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Stern Somebody: John O’Rourke – From Wall Street to Hollywood

The Oppy staff is proud to continue a feature called “Stern Somebody,” telling the stories of remarkable classmates and how they became the exceptional people they are today.

Meet John O’Rourke, a first-year Langone student from North Jersey who works and lives in Los Angeles and travels back and forth to New York for classes. I got the chance to speak with John last week when we bonded over watching movies in the theater (the only true way to enjoy films) and our love for Hans Zimmer, and I learned about how a guy who once dreamed of working on Wall Street went on to become a Director of Motion Picture Distribution at a Hollywood studio.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Thank you so much for doing this with us. So we’re gonna start easy. Can you tell us about your background? 

I’m from North Jersey. I lived there my entire life until I moved to Los Angeles. I went to Catholic school growing up and then ended up going to Pace University in New York City. I studied finance and really loved it and always dreamed of working on Wall Street. I ended up getting an internship at JPMorgan and it was a dream come true. It was on the derivatives trading desk, which then led to another internship the following summer, which led to a job. It started to dawn on me that this wasn’t the job for me. It was 70, 80-hour work weeks. The work was not what I expected – mainly Excel-focused. It didn’t allow me to think outside the box. I became kind of just completely immersed in my computer.

It really started to affect my life. I gained 30 pounds. It was rough. My analyst class was great. I made a lot of life-long friends, but a lot of people I worked for were kind of condescending. They’d speak down to you even if you messed up something small. You’d be working late. You couldn’t even ask questions. After a while, I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.

How does a guy who dreamed of working in Wall Street become a Director of Domestic Theatrical  Distribution at Warner Bros.? How did you make that turn? Were you always interested in entertainment or media?

It’s a funny story. My hobbies growing up and to this day have always been watching movies, reviewing movies, and studying the box office. I have this weird memory where I can remember box office numbers whether it be opening weekend or how much movies cost to make because it was a hobby. I never thought a job like I’m doing now even existed, to be honest with you.

But what happened was after two years at JPMorgan (four years with the internships), I spoke with my mom, who’s always given me amazing career advice, and explained how I was still young and this isn’t what I want to do with my life and she said, “Ever since you were little you’ve been obsessed with movies. Why don’t you try and find a job in the film industry?” It’s so crazy. I was probably 23 or 24. It never even crossed my mind until she brought it up. So then I started doing some digging.

Inspired by Entourage’s Ari Gold, O’Rourke started looking into talent agencies when he didn’t see any movie studio jobs and eventually landed a role at William Morris Endeavor.

I went from making really good money at JPMorgan to $10 an hour, in a mailroom.

Oh wow. 

Yeah. My mom was very supportive. She’s always believed that if you pursue what you love, the money will come. A lot of people don’t realize that and end up in their 30s miserable. So I was lucky enough at a young age to have that guidance.

But it was a huge risk. The first week in the mailroom they asked me to go to Home Depot to get lightbulbs for an agent’s office. I remember coming home and being very depressed. But within a week, HR called me to their office and pretty much told me they needed me to work with the Executive Vice President of brands, who was also involved in sports.

Although sports wasn’t what John had in mind, he worked his way up and felt for the first time that he was actually enjoying his work. He became friends with a colleague who noticed his love for movies and introduced him to her father, who worked at 20th Century Fox. Through her father, O’Rourke got to meet a few people at 20th Century Fox whom he impressed with his movie box office knowledge.

I was promoted to an account executive at William Morris Endeavor and two months later, I got an email from 20th Century Fox with a job opening at Warner Bros. I thought there’s no way I’m going to get this job because it was an MBA-preferred position. But because I came highly recommended by 20th Century Fox, I got the job as a manager of sales and analytics in New York. A year later, the president of our group called and asked me to move to Los Angeles. And the rest is history.

I was a field producer at ABC News and there wasn’t really anyone around me that had an MBA. So how can an MBA be useful in the industry?

It’s a great question. And this is why [Warner Bros] is so progressive, because years ago, even 10 years ago, unless you wanted to further yourself or wanted to change careers, an MBA wasn’t needed. But our Industry is now in a perpetual state of evolution, so you need to make sure you have a comprehensive understanding of all areas of the business.  Learning different facets of the business world is helping me prepare for even bigger positions. My pitch was that I don’t want to ever hit a ceiling. I want to make sure that if there comes a day where I’m approached to move up the ladder that I am fully aligned in my thinking and able to draw upon the unique MBA experience. A lot of the things you learn on a day-to-day job, no matter the company, don’t teach you the same skills that an MBA program does. That’s what I’ve learned this past year. It’s been very challenging and it’s allowed me to think in ways I haven’t before.

Can you explain to everyone what exactly a Director of Domestic Motion Picture Distribution actually does?

It’s a lot of fun. When I moved to L.A., I was a Director of Forecasting and Projections, which involved estimating our entire film slate’s future releases, as well as forecasting our films’ opening weekends. The first film I worked on was Rampage. This varied from week to week due to a number of variables, such as how many films were opening that weekend and how many films were in the marketplace. The numbers that go out externally came from our group. But now what I do in distributing movies is I have a bunch of sales accounts, which are theaters that we sell our films to. We have, on average, 15 films a year, not including classic releases. So each film has a life of its own. I always say that the Apple iPhone has one product launch each year. We have about 15+ with each film. So when you go from one movie to the next it’s vastly different, and the speeds that you’re selling vary.

It’s a long, tedious process that goes into each film. Right now I’m leading on Puerto Rico. So I have all the theaters in Puerto Rico, Washington D.C., I have a hand in Canada, along with Cincinnati, and Detroit. Each film varies on the number of screens and theaters you’re getting. A lot of different aspects go into each sale.

How has Covid changed your day-to-day job?

One was going into the office five days a week. Also for the first time in history, cinemas pretty much shut down. We pushed all our films back a year. So this year, we ended up releasing day and date with HBOMax. Next year we’re going to have a theatrical window of 45 days, which is already very different from what it was pre-COVID, which was around 90 days. 

Well, I’m glad direct release to streaming is not forever because I love watching movies in theaters. I have friends who watched Dune at home and I’m like what is wrong with you?! It’s made for the theater!

Dune is a movie that if I was 14 years old, would have changed my life. I read the books and love the concept. I think it can be a little bit complicated, like Lord of the Rings or some of these other films, but that’s part of the reason why I love it. I still have friends who refuse to buy a ticket to the theater and it makes my blood boil. It doesn’t make sense to me. I get in a lot of arguments about it because I’m so passionate about it.

So just to pivot a little bit, I’m one of few who are recruiting for media companies and it’s not a traditional MBA path. We don’t really have a structure or a timeline and a lot of us feel lost. So what’s your advice for those of us trying to land a role within the industry?

The main piece of advice is to network. Go out and meet somebody. That’s what happened for me while putting myself out there and getting that job at the talent agency. If you want to get a role in entertainment, don’t have tunnel vision and say I want to only work at a movie studio, because there are not many jobs that exist. But if you work at a talent agency, if you work in television, if you work in radio – there are so many different areas of entertainment. These people know other people.

When it comes to entertainment, focus on the entire industry – not just a specific area. Where I am today is all because of the people I met and the passion that I had. Passion is really important too. It’s something that you need the people who are in charge to have. People who are in the business, who love movies, and want the best for the industry. Not people who are going to say, “Oh, I’m not going to the theaters.”

Yeah. And going off of that one last question, what are some misconceptions about working in that industry?

I think some people like to bash on movies, but the thing I know is movies will never die. Since the dawn of time, people have sat around the fire telling stories, and that’s what movies are today. Stories will always exist and people will always be interested in hearing, reading and learning new stories, which is exactly what movies bring to us.

It’s a dream job. I love it. I love movies. There is no reward without risk. I went from the mailroom to a director in two and half years. I had a job that other people really admired at JPMorgan and I chose to leave it behind and ended up somewhere that’s a dream come true. I hope the industry continues to evolve and we’ll see what happens, but it’s fun.
You can connect with John via Instagram @Johnborourke or LinkedIn @John B. O’Rourke

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