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Success Keeps Snowballing for a Skiing Film Maker

December 29, 1987|GRANVILLE AMES BEALS | Actor Beals is an avid skier who writes when there's no snow. and

In 1949, Warren Miller--a Southern California surfer-turned-Sun Valley ski bum, enrolled two young Bell & Howell executives--Charles Percy and Harold Geneen--in his ski class.

The trio saw a ski film together one evening "that was really awful; I criticized it on the way home," Miller recalled recently. "They said, 'It sounds like you know what you're talking about' and asked me why I was teaching skiing, rather than filming it. My answer was, 'Money.' "

So the two offered to "lend" him a Bell & Howell camera.

"They said I could pay them back when I made my first $250," Miller said.

Percy went on to become a U.S. senator (R-Ill.) and Geneen, chairman of ITT. And Miller, who was able to repay the loan in three years, set out to film skiing at its best.

Some 38 years and 38 feature-length ski films later, Miller, 63, occupies a nondescript Hermosa Beach office and reigns as the undisputed don of the downhill ski film.

Miller's productions, with titles like "Sno Wonder," "Ski Country," "Beyond the Edge" and his latest, "White Winter Heat" (which has screened this month in various auditoriums in the Los Angeles area), have established him as a winter sports institution.

Each year Miller and his non-Hollywood camera crews ski some of the most spectacular slopes in the world. And each year capacity crowds--often numbering 3,000 or more people--in about 150 cities across the country pay about $7 a ticket to see the results.

And that finances the next year's excursion.

Miller's view of the sport in the 1980s: "Skiing today is not what it was. In the old days, it came from the heart."

His favorite ski area: "Wherever I am at the time."

His favorite movie: "The one I'm doing now."

"I have the best job in the world," Miller said during a rare pause in his perpetual globe-trotting.

Since Miller made that first feature-length ski film, "Deep and Light," little has changed. "It ('Light') was 90 minutes long, 16 millimeters wide and cost $500," Miller said. "This one is 93 minutes long, 16 millimeters wide and cost under $1 million--it's my most expensive film."

Miller can afford it. Over the years, his $250 camera loan and ski safaris have snowballed into a multimillion-dollar business. Warren Miller Enterprises now encompasses movies, ski books, ski magazines and a newly launched Resort Cable network, which already can be seen in 50 resorts.

But Miller neatly sidesteps financial topics. They don't seem to interest him as much as the sport.

He pleads ignorance when asked how much his company grosses, explaining, "I'm one of those real crazy people who love to do what they do as long as they have good food on the table and enough film to shoot tomorrow."

It's tough to imagine Miller ever running out of either. By industry estimates, he stands to gross $10.5 million from the 500 screenings of "White Winter Heat" that are scheduled this winter.

Still, Miller apparently relishes maintaining the illusion of a ski bum. His office building--just blocks from the beach--looks like a low-income dental clinic.

His office and its decor aren't much better--an ancient pair of skis, a dusty old model of the Cutty Sark sailing ship, a few ski posters and a baseball sitting in a coffee mug on his otherwise empty desk.

Miller stands 6 feet, 4 inches tall, with graying flaxen hair surrounding his bald crown. The lifelong nonsmoker and teetotaler admits that he still views the world "through the eyes of a 14-year-old."

That is not, however, how the business world sees Miller. Through the years, he has acquired a reputation as a marketing wizard and has managed to cover his costs so efficiently that the respected trade magazine Advertising Age recently described him as a "major factor in the media/merchandising scene of the future."

He prefers to call his marketing technique, "creating an event."

During intermissions at his film screenings, door prizes ranging from ski goggles to European ski vacations are given away by picking names from a barrel.

"What I get is the name and address of everybody in that theater to give to my sponsor, who sends post cards notifying these people of dates for the next year's show," Miller explained.

Miller also cuts his production costs by trading film exposure for services from companies like American Airlines and Audi.

Instead of giving his movies to commercial distributors in return for a percentage of profits (and thus relying on someone else's marketing techniques), Miller prefers to keep it within the family. Besides, Hollywood hasn't shown much interest, he says.

"We're looked at as a funny little company down in Hermosa Beach that makes movies for a narrow segment of the market," he explains. And as far as expanding into fictional film making, Miller says he has no interest in "any dramatic Robert Redford-'Downhill Racer' type of thing."

Divorced with three grown children, Miller plans to marry again New Year's Eve.

This turn of events seems to have produced a desire to spend a little less time film making and a little more time on personal pleasures. Two years ago, Miller founded a partnership with two marketing experts who now run the day-to-day aspects of his business.

But Miller, whose philosophy is "if you have a word processor, you have a passport to live anywhere in the world," still writes and narrates his productions from his Maui condominium or Vail, Colo., where he is in the process of building a home.

"But it's hard to relinquish control when you've been doing something for 35 years," he said. "As my grandfather used to say, 'You work all your life to become an overnight success.' "

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