old hollywood

Why Does Hollywood Think America Likes Surfing?

Photo: Corbis and Fox

Throughout its publicity campaign, Chasing Mavericks, which finally comes out today, has been like a surfer trying to get up on a waxless board: no traction. It’s getting terrible reviews (Our Bilge Ebiri wrote that the direction is “stiff” and “barely functional,” the script relied “on boilerplate plot points,” and “the acting doesn’t help much, either”), and the movie is projected to gross less than $5 million over its opening weekend. Lack of commercial or critical success has always plagued the surfing-movie genre, so why are these films being made? It might have less to do with how pretty waves are and more to do with who sees how pretty waves are: people who spend a lot of time near the beaches of Los Angeles. 

Guess how much the highest grossing live-action surfing movie has grossed domestically: $43.9 million. (Last year’s Christian-audience-targeted Soul Surfer.) The next two highest are Point Break at $43.2 million and Blue Crush at $40.4 million. (The highest grossing surfing movie period is the animated Surf’s Up, which made a miniscule amount compared to its animated brethren: $58.9 million.) Compare these numbers to the domestic totals of the highest grossing live-action movies of other sports (The Blind Side’s $256 million, A League of Their Own’s $107.5 million, White Men Can’t Jump’s $76.3 million), and it’s not even close. Hell, the tenth highest grossing football movie, The Replacements, grossed more domestically than any live-action surfing movie. Sure, surfing does better than other extreme sport movies, but that’s because studios are rarely dumb enough to release films about snow or skateboarding. Yet, surf movies are regularly released. There are an estimated 1.7 million surfers in America. If every one went to see Chasing Mavericks, it wouldn’t even crack $15 million. Meaning: These movies are being made because the people in charge think the masses care about surfing more than they do. But why would they think that?

Here are there scenarios:

No. 1: A young screenwriter is at a Los Feliz coffee shop, beating himself up trying to think of an idea for a screenplay. He decides it’s best he clear his head. Realizing that it’s Tuesday and traffic won’t be that bad, he heads to the beach.

No. 2: A fairly successful director goes to the beach with his family. Before heading back to his Culver City home, he snaps some beautiful shots of a surfer carving the waves against a backdrop of the setting of the sun.

No. 3:  A very successful film producer looks out the window of his palatial, yet modernist Malibu home. He hears the crashing of the waves and sees in the distance a group of young surfers.

The end result is something like Chasing Mavericks, a movie that must have been a passion project for at least one person with a lot of money. In fact, Cha-Mavs was produced by two avid surfers, Jim Meenaghan and Brandon Hooper, and had a surfer screenwriter, Kario Salem. And then there is star/executive producer Gerard Butler, who gave this explanation for doing a movie about surfing:  “When you are out there, sitting on the waves … it’s incredibly meditative and spiritual … And when you get up on that wave and become one with it, nothing beats it, really. You just become one with nature, and you’re harnessing that power.” In general, from the top down, Hollywood has many casual surfers and so it goes, they want to make art about their interests. We don’t begrudge their hobbies; we just don’t think landlocked (or just non-surfing) moviegoers have any pressing desire to see Gerard Butler in a wet suit. 

In this way, surf movies are like movies about the showbiz industry itself. Both are topics that are foreign to most of the country. In both cases, it’s actors, writers, directors, and studio execs assuming that the rest of the country is as fascinated by their lives as they are: Wait until they hear this hilarious joke about how superficial an agent can be; it’s funny because it’s true! Which leaves us with movies, like What Just Happened and Jimmy Hollywood, that seem made only for those with a zip code starting with 90. The difference is as least some of those Hollywood send-ups do well. (Get Shorty made $72.1 million domestic. Hell, even its terrible sequel Be Cool made $56 million.) 

Most audiences accept that they’re at the whim of the people making movies. We understand when writers make their protagonists writers (or writer surrogates, like architects or documentary filmmakers), because that’s probably what we’d do in the same position. The phrase “Write what you know” is a cliché for a reason. But they need to accept that this hobby (sorry, passion) is not the thing of which moneymakers are made, regardless of how powerful a metaphor man-versus-wave is for any number of things. It’s like quinoa: It is indisputably a superfood that will improve anyone’s diet if they would just listen and try it — but you’re not ever gonna get rich starting a chain of quinoa stands. Barring a miracle, Chasing Mavericks will soon vanish after this weekend. And all we will be left with is the damn lingering memory of Gerard Butler in a wet suit.

Why Does Hollywood Think America Likes Surfing?