Warren Miller was the most influential person in American winter sports. He was the voice of winter beckoning all of us to participate and explore decades. He accomplished this as a filmmaker and personality while pursuing his passion to be a ski bum. He was so popular that entire industry knew him simply as “Warren”.
His 1983 movie “Ski Time”; it opens, with extreme skier Scot Schmidt peering over a rock cliff at Squaw Valley. Then you hear Warren’s iconic voice with his deliberate, dramatic and rhythmic pacing, “Time, there is all kinds of it; time is the only thing in life we own. Nobody can give you any, but people can take it away from you. You can waste it or you can invest it in Ski Time.” As Warren is speaking, Schmidt drops in and skis the cliff face and launches over the rocks.
That was the Warren Miller formula; his voice with snarky jabs at the mundane and bits of humor mixed together with jaw dropping footage. He entertained, inspired and educated generations with a simple message of the winter experience.
Another memorable quote he often used during heli-skiing segments. “3000 years ago nothing roamed on these mountains except for animals as big as the machine that brought us up here today.”
His narrations reminded us of history and the magnitude of the mountains. He had a knack for making the audiences feel significant and insignificant at the same time they had an existential quality.
In 2009, Olympic Gold Medalist and Skiing Icon Stein Eriksen said of Warren, “His films were to me then, what NBC is to the Olympics today.”
“When you compare what is happening on social media and the likes and the follows that come along with it, Warren did that in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s 90s and his company is still doing today with a movie that comes out once a year and is 90 minutes long,” explained former Warren Miller cameraman Tom Grissom.
Miller was born for this mission of packaging up the mystique of selling the ski bum life style. One of his early books written in 1947 and entitled “Are My Skis on Straight” which was a cartoon book that he sold out of the back of his car to raise funds for ski trips to Alta and Sun Valley.
It was with that energy that he launched his production company in 1950.
He built his film company hand in hand with a distribution strategy that centered on his personality and perspective. He once told me, “I didn’t care about the size of the audience, whether it was one person or 50, you do a great show and someone was bound to buy you dinner.”
It was that perseverance that built the Warren Miller brand, as we know it today.
“He is the most prolific American filmmaker of all time,” exclaimed Patrick Creadon, an award winning independent documentary producer. “From 1950-1989 when he sold his company to his son Kurt, no other filmmaker has ever produced a major release every year. Warren had more films that top 200 grossing documentary list than filmmakers like Errol Morris and Michael Moore.”
As early as the mid 60s he was boasting of over 100 shows in 100 different cities with crowds peaking as high as 7,200 fans on a given night to watch and hear to his live narrations.
For many it’s an annual pilgrimage and right of passage, even today as I emcee Warren Miller movies fans reminisce about the their first Warren Miller experience. They describe in detail where and when they saw their first film, who they were with and many recall seeing Warren himself on the stage.
Ski shop owner John Gallagher explains,
“We love sponsoring the Warren Miller films, they engage the consumer with the passion for what we sell. Each year a young fan will come in and ask if he can have the Warren Miller movie poster from the local showing. That is generational impact.”
Warren would say in his films, “If everybody skis there would be no wars.”
His influence on winter sports reached around the world removing barriers, building communities and sharing a love for the outdoors. It influenced adventure tourism, advances in ski industry technology, equipment, fashion, ski technique, and the evolution in the sport.
Jason Levinthal, founder of Line Skis and current owner of J-Skis who is credited with developing the twin tip ski and a pioneer of the X-Games explains,
“I was from Albany, New York and went to his films every year. It was in his movies that I saw what was possible on skis in locations around the world. Once that became unlocked for me I saw the potential of skiing backwards over jumps and hitting rails, so that is what I developed skis for.”
Resorts craved his attention as well.
“He loved the beginner, his films were funny and welcoming and he invited people to come out in the cold and have fun. As a resort owner I couldn’t have asked for a better ambassador,” said Al Fletcher owner of Nashoba Valley in Westford, Ma.
Tom Day current Warren Miller Cameraman sums Warren’s passing, “Its big shoes to fill for sure, we still take great care in every shot, thinking the audience and how they will be inspired and entertained. We want to keep what Warren built. He invited people of all ages to try new things and see new places around the globe. He wanted everyone to feel apart of this community.”
Fans around the world will forever echo his words, “If you don’t do it this year, you will be one year older when you do.”