In early April of 2017, I stood on the summit of Mont Fort, in Switzerland, 10,919 feet above sea level. Off in the distance, to the southeast, was the sharktooth-like Matterhorn, allegedly the most-photographed mountain in the world. Immediately to the southwest loomed the impossibly steep north face of Bec des Rosses, home of skiing’s Freeride World Tour (FWT) final. Beyond those hallowed proving grounds and jutting out from a sea of towering, jagged peaks was Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Below me, the expansive 4 Vallées ski area—complete with 250 miles of ski runs and a whopping 93 ski lifts—sprawled in all directions, spilling into the charming mountain town of Verbier. I was in awe of the vastness and beauty of my surroundings. It was the sort of place that makes you think big and dream big. And it comes as no surprise, then, that Faction Skis, based in Verbier from its inception in 2006, is doing exactly that; the company is poised to release a big-budget, feature-length “team film,” the likes of which the ski industry has never seen.
I’d come to Verbier to observe Faction’s film production process. For four full days I shadowed a horde of Faction’s staffers, athletes and artists as they tirelessly worked to produce just one short segment for the upcoming film, titled This Is Home. What I witnessed was the operation of a well-oiled machine: efficient camerawork and clear communication between no fewer than 10 cinematographers and photographers; creative vision and direction from the lead cameraman and editor, Etienne Merel; and hyper attention to detail in all aspects of shooting. All that, and astonishing skiing talent—mind-bending aerial acrobatics that blended grace and technicality in a way that can only be described as world class. Yet all of this was to be expected. In recent years, Faction has masterfully staked its claim as a formidable industry player largely by investing in athletes and film.
Rewind to the 2013 and recall that Faction unveiled a web series dubbed We Are the Faction Collective. The inaugural season featured three short films, ranging from five to eight minutes in length. Three more episodes came in 2014-15 and another three in 2015-16. Faction marketer and team manager, Mathieu Soumet, explains, “Back in the summer of 2013, we felt like we had a great athlete roster, but the skiers were involved in different projects and following their own paths. We wanted to bring them all together under one project and showcase them in the best way possible while also building a name for the Faction team as a whole. We felt like there was no better option to tell our brand story, showcase who we are, what we stand for and what we love than video making.”
Sure, video is long past the status of an emerging marketing tactic—it’s undeniably a powerful way to communicate brand stories, explain value proposition and foster relationships with both fans and prospective customers. About 87 percent of online marketers use video content, and more than half of marketing professionals worldwide name video as the type of content with the best return on investment, reports Hubspot. Yet, as far as ski manufacturers go, Faction emerged as one of only a handful that truly stood out for its creative use of the motion-picture medium. The pairing of raw skiing talent and Merel’s film savvy (he was entrusted with Faction’s film endeavors from the get-go) proved to be a winning combination, yielding immediate dividends.
Over the course of three years, the edits garnered well over 4 million views, helping to spread awareness of Faction’s team and its initiatives. And while Faction says it’s impossible for the brand to know exactly how the spread of the videos impacted sales—since most transactions still happen in physical stores—the company believes video is largely responsible for spurring 242 percent growth in the number of skis sold in that same time frame.
“We enjoyed three amazing seasons of We Are the Faction Collective, and I am convinced we could have gone for a fourth while still creating interesting edits and maintaining good viewership and stoked fans,” says Soumet. “That being said, web content had become the norm. Many production companies and athletes were suddenly investing in shorter edits and releasing them online. We felt there was an opportunity to create a full-length film.”
Soumet says Faction readily acknowledged the fact that a full-fledged film was a “different, much bigger animal.” There would be budgets to sort out, not to mention balancing the always-in-flux schedules and availability of the athletes, snow conditions at shooting venues and more. But, Soumet says, he and his counterparts were confident that leaning on their past experiences would help carry them to success.
“We knew there were going to be loads of challenges, but literally the whole company was behind the project, making it that much easier to get things done,” says Soumet. “We had the athletes and in-house skills, so we pulled the trigger.”
“Having” the athletes, of course, is more than just dumb luck. It is the result of calculated decision-making over the course of Faction’s history, culminating in a team lineup that is as diverse as it is full of skill and boisterous personality.
Faction’s founder, Tony McWilliam, notes, “We’ve never pushed for podiums, we’ve never been interested in just looking for ‘podium athletes.’ We’re more interested in people’s stories and where they are going and what they want to do. Our athletes are part of our family.”
Being part of the family means the athletes are constantly collaborating with Faction’s reps on product design and other exciting projects—like this film. The symbiotic relationship and a commitment to people first has attracted a great deal of talent.
There’s the almighty Frenchman, Candide Thovex, whose nearly two-decade-long stay in the industry spotlight has earned him the distinction of most well-respected and widely known freeskier in the world, in the eyes of many. There’s the smooth-skiing Montanan, Adam Delorme, who in the words of teammate Duncan Adams is “a skier’s skier, paying zero attention to anything other than chasing the feeling we all live for… He’s the kind of guy who reminds us what this lifestyle is really about.” Interestingly enough, I would describe Adams—one of most talented skiers I’ve ever had the pleasure of skiing alongside—in the exact same way.
The list goes on: Faction is partnered with Sam Anthamatten, the FWT competitor, mountaineer and UIAGM-certified guide who was instrumental in the design of Faction’s all-new Prime skis. Also, Antti Ollila, the Olympian and celebrated Finnish skier who makes inverted and corked-out ski stunts look like a cakewalk. Additionally, 11-year-old Henry and 15-year-old Kelly Sildaru—Kelly being a two-time X Games gold medalist in slopestyle and the youngest Winter X Games gold medalist, ever. And Utah’s own Johnny Collinson, whose parents always “just let him loose as a kid, free to roam around Snowbird and Alta having the most fun every single day.” Plus, a dozen other notable athletes. As the saying goes, “When you’ve got talent, you might as well show it off.” And that’s precisely what Faction intends to do with This Is Home.
“The idea of a feature-length team film is something very new in skiing,” says Soumet. He wouldn’t have been wrong if he had said “entirely new.” Barring Dick Barrymore’s The Performers, a film supported by K2 put out in 1971, and a couple of recent short films, like 4FRNT’s team-centric film, Shaping Skiing, which ran 30 minutes in length, the sport hasn’t seen anything on the level of This Is Home. It’s somewhat surprising, given team films are a proven format in the realm of other action sports such as snowboarding. Consider Union’s Stronger, Nitro’s Boom, Grenade’s Revenge of the Grenerds, Burton’s Presents, DC’s Mountain Lab and Oakley’s Snowboaring For Me. Skateboarding has also put out team films such as Girl’s Yeah Right! and Pretty Sweet, Enjoi’s Bag of Suck, Lakai’s Fully Flared, Emerica’s Stay Gold and Flip’s Sorry.
To best introduce its athletes to its fans, Faction spent the winter of 2016-17 venturing to the skiers’ hometowns (hence the film title) and local ski hills. Of course, the athletes were along for the ride, too, providing commentary on their upbringing and clicking into their skis and doing what they do best. The veteran Thovex and young Henry Sildaru take on La Clusaz—the French resort where Thovex cut his teeth. Ollila and co. turn the streets of Jyväskylä, Finland, into their playground. Delorme guides a troop around the Montana backcountry. Collinson introduces Anthamatten to the beautiful skiing options in and around Little Cottonwood Canyon, and in turn, Anthamatten hosts Collinson in Zermatt, and so on. Having seen snippets of the footage from these locales and having enjoyed an up-close-and-personal look at the film production process in Verbier, I have high hopes for the film.
While visiting the company’s headquarters, just a stone’s throw from a gondola that whisks you up to the aforementioned skiing nirvana, I witnessed salespeople getting up from their desks and leaving their immediate tasks to assist with film production, a nod to Soumet’s comment regarding the whole company’s willingness to rally behind the project. I also witnessed Merel and his team strive for perfection. For example, also at the headquarters, the film crew staged and shot, then re-shot, and re-shot again (likely 25 times over) one single clip that was part of a storyboard. The clip involved masterful drone work and also called upon the athletes to double as actors. The skiers obliged Merel’s repeated requests for new takes, albeit with some rolling of the eyes and occasional sighs, because what they really wanted was to get out of the valley and back up to the ski hill.
Merel is quick to thank the skiers for their efforts. He explains, “Creating a [feature-length] film is a whole new process. It was the first time for everybody in the production team. I’m so stoked on what we produced, and I’m so grateful to the skiers who gave their best to make it all possible.”
On the hill, the skiers’ output came not just in the form of shoveling vast amounts of snow—oftentimes from early morning straight through until late evening— in order to build jumps all over the mountain, but also through their willingness to put their bodies on the line in order to get great shots.
I couldn’t help but shout with excitement as I watched the likes of Delorme, Adams, Ollila, the Sildarus, Alex Hall, Eirik Sæterøy and Tim McChesney ski at mach 10 and air off both natural and manmade jumps at every possible turn.
On one particular occasion, one that I feel embodies the filming experience at Verbier, we arrived at a new potential jump zone, and McChesney immediately set his sights on a beastly, unforgiving gap jump. Three-plus hours of shoveling later there existed a take-off ramp that would launch a skier up and over a gully and a heap of rocks to a steep landing on the opposite side, some 100 feet away.
“It looks pretty left,for sure,” said Adams, referring to the jump’s trajectory in relation to the landing. As far as I was concerned, the whole thing looked “left” in the sense that this was purely not right! It was insane.
“Holy s—, that’s really far,” said McChesney, as he eyed his construction and contemplated the risk. He traced his flight path with his pointer finger, “But damn, it looks kind of sick.”
“Maybe this is too much, no?” said the Estonian, Tõnis Sildaru, father of Henry and Kelly.
“This is scary,” said Soumet, the “team dad,” likely envisioning an assortment of worst-case scenarios.
“I didn’t expect [the jump] to be this big,” said Ollila, “That always f—ing happens.”
“Just another Faction shoot, eh?!” exclaimed Hall, a candidate for the United States slopestyle ski team at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
After much deliberation, McChesney ascended the hill, clicked his poles together, shouted, “Dropping!” to notify the cameramen of his intention to go orbital and flew down the inrun in a tuck position. My stomach dropped as I considered the consequences of coming up short.
With a whoosh! he took to the skies, topping out some 50-plus feet above the ground. Two young children riding a nearby T-bar screamed in French for their parents, one T behind, to watch. As McChesney rocketed through the air, the father belted a roar of approval. And so too did McChesney’s teammates when he reached the landing safely (just barely—he nearly toppled head over heels at high speeds after punching a hole in the soft, slushy snow where he landed) and skied away.
“Très bien! Très bien!” repeated the father on the T-bar exuberantly, preceding a slew of what I supposed were French compliments.
More confident, now, McChesney returned to the top of the hill and proceeded to hit the jump multiple times, eventually spinning a 360 and also a corked-out 720. His performance that day was exemplary of the skill that fills Faction’s team. It’s the sort of raw, natural talent that will unquestionably impress a wide audience.
Faction is certainly expecting this to be the case. The company will bring its film on tour this fall to “big cities and tiny ones, to resorts, universities, ski clubs, bars, everywhere,” says Faction’s PR and communications guru, Harriet Coton. Faction will host live screenings across Europe and North America, with at least 100 stops, and the company will also release the film online for free, via YouTube, in an effort to extend the film’s reach. The expected release date on YouTube is December 2017.
“Seeing it all come together has been amazing and incredibly fun,” says Soumet.
And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about—it’s why Faction continues to invest in this team and also in film.
“The thing that makes a 15-year-old take up the sport is the same as a 50-plus-year-old who’s skiing for the thirtieth winter,” says McWilliam. “It’s all about escaping and having fun. It’s easy as a growing business to start playing things safe and forgetting your roots and the fact that at the end of the day it’s about skiing and that’s all.”