Snowed under?

Extreme sports naturally lend themselves to sponsorship. Trendy and cutting-edge hardware manufacturers and fashion labels are always looking to be the next big thing, and often film is the natural format for their expression. But those movies don't produce themselves, and once filmmakers accept corporate money, the line begins to blur between auteur and commercial.
July 1, 2007

Extreme sports naturally lend themselves to sponsorship. Trendy and cutting-edge hardware manufacturers and fashion labels are always looking to be the next big thing, and often film is the natural format for their expression. But those movies don’t produce themselves, and once filmmakers accept corporate money, the line begins to blur between auteur and commercial.

Kevin Sansalone, producer/director at Whistler, British Columbia-based Sandbox Films, has 20 years of snowboarding experience. Seven years ago he began producing snowboarding docs, and he’s currently working on the third of the ‘Sandbox series.’ ‘It’s basically a marketing tool,’ he says. ‘So [a brand's] marketing department will decide on one or a few movies to sponsor for the season, allocate a budget, and in return we get funding for the film, funding to support the rider and products for giveaways at movie premieres. They get advertisement on our website, advertisement on the box cover, in the intro of the movie, plus various product placements in the movie.’

The venture between a brand and a doc is usually initiated by the filmmakers, explains Sansalone. They write up a proposal for funding and, if accepted, a one-year contract is standard. He adds that many companies already sponsor snowboarders and if their riders are in a film, the brand usually follows soon after.

With so many brands visible in a film, it’s natural to question how much editorial control sponsors have. Sansalone is quick to say none, as is Spencer Francey, the Banff, Alberta-based producer of the film Yes to the No. That claim might seem strange considering the No in the title refers to the Noboard, a snowboard without bindings, and a big sponsor of the film.

The 10-minute short was funded by the filmmakers, Francey insists, but he adds that the owner of the Noboard company, Cholo Burns, put up the cash to pay for helicopter shots. Burns has an executive producer credit on the doc, filmed some scenes, snowboards on-camera and is also interviewed.

In return for their investment, Francey explains that everyone owns a piece of the film and will be compensated as money comes in – like for the outlay on all those expensive helo shots. Understandable, really. The film has enjoyed a great reaction and is now on the international festival circuit, and Francey thinks that the helicopter shots are really what made the film.

While Noboard was one of the financial backers of the film, other sponsors also put in money. Francey has a sponsorship from Dakine, which makes back country apparel, as well as Snowboard Journal magazine. Their names are all shown at the beginning of the film on a sponsorship billboard. Francey plans to sell Yes online to interested websites. With only 1,000 DVDs made, they have no distribution deals planned.

Sandbox Films has a different game plan. Sansalone sells his DVDs for one year as an exclusive to Sandbox Films. After that, they open it up to broadcasters. His advice for filmmakers interested in the same type of programming is to know what your corporate sponsor expects from your film. ‘Some corporations just want their name on the box: here’s the money and they’ll see you next season. Good luck. Some people want involvement. They want to come out and watch a shoot, they want to do a contest on their website,’ advises the producer. ‘You’re working for them, you’re a marketing tool for them. You’re just like a magazine or a billboard. You need to think that way, too.’

Shawna Olsten, the marketing supervisor for Quicksilver Canada, shares how DC shoes came to be involved with Sansalone’s current doc. ‘Mostly it starts with [the filmmakers] working with some of our athletes,’ she says. ‘We usually come onboard to support production costs but also to help our athletes gain exposure.’ She also agrees that extreme sports docs are a marketing tool for her brand. ‘It’s a different way that your brand gets exposure. I don’t see the value in sponsoring a video and just throwing my logo on a box. I see the value in that I have a rider that I’m supporting and this is a way for him to express himself and get his personality across to kids that will want to emulate him.’

Olsten also says DC doesn’t take control of the creative content. ‘I guess if we wanted to, we could have some influence in what they do, but for the most part, I trust them and I’ve seen their product before. I know they’re going to do the best job they can… I’m not going to tell him what artwork he should use or what intro skit he should have.’

For a slightly different product than standard snowboard flick fare, note Himalaya Search: the Big Jump. In this case, the snowboarding and surf wear company Rip Curl was the initiator. They approached Eysines-based Upside Television to help them produce a 52-minute film as an offshoot of Rip Curl’s Search events. Olivier Lemoine, director of marketing for Rip Curl Europe, says ‘The idea was to come up with something linked to the Search that will have an impact on the mass audience, so we had to find the hook to make it special.’ The film features less stunts than usual in a snowboarding/skiing doc, with a focus more on the adventure of the riders in the extreme conditions of the Himalayas, and their relationships with Tibetans and local children.

Lemoine details that once the joint venture was settled, the prodco was able to provide the brand with TV connections, set up the budget for the trip, and bring the riders to the Himalayas and much more. Olivier Guignard, head of production and president of Upside Television, says ‘It was first a communication project, but also a real television project which we always wanted to do, a very good documentary.’ Lemoine marketed the documentary as if it were a Rip Curl event by sending press releases three months before its release, and having live content available online.

The end product was the result of an intense partnership throughout the filmmaking process. A winter manager from Rip Curl went to Nepal with the riders and worked with the production staff, giving them advice throughout filming. Editorial control was therefore shared between Upside and Rip Curl, as were film rights. Himalaya Search premiered at MIPCOM, with many worldwide broadcasters showing interest. Upside will distribute.

The key to a successful partnership, notes Guignard, is to make sure you have a suitable high-quality program first, and a marketing tool second. After all, it’s that positive association that most brands are looking for.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.