July 1, 2000

Warren Miller: The First Name in Adventure Sports Films

Left: WME catching repelling in the extreme.

"l have learned over the course of the past 50 years that if I tell a story on film honestly and with conviction...I can move mountains."
-Wanen Miller

 

There is but one icon in the world of adventure sport filmmaking. And in my attempt to shed light on the visionary that pioneered this genre of non-fiction I have realized one thing...Warren Miller Entertainment (WME) stands as the model of modern enterprise. Tucked away in the foothills of Boulder, Colorado lies a company whose humble beginnings are anything but recognizable. As you walk through its offices your mind lapses into subtle revolt. How did a self-proclaimed nomad with a borrowed camera, living out of his 1950 Chevy panel truck in the parking lot of Sun Valley, Idaho launch an entertainment giant that now bears his name? Moreover, this paradigm of the American dream has come from the most implausible of circumstances.

Half a century ago, while still a teenager in Southern California, Warren Miller wanted to share with his surfing buddies the thrill of snow-capped peaks, to showcase the beauty of skiing against a cobalt-blue ski with a foot of fresh untracked powder below. During that time, Warren was earning less than $1.25 an hour behind a shovel. He had just finished a season of ski instruction at the brand-new Squaw Valley. "On slow days, I cautiously took 16mm movies of my friends skiing. I say cautiously because the $125 a month didn't buy much film to feed the voracious appetite of my camera," says Warren. That camera was purchased on a sort of loan. The arrangement was to pay for the camera out of his earnings. Four years later the camera was his. To finance his fledgling film company, Warren raised $400 allowing him to pay for a print of his new film as well as put a down payment on a projector and screen. The soundtrack for his first film was borrowed 78 rpm records played on his grandparents' borrowed wire recorder.

 

"I learned that if I sold my film company to my youngest son at terms he could afford, I probably could have a job writing scripts and narrating his films for another five years. That was 10 years ago."
-Wanen Miller

 

Masking its shoestring origins, WME taps deep into the international filmmaking and communications arena. This is due to Miller's youngest son, Kurt, and partner Peter Speeks who have owned and operated the company for over a decade. The Emmy Award-winning company has become an international media player, producing documentaries, television specials and commercial production and is currently pursuing other feature film projects. The company now circulates the Miller trademark in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, France and Norway. Kurt Miller and Specks have successfully redefined the image of WME. "They took a risk and shot from the heart. In doing so, they have expanded not only our annual feature film, but also the company as a whole in a wonderful way," says Bailey Pryor, President of Warren Miller Films (WMF). And "shooting from the heart" seems to be how this vibrantly passionate, noticeably laid-back film company continues to grow, "We make our decisions based on our gut rather than some statistical research." Bailey continues, "because in the end, we want to make the best films we can."

With the desire of stretching far beyond its "ski movie" image, the company has diversified into three autonomous entities, all leveraging the power and brand identity of the Warren Miller name. These three separate divisions, Warren Miller Entertainment (WME), Warren Miller Films (WMF) and The Action Marketing Group, work together in a fluid "let's expand our brand" marketing environment. WME is essentially the distribution arm of the company. WME handles the theatrical release of the annual feature film, distributes the video version of this film through Disney's Buena Vista Home Video, and publishes the magazine SnoWorld, which won the 1998 Gold Ink Award as the best-printed, most visually effective consumer publication in North America.

Warren Miller, the nomad, running WME with an associate out of their Chevys, circa 1950

WMF produces the annual feature film, countless commercials and a television series. The television series, which consists of several productions: Warren Miller Television (WMTV), Warren Miller Global Adventure and Wild Survivor. WMTV is essentially is a 30-minute re-edited version of the two-hour feature, which fills the need for individual participant sports programming on regional sports networks and at destination resorts. Currently, WMTV reaches over 55 million households through FOX Sports Net. The productions of the latter two both air on Outdoor Life. Warren Miller Global Adventure is a travel-adventure show. Says Pryor, "It's a series of expeditions to exotic places around the world where we learn about the local culture, meet some local people, climb to the top of a cool mountain and ski down." Wild Survivor, the second series produced for Outdoor Life, is a documentary piece about heroic tales of the wilderness...most of which have nothing to do with skiing. In addition, WMF is also currently producing another documentary created for Discovery Channel entitled Inside an Avalanche.

The Action Marketing Group operates as a "lifestyle marketing division" and sports clients that range from Nike to Nissan, Dockers to Dannon and Heineken to Hely-Hanson. It is an integrated marketing service agency that communicates with a high-level set of clients allowing those clients to reach a certain market. Typically those markets are adventure/sports related.

The synergy that exists between these three divisions creates an environment that promotes good crossover business. The company seems to live by the truism voiced by Kurt Miller—"If your company isn't growing...it's dying."

 

"I have learned that when I booked a thousand-seat auditorium and only nine people showed up to see the movie...l had a lot of problems."
-Waruen Miller

 

Peering over a chute that falls over 3,500 vertical feet with almost no continuous fall line, a rip-happy, hardcore, live-to-ski skier gives us a thumbs up, masking any trepidation he may feel towards the heinously alluring terrain. The audience stands and roars. Sharp, snowcapped peaks pierce the perfect sky as towering rock faces jump out of an endless sea of snow and ice. Massive rolls of glacial terrain seem to make the mountains come alive. This is the premiere of Warren Miller's Fifty.

The feeling is more of a rock concert than an actual movie. I've got one of the hottest seats in town, at one of the coolest auditoriums in Denver, surrounded by thousands of ski-bums on the threshold of nirvana—cheering, standing, totally and completely immersed in this event. This is the way to market a movie. And that's precisely what the folks at Warren Miller do. Every year, for the past 50 years, Warren Miller has produced his annual feature film. When the film is released, it goes on a tour of over 300 cities worldwide. Admission is $15.00 a ticket and the film screens in huge civic auditoria.

Unlike most movies, the annual feature has an intermission where the crowd has the chance to mingle with the many sponsors that have set up kiosks outside in the lobby. WME, of course, handles the releases. "We travel with projectors and pull up to say the Paramount Theatre in Denver or some old opera house," according to Pryor. "If they don't have a 35mm projector, we set ours up." One of the most fascinating elements of Warren Miller Entertainment is that it truly is an independent film organization that not only writes, produces, directs and edits, but also distributes all its films. Fans seem inexorably entwined with Warren Miller films. "People come up to us all the time and tell us that they have been coming to see our films at this same theatre for over 25 years," says Kurt Miller. This helps explain why WMF has never lost money on one of its films.

At any given time during the year, WME has 120 expeditions running. Production crews climb glaciers with gear strapped to their backs or sea kayak into fiords with snowboards strapped to their sides. This year alone, WME traveled to over 20 locations including Russia, Kenya, Greenland and New Zealand just to make the film. Shooting on 16mm with a budget of $2 million, a crew will shoot a five-to-eight-minute sequence at each location over the course of a two-to-five-week period. The remaining footage from the other 100 or so locations will be part of commercials or episodes for the television series.

"One of the many keys to our film's success is that it sells freedom," says Kurt Miller. "My dad's tag line at every movie is, 'Quit your day job, move to a ski town, and do the thing that you love. Get out there and live this life 'cause you only get one trip around."'

 

Chris Accardo is an independent producer/director currently working with his company, Endurance Films, on Triathlon: Through the Eyes ofthe Elite, a behind-the-scenes profile of top triathletes from around the world, due out in mid-August.

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