Unless you have worked in a surf shop and handled the ordering of surf films you probably haven’t heard of James Ravenel. It might surprise you then, that he is one of the most important men in the surf film industry at the moment. Earlier in his career Ravenel was the owner of Koastal Media, a company that distributed all of Taylor Steele’s films, which was then bought by Video Action Sports (One of the largest action sports distribution companies in the world), which has now evolved into OnWAX Media. As their Head of Surf Sales, he is at the forefront of this changing business; pioneering new revenue streams and exploring new media which will change the way we view our surf films in the near future. He has his fingers on the pulse of the surf film industry and is the go-to guy for most surf shops in the country when they need to re-stock their shelves with the latest and greatest films. I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to discuss with Ravenel where the surf film industry once was, where it is at now and where it is going in the future.

Tyler: How did you get your start in the surf film business?

James: Taylor Steele had Poor Specimen Productions and Steele House Distribution and I came on board in 2002 to help with AR and Holiday shipping for Steele House. Then I moved into the Domestic Sales Manager position in 2003.

Tyler: What was that like?

James: Personally, it was incredible. I thought that the surf film aspect of the industry was the most interesting part of it, and I had grown up watching Taylor’s movies over and over again. So, to be affiliated in any way was a dream come true.

Tyler: Tell me the numerous evolutions of the distribution companies you have been involved with starting with Poor Specimen to the present with OnWAX?

James: Distribution was 50 % VHS, 50% DVD. The pricelist was split with a DVD portion, then a VHS portion. After the 02 holidays, the shops reported that they sold much more DVD’s than VHS’s. It was when the price of the DVD player became affordable and it seemed every household got one that Christmas. Going off of that, we decided to stop producing VHS in the beginning of ’03. I was stoked on DVD for several reasons. I particularly liked what it allowed the producers to get creative with bonus sections. “Momentum: Under The Influence” had three individual soundtracks! They also introduced secret codes and other things that VHS didn’t offer.

When DVD’s first came out, almost all of them were single DVD’s in an plastic case. In 04, we saw The Moonshine Conspiracy release the “Thicker Than Water” collector’s edition with a DVD, CD and complementary booklet, in a multi-panel digi pack (cardboard). I thought it was a great product that added value and also foreshadowed where packaged media was heading, adding value to the product.

Tyler: Now everything is digital. Do you miss the DVD experience or are you a believer in the new digital medium?

James: Well you just asked a DVD salesman that question, ha ha! I personally love what’s going on with digital media: the instant gratification, the access, etc… but if I were to search for some nostalgia of the home video days, the surf movie on the DVD is what I miss. I miss when a surf movie would almost take a personal relationship with the surfer. You would start to see ads about it. There would be an editorial in one of the magazines about the film. People would start buzzing about the release. The shops that I would talk to everyday would ask me when the release date was. They wanted to have their order over-nighted so that they would be the first shop in town to have the movie. I wouldn’t even have to educate a shop about an upcoming surf film. They already knew all about it and had groms coming in and asking when it would drop.

Then having huge releases, where the DVD would be playing in every shop in America, and surfers would go to their local shop to pick up the movie and talk about it in the shop. That was part of surf culture. That was in the heyday of DVD’s. Back to the original question, I love digital media, but I think surf movies belong in surf shops and there is a place for packaged media for a long while to come. I know that I love to give my favorite surf films on DVD to my friends, and they are stoked to receive them.

Tyler: Do you think it’s harder to be a surf filmmaker today or when you started out?

James: Define surf filmmaker. I think it’s easier to film, edit and post online – but to make a living doing it, I think it is harder.

Tyler: I guess a “surf filmmaker” would be the guys who are making a living by making surf films or at least were making a living out of filmmaking when you started.

James: Well, they definitely budget their films differently now. Back then a filmmaker would budget according to the DVD sales forecast. A filmmaker could make a completely independent film with no sponsorship. Now filmmakers have to be creative and look to new sources to finance their films.

Tyler: Would you say that there is no one business model that a surf filmmaker can rely on at this point in time?

James: It seems like they have all really diversified with their projects.

Tyler: In what way?

James: Instead of creating surf films, they have gone in-house with large brands for their media content, or branched out to work in advertising and commercials, and in some cases gotten out of surf filmmaking all together.

Tyler: What are the main challenges that the surf filmmakers are facing in today’s digital society?

James: I’m in the distribution side of the business, but I think it is getting paid for their craft. There are a lot of filmmakers out there and a lot of content being pumped out digitally. I think this applies to the filmmakers and the videographers, where it doesn’t pay as much to deliver super high quality footage.

Tyler: Do you think piracy is playing a major role in cutting into profits?

James: That is a good question. I used to be convinced it was a few years ago when I’d go on the Bit Torrent sites and see that more Bit Torrents had been downloaded from one site in Amsterdam than DVD’s had been sold globally. But now, I feel like it has less of an impact because the average consumer doesn’t want to deal with a Bit Torrent. I think free content has more of a role in hurting the sales of premium content.

Tyler: What do you think of the free releases from the big companies?

James: It doesn’t help selling DVD’s or downloads, especially when they’re really good. But, I think that it being free hurts the overall impression of the movie as a high-end movie, and also takes away the legacy aspect of a good film. The movie comes out free and then disappears.

Tyler: Disposable?

James: Yeah, it is more of a one-time watch, then dispose of it. Whereas surf films have a history of people watching them over and over again.

Tyler: It seems like at this time you are either getting super high-end films like something from Red Bull or you are getting super indie films from people who do the films as a labor of love. Gone are the days of the Chris Bystrom and Scott Dietrich and the rest of that type filmmaker. I guess you could call those types of filmmakers the Middle Class of surf filmmaking. Do you think there is a way to bring those types of filmmakers back? If so, where do you see the industry going and in what forms?

James: I think one way to bring in those types of filmmakers is to have a solid distribution network for them through all channels to give them their best shot at recouping their up front costs.

Tyler: And that would be what OnWAX is going to do?

James: Absolutely, OnWAX’s mission is to be the best global distribution partner for all filmmakers through all distribution channels.

Tyler: It seems like in the US, you guys are one of the only distribution channels in the game at the moment. Am I wrong on this? What sort of avenues are you guys distributing in?

James: In the surf category, we are the only distributor in the game at the moment, but OnWAX is in other categories where there is some competition. Which I see as a good thing to help with more awareness of the category and of who we are. Aside from the DVD distribution part of the business, which is a profitable and very important part of the business, we also are utilizing Itunes, VOD (video on demand)  and an online streaming platform.

Tyler: Do you think this could be potentially more profitable for filmmakers in the long run? Do you think the VOD and streaming will allow filmmakers who produce short films a chance to make some money back?

James: I think so. Media consumption is on the rise, and I think that with the quality of surf and action sports filmmaking, the consumer is going to want to experience high definition, premium content and be willing to pay for what they get. Yes, this will create a chance for the short films to make some money back and also to be able to be accessed at any time.

Tyler: What about the in-theater showings? For a while during the 90′s we saw them almost die off and then in the 2000′s there was a large return to cinema showings for surf films. Do you think surf films in theaters will continue to be strong or become more rare as people view more content on different devices?

James: I think the theater experience will never go away for a solid surf film. For some it will require more hype to fill the theaters, but for other films there is such a loyal following that surfers can’t wait to go see the new film on the big screen. It’s an event and a personal experience to have the filmmaker and the surfers introduce their film on top of seeing your friends. That will never go out of style.

Tyler: What do you think about the surf film festivals that are popping up around the world?

James: I think they’re great for everyone; the filmmakers, the fans, the movies, the surfers, the towns they are in, and they’re great for us to have our films getting more exposure. Especially when there is more exposure outside of the endemic surf industry.

Tyler: Do you think that these festivals should be sharing in profits with the filmmakers at all? It’s definitely something that has been brought up in the past with some filmmakers and how they are paying to submit and then have their film shown and tickets sold but they don’t see any profit from it. In the more mainstream film festivals people submit hoping to get their films exposure and picked up by a distribution company. It seems like a lot of the films that are shown are already in distribution. Have you at OnWAX ever picked up a film that was not being distributed that you saw at a festival?

James: I think that there should be some kind of revenue share with the filmmakers in the festivals. I haven’t been involved with any films that were picked up because of being seen at a film festival. Almost all action sports films coming out are already on our radar. However our VP of Acquisitions, Kent Kreutzer, just came back from X-Dance last week specifically for that purpose.

Tyler: If a filmmaker wanted to get distribution, what would the process be to getting their films picked up by a company like OnWAX?

James: For new filmmakers that we don’t have a relationship with and we haven’t already identified and reached out to? Submit as much information on the project as possible: athletes, locations, music, marketing plan, edited footage, release date, synopsis, trailer, etc… In between the Sales and Acquisitions we look at all of the distribution opportunities.

Tyler: What filmmakers are exciting you at the moment?

James: That’s a really hard question to answer because I was really stoked on how the second half of ’11 came out with so many great films, including seeing guys coming out with sophomore films like Mikey DeTemple’s, which I hope means he is here to stay as a filmmaker…. Then seeing first time releases of films like Keith Malloy’s with his bodysurfing movie, “Come Hell or High Water.” We saw the return of guys we had worked with in the past like Kai Neville, Joe G, and Chris Cote as well. I’m getting really excited for 2012′s slate. We have returning filmmakers, including Mark Jeremias, who’s last release with Jason Baffa was “One California Day” back in ’07. It will be great to see his new film “The Tyler Warren Experiments,” and I also hear Jason Baffa is working on a new project too.

Tyler: Last question: Favorite Surf Film of all time?

James: Favorite surf film of all time: “The North Shore!”