I had been on this path to Produce and I had yearned to Direct all along. When I started out, 23% of Producers and 7% of directors were women. While I had at least seen a female producer twice in my life, the optic disparity between by myself and “a director” had caused my subconscious to shut that door early on. The journey to produce had been slow and arduous but then, following the aha moment, the directing path has actually moved pretty quickly for me.
There are two lessons there. The first is that ambiguity has a fun side. Sometimes ambiguity has a couple drinks and throws you a fun curveball that actually changes things for the better. Ambiguity threw rocks at me for years, and then it tossed me the coolest french person in the world to kick down the glass ceiling with. The second lesson is that representation matters. Once you get through the door- because you will- be sure to grab people who haven’t been through before and bring them with you.
Those moments of triumph on set with people I admire make me so thankful for those strange hustling years that preceded them. My retail job instilled a practice of dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty that has served me well as a filmmaker. I’ve had to deal with anarchist skateboarders overthrowing our sets and earthquakes rerouting us to a new country. But here’s the thing: those impossible to predict changes often produce the most beautiful results. Patched together scenes turn out to be the moments that audiences rave about when they leave the theater. I mean this, it happens every time. At this point, when the unexpected happens on set and we're forced to rework our plan, I’ll actually say out loud, “this will be the best part of what we create.
So here we are. We are staring down the barrel of ambiguity again. And I am right there with you. The film industry is on lockdown, and I am gainfully unemployed. The most important first step is to acknowledge the unknown. Stare it in the face. Fall in love with it a little bit. Even laugh at it if you can. Every ambiguity warrior creatively moves forward while embracing discomfort.
So, here are the hacks that will help you to move forward. This is a graduation speech after all, so it’s time to drop some knowledge! These insights all share the theme of duality. Hacking ambiguity ultimately rests on holding two conflicting thoughts as true at the same time:
Just get started while accepting that failure may arise. Begin in a direction that may not seem perfect. Whatever you’re doing, touch it with excellence. Don’t be scared to really try at it. Your relationship to the integrity of your work is ultimately for you, and it’s what you can control. The flip side of just starting is accepting failure. You may fail at this job, or it may fail you. Like his cousin ambiguity, the sooner you get comfortable with failure, the better. Take a wind sprint to your first big failure and find joy in starting.
Open and close. Oscillate between staying focused and stepping back to look at that big picture and check on others. I struggle with getting too focused and having blinders on. Others struggle with narrowing that focus in. Practice toggling between the two and you’ll improve.
Find a sensei and be a sensei. When I was here at Annenberg, David Eisenhower was my guide. How he managed to mentor me through writing a solid thesis, I’ll never understand. Find that person at every step and absorb everything you can from them. Then turn around and teach what you know. Never stop learning or teaching. This reminds us that we know a lot more than we used to, but never as much as the great sensei.
Care more and care less. Care more about the work that you’re doing and what you’re bringing to it at that moment. Care less about what others think about your job title. I had all kinds of shade thrown at me when I worked retail after graduating from an ivy, and to care would have been ridiculous. That was a great job. I worked with brilliant people and learned the skill of selling myself. Care less about where this work is bringing you immediately because you will never internally forget where you want to go. Plus, you never know where one opportunity will take you.
Be huge and be humble. I’m speaking to the cream of the crop and I hope that you’re all well aware of that. At the same time, none of us sitting here is superior and we are not above committing ourselves to good work and service. Both are true. We are superstars and also small parts of the whole. Be large when the time calls for it and then contextualize yourself. It takes the pressure off and leads to fulfillment.
Ambiguity creates a discomfort of thought, and out of that discomfort comes brilliance. To the class of 2020, as you forge your own paths and experience the highs and lows of your own ambiguities, you will amaze yourselves with your ingenuity. Trust that that will happen. You are so much more prepared for this than you know. You don’t even have to trust me on that one, because there’s evidence for it- and that is you sitting here today. Recall the version of yourself that showed up here as a freshman. Ambiguity everywhere! You’re here now- you did it.
For now, please just enjoy this time and acknowledge to yourselves how much you have accomplished. Finally, I hope that you’ll hold close the high intrinsic value of the education you’ve just received from your exceptional professors and peers. That is yours to keep now. There are few places as special as this school, and I hope that you’ll carry it with you wherever you may go next.
Congratulations again to the class of 2020 and to the supportive family and friends that helped you to be here today.