NAME: Murray Wais
OCCUPATIONS: Cinematographer, Director, Executive Producer
LOCATION: Crested Butte, Colorado, USA
ART: skimovie.com | mspfilms.com
Our relationships with Matchstick Productions’ partners Murray Wais, Steve Winter and Scott Gaffney go back over 15 years. These three legends created some of the most important and groundbreaking ski films of all time and have played an integral part in supporting the dreams of ski superheroes like Cody Townsend, Seth Morrison, Elyse Saugstad, Mark Abma and the late, great Shane McConkey.
Murray sat down with us in MSP’s office in Crested Butte, Colorado, to talk about how his team has embraced change over the past 30 years and how doing that has allowed them to flourish in a hyper-competitive marketplace.
Murray’s on the front lines meeting with clients, behind the lens and even in the director’s chair. Keeping a business going for so many years isn’t easy, but a shared passion for film, storytelling and skiing has only strengthened their relationships with their fans and their team.
In our conversation, Murray shares:
- How the digital revolution is fueling MSP’s ability to market and sell their films
- Why the increased demand for video content is driving their commercial business growth
- How he’s maintained a healthy business partnership
You and Matchstick Productions’ partner Steve Winter have backgrounds in journalism and filmmaking, which seem very complementary. Can you share more about your backgrounds and what each of your roles entail?
I went a traditional route to a 4-year university. I got a degree in journalism and graduated in ’91. I pursued the path of writing and communications.
Steve, on the other hand, the founder of the company, he got some money from his parents to go to art school but decided to use that to buy a camera and learn on his own. Times were much different then. You didn’t have a phone in your pocket with an amazing camera, it was complicated and pretty technical, not super easy to do. You couldn’t really afford to make mistakes. You had to buy film and the whole process ended up being around a hundred dollars for every three minutes of footage you shot. It was expensive.
So Steve used his money to go out and learn how to shoot stuff and start making a ski movie. He brought me on board after I was done with an internship at Powder Magazine to help him finish the movie, shoot a little bit and then distribute it.
If you have a sense of what you want to do, I think it’s important to at least try it and Steve did a really good job of being like, Hey, this is something I want to do so I’m going to go for it. I think that was a really smart way to get into it and learn.
After that initial investment that was earmarked for Steve’s tuition, how did you continue to fund your projects?
For the ski movie business model, we fund it by selling advertising to sponsors, or partners.
When we want to make a movie or we have an idea for a project we go to partners and say, Hey, do you want to come in and help us finance this film? If you do, we’ll give you publicity around this film, whatever that might be.
Then we basically use the money that we get from partners to fund the making and distribution of the film. We create the film, get it out to the public and sell it. We make our money back on tickets that we sell on tour and digital downloads that we sell online.
When MSP first started out, dedicated ski fans would always buy the VHS tapes or DVDs no matter what. Now they can buy the digital downloads, but there’s also been a shift in the market to more free online content. How has that impacted your business?
It has impacted it for sure. This is a core niche product and you have to be into it. But it’s been great for us. The whole digital revolution has made our lives easier and we can communicate right to our audience. We’ve seen steady growth of 10 to 20% a year and with the digital revolution those numbers actually are going up because it’s a lot easier to get our films than it’s ever been — it’s one click and you can download it.
So it’s actually made our product one, a million times easier to market — we have our social media outlets where we can directly reach out to our consumers and our fan base. Two, we have this amazing digital platform where people can buy their tickets on their mobile phone and just go to a show. And then we actually know our audience better than we ever have and can communicate with them directly.
We also put out a ton of free content every year. We’ll do 100-200 Instagram posts with clips, we’ll do 25 different segments on YouTube. So we’re very much a part of that revolution of sharing content and getting it out there. But then we also sell our movies on iTunes and then they’re picked up after a distribution window of 18 months and they go on SVOD (Subscription or Streaming Video On-Demand) platforms. So if you join a subscription service you can see our movies that way. Or they’ve been free on Red Bull TV two years after we put them out.
It’s interesting though because you see it come full circle. Everyone was like, Well, I’m just going to make my own YouTube videos. But then that space gets crowded and all of a sudden marketing people are like, Well, now we need to have more experiences and live events for our consumers.
We try to offer our partners the full package — a big digital presence and a 150-city global film tour. And then we have our film distributions online as well and on TV.
For your marketing strategy, which outlets work best? Whether it’s your email newsletter or social media or your website.
In general, when we put out a film we’ll do unpaid and paid Instagram and Facebook. We’ll do biweekly newsletters. We’ll do YouTube connected TV ads if we think it makes sense.
We’ll do partnerships with endemic ski media. So we’ll work with Freeskier Magazine as our media partner and they’ll help spread the word to consumers and the industry alike about our films every year. That’s a big part of what we do.
We also look at our film tour as a very powerful marketing tool for our brand and for our films. If we have a film coming to a particular city we’ll partner with small local “rock and roll” newspapers. Newspapers is really the wrong term because they’re not really newspapers anymore, but they’re more cultural hubs of those urban environments that have a good digital presence and we’ll do that in almost every city that we go to.
So using Denver as an example, we’ll partner with a popular college magazine like the Rooster and we’ll get on their website, get out to their newsletter crowd and take advantage of their social media to reach their fan base.
You’ve been in the ski industry for about three decades and many people know MSP Films from the ski side but you’re also doing commercial work for companies like Montblanc, Titleist, Mercedes-Benz and others. Are you seeing a shift towards more commercial stuff?
It has changed and it’s about half our business now.
I do think it’s the market. More and more people need video content. There’s more hunger for it. So yeah.
Are you wanting to keep it half ski and half commercial or what’s the ideal mix for you?
I think that that’s a good mix for us. I think we’ll continue to try to develop our own projects because it’s a lot more fun to come up with an idea, execute it and then have it be presented ultimately the way that we want it.
It’s pretty cool that Matchstick can be a truly independent film company — we raise the money ourselves, we create the film ourselves, we distribute it ourselves. For commercial projects, sometimes we do have full creative rein and get to come up with the idea and execute it. But a lot of times when we’re doing bigger projects we’re presented with a concept in a storyboard and we’re then working to put those pieces together. Which is fun and it’s cool to do that as well, but I think ultimately doing your own stuff’s a lot more fun.
How do you land your commercial clients?
That’s a good question. A lot of times they’re coming to us. Nine times out of ten they call us and say, We want to make a product video and we think you guys are perfect, could you submit a proposal and a budget? Or, We have this amount of dollars and this is what we need to get done, can you guys do it? So that happens a lot.
But then for us to keep going, we have to maintain our relationships with the agencies and the brands. We have a whole network of people and we make sure we’re constantly keeping in touch, reaching out just to say “hi.” That’s really how it goes.
Are those reach outs pretty loose or do you have a strategy for staying in touch with everybody?
Well, it’s easier with people we’ve worked with because we’re just checking in every quarter or every other month, that kinda thing. It’s just remembering to stay in touch with people who’ve been involved.
We probably could do a better job of digitally marketing to people but we do a lot of product that we send to people — water bottles, beer mugs, face tubes and belts — just to kind of keep the chain going all the time.
Then once a year we reach out to new ad agencies. We bring in our reel and sit down in a room with 10 to 30 people and walk through what we do, what we offer and how we can help them. And that works sometimes. It’s hard to build a relationship that way, but we definitely do that.
We do have strategies and goals. We want to travel once a month to meet clients face to face. I have a goal of meeting six new clients a year. Things like that, pretty basic strategies. We’ve seen good results that way.
And we’ve had a few things that have gone viral and will have 15-25 million views. In 2007 we happened to put out something that was really hot. We went to Norway and filmed these guys wingsuit base jumping and only about probably 40 people worldwide were doing it so no one had really seen it at the time. We put out a movie that had that in it and it went viral.
When that went out we were getting phone calls every day about people wanting to do things around the wingsuiting space. So when you’re really hot like that things tend to come to you more.
Did you see any clients come from Cody Townsend’s “The Crack” segment? Because that was viewed by crazy amounts of people all over the place.
You know, it did help with our brand. I can’t think of anything that came directly out of that, but in general the one advantage that we have is that when we’re reaching out to brands and agencies it’s pretty likely that someone on the other end has heard of us and is like, Oh, I’ve seen your guys’ stuff. So people will take our call. Whereas I think if they’ve never heard of you, they probably won’t take your call.
It’s still hard for us. We’re still reaching out to people and trying to introduce ourselves and get a relationship. But it is easier once you have a known brand.
That makes sense.
And we know what works. We’ve seen brands sell products and get a return on their investment. We’ve been through the process with brands like Giro. They came to us when they were pretty small and were like, We want to get people wearing ski helmets. No one wore ski helmets until maybe 2000. And then they went from this little tiny company to where everyone had Giro helmets.
What does your creative process look like?
We’ll do weekly development meetings with our whole team where people will present ideas and we’ll brainstorm things we want to do. Then we’ll chat through the ideas and some kind of percolate up to the top. We get a group consensus and then we’ll look at the reality of getting them made. How realistic is it that we could do this? What’s the timeline? The timeline in production is a big thing. When’s it going to be shot? When’s it going to be edited? When’s it going to be distributed? That affects budget.
How big is your team?
For that kind of stuff I think we’re about 12 people.
Are they full-time employees or contractors?
Both. We have three people who are contractors and don’t live in Colorado.
Business partnerships can often be difficult or even fail. Are there any major challenges you’ve faced?
They can be difficult. I’ve known my current business partner Steve Winter for 30 years. I went to high school with him and we had a pretty instant bond and got along really well.
I think ultimately what has helped us succeed over the years is knowing we’re never gonna agree on everything. We might not even agree on anything. But ultimately if we just know not to take things personally it’s not that big of a deal.
You can have a big fight and it’s not the end of the relationship. You don’t carry it around with you as some big weight and burden. It’s not a competition between you and your partner of who’s doing what.
I think it’s like a marriage. You can’t be like, Well, I did the dishes last night, you haven’t done the dishes in two fucking weeks, what do you bring to this relationship? You have to drop all that. It’s just not serving, it’s not beneficial.
You have to just know in your heart that your partner’s trying their hardest and that they have their best intentions in mind to grow the company and to work on things and to have a lot of passion.
Steve Winter and Scott Gaffney are partners in the company and I know that ultimately those guys are fucking super hard workers. They want to do cool shit and they want to do really pro stuff. So their core fundamentals and visions are true to what this company is all about. And just knowing that and having faith in that helps the whole thing work.
Some artists feel it’s better to be in a big city to run their businesses, but you guys are here in Crested Butte, which is a really small mountain town. In what ways do you think that’s been both beneficial and challenging?
Well, I can’t quickly go to a meeting at a large ad agency. I can’t make networking happen right in my small town.
But it’s just a lifestyle choice. We didn’t want to live our lives sitting in traffic or dealing with a whole bunch of people confined to one area. We wanted to be more closely in touch with nature. I think that’s been beneficial to our company and who we are as people and what we see and like in the world.
I don’t really know what advantage there is to being in a city all the time. I guess you could have more conversations face-to-face. I do live in a small town of 2,000 people but I travel one week out of every month so I’m out there talking to people all the time.
What are your personal favorite MSP films?
Each year it’s a little different, but I think that the Shane McConkey film is definitely one of my favorites because we were afforded the ability with time and budget to really work on that.
Filmmaking is a pretty glamorous profession. But what are some common misconceptions or downsides to what you guys do that people don’t necessarily see?
The really glamorous part is you go out to this really rad spot and you get to shoot really beautiful stuff and have a fun time with it. But it’s putting it all together that really is the most important part and it takes hours upon hours upon hours of solitary work by a person to put everything together and then present it to the rest of the team, get it completely shredded and ripped apart and then have to go back and make the changes.
I think there’s a very common misconception that editing is easy and that it happens fast, that it’s just kinda like, I’ll just edit that together. I hear that all the time but it’s really not that easy and it’s a ton of really hard work.
I always joke that one of the jobs that no one ever applies for is editor. No one really wants to be an editor and sit in a dark room eight hours a day, every single day, 40 hours a week.
Some of the more successful editors I know will work really hard for a couple months and then take a month off because it can be a burnout job. Even our primary editor, Scott Gaffney who edits our ski films, he’ll really crank on editing on the ski film in June and July, but then the rest of the year he doesn’t do much editing.
Editing’s not glamorous. There’s no other way to say it. It’s fucking hard work. It’s just like accounting or any job that you’re sitting in front of a computer for 8 to 10 hours a day, sometimes longer.
And then also there can be challenges with traveling for long periods of time and getting burned out on the road. The days get really long. Shooting days can be 14 hours and there can be 10 of those in a row. It can be pretty exhausting, especially with small productions where you’re doing it all.
The other thing is no one wants to ask people for money to make their projects. It’s a grind. It can feel discouraging. People say, Oh, I emailed so-and-so, he never emailed me back. Or, I called so-and-so, they never called me back. I always laugh. No one’s gonna email you back. No one’s gonna call you back. Just get used to it. It is hard work. It’s not always the most fun thing but don’t be discouraged. Keep grinding and keep going.
You guys have over 25 feature-length ski films under your belt. What continues to drive you and what is the most rewarding part?
It’s the people that I work with, for sure. I work with a great group of people that are super passionate about what they do and that continues to drive me every day.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Blake Jorgenson — photographer
- Cody Townsend — skier
- Cody Townsend’s “The Crack”
- Elyse Saugstad – skier
- Emma Coburn – runner
- Eric Hjorleifson – skier
- Freeskier Magazine
- Giro — helmets and gear
- Mark Abma – skier
- McConkey — film about pro skier Shane McConkey
- Powder Magazine
- Red Bull TV
- Rooster Magazine
- Scott Gaffney — MSP partner, director, editor, writer
- Seth Morrison – skier
- Shane McConkey —skier
- Steve Winter — MSP founder, partner, executive producer
- Tribeca Film Festival