Savage Cinema: Breaking the Action Sports Film Mould

Once a medley of wham-bam highlights, action sports movies are now that - movies

The Fourth Phase
© Scott Serfas. Red Bull Content Pool

SAN SEBASTIAN — Once extreme sports entertainment was just quick-fix action highlights. Now, the macro niche is breaking out of the mould.

That can be put down in part to Red Bull Media House, which has brought a traditional and now digital commercial edge to the genre. Also, a generation of filmmakers has emerged which is far more ambitious and cine-literate. On top of that, producers can bring ever more options in distribution, mixing classic and digital outlets.

“There are still a multitude of productions that run along the more established paths, but a lot of people have been trying to leave the standard ways of making those films, and now there are more and more filmmakers actually able to do so,” said Philipp Manderla, head of feature films at Red Bull Media House, which co-organises Savage Cinema.

Why this is happening is another question. Several factors are at play.

“Quickly-available, fast-paced action content lives on social media, Facebook, Snapchat,” which means extreme sports movies must offer “a counterpoint,” Manderla said.

Extreme sports movie production has also experienced several growth phases: “A pioneer phase with very little money, but a lot of creativity”; then brand backing “before there was branded entertainment,” which was hit by the 2008 crisis,” Manderla said.

“Now filmmakers are looking at festivals, the recognition of other filmmakers and the press, to tap into marketing money but also subsidies,” he continued.

2016’s Savage Cinema, the San Sebastian Fest’s extreme sports movie showcase which is co-organised by RBMH, is one case in point. It highlights five features. None are wham-bam action-clip compendiums.

Many Savage Cinema movies unspool on a broad canvas. A multipart record and implicit analysis of people’s passion for the sport, “Surfer’s Blood” “transcends stereotypes you usually associate with surfing painting a much larger picture,” Manderla observed.

These are also far more character-driven movies. “Let’s Be Frank” and “Bunker 77” are bio-docs. “The Fourth Phase” begins not with a snow-boarding stunt but Travis Rice, one of action sport’s biggest heroes, defining himself as a “seeker,” which is “not to be content with where one is” and “fantasise that there is more.”

Cine-literate filmmakers are also moving into the sector, making movies where sports are part of the package but definitely not the whole story. “Let’s Be Frank’s” Peter Hamblin has a background in commercials. The credits of William A. Kirkley, director of “Orange Sunshine,” include 2005’s “Excavating Taylor Mead,” a portrait of the Andy Warhol associate, co-starring Steve Buscemi and Jim Jarmusch.

The sector is also scaling up in budgets, ambition.

“The Fourth Phase,” for example, marks Travis Rice’s sequel to “The Art of Flight,” the 2011 global home entertainment hit.

An overall No. 1 iTunes movie in the U.S, “Flight” was arguably the most successful action sports film of the last decade.

Now, “The Fourth Phase” will be the “biggest and most anticipated film Red Bull Media House has ever been involved in,” Manderla said.

Some directors are certainly scaling up in artistic ambition. “Let’s Be Frank” may be surfing’s first post-modernist movie, a mock-doc told by not one but two unreliable narrators, rolling off the false mythos of a sex and drugs big wave surf lifestyle, rather than its usually fairly mundane reality.

Also, distribution possibilities are broadening, with digital opening more sales and retail outlets.

Each film is its own beast, said Manderla. Sold by RBMH, ’The Fourth Phase” will be released theatrically in Germany on 200 screens via a partnership between RBMH and Studio Hamburg. Further theatrical distribution deals have been sealed.

“Let’s Be Frank” has a whistle-stop tour of country premieres in early September, then will air on RBMH’s new free-to-air global Internet Protocol Television (IPTV), Red Bull TV both in its linear stream and on VOD, for a week from Sept. 26, to build awareness. Red Bull TV is available on Apple TV and other platforms.


‘“BUNKER 77”

Directed by Takuji Masuda, exec-produced by, among others, Edward Norton, and long in the making, “Bunker 77” chronicles an extraordinary figure, Bunker Spreckels, Clark Gable’s stepson, heir to the Spreckels sugar fortune, a surfer, yes, but also a big game hunter, martial arts aficionado, wild man and self-styled player who dressed like a pimp. Surfing was his early age redemption; heroine killed him at the age of 27. This is “a highly intimate and personal biographical documentary film that sheds light on one of the ‘70s most colourful personas in surfing. Excellently executed by first-time director Takuji Masuda, it has been in the making for close to 10 years,” Manderla commented.


Starring ace snowboarder Travis Rice, whose “The Art of Flight’ was a milestone in the genre, “The Fourth Phase” has an eco-context, the rain-ice-moisture hydrological circle, which Rice and a posse of friends follow for 15,000 miles of North Pacific Rim, running big mountain lines. “While keeping everything good from ‘The Art of Flight,’ ‘The Fourth Phase’ clearly steps up the game in terms of storytelling and Travis’ willingness to open up,” Manderla commented.


Directed by Peter Hamblin, and a RBMH co-production, “Let’s Be Frank” depicts the fabulously glamorous, sex and drug-fuelled lifestyle of one of the world’s top big wave surfers, South Africa’s Frank James Solomon. Except that it’s all made up, rolling off surfing world myths, hearsay, and the occasional truth. “It’s a hybrid, a great viewing experience. But I think Peter saw his chance to make his mark as a director. The creativity ranks as high or higher than the surfing which is on a very high level,” Manderla said. He added: “There is only a small handful, maybe three-four-five people who make a decent living out of big wave surfing.”


Mixing interview, archive materials and reenactment, another Savage Cinema title, “Orange Sunshine,” from William A. Kirkley is a real, if caper-style documentary-feature that focuses on how the 1960s Brotherhood of Eternal Love sought to deliver spiritual enlightenment via LSD to the American nation more than their occasional surfing. Kirkby’s credits include “Excavating Taylor Mead,” a portrait of the Andy Warhol associate.