In Bull Durham, Ron Shelton's 1988 homage to America's two favorite pastimes, baseball and sex, Susan Sarandon's Annie Savoy comments, " If you know where home plate is, then you know where first base is, and second and everything else--'cause they're always in the same place in relation to home. Don't you see? If you know where home plate is, then you know where everything else in the universe is."
Those words strike deep to the thematic heart of Bull Durham and its producer, Bull City native Thom Mount. That Mount was able to venture out into the universe beyond this sleepy little blue-collar tobacco town and succeed so wildly in Hollywood is a testament to the passions of the man and the fact that he knows exactly where home plate is. Mount has been able to build a long and distinguished career partly out of his dazzling ability to sweep others into the vortex of his enthusiasms. It is a talent that has enabled him to survive almost 30 years in the public soap opera of Hollywood politics. Mount is a Hollywood enigma--a still powerful and relevant producer who remembers how the old studio system did things.
In 1966, Thom Mount graduated from old Durham High School and set out to see America. He did a typical '60s multi-college tour before earning his master's degree in art with a film concentration at Cal Arts. He then went to work for Universal, where he schlepped coffee for studio bosses and logged countless hours of script coverage. It is here that a sort of homespun magic began to influence his future CV. Moving up the ranks quickly, Mount soon was put in charge of development and production of movies featuring black stars. The underserved African-American community was hungry for stories depicting their own lives and an amazing array of talent led by Richard Pryor was ready to see that they got them.
When asked if his growing up in Durham might have played a part in this opportunity, Mount laughed and said, "Oh I think so. It's probably true that at that time I was the only Universal executive who had ever known anyone who was African-American." His program of black-themed movies went on to produce such hits as Car Wash, Which Way Is Up and Bustin' Loose.
By 1974, Thom Mount was named head of production and in 1976, president of Universal Pictures. At 26, he was listed in Time and New York Magazine as one of the legendary "baby moguls." In the following eight years of his studio stewardship, he became responsible for the development and production of more than 150 motion pictures. During six of those years, Universal experienced record earnings. Some of the talent Mount helped launch includes John Landis, John Belushi, Sean Penn, Paul Schrader, Steve Martin, Dan Akroyd and Alan Alda, as well as the first studio films of Michael Apted, Bill Murray, Richard Pryor, Cheech and Chong, Pee Wee Herman, John Candy and Jonathan Demme.
Mount was also instrumental in the realization of such classic films as Smokey and the Bandit, Animal House, The Deer Hunter and The Blues Brothers. These films display his commitment to movies that are innovative, smart and profitable. "The heart of the matter [in filmmaking] still remains the story, its emotional pull and the creative boldness of the filmmaker," says Mount, who during his presidency of Universal even helped create a division that developed Broadway productions, which led to, among other things, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Nuts.
One quality that stands out in Thom Mount's body of work is the number of Southern-themed projects he has been able to get off the ground. "Hollywood regards the South as an ethnic backwater and a cultural backwater, and I think it is nonsense," he says. "I'd like to point out that anything from Bull Durham to Smokey and the Bandit to An Officer and a Gentleman has some sort of Southern setting, and there are lots of compelling commercial stories to be made there."
Mount's current projects include a made-for-television movie called Talerico. It centers on a group of transplanted "Yankees" who migrate to the South and open an Italian restaurant in downtown Durham. Union and Confederate Civil War generals, who battled to death on the spot which is now Talerico's, haunt the program during prologues and epilogues, commenting on the pace and futility of the modern world. If this "back-door" pilot is a success, Mount hopes to spin it into an episodic show, which would bring Durham into America's living rooms. With writers such as Clyde Edgerton on the project, finding laughs shouldn't be a problem.
As a multi-billion dollar industry, Hollywood exists in a perpetual state of devouring itself and everything around it out of fear. Never have the studios been pushed so close to the precipice of the unknown as they are right now. The fiscal impossibility of producing high quality films has fallen away, and with it has gone Hollywood's stranglehold on production and distribution. Digital technology has created an opportunity for the democratization of the movie industry. Mount, the old studio warhorse, has embraced the revolution. In a bold play to thrive off the new era, he has started a graduate film conservatory in the old RCA studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
The campus of the Los Angeles Film School is housed in the building in which both Elvis' post-Sun catalog and the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" were recorded. The whirlwind of optimism in which the school was conceived was a spin-off of that Mount-ian enthusiasm vortex. Many filmmaking greats found themselves caught up in it and signed on to teach at Mount's school. Luminaries such as Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan), Ralf Bode (Coal Miner's Daughter) and William Fraker (Rosemary's Baby) teach cinematography. Jon Amiel (The Singing Detective, Entrapment) and Donald Petrie (Mystic Pizza) are members of the directing faculty. Editors include Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde) and Ron Judkins.
The school uses a revolving faculty of working professionals, a concept that should work well in Hollywood. The method provides an opportunity for students to work with cutting-edge professionals while the masters take a breather between projects. As Mount reflects, "The worst enemy of American education is the tenured faculty. Anybody who's ever been to college knows that. If the L.A. Film School is valuable in any way to the educational community, it's as a laboratory for finding out what the possibilities for the future of education are--not just for this school, but for every school."
Currently, Mount is president of the Producers Guild of America and serves on the boards of Bard College and Cal Arts. He has helped launch HollywoodBroadcasting.com (HBC), a loosely structured broadband studio or "Internetwork" that plans on streaming 25 hours of live weekly content by Christmas. They have seven series in active development now, all of them featuring some take on reality-based programming. The virtual studio was conceived as a complement to the Los Angeles Film School and solves the school's problem of job placement. The plan is for the film school to provide creative content and manpower for the budding global entertainment consortium.
With applicants to USC or UCLA being turned away at a rate of 10 to 1, and with the unprecedented historical confluence of digital technology, streaming video and the freedom of internet plutocracy, the timing just might be right for the Los Angeles Film School. The school's low (for film school) cost of $20,500 and its initial investment in new technology instantly places it near the top of American film programs. It all makes Thom Mount very optimistic for the future. "The digital revolution will enable a lot of young filmmakers to get their work done in a way that would have been prevented by the sheer weight of the budget in the past," he says.
If there is one thing Thom Mount has learned over the years about life as well as art, it's that, "The bottom line is, if a narrative story doesn't work, if you're not touched emotionally, it will be a failure." It's what all great salesmen instinctively know. It's that ephemeral quality Hollywood plays great lip service to and fuels itself with. It is something Thom Mount exhibits in spades, and why people clamor to be associated with him. It is passion, and it is the most important quality a filmmaker must have, aside from knowing where home plate is, of course.
In Bull Durham, Annie Savoy describes her own brush with passion in the form of catcher Thurman Munson, immediately after her mother's death: "After we'd sung some hymns in some wretched Florida funeral home, I went outside and something happened. The smell of cut grass in the warm March air overwhelmed me and I heard a noise ... it was the sound of a ball hitting a bat--and I sat in the warm bleachers to think about my mother ... And I saw him. He was covered with dirt and he was fighting with everybody--it was beautiful ... And he called the ump a cocksucker and got thrown out of the game even though it was an exhibition. So I stayed in the bleachers all spring and gradually came to understand what's so great about the game."
Mount's passion for the arts and his masterful skill as a salesman have allowed him to stay in the game for a long time. They also have leveraged him to be a powerful force in entertainment's future. "Filmmaking," he says, "is ultimately about a handful of people coming up with inspiration and passion around a single narrative idea and then, in an opportunistic fashion, combining a group of other similarly inspired maniacs to execute something that is fresh and fertile and full of possibility."