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Social Distortion

Athletes are taking media into their own hands.

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Billows of steam drift through the air as the purr of light rain rolls off our tents. It’s January, and a warm storm system is pulsing through British Columbia’s Kootenay region. Our six-person crew is camped at a remote set of riverside hot springs 18 miles from the town of Nakusp.

As Mark Abma and Chris Rubens collect their ski gear for the day, the setting looks like Shangri-La. Photographer Eric Berger and I are here to document the production of the first episode of Abma’s self-funded web series, The Scenic Route. Two young “filmers” are also here on Abma’s dime, Kris and Ryan Harris. They’re busy readying the drone and other camera gear under a suspended tarp.

Stepping over packed pine needles in ski boots, I reach the snowline in moments. The trail to the snowmobiles rises about 200 vertical feet from the river—just enough that the rain turns to snow, and lots of it. On sleds, we’ve got another 18 miles to go today, with an additional rise of 3,000 feet by the time we get to our zone, from which point we’ll ski tour.

Mark Abma knows how to take the leap, be it on skis (in Nakusp, British Columbia) or in business.Eric Berger

“I really want to round myself out as being more than just a skier,” explains Abma, who’s making his directorial debut with this project. “I want to brand myself more as a lifestyle athlete and do more adventures.” At 35, Abma’s been at the top of the ski-film food chain for about a decade—famous for his progressive big-mountain segments in Matchstick Productions’ yearly films, which are probably the most anticipated ski flicks each season. But the game has changed for professional skiers in the last several years. Major productions are increasingly taking a back seat to the more direct channels of social and self-produced media.

Ski companies have always been interested in the value of branded content, but now they have a direct line to fans and consumers, largely through their athletes. Cody Townsend’s 2015 film, Conquering the Useless, is a prime example of athlete-produced video. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Salomon’s Freeski TV is a highly successful brand-produced initiative.

In the words of Joe Johnson, Salomon’s outdoor-marketing manager, “Social media empowers athletes.” He explains, “There’s so much opportunity in the media landscape right now for athletes to produce their own content. And it doesn’t have to be high quality—it just has to be unique. You know, tell a story. If athletes aren’t doing that they’re missing the boat.”

In ski media, the major buzzword right now is “story.” This vogue is influenced by companies like Sweet- grass Productions and Sherpas Cinema, which have broken the mold with narratives in ski films. But in another sense, the immediacy of following an athlete daily over social media, throughout the whole season, creates an arc, an episodic yarn. Through those same channels, though, you can also put out legitimate film projects.

In Abma’s case, he’s going so far as to invest his own money, stepping up considerably from simply uploading GoPro footage to Instagram. “The beauty is not having to wait for somebody else to buy into the idea,” he says. “Rubens and I have been talking about this trip for seven or eight years.”

What’s also significant is that Abma (and partly Rubens, too) will own the footage. They’re in complete control of their schedules and can invite whomever they want regardless of sponsorship. In that light, Atomic’s Dana Flahr finds his way “on set” too, excited to branch out.

Athlete ownership also provides a lifeline. Halfway through the season, Abma will part ways with his long- time sponsor, Salomon, and join with Under Armour apparel and Black Crows skis. Had his project been funded entirely from the top down, that switch would kill it. Instead it’ll be more interesting than ever.

“Social media’s changed everything,” says Rubens. “You can still dedicate your entire season to one film company and that’s one way to do it. But now it seems like you constantly need to be producing content, and people are hungry for it. It gives you the opportunity to put together your own trips.”

The area we’re in, which Abma insists we keep secret, took three days of scouting to find. Not only is it stacked with 2,000-foot pillow runs weaving down the mountainsides from treeline, but the hot-springs base camp is a perfect setting to introduce the healing power of water, one of Abma’s current main interests.

“This story really hits home for me,” he explains. “I read this article about hydrotherapy and I ended up building a backyard spa. It helps me heal my mind and body. So coming here is just extending it to a natural setting in the same way First Nations have been doing it for thousands of years.”

As for the skiing, tune in to the web series to see it firsthand. Episode One drops early this winter.