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Why Action Sports Filmmakers Can’t Make A Movie That Middle America Will Watch​

Director Dana Brown's new film aims to break out of the action sports genre by telling the human stories of motocross riders. Photo courtesy of Dana Brown Films.

Last April, when action sports director Dana Brown came to the screening for his latest film, On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter at our friendly neighborhood Tahoe Art Haus & Cinema venue (as hosted by the Squaw Valley Institute), I couldn’t resist the opportunity to sit down with the all around legend to discuss his notable career, the future of the action sport film narrative, and the Brown family legacy. In a landscape where action sports films rarely break out of the scale of their genres, Dana is one of the few filmmakers to be able to tell stories through his films that can make the story of even a surfer or motocross racer connect with everyday audiences.

Can you comment on how you did some of your structuring in shaping the story for  On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter? What is your perception on how you paid homage to your Dad’s original  On Any Sunday? How were you thinking about the story you wanted to move with, what those devices were, and what the process was like?

Dana Brown: I know On Any Sunday like the back of my hand, and we wanted to use a similar structure. In the original, they told three stories, with three guys, that kind of interlaced in parts and also looped back in others. My dad followed Mert Lawwill, the professional racer, Malcolm Smith, the ultimate amateur (but still an incredible racer and rider in various events), and lastly Steve McQueen, whose company actually funded the original  On Any Sunday, but who was also a really good rider and a huge movie star, amongst a number of things.

We began with this kind of structure, and then we started talking about who would fill in these parts. In our version, Mark Marquez, the Grand Prix racer, served as our pro, and Carlin Dunne represented the amateur, and we knew we couldn’t replace Steve. That wasn’t going to happen, because I didn’t want to get that literal. So that’s when we found Robbie Maddison, he’s kind of our Steve McQueen. Then we also have these one-off sequences, these little side roads where we tell individual people’s stories who you don’t see again. 

You commented that with projects like Step Into Liquid and other executive meetings you’ve been in, you’re continuing to see success with your family’s model for filmmaking as far as getting the green light for projects, whereas other motor sport, surf, and even mountain bike or ski movies traditionally struggle to get large backers. But your career kind of proves that wrong. Why do you think that is?

To go back to my Dad, there’s no such thing as a surf film that played in theaters.  Endless Summer was just one surf film that did that. After that, there was a big flux of surf films that tried to follow it, and it died. Then it went back to what they called four-walling [a process where a studio or distributor rents an entire movie theater for a period of time and receives all box office revenue], which was just in the surf film circuit. 

Then,  Endless Summer 2 came out. Same thing. They played it all over, there was a big fan response, other surf films tried catching that curl, and it died again. And there are always experts that want to look at the world and go, “Well, here’s why. Here’s what the culture is doing.” But if you tell a good story, people will show up.  Man On Wire , for example. Can you imagine pitching that one? “I got this idea, it’s a guy who really did this thing between these two towers.” People are going to go, "Huh?!?" 

You kind of have to be cocky enough to think 'I can do this,' but you have to be humble enough to know that if you shoot the first quad-triple double-flip-scrotum-twisting whatever,it doesn’t mean people are going to show up. Even if you have that stuff, you better have a story that complements it. 

But then you see the movie, and you think, “Everyone should see this movie–this is a really cool movie”. You kind of have to be cocky enough to think “I can do this,” but you have to be humble enough to know that if you shoot the first quad-triple double-flip-scrotum-twisting whatever,it doesn’t mean people are going to show up. Even if you have that stuff, you better have a story that complements it. 

Robbie Maddison pins the wall of the Park City Olympic bobsledtrack in a scene from On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter. 

What would you say was the biggest lesson you learned from your father, Bruce Brown?

What I learned from my dad was just that it is really about story. Back when Dad made movies, they really had a limited budget. With  Endless Summer, you watch some of the smallest, shittiest waves you’ve ever seen, but he created a story out of it. So it’s about people on the beach, or why the water was like that, that day. That was my upbringing. You had to be able to tell a story. I think that’s the most important. I think that’s the cross over. 

It’s not so much that I’m doing something different, it’s just more interesting to me to focus on something more than just what’s on the track, or out on the ocean, or on the mountain. It’s focusing on what else is going on, and it’s usually the stories people tell at the end of the day.

READ ALSO: will Hollywood ever make another movie about skiing?

Today, here in Tahoe, it snowed. It was a ghost town yesterday, but today there were all these people, because it snowed.  That’s part of the story you tell. Not so much what the powder was like, and this and that, but rather you think about what’s interesting about the whole thing from a personal perspective. I think sometimes that’s lost because everybody wants to be cooler than someone else. 
More than ever, we have an industry of "cool" that drives things today. There is so much emphasis on the latest and greatest jaw dropping feat someone’s willing to do for the camera…

Yeah… I always look at those kinds of films by turning around and thinking about these super talented guys doing two million dollar dollar budget films in Hollywood. There are craftsmen that make a lot of money who are really talented, with the best camera, and who are going to be able to do it better than you can. So what can you do?

Well, you can tell a story that maybe they can’t tell. I think that’s that the power. You can try to do better than the guy that’s your competitor, you can be the tallest jockey–“Well, I got better films than that guy”–but honestly in the end, the big timers, like James Cameron, come in and invent an entire freakin’ camera and then shoot theirs in 3D. He’s got the pockets to do it. It’s an argument I’ve had many times. You ain’t going to win in that sense. 

That was my Dad’s deal. You want to make it cinematic, you want to make it seem big, you want people to go, “I can’t believe he did this on that budget!”  But what drives it is the story. 

A member of the audience was asking after the show why you didn’t do more films like Warren Miller and really turn it into a mega surf film franchise. Can you share with us your feelings and thoughts on your career in that light? 

You try not to do a formula. You try to make each one unique. There are two ways to think of it. Warren Miller started something different for sure, but still, it went on to be kind of a plug and play deal. If you understand the blend, and you do it right, you don’t have to do it like a plug and play deal. People show up and it sells more.

Also, my Dad made some money, had the opportunity to buy California real estate in the 1960’s, and he invested well. More than anything, he didn’t want to turn it into that kind of thing, and he didn’t have to.

One of the things I loved about working with Red Bull was that when I first met with them, they basically said, “You know Dana, one of the reasons we want you above these other extreme sports filmmakers–and your Dad’s in this category–is that your films keep selling. They’re 10 years old, and people are still buying and watching them.” To make something that’s not just next years model, so that last year’s is obsolete, and to have somebody believe in you like that, is amazing. That’s an art [Dana Brown’s 2003 hit  Step Into Liquid (above) would go on to gross over $4,000,000 world wide, a remarkably high profit for a documentary film.]

Original poster art for Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer from its Irish release. 

That timeless quality is so rare in today’s age. 

If you and I made a film, and they gave us this much money, and we went out for the next three days to do it... we could do it. We’d make a quality film. But when the expectations go up to produce the next thing, you lose a lot of sleep over whether you’re doing it right, making sure it’s not going to be a big hole in the ground, etc. With my Dad, I learned to expect a lot from myself. Yet, it’s a bit weird. You want the film to seem as casual as possible, but on the other hand it takes so much work. 

How are financiers and distributors in the action sports film industry feeling about the future progression of action sports-themed films and what’s fitting with a larger audience, in your view? 

I think the talent that’s showcased in action sports films is greater than ever, for sure. The cameras, the ability required for these insane feats, everything. But still, there’s a leap now between the mainstream intention. Companies that sponsor a lot of these activities are huge, many of them are billion dollar clothing and energy drink businesses that attach themselves to action sports. Yet, it’s a very weird dichotomy at this point. 

The thing is to make something that’s accessible to someone in a larger audience, that’s not just a core member, but still maintaining your core members without alienating them. We’re in a very interesting time where we’re starting to ask, “What are we doing?” more and more. 

And your projects seem to be hitting that mark. 

Sure, I guess. I mean I’m obviously older, I learned from my Dad, and that’s the way I do it. But I think the core pushes the rest of it, too. You see the way they do things, and you adopt it. I guess it’s reflective, a little bit of the  YouTube generation, but  You Tube doesn’t make any real money, it’s free. So, every thing is free, and you still have to work in an industry where they pay. It’s really old school vs. new school… we live in a very interesting time, to me. But I don’t worry about all that, I just try to make the best story I can. 

One of the emerging trends in independent film at large is the growing use of crowd funding. Simon West, the director of the  Tomb Raider franchise, just sourced some $2.7 million with  equity crowd funding (the new 'investment' crowd funding model) for his indie film Salty, while the Broken Lizard comedy troupe behind  Super Troopers 2 just pulled $4.5 million from an Indie Gogo campaign (after getting a distribution deal with Fox none the less) for a sequel. As a filmmaker, would you consider using these tactics, and how do you suppose  Red Bull might respond to such an approach?

Dana Brown on the set of On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter. Red Bull Media House photo.

In my case, Red Bull came to me on this one [ On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter]. I think they did a great job promoting it and getting it out there, and it’s done really good business. But, with that said, as a filmmaker you do whatever works. So if there are new ways to get funding, and everybody gets paid back, I think everything’s fair game, and I think  Red Bull would be fine with it.

It’s like you said, you look at something like  Super Troopers, which did well, and everyone knows what it is. But then they say, “We’re not going to give you money to do another one,” and then you hop on a crowd funding campaign to get it and go back to them and they say “Okay cool, you got a distribution deal.”  Bang. I think that helps the little guy so much. I would absolutely try it. In a lot of ways, it sounds like it’s easier, and more democratic.

What are your observations on ski films and where they could be going in the continuum of the action sports narrative as a force in the film market?

There’s a limited audience for ski films where they are just focusing on the athlete with great cinematography. I mean, a lot of the kids are going to watch it, but you’re not going to get it into a theater, so it’s not going to last very long.

I think what we see happening are these [ski FILM] companies looking for something with a little better story, something that’s going to cross over and bring enthusiasts of all ages to the screen. It’s just hard to find people that can do it, to be honest. It’s just not a tool a lot of people in this [action sports] genre have–to tell great stories. It’s not what they do, if that makes sense. 

I think what we see happening are these companies looking for something with a little better story, something that’s going to cross over and bring enthusiasts of all ages to the screen. It’s just hard to find people that can do it, to be honest. It’s just not a tool a lot of people in this genre have–to tell great stories, it’s not what they do if that makes sense. 

Story is the hardest thing. 

That’s what I mean. I think sometimes some of these action sport guys think that having the expensive cameras and the best athletes is the hard part, but it’s not. We already have people all over the world willing to pay money to see a fictional film where the earth explodes, or a man in a mask is flying around, whatever it may be. But to be honest, how double dazzled is the audience supposed to be? You better tell a story, because a larger audience can’t just pay attention to flash and dazzle for an hour and a half, and it’s the same with action sport films.

Some of my heroes are your contemporaries, like Sam George and Stacy Peralta, who represent other leaders as far as consummate storytellers working in the action sports film genre go. Considering Sam George, who worked his way up from being a surfer to a journalist to a screenwriter to a director, do you think that action sports documentaries can act as a vessel for further adaptations more regularly? Where do you see that trend going? [according to Taulieb Films website, George's 'Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau' is now in development as a Hollywood production]

Stacy, Sam, and I are about the same age. I mean, we really have similar sensibilities. As far as the history of the genre before all that, I think my Dad started all that stuff. And the way some of Warren Millers films were done pushed it to another level. Then Greg MacGillivray in the '70s. Then,  Dog Town And Z Boys really helped set the stage for  Step Into Liquid. Dog Town made something like a million dollars in the box office, which is just smashing for a documentary. 

SEE ALSO: Hot Dog: The Movie! is getting a sequel

Sam is truly an incredible writer. He’ll tell you he’s a director, but he totally comes from a story place. And he is that–a real symbol of where’s that’s going. I think the success of all that just shows everyone else that there’s a big market for it.

I was also thinking why they are not making such movies?
I would love to always watch action sports movies just like the chakdeindia, etc.
In case if you are unaware of such movies, you can check beetv app on android right now.

this is amazing way to make action sports movies, thanks a lot. I watch movies and TV shows on Cyberflix apk

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