Fun, or at least funny.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, F1 racing is now, officially, the hottest ticket in the United States of America. This fact may not surprise but it absolutely should. Only a handful of years ago, the ultra-sexy and extremely exclusive auto sport was seen as a lost cause in the land of the free, home of the brave, entirely eclipsed by NASCAR and its moonshine runnin’ roots.
An event in Austin, Texas last year drew the biggest crowd of the entire international season with attendance north of 400,000 over three days. This weekend’s race in Miami is officially the hottest ticket in the nation with prices soaring into the four digits for modest seats.
A plucky British production company, Box to Box Films, created a series for Apple Television called “Drive to Survive” featuring in depth interviews with the drivers, teams, owners, fans that was watched and loved by many.
Every major media outlet credits the program with the wild spike in interest which leads us directly to professional surfing.
The selfsame Box to Box is behind our Make or Break, which you have certainly read about here, here, here, here, etc. and I was afforded the opportunity to chat with its showrunner (head producer) for a limited 20 minute window in order to see if one-time World Surf League CEO Paul Speaker’s bold declaration that surfing would soon eclipse the National Football League might come true.
Warren Smith (not that Warren Smith), showrunner, agreed to chat and chat we did, though after a light pause in communication. I had wondered if BeachGrit‘s reputation had preceded itself, World Surf League Guardians of the Wall™ wagging fingers and shutting down lines, but no, though he, and others on the crew, had read BeachGrit prior to and during filming.
You are seen.
In any case, Smith is handsome, as Smiths are wont to be, direct and transparent. Thus we begin.
Did that dang World Surf League try to limit your control or did you really and truly have full access?
We had access to all areas. With this show, they didn’t approach us. There was a chance meeting and we realized there was a world that was interesting here. They were open. We want to tell the human stories and, as a world, there’s not a whole lot of surf content out there. We saw it as a great opportunity. They opened doors for us, introduced us to the players, gave us access to the judging tower, anywhere we wanted to be. But no, there was nothing off limits.
The way that we like to work, we go in with a (can’t read my own writing) approach. We’re not surfers, we have no preconceived notions. We were there to capture what we found compelling. The world’s number ones have great stories but also surfers further down the rankings. We were just looking for the interesting bits. We learned early on that sometimes things happen in the judging tower, for example, so placed a camera up there but also run very lean. There are not a ton of cameramen everywhere. So much of the footage ends up on the floor, that doesn’t go into the final edit, but (can’t read again and full transparency, I was taking notes with my daughter’s sparkly green pen while sitting in the parking lot of a suspect San Clemente neighborhood using her equally suspect book “Crow Boy” as my desk).
It has been flattering to hear the positive response from the surf community. We get so immersed in it during production that we begin to question ourselves. But if we focus on the human story, with sport being the payoff, then it will all hopefully work. At the end of the day, we’re also trying to bring in a new audience. We want to, and need to, please the core surf fan but also explain it all to the new audience. There were times when even we, on the crew, were asking “why is that the way it is?” related to the rules, etc. so it is important to clarify.
We found out, going in, that there is a huge appetite (for surfing and surf culture). You have these incredibly fit, incredibly talented individuals competing at these gorgeous locations. We are trying to widen that appetite. It’s a fucking hard sport to conquer. Seeing it up close, these guys and girls are unbelievable. It’s one of the hardest things. The talent. The highs and lows. And yet, all of them (the surfers) felt “nobody knows who we are.” Gabriel Medina, even, thought nobody knew who he really was. It was a little difficult to capture, correctly, in Hawaii as we had all those Covid restrictions, but once we got to Australia we had far greater access and that’s where you see it really pick up. The surfers, themselves, really don’t care about our cameras. They are there to win world titles, not be television stars.
The stakes? I think the stakes in surfing can be much higher for the individual than F1. The surfers are only one cut away from not being able to focus, solely, on professional sport. There are six tiers of pro soccer leagues in European soccer, for example, so a player has many opportunities available to support his or herself. But in surfing, if you don’t make the cut, you won’t be able to support yourself. All these surfers are self-employed. I think there are incredible stakes in that way.
At the end, it feels like surfing is in good hands, or at least honest ones, with the Box to Box crew. There is a self-awareness about what surfing is, what it can be, how it can be, that feels realistic. It is not trying to craft a narrative out of the ether for some nefarious gain. Furthermore, there is a steady eye directed toward the core conversation. To BeachGrit and Ain’t That Swell etc. A much steadier eye than our very own World Surf League.
Surfing will never be more popular that the National Football League (suck it, Speaker) because of the aforementioned “why is that the way it is?” There is much “why is that the way it is?” but that makes it fun, I suppose, or at least funny.