Screening the Outdoors

Feb 2, 2015
Currently in the theaters and in contention for awards is the feature film "Wild" starring Reese Witherspoon, about a woman's solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail from southern California to the Washington and BC border. It's R-rated, with a fair amount of sex, drugs and alcohol woven into the story as an explanation of why the heroine did what she did. This is a story of courage, and learning by trial and error. Along the way she encounters a rattlesnake, snow, two hunters (one of whom seems to be a potential threat), a Forest Service ranger who would like to connect with her, and an interesting collection of people. She sees a fox and some geese and some frogs, and hears coyotes, but wildlife was minimal, and she endures a wide range of conditions, learning some tough lessons about wilderness survival. REI definitely comes across as the place to get gear. The acting is very good, and the story is based on a real-life story told in a popular book of the same title.

When I watch a film like this I try to look at it from two different perspectives: do I like the film as a visual story, and what effect is this likely to have on viewers. Personally, I would have liked to have the story to focus more on the here and now of the experience of making this hike as a novice, and fewer flashbacks, which at times seem almost more important that the hike. However, "Wild" has some important lessons for anyone who wants to try such a hike. It ends with her standing on a bridge on the US-Canada border, reflecting. The ending could have been stronger, but it certainly is a tale of courage with some good lessons.

TV and feature films have become some of the most powerful storytellers of our times. And, in this age when most people spend most of their lives indoors, a good deal of which watching and interacting with electronic screens, getting outdoors for balance, perspective and personal healing is very important. It will be interesting to know if REI's sales and classes increase, and/or more women sign up for the Becoming an Outdoorswoman workshops and more people hike of the Pacific Coast trail.

As someone who works in the entertainment world, I believe that good screen stories can have a significant influence on outdoor recreation, as well as support for conservation. Decades of research on how films and TV can and do influence consumer behavior, such as discouraging or encouraging smoking and drinking, show that the screens of our lives do have effects on behavior.

Making a direct correlation between screen stories and behavior in other areas is not always as easy or precise, but there are some good examples of how TV and films can influence people to get outdoors and benefit the economics of the outdoor industry.

"Survivor," for example, has been on the air for 25 years as of 2014. The dramatic series "Lost" aired from 2004 to 2010. Other wilderness survival TV shows such as "Man Vs. Wild" which began in 2006, have also become very popular. Michelle Barnes, vice president for marketing for the Outdoor Industry Association, says that interest in wilderness and survival schools began to increase following "Survivor" becoming a hit show.

The fly fishing film "A River Runs Through It" (1992) not only made money at the box office, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service reports that there were over 100,000 more fly fishermen in the streams three years after the movie was released, almost five million total, (the number has since gone down to close to four million today) and the number of days spent fishing per year jumped from 27,567,000 in 1991 to 41,836,000 1994. In 1991 30.7 million people bought fishing licenses. In 1994 31.6 fishing licenses were sold. More remarkably, anglers spent nearly $375 million in 1991, while in 1994 they shelled out $525.8 million.

Archery is increasing in popularity, especially for women, and having prominent actors be heroic archers in "Hunger Games" and "The Hobbit" can't hurt, and the lead on the TV series "Arrow" is a vigilante who uses archery to fight crime. No doubt some of the popularity of archery for women can also be traced back to Geena Davis, who in 1999 almost made the US Olympic archery team after being inspired by seeing archery on TV just two years prior. Davis has said that she was not an athlete before that.

Some of the first popular films made were silent dramas about African safaris. "Paul Rainey's African Hunt" (1912), for example, was the biggest wildlife film box office success of that decade. From 1965 to 1986, "The American Sportsman" on ABC, hosted by Curt Gowdy, then one of America's top sports broadcasters, was extremely popular. Hollywood celebrities and sports stars flocked to be on the show to go fishing and hunting at exotic locations. The series featured celebrities including Burt Reynolds, Bing Crosby, Andy Griffith, General Jimmy Doolittle, Phil Harris, Bruce Jenner, Redd Foxx, Shelly Hack, and William Shatner going hunting and fishing. Clearly the series inspired people to go hunting and fishing.

When "The American Sportsman" ended, outdoor sports channels began to appear on cable networks, beginning with the Outdoor Channel in 1994. Today there are a number of outdoor sports networks including The Outdoor Channel, the Pursuit Channel, The Sportsman Channel, The Outdoor Sport Channel, Versus, Pursuit Channel, the World Fishing Network, and Outside Television as well as Fox Sports, CBS Outdoors, and NBC Sports Network, etc. and there are increasing numbers of Internet TV networks some of which focus on outdoor recreation. This is in addition to reality TV shows like "Duck Dynasty" on major cable networks that are attracting large audiences. As these networks and shows have been created, they are also attracting some well-known actors as hosts for outdoor shows. This not only increases audiences, but it could set the stage for other developments that could help outdoor recreation be positively featured in more TV and films.

Hollywood follows more than it leads. Two thoughts on how to increase the chances that more films will get made that give outdoor sports support.

It seems likely that "Wild" got made because some others in recent years – including "Into the Wild," "The Edge," "Castaway," "Endurance," "The Snow Walker," "Dances With Wolves," "The Grey," and "127 Hours" -- have shown that outdoor adventure movies can be successful. This is the season when awards for mainstream programs are happening. Overdue is an annual awards show for mainstream films and TV that tell stories that give outdoor sports some positive coverage.

And, what about creating more ways to support filmmakers to create programs about outdoor sports for mainstream audiences, such as foundations for grants, hedge funds for investments, and contests for scripts?

— James Swan, PhD

Swan is Co-Executive Producer, "Wild Justice," Nat. Geo. Channel & CEO, Snow Goose Productions