Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

And Now A Word NOT From Our Sponsors

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There’s a scene in The Crash Reel, Lucy Walker’s illuminating documentary about snowboard champ Kevin Pearce’s struggle to rehabilitate after experiencing brain trauma, which caused me to take a deep breath. The film, which premieres tonight on HBO, has many such moments, most of them exhilarating (Pearce’s incredibly badass snowboarding tricks), others endearing (Pearce’s incredible Vermont family that supports him), and many that are heartbreaking (Pearce’s accident, his post-trauma, and his struggle to come back.)

But the shortness of breath I refer to was of a different kind. Toward the end of the film, Pearce is shown at an awesome chalet provided by one of his sponsors, Nike, where he’s placing his many sponsors’ decals on his board and helmet. In the scene, which lasts a minute, Pearce speaks of how his “amazing” sponsors, many of whom are named, have stuck with him throughout his grueling recovery, and that “I have to show them all love.”

I couldn’t help thinking, is this product placement? Isn’t this what Morgan Spurlock was parodying in POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold? Clearly, the sponsors must have gone into allowing the airing of their logos with some measure of confidence that they would be well represented. And I had heard that Walker first met Pearce at a Nike-sponsored event intended to inspire athletes to work for social change. That’s all good. But was this quid pro quo? According to Walker: No!

I asked her in an email exchange and she’s adamant that, in fact, the extreme sports industry has tried to put the kibosh on the film, and has refused to show it to their employees. In fact, she sees a possible media backlash coming against those sponsors, because of how the film depicts how they handle (or, rather, cover up) severe sports injuries.

I am convinced that the film is not a shill for the industry. But that doesn’t mean she’s not toeing a fine line with The Crash Reel. Despite all of the imagery of death and trauma due to the sport, the movie revels in the highs of the sport — from beautifully photographed snowboarding to glorifying the dudes who can rip it to basking in the good times behind the scenes.

I think a lot of young people will see The Crash Reel and want to hit the mountain — hard. And no doubt, many, if not most, will also get the consistent message of the film that they need to be careful, wear a helmet, and be aware of the signs of brain trauma. But it reminds me of how two English teens saw Michael Moore’s explicitly anti-gun documentary, Bowling for Columbine, and it fed their fantasies — but not actual plans, as decided in court — of committing a massacre like what happened at Columbine. You just can’t control the way a film will be received.

Ultimately, I think Walker does a great job. It is not insignificant to note that just before that scene in which Pearce gives love to his sponsors, we hear his dad blaming all parties (which would include sponsors) for creating a condition that pushes athletes to endanger themselves.

Read on for Walker’s replies to my questions about the issue of sponsors and The Crash Reel.

Doc Soup Man: Is Nike, or any other of Kevin’s sponsors, a producer or an investor in The Crash Reel?

Lucy Walker: Not at all. This is the opposite of the kind of movie that sponsors typically create in the action sports world which glamorize the sport and are not documentaries but long-form branded content. In fact the film raises questions about the nature of the sponsorship in these sports and we could not have had them fund the movie as we wanted to exercise our documentary standards of independent observation. This is why we went to HBO and Impact Partners to finance the movie, because not only do they work to the highest standards of documentary impartiality, but they have also defended us against parts of the industry that have tried to hold back the film, presumably in order to suppress its important safety message.

The “Nike event” where I met Kevin was actually created and organized by David De Rothschild, an independent environmentalist, and not Nike, by the way. And I wasn’t paid to appear at that retreat, I participate pro bono (where normally I have a speaking fee) out of respect for David and his idea that athletes should use their platform for social change, which is a beautiful idealistic idea.

So this isn’t a sponsored movie, nor have I ever accepted payment from Nike. In fact some of Kevin’s sponsors have told us that they have prepared their teams for a media backlash against sponsorship in action sports that may come this week as a result of the HBO broadcast.

Doc Soup Man: Did Nike or any of the other sponsors ask that you include mention of them in the film?

Lucy Walker: No, nor would we have done so if they asked. We are independent documentaries and we pride ourselves on our integrity above all. Product placement would not be appropriate in this important, sensitive, groundbreaking film.

Doc Soup Man: Did you have any qualms about showing that scene in the film when Kevin gives thanks to Nike and other sponsors? There’s at least an appearance of a quid pro quo, considering Nike brought you guys together.

Lucy Walker: I disagree that this seems like quid pro quo, on the contrary this is the scene that tends to make sponsors most uncomfortable actually. This is a vérité scene so the audience can make up their own mind about it. Kevin is obviously genuinely grateful that his sponsors have stuck by him as many contracts include a clause that athletes don’t appear when injured and don’t mention injuries and contracts are terminated when athletes are injured.

However, from speaking extensively to audiences, and in our testing of the scene during our postproduction process, I can tell you that we hear that the scene typically strikes viewers as an ironic and shocking one which reveals the extent to which sponsorship operates in the sport. This scene does not feel to most viewers like a quid pro quo or payola scene. The typical viewer sees it as an exposé of the extent to which Kevin has to appease his sponsors by getting his stickers correct according to his contract, and reveals that even the stickers on a board and helmet which seem so cool and haphazard and personal are actually legally proscribed.

Most viewers are wishing Kevin would not return to the sport at this point in the story, and so it rubs them up the wrong way to see him have to worry about his sponsors when he shouldn’t be going back to the sport at all. It seems grotesque that with his life on the line he is dutifully focused on sticker placement to advertise his sponsors who will perpetuate the sport. The fabulous house for sponsored athletes also gives an insight to audiences into the ways that sponsorship works in the sport and the fabulous perks the athletes enjoy which contribute to the athlete’s motivation to push themselves and so to injure themselves.

It was not included at the request of anyone, nor could it have been as we wouldn’t have entertained a discussion along these lines. This question strikes me as odd because this should be very clear — perhaps you have been forced to watch too many branded content type films, but we don’t work this way. We exercised our own creative final cut as a matter of course.

The only scene we were requested to take out was a news report about Shaun White getting arrested and him subsequently on the Larry King show saying that he was concussed and doesn’t recall and doesn’t think he was arrested.

Also noteworthy on this topic is that we included the news report that said that Sarah Burke’s sponsor Monster Energy Drinks was not paying for her medical costs even though she was uninsured because she was doing an event with them at the time she crashed.

Doc Soup Man: Are there any title cards, or the like, in the film that indicate the relationship (if any) between Nike and the film?

There is no relationship so no cards were needed. We have been inviting all the sponsors, starting with Nike, and including ESPN’s X Games, to get involved with our #LoveYourBrain campaign and to engage with the film’s concerns and to step up and show leadership around safety in action sports.

At the X Games this year Caleb Moore, a snowboarder, was killed from an injury sustained in competition, as I’m sure you know. In 2011, 11 action sports athletes were killed competing. More statistics are hard to come by but I suspect thousands of young people have been killed, paralyzed or suffered life-changing Traumatic Brain Injuries like Kevin while attempting action sports tricks off-camera inspired by what the professional athletes do. Our #LoveYourBrain campaign includes a range of initiatives including work towards incentivizing helmet use, getting athletes information on what insurance they need, concussion awareness, etc.

We would like to see sponsors make insurance and helmet use mandatory and also to take steps towards making sure that the conversation about safety in action sports (and how the sports are configured) keeps pace with the exhilarating pace of evolution in these sports. We were shocked to learn that many sponsors include in their contracts that athletes should not talk about their injuries if they incur any; this seems troubling and unacceptable.

We love sports and we want to make sure that passionate athletes such as Kevin are properly informed about the risks they are running and are properly protected and prepared for the injuries that may result.

For more on The Crash Reel, the #LoveYourBrain campaign and a sharable infographic (“What to do if you hit your head, and how to know whether you need to go see a doctor.”), visit thecrashreel.com.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • a_snowy_meadow

    For me the scene you are referring to seemed to illustrate Kevin’s continued cognitive struggles. His mother & brother are hovering around him as he has to double check the placement of each piece – stickers he probably had put on hundreds of times before without help. It’s painful to watch because you can see something still isn’t quite right with Kevin, but his desire to return to something he loves is pushing him all the while you see the sick look of dread on the faces of his family. Yes, this film makes snowboarding look beautiful and exciting – because it is beautiful and exciting. However, it also drives home with horrific clarity the dangers these athletes face and the absolutely criminality they aren’t insured while training, only competing. One of them makes the comment that the sponsors make things dangerous because the excitement of wrecks and crashes fuels the fans. It’s appalling, and quite believable. I feel like you’re so jaded towards the glimpse of sponsors in that one minute that you are missing the bigger picture. I’m a recreational boarder who had, until this moment, thought Burton was a pretty stand-up company. Now, in light of this film, I’m wondering how we can change things so that these athletes are protected (set safety regulations, hight limits on pipes) and are fully covered with insurance, especially while training. This film is about awareness and change, not sponsor love.