Many students find themselves in a place where they know what they want to do but are unsure on how to get there. Other times, students graduate with a degree they do not know what to do with. One Redbird found that no matter the degree or the time it takes to reach a dream, it all comes down to dedication, a well-thought plan, and a little bit of risk.

Justin LaReau ’00, has always been interested in film, writing his first script when he was just 18. From small town Watseka, Illinois, LaReau went to Illinois State unsure as to how he would achieve his dreams of producing and directing films. Knowing the difficulty of breaking into the entertainment industry, LaReau majored in economics, wanting to learn everything he could about finances and the economy to prepare his film career without breaking the bank.

After graduation, LaReau took a pause from his dream of film and went a different route. For 10 years he taught finance and accounting courses at numerous universities and coached basketball. “At some point the ball stops bouncing,” said LaReau. “I had been teaching and coaching for so long, but I hadn’t lost sight of my overall goal.” It was time for him to remember his dream and go for it. He went back to school and got his master’s in film production from the New York Film Academy, moved out to Los Angeles, put his finance and economy education to work, and put everything he had into creating his first film.

headshot of man smiling

Justin LaReau

This risky move opened the doors for LaReau, and he has never looked back. With creativity in his heart and two very different degrees in his back pocket, he moved forward with following his dreams. “It wasn’t easy,” said LaReau, “I had to start at the bottom. I had been teaching for 10 years and had to become a student again.”

Twelve years after attaining his degree in economics from Illinois State, LaReau started his own company called Zoe & Pebbles Productions, named after his dogs. He wanted to create his own brand, so people could identify with the movies he directed. The goal for his company has been to produce captivating stories while making the most of every dime spent. His education from Illinois State’s Department of Economics plays a major role when making efficient money choices for films.

This is one of the reasons why he gravitates toward directing films in the horror/thriller genre. “Horror can be produced at a reasonable price if you’re smart about choosing locations and characters. It also comes with its own cult following of fans who love the genre for the unique experience it provides.” Aside from the money aspect of horror, LaReau also loves the genre himself and grew up in a town with many sinister stories that inspire his own creative ideas.

LaReau’s first film was a horror piece on a documented case of possession that developed out of Watseka. He finds inspiration everywhere, especially in the stories that are passed down generation to generation. His most recent film, A Demon Within, came from stories he heard as a child about an abandoned house he would ride past on his bike in Watseka. He now is tackling a slate of films alongside former Disney executive Lydia Cedrone through their new company, Tidal Wave Entertainment.

LaReau advises all Redbirds that they are on the right path by choosing or graduating from Illinois State. “The exposure I gained from my classes and social life really helped me to figure myself out. Being there forced me to think of myself, the world, and my goals for the future.” He is thankful for his time and experiences at Illinois State as it gave him the means to take many paths to his dream. “Pursue your passion despite your degree. You develop a skill set that can be used to propel yourself forward in any career you choose, no matter the timing of it.”


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