The plan was to go to New York or Los Angeles after graduating from college. But after the success of his first few ski films, he scrapped his original plan and began his new career.
Josh’s company Level 1 is about to release its 20th feature-length film and he’s got exciting plans for the future. His path has not been easy, though: the ski industry is challenging, building Level 1’s new headquarters was a nightmare and being the owner means Josh’s role is often more business person than filmmaker.
We’ve known Josh for nearly 20 years and have had the privilege of seeing him build Level 1 into what it is today. We’re stoked to share his story with you and are super excited to see what’s next.
Can you give us an overview of who you are as a filmmaker and your company Level 1 Productions?
I’m an independent filmmaker and have been making action sports films for twenty years.
I started a company called Level 1 to use as my platform to become a filmmaker, and through it, we produce a lot of ski films, branded content and, now, commercial content as well.
We also built a brand around it, through which we sell all kinds of collab products with brands we work with, merchandise and other things that I tell people support my filmmaking habit.
You currently have 19 highly influential annual feature-length ski films under your belt with the 20th coming in the fall of 2019. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you got started?
I started the company because I didn’t quite know what else to do with myself at the time. I was an aspiring professional skier in the late ‘90s and in January 2000 I blew out my knee. I had already committed to taking that one year off from school so I thought, What could I do with my time?
The freeskiing community at that point was very small and a photographer friend of mine suggested that I make a film because I was studying filmmaking and photography at the time. I was like, Well, this is a good way to keep myself busy while I heal. So I made the first Level 1 film that year called Balance.
Starting a company was just a way to give it some level of organization. There wasn’t really a grand design behind it. It was like, Okay, if we’re going to make a film, I need to have a company name and I think that’s how we do this.
I never took any business or economics classes. I had no idea what was involved in actually being a business person and really having goals and moving forward, I just kind of fell into it. I didn’t have a goal to create a business in the beginning. I think that’s what allowed me to perpetuate it because I had no expectations.
What drives you to continue? Because 20 years is impressive.
Being able to just grow somewhat organically from the very beginning, I think, inspired me.
And then the people around me. The sport of skiing was evolving very quickly when we started and we’ve been fortunate enough to witness so much change and progression on an annual basis. I think what’s been going on within the sport has also inspired us to continue making films because there’s been a measurable change and approach from one thing to the next. It’s kept things somewhat interesting from a creative standpoint and added a little fuel to the fire to keep us going.
So after that first year and your first film, did you consider yourself a business yet?
Oh no, oh no. Definitely not.
The first two films that I made, I was still going to school full time and taking the winter trimester off to make the films. So for one, I was in a fortunate position where I didn’t need to make money because I was still a student. I had to feed myself, I had to buy beer and buy lots of mini DV tapes. That was really the expense. And then, of course, travel.
But the way I was doing it at the time, it was as cheap as you can possibly imagine – a lot of Greyhound buses, and wherever I’d go I’d sleep on floors and couches. So I definitely did not consider Level 1 a real business at that point.
The third film that I made was the year after I graduated and it was the last hurrah, if you will. It was like, I’m going to do one of these films as a full-time endeavor, but I’m still 23. I don’t really need to make money, I’m not paying rent anywhere, I’m going to get a real job after this so I can afford to do this for another year. The film was called Strike Three and the whole idea was, strike three, I’m out, I’m done, that was it. And I was going to go to New York or L.A. and work for a commercial production company there, pursue what would have been a much more traditional approach to filmmaking as a career.
By the time we were done with the third movie, everybody was pressuring me to continue because we built this little group of people – athletes and a few photographers and friends who were filming and traveling with me – and if I pulled the plug, what were they going to do? So it was like, Alright, we’ll keep this going and the next film we made was called Forward, in part because we were going to continue forward.
I think it probably wasn’t until I moved out to Colorado and I got my first place outside of Denver that I really started to consider it a business. And I was actually able to start paying other people to help out with things, buying new camera equipment – I mean, the super base-level things that make you feel like you’re doing something as a financially independent entity. I think that was probably 2004.
And how about your business structure then and now? Are you an LLC, sole proprietorship? Did that evolve?
Yes. I think we started out as an LLC just because whoever was telling me what to do at the time, they were like, We’re going to set you up as an LLC. Great, whatever that means.
I think maybe five or six years ago, my accountant suggested that we switch to an S Corp[oration], so now we’re an S Corp. And to be honest, I’m not entirely familiar with all the benefits of the structure, the corporate entity. But I know it works.
You said early on you had friends and people helping you. Do you have employees or independent contractors now?
Yeah, so I treat our “employees” as friends and family, more so than a traditional boss-employee relationship. It’s a blessing and a curse, for sure, because I’m prioritizing, in a large part, the relationships I have with these people. And that’s super important to me, so that’s always been a key ingredient. Is that always the best thing for running a business? Not necessarily. But my approach is probably a lot different than most other people’s.
The number of people who work for Level 1 just depends on the time of the year. Pretty much everybody is an independent contractor, which allows them a little bit of freedom and a lack of commitment as far as their ability to pick their own hours, take part in other projects and do the things they want to do. And I’ve found that it works well for everybody.
You mentioned that you had no business experience, so what were the ways you figured out the business side as you went along?
Trial by fire. [Laughter]
I’d say slowly but surely figuring things out. I think from the business standpoint, I’ve always been very conservative and never set lofty goals and expectations so that’s allowed us to grow things very slowly and organically over time. I’ve never made financial commitments that I wasn’t very comfortable we could meet, I never missed payments to anybody or needed to ask for more time. It’s all due to us just moving very slowly.
The only loan that I ever took out was our SBA loan to build this building [Level 1’s office space in Denver’s Santa Fe District]. And I borrowed three grand from my dad to buy my first real video camera halfway through shooting the first movie, which I paid him back in, like, six months.
But yeah, I think just a very conservative approach has allowed me to figure things out as time goes on and create a situation where any mistakes I make are not catastrophic.
Let’s talk about your personal creative process. What does that look like for filmmaking?
My personal creative process is all over the place. I wish I had the time to devote to being creative and actually thinking about things. I feel like my creative process is kind of forced, to be honest. The amount of responsibilities on my plate on a daily basis force me to be much more of a business person for most of the year than to actually be a filmmaker. And of course the brutal irony is I got into this not because I wanted to run a business, but I wanted to make films.
The reality, for better and worse, of running your own company is that you are the person running that company. I have to make all the decisions and take on all the responsibilities of day-to-day operations, which ultimately eclipses the amount of time I can dedicate to being creative.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to bring on other people whose creative judgments I trust and vibe well with what I want to do and the way I see things. That’s been a tremendous help.
What about the overall process of creating your feature-length films?
Creating a feature-length ski film is pretty much a year-long process.
We usually kick things off in the fall with some pre-production meetings where, as a crew, we’re going to talk about, Who do we want to work with? Where do we want to go? What concepts do we want to illustrate, if any? Because usually, they’re not super tangible, especially at that point in the year.
Once the snow starts falling, our phones start ringing, athletes are all excited to go do something. Whether that’s November, December or at the very latest January, a lot of the crews are up and running and traveling the world shooting. That goes from November to the middle or the end of May. And the bulk of that time is really everybody scrambling to create and produce as much content as we can.
Action sports films – ski films, as a genre – are equal parts documentary and action sports. Because no matter how much planning you do as a producer or in pre-production, there’re so many factors that are just beyond your control. And once you get wherever you’re going, you’re just reacting to things.
So the creative process becomes very malleable throughout the winter and as we get back into the office towards the end of the year, we start to get a grasp of not only what we have, but how it fits together with what three, four, five, six other filmmakers who have been traveling the world also shot and we put those pieces of the puzzle together. We do that as we begin editing and the film itself really changes and takes shape throughout the summer.
I refer to it as being a forced creative process because that’s really what it is. We have a very definitive timeline with producing an annual film, so we don’t have a lot of flexibility to really take a step back at times and reevaluate things. It’s just go, go, go because the premiere is in September and we need to have a movie to press play that night.
We’ve figured it out pretty well at this point but that’s probably one of my biggest complaints – the tight timeline rather than really having the ability to dig in and have more creative control over what we’re doing. We’re pretty much reacting to what we have to work with and figuring out how to put it together into something we can live with.
You’ve hinted at possible changes in the future because this feature-length film business is very structured and it does take a full year. What are your thoughts on what you’ll do moving forward?
The film we’re working on right now is our 20th annual feature film and I have been married to these things for 20 years straight. I’ve personally been involved in every single aspect of every single film. This is what I’ve been living, eating, breathing, sleeping for 20 years. It’s all consuming. There’s really not a lot of time for me to do much else with my life.
I haven’t had a normal summer ever in my adult life. Never known what it’s like to just have a summer where I’m not living in front of a computer. I never had a winter where I’m not constantly checking forecasts and calling people all over the world, figuring out what’s going on with all our crews.
Looking at the way other companies, other businesses have approached this I’ve seen people who started the original model step aside or hand off the reins so they can move on and do something else. The brand continues to produce an annual film, however I think the annual product often suffers. It’s not necessarily worse, but if you’re changing the creative crew behind the film every year or two, you’re going to have a different look, different feel, different athletes. And that was something I was never willing to do. So for better or worse, it just forced me to be so attached to these things.
In order to grow our business, to pursue other opportunities and to start to do things a little differently, the only way I can do that is to press pause on these annual films and start to shift gears.
We’re definitely not done making ski movies, we’re just done – for now – making this annual film. I’m a little nervous because I feel I’m going to be busier than I am right now. But more than anything else, just excited to be able to do things a little differently and mix things up a little bit.
Can you share more about what people can expect to see from you?
Yeah. We’ve created a very definitive mold for what Level 1 feature ski films are like – very action focused – and there’s not a ton of flexibility within that mold because we have this audience and they expect a certain feel and design. We can definitely experiment a little bit within that, but I don’t want to break that mold.
But there are so many things that we want to do, so many stories that we want to tell, so many more stylized segments and concepts that we want to pursue that you just cannot fit in that mold.
Speaking of your audience, you’ve developed a loyal fanbase for your company by cultivating a highly engaged community. What’s your strategy for keeping the community involved?
I think just creating a brand message and feeling that’s consistent. People know what to expect and know what they’re signing up for, who they’re talking to, what they’re going to see. There’s a level of expectation with the consistency that is Level 1 and that’s allowed the people who’ve appreciated what we do to continue to appreciate what we do. It’s not like, Man, remember when Level 1 used to be this way? It’s like, No, it’s the same thing.
I think we’ve also always been very approachable, both on the business side and for athletes. We’ve always made a huge point to work with the best up-and-coming athletes, not always the biggest names and the most highly paid athletes, but skiers who are very relatable to everybody else. I think that’s something that our fanbase can see and appreciate and makes them feel attached to, rather than just this athlete on a pedestal who’s world champion of this, that and the other that they will never be able to relate to. That’s also reflected in our films.
We’ve always tried to make films that are relatable and fun and that at the end of the day, they make you want to go skiing. That’s what I want to hear as a reaction and response to our films – that you’re excited about going skiing. I think that draws people into the brand, it’s easy to understand, it’s easy to engage with people when you’re making them excited about something. You’re not just interested in instilling awe, wonder and fear, just blowing their minds with the craziest stuff – you’ve got to do a little bit of that too – but to also paint a picture of something that people can relate to, it brings them in.
For the marketing side, where are you finding success when it comes to engaging your audience – social media, your email newsletter, certain partnerships?
Social media has definitely been the answer and I hate it for a number of reasons. It’s in large part been the death of long-form content pieces. But it’s also been such an easy way for us to communicate with our fanbase. It’s the platforms they all want to use and it’s so simple for us to post or share something that immediately reaches a couple of hundred thousand people who can immediately respond to it. And we can gauge what they like, what they don’t like, answer their questions and comments, just speak to them.
So social media platforms in general, but specifically Instagram. No secret there, especially for a company like Level 1. Because we’re a media company, we’re producing all of this content and Instagram is an opportunity for us to share that content. Which makes it very organic. Because we’re not aggregating other people’s content, it’s more of just like, This is what we do, these are the shots that we have produced here, watch them.
How strategic are you about posting days, hashtags, anything like that?
I don’t use hashtags.
I’ve never been into it. I would say that I probably personally post 98% of the content on Level 1’s Instagram page and I just feel like I can’t be bothered with hashtags. I don’t care enough. And yeah, would we engage with a few more people, could a few more people find what we’re doing?
Actually, there are circumstances, like for SuperUnknown [Level 1’s video talent search contest] where we’re trying to build a collection that’s easily searchable — I’ll use the hashtags for that. But normally it’s just a little description about what went on and what we’re doing, tag an athlete, tag Whistler Blackcomb, tag the guy who built the feature. But no hashtags.
And are you thinking about conversions at all? For example how social media may help with getting people to maybe buy products or go to premieres?
Well, we probably benefit from being a little more strategic and putting a little more thought into it, but I don’t think I really care enough to focus too much on very specifically, How are we converting this viewer to become this customer?
It’s just a lot of trial and error. If they are engaging with us, they’re probably following what we’re doing across multiple platforms. And we’ll probably do a little more promo product stuff through Instagram Stories, so people start watching that. Or they’ll see an athlete wearing something and they’ll be like, Where can I get that? And they’ll send us a message.
We just don’t try that hard, I think. And in some weird way, we probably benefit from it a little bit because our fanbase knows that we’re not forcing anything down their throats. I mean, when we have big sales – we do a summer sale, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, that kind of thing — if you go on our social media that day, all it is is blasting out hourly specials and products. It’s borderline obnoxious, but it’s been an awesome way for us to actually see conversions. For 60 minutes, this product is 50% off. Just go, go, go, go, go. And people are tagging their friends, like, Mom, I want this. That’s probably one of the few examples of us really being over the top. But I think if you just give it to people in small doses, they’re willing to tolerate it.
Going back to SuperUnknown, can you tell us why you created that talent search contest and how it’s benefitted you as a company?
Sure. So I created SuperUnknown back in 2004, pre-YouTube, pre-social media. My goal was to create an opportunity for athletes who aspired to become professional skiers but didn’t otherwise have a way or means to get recognized.
In the early 2000s, if you wanted to get yourself seen, you had to go the U.S. Open in Vail [a Colorado ski resort], you had to go to the [ESPN] X-Games qualifiers in Squaw Valley [a California ski resort] and maybe there was one other contest, but if you didn’t go to those contests there was no way anybody would know who you were. You could be the best of the best, hanging out in the northeast and nobody would care. It was not very diplomatic. You had to have somebody paying for you to go someplace, whether it’s your parents, sponsors or whatever. And I wanted to basically give a leg up to all the people I thought were out there that deserved an opportunity but couldn’t do it on their own.
The instructions we gave people were throw away your resumes, do not send photos, just send us your promo video. We created a lot of interest and excitement from all the up-and-comers in the skiing community who wanted to get noticed and very quickly it became a pretty big thing. The kid who won the very first year, Corey Vanular, went on to win [NBC Sports] Gravity Games halfpipe within 18 months of winning SuperUnknown. I brought him out to Freeze Magazine’s Parkasaurus [event] and I had a line of team managers following Corey and I down the mountain waving contracts at him. It was pretty insane.
I think the success of the concept in general is due to the athletes who won. That certainly helps. But as time has gone on and we’ve sort of shifted how we run it, it also has become something that is so accessible and easy for people to participate in, to watch and to understand, that it continues to grow. We just wrapped up shooting SuperUnknown 16, which is wild.
It was exclusively online for the first nine years and going into the tenth year we wanted to create a more interactive experience. So we brought the ten finalists to a resort partner (that very first year it was Sun Valley [Resort]) and we’ve repeated that model every year since with a different resort partner. We put the finalists in a professional ski film park shoot experience and they had the opportunity to ski with other people from all over the world who have different styles, different backgrounds, different approaches. It’s pretty amazing.
How is that funded? Through the resort partners or something else?
So the resort partners, they’re exclusively responsible for all the on-hill and off-hill costs of the actual event itself – building features, transport, ski patrol, lodging, food. They’re not necessarily paying cash sponsors, but they’re probably supporting us to a higher degree than anybody else. Otherwise, I’ve shopped around to different brands we work with and we’ve got a few really good sponsors at this point who help support it [evo, Newschoolers.com, Wells Lamont and Winter Park Resort in 2019].
It’s had lean years and leaner years – it’s definitely not some cash cow. In fact, three years ago, I think we had a grand total of zero dollars to support it. So it was pretty much just all out of pocket. But I think that’s okay because for one, I wouldn’t do SuperUnknown just based on trying to make money off of it, that’s certainly not the goal. If we didn’t have a paying sponsor next year, I would keep doing it. It’s something that’s really important to me and it’s borderline a fixture in this aspect of the ski industry at this point.
It’s also obviously been great for recognition and branding for what Level 1 is. I think it takes everything that the “brand” is built on and puts it all together in something that involves our fanbase, produces really cool content, activates all through social media and sends these 10 people back to where they’re from, more often than not, saying, That was the best fucking week of my life. We hear that every single year, it’s kind of crazy. It really is, it warms my heart.
It’s probably my favorite week of shooting every year. It’s also far and away the most stressful and insane because we’re shooting all day, we come back to wherever we’re staying, we catalog all the clips we shot and hand them off to an editor who is working around the clock producing all the web edits to get them out as quickly as possible. I want to say at Winter Park this year I shot between 600 or 700 clips per day that all needed to be cataloged. And, granted, you’re throwing out a third of those, but the rest you need to attach the athlete name, the trick they do, the feature they do it on and any other adjectives so the editor can actually find what they’re looking for. It’s nuts. But it’s still the most fun thing ever.
What are some of the key tools you use?
Oh man. I started Level 1 at the perfect time as far as technological development in cameras because everybody who came before me was shooting 16mm and it was absolutely cost-prohibitive.
I remember showing up at a number of these early shoots where everybody – Johnny from Poor Boyz, Steve from Matchstick, the Jones brothers from TGR [Teton Gravity Research] – would converge and shoot for their movies. Everybody else is on 16mm and they’re all looking at me, this little kid with a video camera, probably thinking, What is he doing? Nobody was taking me seriously.
But yeah, I mean, that’s really what allowed me to do it. If I had tried five years earlier, the video technology was absolute shit at that point and it wouldn’t have allowed me to produce a professional enough product to get any traction. And there was no way I was going to be able to shoot a 16mm film. No way. So I think right place at the right time, as far as technology, definitely allowed me to kick things off with Level 1 without spending money I didn’t have.
For tools, everything at this point is digital. We shoot with a few RED camera kits, a bunch of Sony mirrorless kits. I think different tools fit different situations.
As far as post-production, like almost everybody else we’re running the Adobe Creative Cloud suite. It’s all there is. Thanks, Apple, for pulling Final Cut.
So can you talk a little bit about the different revenue streams Level 1 has?
Yeah, I think our creative approach to generating revenue has been another reason that we’re still around. If we simply relied on sponsors of an annual film from one year to the next, we wouldn’t be able to keep the ship afloat.
It wasn’t even necessarily intentional when we first started putting logos on T-shirts and selling them. I never wanted to create a streetwear brand or sell T-shirts, that was not part of the business plan, if you will. There wasn’t any specific business plan, it was just another opportunity to get our name out there and give our athletes some gear to wear. But the merchandise component of what we do just kind of took off. I think it was a situation where if we had had a very specific goal in mind, We’re going to make merch and we’re going to grow this, it probably wouldn’t have worked out. But because we didn’t have that by design, it just sort of took on a life on its own. We were able to just react to what was going on rather than to plan and try to direct it. It’s a semi-consistent revenue stream regardless of movie sales, sponsors who come and go, sponsors who decide not to pay you – all these things that are way out of your control. We sell a lot of stuff during the holidays, we sell a little bit less in the summer. I can point to a calendar and know that we’re going to move a bunch of merch at different points of the season. It’s something that’s nice to be able to rely on.
So beyond that, just trying to figure out different ways to capitalize on the content that we produce, whether it’s stock footage or licensing for TV. And our premiere tour obviously contributes a portion of our revenue stream to the overall business.
But yeah, diversity — having all these different components because one will inevitably not be working when the others are. Diversity lets me sleep at night.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
Having people tell me that a Level 1 movie influenced them, changed their life, inspired them to move out West to get a job in the industry. To hear that things we’ve done have inspired and influenced people.
How much time do you invest in networking within the ski industry and with other creative professionals, and what does that look like?
Very little. Not enough.
Being able to do this for 20 years, we’ve obviously developed relationships with a lot of amazing people and supporting brands have contributed a lot to allowing us to still be here. But I feel like we’re kind of on our own little island. So it’s something that I would love to do more of and I expect to be able to do more as we start to shift gears away from this annual feature film.
What are some obstacles or hurdles you’ve had to overcome?
Oh boy. How much time do you have?
Let’s see. I mean, really, the obstacles of working in snow sports and skiing, a lot of them are financial. It’s really not a healthy industry. It has good years, it has bad years, and as brands and businesses react to sales and snowfall from the previous year, marketing budgets are the first to get adjusted to make them fall in line with their profit and loss goals and everything that comes with it.
So really, just navigating the financial side of things and being able to figure out how to monetize our relationships and our partnerships. I mean, that’s always the biggest challenge. I’m not a salesman. I think I do a decent job of it, but it’s not my forte. It’s the thing I like least about what I do and I just have to do it.
We joke that contracts from this industry mean nothing. No matter how many Ts I cross and Is I dot, I’ve had so many brands, big and small, straight up default on contracts and just never pay. I’m probably way too lenient on payment terms. They’ll say, Hey, how about we pay you next year for what you’re doing right now, that’s the only way we can fit it into the budget? And I say, Sure, go for it.
In some ways, I’m probably a pushover when it comes to that stuff just because I don’t like to take some crazy aggressive business stance, that’s just not me. And yeah, it’s definitely resulted in us getting screwed. I’ve got a spreadsheet going back probably 15 years that has a very heavy six-figure sum of all the contracts and money that we’re owed that’s just red-lined as, We’re never going to see that. So yeah, that’s definitely been a challenge.
And then, specifically, I would say building this building that we’re sitting in was probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.
It’s an awesome building.
Thank you, thank you.
Hopefully it was worth it in the end.
In the end, yes. But did you ever hear the short version of the long story about this place?
No, what happened?
This project was about a year late, it was more than 100% over budget and it continues to be an ungodly pain in the ass. There were a lot of shady people involved.
I’m sorry, that sucks.
I mean, it’s alright because it’s a really cool building. I’m very proud of it and it’s our forever home, so that’s cool. But. Holy. Shit.
It’s one of those things you hope doesn’t happen when you go into it.
I mean, I had backup plans— like, worst case, beyond worst case, hell freezes over, pigs flying around, everything – and this was worse. I’ve had people who are very familiar with all the details say, This is the most insane building project that I’ve ever heard of or seen on every fucking level.
I know we talked a little bit about what you’re planning for the future, but is there anything else you want to share about your plans?
Really, to produce content and tell stories that make me feel really good about what I’m doing. And continue to inspire people. Because I don’t feel like, at this point in my career, I have enough time to actually do that.
Whenever I get the opportunity to go shoot a random project, usually at the end of the day I feel really good about what I captured. It’s like, This is so cool, I need to do more of this.
I need to shoot more, I need to capture more, I need to show more. That’s what really makes me excited at this point. So I’m hoping to do that.
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.
- Adobe Creative Cloud
- Balance – first film
- Corey Vanular – freeskier
- Erik Seo – photographer
- ESPN X-Games
- evo – online + brick-and-mortar action sports retailer
- Strike Three – third film
- SuperUnknown talent search
- RED Digital Camera
- Sony Mirrorless cameras
- Squaw Valley Ski Resort
- Sun Valley Resort
- Vail Ski Resort
- Wells Lamont – gloves
- Will Wesson – freeskier
- Winter Park Resort