Feature

The ski movie wars

The inside story of how a weird hobby became a massively popular spectator sport

Precipitous cliff + skilled skier + healthy dose of insanity + camera = awesome ski movie.

This formula may seem obvious today, when anyone with a GoPro and a lift ticket can make a ski movie. But when it was first conceived, it was revolutionary.

A pair of skis, after all, are the only thing that separates jumping off a cliff from being a good idea and a very, very bad one. And when you add a camera to the mix — "There's really something about a camera that lowers a skiers' IQ," observed the late documentary filmmaker Warren Miller — things get really nuts. The result is just so compellingly watchable.

Skiing is believed to be 10,000 years old. But it was not a true spectator sport for a very long time. It took the advent of ski movies to show people just how watchable skiing is.

This is the story of how it all changed.

Today, as in the 1980s, ski films are often sponsored by brands, running budgets of between $500,000 and $1.5 million. While Warren Miller Entertainment still relies on tours (screening in almost 300 locations in 2015), the relatively niche market means the films tend to gross only about a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars. "It's not a great business model," admitted Murray Weis, an executive producer with Matchstick Productions, to The New York Times. "It's a fun business model."

And for the faithful, it remains irresistible. The spectacle of skiing keeps pulling us back — back to the stories, the adventures, the cliffs, the characters. It stirs something in the soul that even Stump isn't too cool for.

"Sweet freedom," Stump calls it in Legend of Aahhh's. "Warren Miller certainly has that one right."

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