Some wonder if Warren Miller’s ski films have less of an impact in a busy industry
Growing up in Salt Lake City and later while attending college, Brett Barratt never viewed December snowflakes or shorter days as signs of winter. He used a different calendar.
“Winter started when the new Warren Miller movie came out,” Barratt said.
Barratt isn’t alone. This year’s film “Playground” is expected to attract almost 1 million viewers, according to Mountain Sports Media, reaching more than 200 cities nationwide and several locations outside North America. “Playground” debuted on the South Shore on Thursday, and there is another showing Saturday at MontBleu Resort Casino and Spa in Stateline.
Thursday’s crowd of more than 500 was stoked in the same way Miller’s group of friends were in 1950, when he released his first film and was the only show in town. And except for Greg Stump’s films, movies that helped turn South Lake Tahoe native Glen Plake into a star, it stayed that way for the next four decades.
But in 1991, Standard Films, founded by North Shore’s Mike Hatchett, began making snowboard-specific films. A year later, Matchstick Productions released its first skiing-specific film. Then in 1996, Teton Gravity Research busted onto the scene and fused snowboarders and skiers into their films.
Now, there are dozens of ski and snowboard film companies, ranging from big-budget heavy hitters such as Matchstick Productions to small-budget operations such as South Lake Tahoe-based First Tracks Productions. With all these companies hosting their own film premieres each season – some as early as September – many in the industry wonder if Miller’s films have the same impact as they once did.
“We have to continue to update our product,” said North Shore resident and North Points Heli-Skiing founder Kevin Quinn, who has appeared in five of Miller’s films, including this year’s. “We have to go from being that Sears catalog to the REI catalog. There are all sorts of companies and athletes throwing down these days, but this isn’t his first rodeo. Miller’s been involved in this for 58 years. He is still the granddaddy of them all, an icon. You’re not a skier or a snowboarder if you haven’t seen one of his films. He’s a celebration of winter.”
Miller’s personal story is naturally intertwined with the history of his films. After serving in the Navy, he moved with a friend in 1946 to Sun Valley, Idaho. The two ski bums lived in the resort’s parking lot and worked as ski instructors.
In their spare time, they filmed one another with an 8mm camera and used the footage to critique one another’s technique. Miller produced his first feature-length ski film in 1950, titled “Deep and Light.” Each year for the next 57 years, his film premieres were community events that marked the beginning of the winter season.
Thousands packed local theaters whenever Miller came to town. From New York City to San Francisco, skiers were attracted to Miller’s witty humor and distinct voice, not to mention the incredible athletes and cutting-edge photography.
Tahoe City resident Scott Gaffney, one of three Matchstick Productions directors for “Seven Sunny Days,” admitted Miller’s influence on the film industry is undeniable. However, the Squaw Valley ripper said the sport has reached new levels and, as a result, other outlets are documenting that progress.
“Warren Miller films started it all for many filmmakers and skiers,” Gaffney said. “For a huge segment of the skiing population, Warren Miller films are all they really know, particularly for the true recreational weekend warrior. Those people associate Warren Miller premieres with autumn and imminent snow and go to the premieres automatically like drones. That’s not meant to be condescending – it’s just what they do.
“I really haven’t seen Warren Miller movies for the past decade. They stopped speaking to me a while ago, or, more appropriately, I grew out of them. For another crowd – particularly the more serious skier who wants to see the most progressive lines and moves of the year and watch those moments over and over within their own homes – the Warren Miller movies don’t hold up anymore.”
Miller, now 83, started Warren Miller Entertainment in 1949, running the company exclusively until he sold it two decades ago to his son, Kurt. His son then sold the company to Time Inc., which has produced a new film every year but are without the qualities evident when Warren Miller had complete autonomy over his films.
For the past several years, Miller’s films still might have his name attached to them, but his fingerprints no longer are part of the finished product. Since 2005, he hasn’t narrated. Instead, soundbites from previous films are woven into the narration.
“This is hard for me to say, because I like Warren Miller and he has provided me lots of entertainment, but a lot of the voiceovers are cheesy now that he doesn’t do the narration,” said Anthony Cupaiuolo, founder of First Tracks Productions. “I know what they are trying to do, because his voice is synonymous with the coming of winter, but it’s not the same anymore.”
Cupaiuolo and other film directors also have noticed the people who attend their premieres and buy their movies tend to be younger than Miller’s supporters. Evidence of that be found on Teton Gravity Research’s Web site, which not only is a marketplace to sell its movies, but also is a vibrant online community.
There are message boards, blogs, podcasts and links to MySpace pages. Like Matchstick Productions, Teton Gravity Research, or TGR, has become a brand synonymous with winter – like Miller’s voice once was. Now that his narration no longer is a part of the films, perhaps the torch has been passed.
First Tracks Productions had a premiere for “Hello my name is” in September at MontBleu, where several hundred people attended the free show. Just five years ago, Cupaiuolo made his first film with VHS, and the end result was something not even a mother could applaud.
“It couldn’t have that great of a film, because I was in it,” Cupaiuolo joked. “But we’ve learned a lot since then and have acquired a lot better equipment. Those big companies have budgets 10 times that of ours, but we’re finding our niche.”
When TGR’s “Lost and Found” premiered in South Shore, it was held at Vex Nightclub inside Harrah’s. There were drink specials and DJs spinning hip-hop beats. When Matchstick Productions released “Seven Sunny Days” in Whistler, British Columbia, 3,000 people showed up in the village, and the film premiere turned into an all-night party.
“While no company matches Warren Miller’s tour draw, companies like (Matchstick Productions) sell far more films, because that’s more what the hard-core, younger skier is looking for,” Gaffney said. “That viewer doesn’t want just entertainment – he or she wants to study the movie, learn new tricks, mimic what their heroes do and see the limits of what is possible on skis.”
Quinn, a former South Shore resident who worked on Heavenly ski patrol and as an instructor with the Heavenly Ski and Snowboard Foundation, acknowledged other companies have done well inventing themselves. But he also believes that 21st-century Warren Miller films are acquiring similar footage as the TGRs and Matchstick Productions. Quinn, however, admits that Miller – if he still had the energy to exert complete control over his movies – probably wouldn’t be moving in that direction.
“I think they are still searching for that voice … there are rumors that guys like Robert Redford and Will Smith could end up doing it,” Quinn said. “All these of other companies, the Matchsticks and TGRs, they showed the boundaries of the sport were being pushed, but the boundaries were not being pushed by Warren Miller. I can say confidently now that Warren Miller’s films have slowly but surely curved toward that ski porn – not ski porn with music, but ski porn with an agenda. That’s what Warren Miller’s films, for better or worse, are starting to become.”