It should be remembered that he came out of the old Hollywood that was rough and tough and where the wildest bluffs hold.
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon
In Wim Wenders‘ 1982 homage to filmmaking, The State of Things, a director leaves his crew on location in Portugal, where they are shooting a remake of Roger Corman’s The Day the World Ended — presciently titled The Survivors — to return to sun-blasted L.A. to beg for completion funds. Unable to track down his producer, he aimlessly circles the parking lot of the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard, half-heartedly tailed by loan sharks, in an endless, static aerial shot that elegantly summarizes the futility of filmmaking in Los Angeles.
“He‘s in a lot of trouble,” says Corman himself, playing the producer’s lawyer. “Use your imagination.”
Those words, still hanging heavy in the air 20 years later, might serve as a cautionary inscription for the Los Angeles Film School, situated directly across Sunset from the Cinerama Dome, just out of frame. Housed in the old RCA studios at 6363 Sunset, where both Elvis‘ post-Sun catalog and the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” were recorded, this “apolitical, non-aligned, floating graduate conservatory” was conceived a mere 15 months ago in a moment of idealistic largess and visionary chutzpah by one-time Universal Studios head Thom Mount and Vancouver venture capitalist Bud MaLette, sometimes referred to as “the Warren Buffet of Canada.” In April 1999, they embarked on major construction, even though the lease wasn‘t signed until May. In September, the first students began attending classes. And this July, the first graduating class of 16 will emerge from the 10-month total-immersion program (with subsequent graduating classes to follow at two-month intervals), much of their time in the classroom having been spent in hardhats.
Part academic institution and part professional training school, part art institute and part technical college, the Los Angeles Film School was conceptualized to fill a gap in the marketplace. On the one hand are the USC and UCLA film programs or the AFI MFA track, all of which serve to some degree as pipelines into the industry. On the other hand is the sudden proliferation of quick-time boiler rooms such as the New York Film Academy, which promises to teach the art of filmmaking for a mere six- or eight-week investment. With applicants at USC or UCLA being turned away at a rate of 10 to 1, and with the unprecedented historical confluence of digital technology, streaming video, indie fever and Internet plutocracy, the time may be right for the Los Angeles Film School’s foreshortened, intensive, specialized film curriculum for producers, directors and below-the-line trades such as editor, cinematographer, production designer and sound engineer. The price tag is $20,500 (many top-tier four-year programs are $75,000 or more), and students are handed a camera literally the first day of classes. (A two-year screenwriting program and an ambitious second-year production curriculum, whereby three low-budget feature films will be under way at any given time, are both in the active planning stages.)
“How many moments do we have that are revolutions in capturing technology and in distribution at the same time?” Mount asks rhetorically. “It doesn‘t happen.”
And in fact, once past the vaguely cheesy green neon sign that announces the school’s sudden presence to its Hollywood surroundings, and discounting the sawdust on the floor and the cables hanging from the rafters, reminiscent of a latter-day vaudeville or live television, it is impossible to argue with the level of commitment manifested in the investment in equipment, or the caliber of the faculty. Focusing on digital video, Digi Beta and Hi-Def, the school has 19 XL-1 Mini-DV cameras with upgraded manual-lens systems and XLR sound inputs, plus a number of state-of-the-art 1080 Progressive digital cameras with variable 24- and 30-frame-per-second shooting speeds (the kind George Lucas has announced he will shoot the next Star Wars with). There are 21 Avid editing systems on premises — 12 top-line Media Composers and nine newer Express DVs — and one of the only working broadcast-ready Hi-Def sets in L.A. outside of the Sony labs and the Jay Leno stage. The school also has two 35mm cameras –an Arriflex BL4 and a borrowed Panavision — and two ARRI SRII 16mm cameras, which all students are required to use. Principals say the initial outlay of capital has been “somewhere north of 5 and pushing 10” — between $5 million and $10 million, that is. The SSL digital mixing board alone cost $1 million.
Similarly, cinematography classes are taught by William Fraker (Rosemary‘s Baby), Ralf Bode (Coal Miner’s Daughter) and Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan); the directing faculty includes Jon Amiel (The Singing Detective, Entrapment) and Donald Petrie (Mystic Pizza); editing classes might be helmed by Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde), and Ron Judkins, Spielberg‘s sound mixer, might bring by the wild tracks from Saving Private Ryan for students to remix. Joe Byron, the school’s technology director, holds eight patents in motion-picture lighting and optical systems from his work with Colortran lighting-manufacturing company and Birns & Sawyer equipment rentals. The revolving faculty of professionals is a concept that would only work in Hollywood. In exchange for this kind of access, the school neither has nor apparently seeks accreditation, with Mount labeling the application process “an onerous burden.”
“They want, for instance, a faculty that‘s stable. They want a tenured faculty,” says Mount. “What are they talking about? The worst enemy of American education is the tenured faculty! Anybody who’s ever been to a college knows that. This is insane . . . If we are valuable in any way in 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.”
He prefers the examples of the Bauhaus or the Lodz Film School (championed by alumnus Roman Polanski, for whom Mount produced Pirates, Frantic and Death and the Maiden), where all students must first master a set of fundamentals, or perhaps the apprentice system of classical Hollywood.
The school’s principals all share eclectic backgrounds and an abiding interest in higher education. Bud MaLette, the deep pockets, in addition to backing the successful Vancouver Film School, was a schoolteacher before he began dabbling in the market, eventually financing over 100 separate companies. President Carolyn Pfeiffer, in addition to producing 15 films (seven of them by Alan Rudolph) and running Island Alive films for Chris Blackwell, has worked for Fellini, Visconti and Zeffirelli in Italy, served as the Beatles‘ Apple Corps publicist in Swinging London, and most recently owned a lucrative chain of yogurt franchises in Jamaica. Tom Schatz, the token academic, is chairman of the radio-TV-film department at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as author of the esteemed studio exegesis The Genius of the System.
But the wild card clearly remains Mount — partners with MaLette in several online ventures; best friends with Pfeiffer’s late husband, writer Jon Bradshaw; co-author with Schatz of an upcoming book on Universal and the New Hollywood. As one of the mandarins who governed the studios of the 1970s (he was at Universal from 1974 to 1984), Mount is among a finite breed who remember how the old studio system did things. And as someone who has survived more than 20 years in the public glare of studio politics, he has also accrued his share of controversy. An early New West magazine article labeled him one of the “baby moguls,” alongside producers Paula Weinstein, Sean Daniel, Mark Rosenberg and Don Simpson, the latter two now deceased. Despite his protestations at the time, it was later revealed that he had dated the writer. After a fiscal flameout in the early ‘90s, when a Japanese consortium headed by the NHK broadcasting company pulled out of a $150 million silver-bullet financial rescue of his company, Mount was forced to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
He has variously been described as “profligate,” “a very smart man, just not a businessman” and “a crooked Southern senator” — generally with a knowing wink. One ex-colleague, insisting on anonymity, suggests affably, “Mount is a decent guy who is constitutionally incapable of telling the truth.” Yet those in business with him often recall him with fondness, if not outright affection. John Valenti, son of Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti and a partner in the film-business Web site Creative Planet, was Mount’s assistant for four years and states unequivocally, “I think he is without question one of the most interesting people in the movie business. He has a rocket-fueled IQ, he‘s extremely literate, and he can talk about literally anything.”
E. Max Frye, the screenwriter of Something Wild and the recent Where the Money Is, says, “I dealt with him on two scripts over the course of three years. We had a contractual deal where he had to pull the trigger on the money, and he did it, even though the movies never got made. I think that, as we all do in the movie business, he likes to heighten the drama of the story he has to tell. He may take creative license, and he may put things in the first person, because that’s just more exciting. But he never, to my knowledge, said anything that he didn‘t intend to do. That’s a fundamental distinction.”
Typical is the description of Mount in Killer Instinct, producer Jane Hamsher‘s heat-of-battle recitation of the making of Natural Born Killers, on which Mount served as executive producer. He is first introduced as follows: “Mount was famous for once running Universal Studios, producing Bull Durham and Tequila Sunrise, soaking some Japanese conglomerate for a lot of dough, being Roman Polanski’s best friend and dating fabulously beautiful women. Several people had told us Mount was also habitually full of shit . . . ” Yet, by book‘s end, he has become “a kind of self-aappointed godfather” and father confessor to the fledgling producer.
More recently, Mount has reinvented himself as president of the Producers Guild, a largely symbolic institution that has been resurrected under his proactive stewardship. Nor is he an arriviste when it comes to higher education: He taught at Duke University during the filming of Bull Durham and at Columbia during Night Falls on Manhattan, and is active in the fate of Bard College and CalArts, both of which he holds degrees from. And he clearly remains a world-class salesman, as evidenced by the scope of this latest venture. Top-ranking members of his faculty admit to having been helplessly dazzled by his sales pitch even as they mentally registered exactly how they were being sold, rendering their decision to come aboard an act of faith.
The hook in all of this, if you will, is that in conjunction with the film school, Mount and company are launching HollywoodBroadcasting.com (HBC), a loosely structured broadband studio or “internetwork” that shares office space on several floors and plans to stream 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, and just last week saw the soft launch of Schatz’s interview series, Final Cut, on which they were still working out the bugs.
“From the very beginning,” says Schatz, “it was conceived as this synergistic thing between the film school and HBC, two separate entities that have this crucial interdependence. The idea was to get the film school up and running, and then get HBC up and running.”
And, at least in the abstract, they provide perfect defenses for one another. The studio solves the film school‘s problem of placement: Where exactly will these graduates go to get jobs — especially without the cachet of USC or UCLA? Now they can provide the manpower to bootstrap a global entertainment consortium. (Already, editing students are being paid to work one day a week at HBC.) And the school solves the problem faced by every Internet startup: What is the profit model? Even if finances are kept immaculately separate, 100 students times $20,000 will go a long way on paper toward reassuring fidgety investors or fiscal overseers of a revenue stream. The studio can subsidize the school’s shared equipment and facilities. And the students themselves can provide the enthusiasm and raw ideas that are the intellectual equity of any creative enterprise. Even if the school is currently running at half-capacity, or the technological challenges are proving more resilient than anticipated, even if some of the four-star faculty can‘t actually teach, and financial-assistance instruments and visa snarls are so far precluding the lucrative foreign market, the sheer proximity of these institutions makes for the sort of accidental synchronicities one would imagine the film business to be rife with, but which fear and greed have all but consigned to the history books.
Or at least that’s the idea.
In his career as an independent producer, Mount made Bull Durham and Tequila Sunrise, and gave Sean Penn his directing start with The Indian Runner. As the head of Universal, he greenlighted Scarface and Melvin and Howard and Missing and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, all of them valuable and intelligent movies. Maybe that‘s how anyone should ultimately be judged — by his work. It may be a truism that “Those who can’t do, teach,” but that doesn‘t necessarily make it true.
“Filmmaking, finally,” says Mount, “is 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 and executing something in a way that is fresh and fertile and full of all of the possibilities of the moment. The minute you take that sense of gesture away from filmmaking and institutionalize it, at the very best you have studio product, and at the worst you have a giant number of film schools grinding out student films that are all equally unwatchable. Most film schools in America don’t teach film, they teach film appreciation. Which is a perfectly viable thing to do, but it‘s sort of like learning table manners. It’s useful in polite society, but it‘s not a requirement in life.”