What Does An Oscar Mean For The Outdoor Industry?

words:: Ben Osborne

Last week Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi, co-directors of Free Solo accomplished a huge feat—they took home the Oscar for Best Documentary.  As you probably know, the documentary follows Alex Honnold and his quest for the first ropeless ascent of the famed Freerider route on El Capitan in Yosemite, California. For Honnold to accomplish this feat was a landmark human achievement, and capturing the feat adds an entirely different aspect of danger into the mix. The logistics, rope skills, and conviction required to accomplish such a feat are beyond the imagination of most. Not to mention the emotional commitment of the film crew to spend hours watching their friend literally hanging for his life as they too hung suspended hundreds of feet in the air trying to capture it all. Such a feat takes some sort of human quality that probably can’t be described in one word. Plus, you know a movie is good when it gets spoofed less than a few months after being released.

Finally, for them to produce an end product that puts them in the same breath as some of the best filmmakers in the world? Well, that might just be landscape-altering for the outdoor industry.

Chin and Vasarhelyi had a small production team relative to big Hollywood budgets. (National Geographic/Chris Figenshau)

Their victory at the Oscars puts them in the company of past winners in the Best Documentary category such as Bowling For Columbine, O.J.: Made In America, Icarus, and the ground-breaking An Inconvenient Truth. These are just examples of some of the most popular, but the award for Best Documentary has rarely strayed from hot-ticket political and social issues—until now.

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Now, at the highest of heights in the world of filmmakers, alongside films that cover issues of social justice, the environmental crisis, and more, lies Free Solo. The story of a privileged white male, who for most of his life has chosen to live in a van and climb up rocks for a living.

For the sport of climbing, the reverberations from such an accomplishment will be interesting. Alex Honnold, a true dirtbag climber and ambassador to the climbing world, was last seen strolling the red carpet, so where to next?

Clearly, the movie will have a short-term effect on the popularity and media craze around climbing. But will it last? For historical context, there are two or three events in the action sports world we can compare this to: Tony Hawks inaugural 900, and Shaun White winning gold in the Olympics. To be clear, this comparison is not of the athletic prowess of their achievements, but rather the effect these feats had on their respective sports and the outdoor industry.  Tony Hawk ended up being a household name with a line of video games, while Shaun White ended up on packs of gum, on many more X-Games and Olympic Podiums, and even in a (failed) rock band. Now, it’s Alex Honnold’s turn. While Hawk and White singularly altered the landscape of their sport through video games and a new legitimacy to their athletic abilities, it’s tough to gauge the effect of Honnold’s feat. People likely won’t be going and climbing without ropes, nor do we foresee a new climbing video game taking over the nation.

Next stop? The Red Carpet. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

More realistically, it seems as though one thing may be forever changed: the media landscape of action sports. Sure, superhuman feats like Honnold’s ascent of Freerider only come around only come around every once in a while. But, with the box office success of Free Solo, might this signal a spike in investment from major players in Hollywood in action sports movies? There are plenty of talented filmmakers in the outdoor industry, however budgets and funding can often hold back projects from being truly transformative and bringing in the sort of money a typical Hollywood movie does.

We’ve seen what can happen with large budget productions like Travis Rice’s The Art Of Flight, and now Free Solo taking their talents to the highest heights. We don’t have the answer here, as nobody knows what the future will hold. But if you are an outdoor enthusiast, the sight of Alex Honnold strolling down the red carpet should excite you. Action sports rivalries aside, this is good for our community.

If you are a part of the outdoor community, you hold a treasure in the joy you find in interacting with the natural world around you—not everyone gets to enjoy such a gift. Could Free Solo’s achievement be a major piece in the puzzle for mainstream media to begin to appreciate what our world holds? And more importantly, do we want that? We won’t know until it all plays out, but it seems as though this monumental achievement was another big step for the outdoor industry. –ML

For info on screens and how to watch the film, visit whttps://www.nationalgeographic.com/films/free-solo/