The job Dan Wolfe ’84 landed after graduation brought a paycheck, but it also brought nightmares. In them, 20 years had passed; he was in his late 40s, still scuffing along in car insurance.
Then came the call.
His 26-year-old former University of Mary Washington roommate, John Heath ’84, had died in a car crash. Shaken, Wolfe drove to the campus they’d called home.
He’d been coasting, he realized, even back then – a business administration major on “the four-plus-year plan.” But Mary Washington wasn’t giving up on Wolfe yet. He thought of his friend and how he’d loved movies, especially “The Big Chill”; they’d seen it together. As Wolfe strolled Campus Walk, reliving his past, he came face-to-face with his future – a flier for film school on a bulletin board outside Lee Hall.
“Once I got over my fear of failure, things started happening,” said Wolfe, now executive vice president for Worldwide Creative Operations at NBC Universal. “I realized I was holding myself back.”
He’s supported the marketing of hundreds of films. On his résumé: Best Picture Academy Award winners “Schindler’s List,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “A Beautiful Mind.”
In the early ’80s, though, when the Virginia Beach native came to Mary Washington on an academic scholarship, he hadn’t planned a Hollywood career. He did find a passion for marketing, thanks to longtime business professor Tom Whitman.
Still, three years after college, he wasn’t happy at work. He’d moved in with his parents and been dumped by his girlfriend.
“I took a step back and said, ‘What do I really want to do?’ ” said Wolfe, who’d dabbled in media, including interning at a Fredericksburg radio station.
The Lee Hall flier was the answer. He quit his job, moved to Boston and enrolled at Emerson College. With a master’s degree in communication management, he headed to LA, where he soon snagged a job at Orion Pictures. There, Wolfe helped sell blockbusters like “Dances with Wolves”and “The Silence of the Lambs.”
“I really got into it,” he said. Within months, he’d moved on to Universal, supporting advertising campaigns – from TV to the Internet – for fan favorites like “Despicable Me” and “The Fast and the Furious.”
Success in the industry, Wolfe said, means being able to identify target audiences, generate buzz, and use technology to stay ahead of the curve.
Even on the opposite coast, Wolfe remains close to his alma mater. A College of Business Advisory Board member, 2004 Distinguished Alumnus and 2007 Distinguished Graduate-in-Residence, he delivered UMW’s Commencement address in 2010. He thought less of his triumphs as he flew back to Fredericksburg to speak to the soon-to-be grads, more of his struggles, especially early on.
“If you try something and you don’t like it, get out,” Wolfe said. “Try something else.”
He shared that advice on a visit to campus this spring. Expect adversity and work hard, he told students, and don’t stop pursuing your passion.
“Listening to someone like Dan,” Assistant Professor of Marketing Kashef Majid said, “motivates students to pursue their own aspirations.”