Warren Miller was one of the most influential people in American winter sports. He was the voice of winter, beckoning all of us to participate, for decades.
A filmmaker and ski bum, Miller was so popular that entire industry knew him simply as “Warren.”
His 1983 movie “Ski Time” 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 Miller is speaking, Schmidt drops in, skis the cliff face, and launches over the rocks.
That was the Warren Miller formula – 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.
Miller, who died Wednesday at age 93, was a mentor to me as I learned film production and video distribution, and he taught me the art of narration. I also skied in 12 Warren Miller films, and I still host and emcee six Warren Miller film shows a year.
I love a line he often used during heli-skiing segments.
“Three thousand 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 audiences feel significant and insignificant at the same time.
“His films were to me then, what NBC is to the Olympics today,” Olympic gold medalist and skiing icon Stein Eriksen said in 2009.
“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 lifelong mission of packaging up the mystique the ski bum lifestyle. One of his early books, written in 1947 and entitled “Are My Skis on Straight?” 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.
That same energy led to the launch of 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.”
That perseverance built the Warren Miller brand into what it is today.
“He is the most prolific American filmmaker of all time,” said Patrick Creadon, an award-winning independent documentary producer. “From 1950 to 1989, when he sold his company to his son Kurt, no other filmmaker has ever produced a major release every year.”
By the mid 60s, he was putting on more than 100 shows in 100 different cities, with as many as 7,200 fans turning out on a given night to watch his films and hear his live narrations.
For many, it’s an annual pilgrimage and right of passage. Even today, as I emcee Warren Miller movie nights, fans reminisce about 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.
“We love sponsoring the Warren Miller films. They engage the consumer with the passion for what we sell,” said John Gallagher, who owns a ski shop in Campton, N.H.
“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.”
Miller would often say in his films, “If everybody skis, there would be no wars,” and my brother John and I skied for him near areas of turmoil, such as the Berlin Wall in 1989, to Russia during the breakup of the USSR, and Yugoslavia when it was on the brink of civil war.
His influence on winter sports reached around the world, 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, the founder of Line Skis and the current owner of J-Skis, is credited with developing the twin-tip ski and is a pioneer of the X-Games.
“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,” Levinthal said.
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, who owns Nashoba Valley Ski Area in Westford, Mass.
Tom Day, a current Warren Miller cameraman, said Miller’s legacy will always be evident in the company’s films.
“It’s big shoes to fill for sure. We still take great care in every shot, thinking about the audience and how they will be inspired and entertained. We don’t want to loose what Warren built,” he said. “He invited people of all ages to try new things and see new places around the globe. He wanted everyone to feel a part of this community.”
And it’s likely snowsports enthusiasts around the world will forever echo his words.
“If you don’t do this year, you will be one year older when you do,” Miller said.