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Shooting Stars Pals Murray Wais and Steve Winter survived tragedy to make Matchstick Productions the leader in ski films

Nov. 17, 2003
Nov. 17, 2003

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Nov. 17, 2003

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Shooting Stars Pals Murray Wais and Steve Winter survived tragedy to make Matchstick Productions the leader in ski films

In the image-conscious, youth-driven market of freestyle skiing,
Murray Wais and Steve Winter should not be cool. Wais is balding.
Winter cannot ski. They are both 35, single and housemates. ¶ Of
course, at least one of them probably should not be alive,
either. Winter was nearly killed in a helicopter crash six years
ago. (Actually, Winter says he did die but was revived by
defibrillators.) ¶ Above all, they should not be successful.
After the crash Winter put Wais, who at the time had virtually no
cinematography experience, in charge of Matchstick Productions
(MSP), Winter's company. The odds of their turning out the
world's best-selling freeskiing videos were long indeed. ¶ But
Wais and Winter, best friends for more than two decades and
business partners for more than 10 of those years, have
surmounted the mountain of obstacles. The Matchstick men are now
the kings of the freeskiing video, their work craved by ski bums
everywhere. "Skiers salivate all summer for these movies. It's
like a feeding frenzy," says Micah Abrams, editor of the
youth-oriented skiing publication Freeze. ¶ Matchstick
Productions, based in Crested Butte, Colo., has released 15 ski
and five mountain-biking flicks since 1993. The newest one,
Focused, has drawn rave reviews in its first two months of
release. Among other highlights, the one-hour movie features
celebrated freeskier Seth Morrison flying off an 80-foot cliff.
Matchstick's all-star cast also includes Shane McConkey, C.R.
Johnson, Jay Quinlan and Wendy Fisher, who in Focused and other
films perform an arsenal of death-defying stunts in the
backcountry and terrain parks, all to a thundering soundtrack
of alternative rock.

This is an article from the Nov. 17, 2003 issue

MSP's award-winning ski films have been the best-selling ski
video line for the past five years. Video Action Sports, the
largest distributor of action-sports DVDs and VHS tapes, does not
reveal sales figures, but Winter estimates that Matchstick sells
between 50,000 and 150,000 copies a year and that that the
company sells quadruple the number of both its top rivals--Teton
Gravity Research and Poor Boyz Productions. (The most famous ski
filmmaker, Warren Miller, is not a major player in video sales;
his films bring in most of their revenue through theatrical
release.)

Last season, according to its own figures, Matchstick took in $1
million in total revenue in large part because of DVD and VHS
sales of its ski films and its 100-city global tour, in which the
films are showcased in venues ranging from clubs to museums, for
a single night in each place. Along with dominating the ski video
industry, Matchstick has also grabbed the bulk of the
mountain-biking video market with its widely successful New World
Disorder series. And the empire is only going to get bigger. With
an eye to branching out to more mainstream projects, Matchstick
is currently working on a 13-week half-hour action-sports series
for network television. "We want to make more money, but we don't
want to sell out," Winter says.

Intent on "igniting the flame under the ski industry's ass," as
the company's mission statement puts it, Matchstick changed its
name from Reel Adventure Films in 1998 as hard-core freeskiing
surged in popularity. A decade earlier, in response to the Warren
Miller movies, which are more family-friendly, filmmaker Greg
Stump had captured skiers hucking cliffs. Stump's videos--high
intensity, edgy and groundbreaking--helped hard-core freeskiing
evolve and laid the groundwork for Matchstick's success. "Warren
Miller's for the mainstream," says Mike Wilson, a 17-year-old pro
who specializes in freeskiing in terrain parks. "All the
hard-core athletes want to work with MSP."

At the top of the list is the 29-year-old Morrison, who has made
a living outskiing massive avalanches and jumping from
show-stopping heights, notching more than 200 first descents in
the backcountry over more than a decade. Considered the Tony Hawk
of his sport, Morrison has appeared in all of MSP's films and is
a major factor in the company's success. "It's really about the
athletes," says Winter. "One of the reasons we're the best is
that we have the best athletes."

Last March, Morrison took a heli-trip to the coastal mountain
range near Bella Coola in western British Columbia. The pilot
hovered over a two-foot-wide knife ridge with a sheer 3,000-foot
cliff on one side and a 70-degree slope on the other. Morrison
laughed in disbelief as the pilot told him to get out.

In Focused, Morrison is seen linking a few turns moments later.
He then zips straight down at 90 mph for a couple of thousand
feet as sluff begins to follow his lines. Morrison eyes an
80-foot cliff and suddenly launches a backflip off it. A trio of
top park riders, or jibbers, watching below scream obscenities in
disbelief. "What I'm doing out there is so hard, and there are
crucial consequences, for sure," Morrison says. "I love to ski,
and this is the kind of fun I like to have." But there are some
risks that not even Morrison can control.

It was a sunny and clear morning--optimal flying and skiing
conditions--when Morrison, Winter and ski photographer T.R.
Youngstrom boarded an Alouette helicopter on Aug. 9, 1997. The
Matchstick crew had arrived in Portillo, Chile, the day before to
film the final segment for their next flick, Pura Vida. Filled
with excitement at the prospect of shooting in the scenic Chilean
Andes, the crew hopped into the chopper without the pilot first
doing a safety briefing. "We loaded hot. The helicopter was
already rotating," Winter says. "I never made eye contact with
the pilot. I never saw his face."

Twenty minutes after takeoff Jaime Pinto Fernandez, an
inexperienced pilot with limited flight hours, made a right bank
turn at about 14,000 feet into Mardones Valley. Without enough
speed, and at high altitude, the rotor blades lost lift and the
helicopter fell 150 feet to the ground. It crashed on its right
side and skidded 600 feet in the snow before stopping a few steps
from the edge of a steep cliff. Morrison, who had been seated on
the left side, climbed out in a daze. "I remember I lost my
sunglasses. It was very bright," he says. Morrison suffered a
severe concussion, a broken left collarbone, three broken ribs
and a bruised heart.

Fernandez died upon impact. Winter, who had been seated on the
right side behind him, broke two lower vertebrae and was trapped
between two seats. For 3 1/2 hours Winter encouraged Youngstrom,
who was in the rear middle seat and had severe head injuries, to
hang on. "He kept saying over and over that he was dying," Winter
says. "The thing that kept me alive was the encouraging lines I
told him. It kept my mind off the fact that I was dying too."

Youngstrom, 31, died 15 minutes after a rescue team arrived.
Winter was severely hypothermic. His body temperature dipped to
72°. He was flown to a hospital in Santiago, about 100 miles
southwest of Portillo. There, Winter says, he went into shock and
suffered cardiac failure. "The doctors revived me," he says.
"While I was lying there dying, it didn't seem that big of a
deal. It was really comfortable and natural. It definitely wasn't
scary. I was at peace. I knew I had lived an amazing life."

Wais, meanwhile, had been waiting at the Portillo ski resort for
the helicopter to return. It was his first time shooting as a
cinematographer, and he was to follow Winter in the second group.
After nearly six hours news trickled back about the crash.
"That's when I started getting really, really scared," Wais says.
He drove to Santiago to meet Winter in intensive care, where Wais
broke down and cried. "I saw him with the needles and everything,
and I just lost it," he says. "Steve is like a brother to me."

Winter was paralyzed from the waist down and was no longer able to
ski the big mountains to shoot. (It would take two years before
he was able to walk unsupported; he still has a limp.) Still,
there was no thought of giving up. The pair made a pact to
continue making ski films. To keep the company running, Wais,
despite his lack of experience, took over as lead director,
cinematographer and producer. Says Wais, "Was I ready to do the
job? No. Did I do the best job I could? Probably. Was it really
hard? Yeah. When you're thrust in that situation, you're not
going to leave your friend hanging."

Winter knew that Matchstick Productions would cease to exist if
his buddy left, so he made Wais his business partner in late
August 1997. "I don't think I'd really trust anyone else," Winter
says. "I trust Murray with the money. I know he'll do what it
takes to get it done. We've been through so much [together]. It
goes so far back."

Back to the days when they hung together at Redmond (Wash.) High
and were an odd match. "Murray was a little punk," says Winter,
who was a member of the varsity football and diving teams. The
two say they were brought together by their fondness for drugs
and partying.

After graduating from high school in 1986, the friends left the
Seattle area and enrolled at Wenatchee Valley College in central
Washington to study ski instruction. "It was a crappy college. We
just wanted an excuse to ski," Wais says. After spending every
day during the winter on the local slope, Mission Ridge, the
friends went their separate ways two years later. Wais pursued a
journalism degree at Oregon and in 1993 landed an internship with
Dana Point, Calif.-based Powder magazine.

Winter taught skiing at a resort in Breckenridge, Colo., but quit
his job to pursue filming. In 1992, with an $1,800 used Bolex
16-mm camera, he made a 15-minute skiing video, Nachos and Fear.
Needing help with editing and marketing, he called up Wais. A
year later, the pair went to their first SnowSports Industries
America convention in Las Vegas. They borrowed a friend's Datsun,
slept in the car, and bathed and brushed their teeth in public
restrooms. "We must have looked pretty broke because when we
ordered at McDonald's, the guy behind the counter gave us extra
Big Macs and fries," Wais says. "He lowered his voice and said,
'It's cool, man. It's on me.'" Ten years later, last February,
Wais was flown for free from the Winter X Games in Aspen to the
ski and snowboard convention in Vegas to accept Powder's award
for best movie of the year. (Matchstick has won three years
running for Ski Movie I, II and III.)

With moderate success from Nachos, Winter got funding for his
first full-length film, Soul Sessions, in 1993. Wais joined his
friend's one-man operation to help him edit and select music.
They settled in Crested Butte, where they have worked and lived
together and from whence they have traveled the world for more
than a decade. Neither is married or has children. "It's got to be
hard to be both friends and work together," says Mark Peterson,
their close high school buddy. "I would imagine [their
relationship] is a lot like being married."

Last year Winter bought a 4,000 square-foot, three-story house
beside the Slate River. All four sundecks look out over an
idyllic landscape in which wild horses graze in an aspen grove
and beavers play in a pond. Winter lives on the top floor. His
housemate has a room on the ground floor (though nowadays Wais
spends most nights at his girlfriend's). The MSP office is also
on the ground floor. During the summer Wais and Winter, along
with collaborator Scott Gaffney, work 15-hour days editing,
promoting and planning next season's film. In the winter they
travel into the backcountry of British Columbia and Alaska to
gather footage. Winter shoots from one helicopter, and Wais from
another in a different location.

When asked how long it will take for one to divorce the other and
move out, Wais does not hesitate. "It's not going to happen," he
says. "To split up would be a huge mistake." Winter--and ski
fanatics all over--concur.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JAMES LOZEAU/MSP AIR TIME With a Matchstick crew filming, Vincent Dorion crosses off a soaring move for Ski Movie III.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JAMES LOZEAU/MSP BUDDY SYSTEM Wais (top) stepped in to keep MSP on track when Winter was nearly killed in a 1997 copter crash while filming in the Andes.COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT MARKEWITZ [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JAMES LOZEAU/MSP WILD BLUE YONDER Video star Morrison tossed a (dyed) hair-raising Flat Spin 360 in Norway, for MSP's best-selling Global Storming.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JAMES LOZEAU/MSP CLIFF-HANGER Outrageous stunts like this leap in British Columbia by Ryan Oakden have made the Matchstick men audience favorites.

"When I was lying there dying," says Winter, "I was at peace.
I KNEW I HAD LIVED AN AMAZING LIFE."

"Skiers salivate all summer for these movies," says Abrams.
"IT'S LIKE A FEEDING FRENZY."

Says Winter, "We want to make more money, but WE DON'T WANT TO
SELL OUT."