Alumnus Todd Durham credits Sherwood Oaks and founder Gary Shusett among the most pivotal influences of his career. Mr. Durham, a filmmaker, comedy writer, and novelist, is most widely known as the creator of the Hotel Transylvania animated film franchise for Columbia Pictures.
According to Todd, “Regardless of where you come from, Sherwood Oaks is one of the best places on the planet to meet, be inspired by, and commiserate frustrations with real talent actually working in the industry.” Durham grew up in a little Texas community near the Fort Worth/Dallas metroplex. His ancestors were among the original founders of Durham, North Carolina; prior to that his seventh great grandfather, Robert Durham helped William Penn colonize the Province of Pennsylvania and designed the Durham Boats that George Washington used to cross the Delaware. Durham’s mother was active in the banking business and his father worked as a plainclothes detective for the local P.D. Todd taught himself to read before the first grade, mostly from MAD magazines and S.J. Perelman travel books. As a boy, he often corresponded with dozens of notable individuals and became a pen pal of Larry Fine of the Three Stooges. Much of his childhood was spent making short movies and animation, so his parents gave him a room in the house to use as a studio. He also spent his early youth traveling and in scouting, and became one of the youngest Eagle Scouts in the country. At the age of sixteen during a trip to Alaska he learned to fly, getting his single-engine student pilot license about the same time he got his drivers license. After graduating highest in his class, he was awarded a Rotary Scholarship, and heard about Sherwood Oaks.
Not long after moving to L.A., Todd Durham regularly attended classes at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College where he, along with James Cameron, Jerry Zucker, and many others, made valuable contacts that led to work on film productions. He looked up animator Fred Avery, also from Texas, who generously offered to meet with him to share advice. Avery encouraged him to continue to “be bold” and contact other pioneers in the business. Todd ended up meeting with over fifty legendary entertainment pioneers who were willing to talk about their creative processes. Todd later compiled the wisdom into an invaluable collection of insightful essays called Creativity – Conversations With The Masters. Someone told him that when Spielberg was starting out, he was not afraid to just walk on studio lots to explore and meet people, so Todd did the same. He’d dress older than his age (sometimes sporting a pipe and briefcase), nod at the guard, and stride into the lot to spend the day observing comedy actors and movie and television directors at work.
Durham notes, “In addition to taking a lot of helpful screenwriting and pitching classes at Sherwood Oaks, I attended directing seminars which prepared me for my first directing job.” A crazy, dark Christmas comedy he wrote and directed called Visions of Sugar-Plums landed him a multi-picture deal at a North Carolina movie studio. One of those projects was a science fiction comedy feature called Gremloids, with Durham being the first director to cast actor Chris Elliott in a film role. Later Durham’s fellow-classmate from Sherwood Oaks, Jim Cameron, shot some of The Abyss at the same studio and also cast Elliott in his big film. Science fiction and fantasy author Ray Bradbury found Todd’s movie and, impressed with what he did with such a small budget, became a fan and sometimes-advisor over the next twenty-plus years. In spite of limited distribution, Gremloids became a popular cult film and received global news exposure when fans ran one of Durham’s character’s from the film, Lord Buckethead, against Margaret Thatcher for Prime Minister.
Sought by CAA, ICM, and WMA, it was Rick Jaffa (also from Texas and then-wunderkind agent at William Morris) who ultimately signed Durham to his agency. For the next two decades he worked steadily as comedy writer and uncredited script doctor for projects at virtually every major film studio. He wrote screenplays for many A-list comedy directors, producers, and actors, as well as for the National Lampoon franchise and for a number of Saturday Night Live performers who were looking to break into movies. Durham ghosted celebrity autobiographies, and wrote his first novel Mr. Smith Goes To Hell and its screenplay, from which the L.A. Times quoted excerpts and compared it to having “some of the funniest depictions of Hades” with Gary Larson’s The Far Side.
“One of the most valuable lessons I learned from the amazing guest speakers at Sherwood Oaks, almost universally, was the absolutely vital importance of tenacity and proactivity,” Durham said, “because when William Goldman talks about how even his phone stopped ringing at one point, it pulls you down to the realities of the movie business.” Next Durham created the lucrative Hotel Transylvania animated film franchise. After writing the book Hotel Transylvania, he created a bible for a series of seven movies, a TV series, toys and merchandising, even a hotel chain and theme park, then took it unsolicited to Columbia Pictures. The successful film series has since broken many records, making Durham the 6th sole creator of an animated movie franchise that went on to generate over $1 billion from theatrical and ancillary markets after only one sequel.
“Sherwood Oaks is non-profit and non-flashy, so it’s all about good will, not about making money off the dreams of beginners like many places in Hollywood do,” said Durham, “It’s because of Christine Owens and good people with the spirit of Gary Shusett paying it forward, and I’d recommend the place to anyone.” While working on a movie project in France, Todd met a Parisian woman whom he later married; loyal advisor Ray Bradbury extended his good will yet again and met with Durham in Paris minutes before the wedding to share his secret for the longevity of his own happy marriage to his wife Maggie. He said that it comes down to only four words, telling Todd, “Remember: a sense of humor!” As time permits, Todd is involved in a number of charitable projects, including The Durham Fellowship for Film Students which he started to offer cash grants for film students to finance their short film projects. Todd has spoken at film and educational groups around the world to talk about the creative process and his experiences in the movie business. In addition to Sherwood Oaks, he is an advocate for support of the Great Ormand Street Hospital in memory of Ray Bradbury, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in memory of Tex Avery, and the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in memory of Larry Fine. He welcomes Sherwood Oaks students to contact him through his website at ToddDurham.com.
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