It’s November and despite the winter cold, a few hundred people are standing outside Colorado’s historic Boulder Theater. Most fall into the demographic advertisers jump through hoops to reach – affluent young men and women age 25 to 34 – but the crowd is far from homogenous. Families representing three generations are here, as are long time friends who’ve reunited in Boulder, U.S. from far-flung places. Many are lifelong skiers or devoted snowboarders, and coming to see the new
Warren Miller film – oft cited as originating the extreme sports genre – is an annual tradition that dates back decades.
Once inside, people stamp the snow off their boots and pick up raffle tickets for prizes (such as complimentary lift tickets, Sport Obermeyer and Nike ACG apparel or skis and snowboards from Burton, Salomon and others) that will be given out that evening, courtesy of the film tour’s national and local sponsors. Some grab a beer and flip through SnoWorld, the glossy magazine with behind-the-scenes stories from the film about to screen. Others groove to the live music, or mingle with the attending athletes. When the doc finally begins, the audience cheers wildly – and there’s still 90 minutes more of jaw-dropping stories about rippin’ it skiers getting their freak on at some of the world’s most exotic mountain ranges, from Chili to Chamonix, France.
‘There’s a lot of four-wall theatres out there where you can have some popcorn and watch a movie, but you don’t get the full interactive experience,’ says Perkins Miller, the new VP and managing director of Mountain Sports Media, the subsidiary of Time Warner that owns Warren Miller Entertainment. (Despite his surname, Miller isn’t related to the company’s namesake.) This year marks 55 years that the Warren Miller Film Tour has offered audiences a different experience, one that’s based on grassroots marketing and interactivity – not through technology, but viewer to filmmaker, athlete to fan, and customer to sponsor.
The tour originated with Warren Miller the man, an avid skier and novice filmmaker who drove to ski clubs across his home state of Idaho to narrate the stories captured in the cans of film he kept stashed in his trunk. He eventually gained a following, formed a company and in 1989 sold it to his son Kurt Miller, and Peter Speek. Three years later, they sold it to Time Warner. Today, the tour stops at approximately 200 cities across the globe, and is largely funded by corporate partners – Jeep recently replaced Nissan as the title sponsor.
‘There’s not a lot of opportunities for companies to get out there and touch the customer,’ says VP Miller of the tour’s appeal to sponsors, which see value in the chance to meaningfully relate to viewers attuned to their products. In turn, the money is driven into all aspects of the event, from the film’s budget to advertising and promotion. Additionally, entrepreneurs around the world can license the right to execute the tour in their hometown. Australia, Switzerland, the U.K., Canada, Germany and Austria all host the Warren Miller Film Tour. ‘We’ve built a model that will do this each year, step by step and very successfully,’ says Miller.
The films carry budgets above six figures and shoot from December to May, with the tour beginning in October. Much is shot on Super 16, but wme (both the tv and film arms) is beginning to originate on hd. Warren Miller, now 79, remains involved, tweaking scripts and providing the films’ narration.
Always constructed around a theme, the 2004 doc is tentatively titled Impact and will explore things such as the impact of landing a jump, and the impact of winter on people’s lives. When the tour ends, the film will be picked up by pay-network Starz Encore and distributed on DVD by Shout in L.A. Warren Miller Television also gets excerpts and B-roll footage for use in its original programming, which counts Discovery, ESPN and oln among its clients.
With the support systems in place, Perkins Miller’s mandate is to move the venture into new areas. ‘My mission here is to see how we can scale this business,’ he explains. ‘Anywhere there’s an outdoor sport that people are passionate about, there’s a story that hasn’t been told – or told in a venue that we’ve done such a good job working in.’
Miller says he’s looking for sports that are season specific, though not winter activities, and mentions golf and fly fishing as two top contenders since Time4 Media publishes magazines – Golf Magazine and Field & Stream – in both markets. Additionally, about five or six of the major U.S. markets will get bigger, bolder versions of the tour. ‘Because we have such penetration in this marketplace, music promoters are potentially great partners for us,’ explains Miller. ‘I’m talking to music companies to see what we can do together. That, plus a good media strategy, should get us even more attention than we’ve had in the past.’
Though AOL has been dropped from the Time Warner name, wmf hasn’t dismissed the power of the Internet. The subsidiary’s 2003 film, Journey, put its trailer online last year alongside an option to purchase the DVD. A similar setup will be designed for Impact. Though websites remain the company’s main online presence, other options are being investigated, such as web-based vod. ‘Younger kids go online first and foremost, especially to get information. In terms of promoting our films, we have to be there,’contends Miller.
Wireless technologies are also on the radar. ‘One of the things we’re looking at right now is how to package ‘top 10 tips’,’ says Miller. ‘That’s something someone would download and read on a Palm Pilot while sitting on a chairlift. [For example], ‘Here’s where to place your feet while doing X sport.” Slated for 2005, the initiative will be executed in partnership with Ski Magazine and Golf Magazine.
Exposing the scope of his ambitions, Miller says he’s inspired by another company that began with one man’s name and vision. ‘We want people to think – and this is a stretch, I know, given our size – of Warren Miller as the Disney of outdoor action sports,’ he says. ‘Whether it’s mountain biking or fly fishing or snowboarding, they know it’s going to have a certain cache and quality. That’s the goal.’ Gnarly.