Explorer, author, trail prospector & travel writer

The State of Adventure Film: The War of Art & Money at Kendal Mountain Festival 2015

A couple of weekends ago saw the 2015 edition of Kendal Mountain Festival, which started with a bunch of mates in the back room of a Lakeland pub and is now the most well-known celebration of mountain culture, outdoor sports and adventure in the UK.

Its remit is broad: while climbing, mountaineering and other activities involving large chunks of rock are strongly represented, there’s plenty of space for more horizontal pursuits like paddling, surfing, cycling, skiing, walking, and what have you.

In fact, as long as it involves getting out there – out of the house, out of the city, out of the country – and doing something, there’s probably someone at Kendal shouting about it, whether in the form of a film, a book, a workshop, or a rowdy conversation in one of the event’s many bars.

I was there with Rhys to present Karunbut that’s not what this piece is about, because it occupied only a fraction of the weekend. The rest of the time I spent watching other films (highly recommended: Operation Moffat, Kayaking The Aleutians, Eclipse, The Adventures Of Dodo), getting involved with industry events, attending workshops and talks, and of course having numerous rowdy conversations in the event’s many bars (followed by a fantastic wind-down stay at the nearby BaseCamp Tipi – thanks Jilly!).

And in doing so, I picked up on a surprising theme that emerged repeatedly in industry and filmmaker circles throughout the weekend.

Obviously it would be easy for me to be cynical about Kendal. It appears on the surface to be a consumerist brand-fest of epic proportions; a down-jacket fashion parade fuelled by coffee and beer; small outfitters nowhere to be seen, everything plastered with the massive logos of multinational outdoor gear makers. But I’ve already made my take on this kind of thing pretty clear, and hardly see the point in repeating it.

What did catch my attention was summarised by the discussion that ensued towards the end of the Filmmakers’ Summit, an industry gathering with the snazzy theme of ‘The State of Adventure Filmmakers’, laid on for the many directors, producers, cinematographers, athletes, personalities and presenters in attendance at the festival. The event involved lots of chat, a certain amount of free wine, correspondingly loose tongues, and more than an air of discontent on the motivations of big business when it came to adventure film.

After an obligatory and slightly awkward half-hour sales pitch from the marketing lady at DJI, the Chinese camera gear company who’d sponsored the summit, there followed an extended conversation with Pete Mortimer, founder of Sender Films, a US-based powerhouse of a production outfit who’ve grown from humble beginnings to running the annual 500+ date Reel Rock Film Tour, turning out several climbing and mountaineering films a year (several of which will be all but guaranteed to make the official selection at Kendal et al), and responsible for last year’s crossover smash hit Valley Uprising, which scooped the grand prize in almost every festival it screened at.

While much of the discussion was about Pete’s rags-to-riches journey, one anecdote stood out, which was the story of his collaboration with The North Face on Valley Uprising. The North Face being the 21st-century lifestyle brand and marketing operation that it is, it relies on long-term schedules and advance planning to make things work, particularly when it comes to sponsored athletes and their stories and films.

But they didn’t anticipate Valley Uprising being in production for half a decade. As Pete recounted, the filmmakers went back into the edit every year, and time after time they looked at what they’d got and knew that it still wasn’t finished. Long before the final cut, The North Face had all but written the investment off, leaving the filmmakers free to make the film they wanted to make, in their own time.

The resulting documentary, which premiered last year, has already achieved cult status. It’s brilliant.

The story struck a chord because it sounds like a dream. A massive brand gives you a massive pot of cash, leaves you to your own devices for as long as it takes, then comes back in to leverage its massive reach when your baby is ready to be presented to the world. Cue fame, fortune, general massiveness, and your career as an adventure filmmaker sealed for all eternity.

The problem, however, is simple: dreams rarely resemble reality. (Unless you’re Pete from Sender Films.)

And in the panel discussion that followed – involving writers, filmmakers, producers and representatives of big gear brands – the same concern came up again and again from members of the increasingly inebriated industry audience and from several of the filmmaker panellists, boiling down to one simple question:

“How can we express ourselves freely as filmmakers when only corporate interests have the resources to fund our work?”

It was during this discussion that I realised how trapped many adventure filmmakers were feeling. Over and over, the same frustration arose: a desperate need for the not insignificant financial resources to pay talented people a living wage and make films to be proud of, and the lack of any other obvious source of cash than big business and its marketing budgets.

I also realised just how narrow the adventure film niche – at least, the version of it presented by festivals like Kendal – has become. This became all too apparent when a TV producer on the panel spoke up after a question about broadening the reach of adventure film beyond the festivals and enthusiasts in order to get TV commissions (i.e. funding from a reliable source other than big business).

TV, however, is a medium that is designed from the ground up to appeal to bored channel-flickers slumped on sofas who frankly couldn’t care less about anything other than being entertained, and the producer’s advice was simple: tell stories that everyone can engage with, not just adventure enthusiasts.

This advice fell on deaf ears, however, because what the filmmakers in attendance really wanted to talk about was how to get more people watching films about specialist subjects without actually changing anything about the films themselves.

But the fact is that universal human stories, well told, engage almost everyone; the principle upon which all mainstream telly is based, and something very often missing from films made by enthusiasts for enthusiasts, such as many of those at Kendal.

(Though nobody mentioned it, Valley Uprising’s success was indeed due to its universality. It’s not about climbing; it’s about man’s struggle for freedom, recognition and unity in the context of climbing.)

There are many potential answers to the conundrum. Suggestions were called for, and I mentioned crowdfunding. It was the only time I heard the word used the entire weekend. To me, it seems that this was another missed trick, given that myself and Rhys had between us funded 4 feature-length films this way and raised around a hundred grand between us to make them.

Perhaps crowdfunding, like good storytelling, is seen as more effort than it’s worth when the easier alternative remains a corporate handout in exchange for title sponsorship? Perhaps people don’t really want it that badly? It’s a shame, because crowdfunding is an entirely realistic model if you do your research.

Maybe the adventure filmmaking community is in danger of becoming a little too self-absorbed, demanding support without compromise or recompense?

Could it be yet another manifestation of the frustrations people feel when they’re stuck in an environment in which nothing has value unless it feeds corporate interests – ironically, the very environment from which so many of us turn to adventure in order to escape?

There was a strong reaction against perceived complacency from some participants, who retorted that if a brand becomes a filmmaker’s client and pays for a service (which is essentially what sponsorship is), they should be treated as a client, as any other marketing agency would do. Personally, I agree with that, which is why I’d never sell the rights to sway the motives of a personal project to anyone. I’d rather find a way with a bit more integrity, even if it meant that the challenges were greater.

On the other hand, I also agree that art for its own sake is enormously undervalued in the UK. I can only speak from personal experience on the adventure filmmaking and writing front, but I only need compare our state of affairs to neighbouring France, a country where arts and culture funding on a municipal level means that not only can I expect to be invited to a film festival with all expenses paid (including international travel), but actually be offered a fee for my time as well. Actually getting paid for my work? Wow! Such a novelty!

All this without a big-brand sponsor in sight and at some of the most enjoyable events I’ve had the pleasure of attending. It really does put our institutional support for the arts to shame, and it is little wonder our festivals and filmmakers feel obliged to turn to business for funding, with all the attached strings that entails, because that is precisely the state of affairs that the establishment has worked to create.

The alternative survival methods – watering down one’s passion for the couch-slumped masses, taking corporate gigs to fund personal projects, competing for a share of a tiny pot of public funds, or simply becoming an entrepreneur over and above an artist – do not exactly beckon seductively to people of a idealistic, creative and passion-driven bent.

And while it would be nice to think that we could demonstrate or lobby for increased support of the arts in the UK for its own sake, the Tories’ ongoing and single-minded drive to steamroller all that is good in life in pursuit of economic growth, longer working hours, higher stress, lower self-worth, increasing debt, decreasing time and limitless things to be afraid of mean that such efforts would be futile.

So I believe we need to think laterally, sidestepping the establishment altogether lest it drain our energies. And I truly think that this is where crowdfunding has such enormous potential, because it raises real funding with responsibility at the individual level, precludes restricting creative output to what has mainstream appeal, and ultimately allows someone like me to live the dream – at least, for the duration of a given project – and put something tangible, personal and meaningful into the world at the end of it all.

Crowdfunding won’t appeal to everyone, especially those without a platform to shout from, but lateral thinking is nice because it’s unrestrictive. Part of my rationale for moving from the UK to Armenia, for example, was that it would cut my living costs by a good three-quarters, removing the deadening effect on life of constantly having to monitor cashflow or worry about debt. It would also mean I didn’t have to live my life while being bombarded constantly by messages that I must go out and purchase solutions to all the problems and inadequacies that exist in my life because I am still not working quite as hard as I should be; the circular and broken myth of consumerism.

Doing so has freed me up to dream big, create big, and stretch my resources much further than they’d ever go in my home country. There are many compromises involved, of course, but I still see my friends as often as I did when I lived in London, if not more often, and in any case I have never hankered after an easy life.

Others have converted vans into mobile offices, edit suites and writing studios, chosen to live on narrowboats to avoid extortionate rent, found working and living spaces in factories and warehouses; all in the name of preserving the artistic freedom required to make the job worth doing and actually being able to finish the job. Yes; there are other ways.

Though we’re all competing for the same prizes at events like Kendal, let’s remember that nobody makes films like this with the goal of actually winning. We do it because we love it. So let’s keep looking at tackling together the problems we all seem to share. And maybe at next year’s Filmmaker Summit, we’ll be that much closer towards some solutions.


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