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REEL LIFE / FILM & VIDEO FILE : Ojai Filmmaker Calls Selling the Hard Part : Thomas Horton joined Jean Michel Cousteau and John Burrud in 1993 in producing adventure documentaries.

October 27, 1994|PANCHO DOLL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Turn on Discovery or any of the other cable channels that broadcast adventure documentaries and the chances are pretty good that you'll be looking at a product of Burrud Cousteau Horton Inc. of Santa Barbara.

The company owns more than 1,400 hours of documentary footage, including the "Search for Adventure" series, "Jean Michel Cousteau's World of Sharks" and "Beyond Bizarre."

Jean Michel Cousteau is, of course, the son of underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau. John Burrud is the son of documentary film pioneer Bill Burrud. Then there's Thomas Horton, 68, of Ojai.

Among the three principals, he is by far the least likely filmmaker. A World War II Marine and a business school graduate, Horton spent most of his career years working for a string of blue-chip defense contractors.

While at Westinghouse, he worked on a project to design a research submarine with Jacques Cousteau. After six years on the sub project, Cousteau asked him to manage the film company that produced "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau."

"He was looking for somebody who had experience in contracts, not a filmmaker," said Horton.

During the eight years he worked with Cousteau, ending in 1978, Horton was responsible for organizing the explorer's far flung filming expeditions.

His reputation as a manager got him involved with an effort to cross the English Channel in a human-powered airplane. The Gossamer Albatross project was badly in need of sponsorship. Horton got Dupont to underwrite the flight.

"Once Dupont agreed, I went back to them and said, 'You know, we ought to film this.' I was 52 years old, had never made a documentary before, but I was experienced at organizing filming expeditions on water, so they said all right."

The plane made it and Horton's documentary earned him an Emmy. Two years later, in 1983, he produced "America Remembers John F. Kennedy," which earned him another Emmy, this one for Outstanding Information Special.

"I had to learn how to make films and sell them. I had to do it on my own and on the fly."

Now more than 70 films later, Horton said selling films is still hard work.

"You'd think I could show up with an Emmy in both hands and a backpack full of films and say, 'Hey, it's ol' Tom. Let's do this thing.' But it's never that easy," he said.

Then again, it's not as hard as it might be. The advent of cable channels like Discovery, A&E and others greatly expanded the market for adventure films. The opening of markets in formerly Communist countries provides still more venues.

Horton said that animal films, their primary product, adapt well to foreign markets. They're not based on any particular culture, the way a situation comedy or drama might be, and because there's only one narrator, they're easy to translate.

Since joining forces with Burrud and Cousteau in 1993, Horton moved his production facilities from Ventura to Santa Barbara. Two of Horton's children work in the business. Drew is a production supervisor and daughter Jean Garner distributes the products.

Horton has been married 45 years and has lived in Ojai for 18. He was a member of the U.S. Olympic kayak teams in 1948 and 1952.

He has since given up the sport.

"I spent 14 years doing that. My wife finally said, 'That's enough. Now mow the lawn.' "

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