Opinion » Maxed Out

Annals of a spring festival — Part II



When last we left Mr. X and the little festival that could, a valuable lesson had been learned: While music may have charms that soothe the savage breast, it may also have a catalytic property that fuels epic snowball fights.

But assurances were made, security was beefed up and, happily, in the 19 years the World Ski and Snowboard Festival has operated, no more "near riots" have occurred.

With the athletic events continuing to flourish and music rockin' the mainstage daily, many couldn't imagine how Whistler's homegrown spring fling could get much better. Fortunately, there were others whose imaginations saw greater possibilities.

Let's see, got sports, got music, what's missing? Casting about for the Next Big Thing that'd put the festival on solid footing, Mr. X had a brainstorm. OK, he and several friends had an idea that, in retrospect, turned out to be a brainstorm.

"What this festival really needs," they decided, "is a slide show."

"A what?" Those with un-fond memories of family slide shows gasped.

Pictures, photos, images. After all, the post-literate, all-pictures-all-the-time generation was spawning a whole genre of magazines without words. And there were growing numbers of very talented photographers working hard to capture the insane antics of the Tribe of Huckers for whom no cliff was a cliff too high, and no exotic world locale too distant.

So local photophenom Eric Berger and not-so-local shooter Jack Turner joined forces to blow the minds of festival goers in the first ever Pro Photographer Showdown. Music met image, met story and that spun the festival off into a whole new dimension of sight and sound.

Film joined photography when the Filmmaker Showdown debuted in 2001. The idea was simple, if demonic. Give aspiring filmmakers 72 hours to create a winning, three to five minute film that knocked the sox off a panel of film-savvy judges.

The timing was perfect. A sea change in hardware and software was just beginning to open up sophisticated filmmaking to anyone with a half-decent digital camera and editing suite.

And in a stroke of luck, early winning entries eschewed the obvious. Instead of showing us more of the same-old softcore huck movies shown in bars all over town, they tickled the audience by creating very original, funny, sometimes thought-provoking but always highly enjoyable films rarely featuring the obvious.

Were they a success? They sell out, year in and year out, within days of tickets going on sale. You can find knockoffs at festivals everywhere. They rooted mountain culture as the third leg of a very stable stool providing the foundation for everything WSSF has offered over the years.

Other events have come and gone. Among them Words & Stories, evenings of storytelling by, largely, mountain writers, the Chairlift Revue, theatre built on the premise of conversations on chairlifts, fashion, because, well, we're all so fashionable, and others. New ones, like State of the Art, Intersection and, back for a second trip 'round the track, Roller Derby, have taken root. Change is life.

Mr. X has come and gone too. Ownership of WSSF was transferred to Whistler Blackcomb and Tourism Whistler, a story yet to be told for reasons also un-tellable. Perhaps someday.

But the Queen of Watermark, Sue Eckersley, keeps it going strong with a staff so talented it's impossible to believe there are so few of them. And in two decades, WSSF has gone from a crazy idea, to life support, to life-affirming to a fixture few can imagine April in Whistler without. Often aped by other mountain resorts hoping to extend their seasons, no one has yet hit on quite the combination of venue, events and alchemy. WSSF remains the benchmark.

How successful has it been? It's pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Whistler and B.C.'s tourist economy. It generates tens of thousands of room nights every year. It fills restaurants and bars, sells lift tickets, consumes enough alcohol to keep a village in perpetual après and brings regional visitors back for a final kick at the cat at a time they'd probably rather be playing golf. Not bad for 10 days in sleepy April built on a crazy idea.

This year's festival may not be bigger and better than ever, but it's big, it's good and it's back. The best snow sports athletes are here, throwing down moves that'd put most of us in traction. Saturday's Big Air packed around 10,000 people into Skier's Plaza on an evening you could have fired a cannon down the main drag of Vail without putting anyone's life at risk. Many of them had been there since De La Soul took the stage for a free concert at 3:30 p.m.

Monday's Mountain Multiplicity, a second-year fundraiser for the Spearhead Huts effort, was twice as big and four times better than last year's initial offering. Hugely entertaining, and once speed-talking Wade Davis took the stage, hugely challenging and enlightening, the event morphed from what-is-it to don't-miss-it in one year.

Tonight's (Tuesday's) sold-out Filmmaker Showdown will be repeated Friday when the finalists will be shown again, but this time with the audience voting for their favourite. Initially launched to provide people who missed out on tickets, the Encore has taken on a life of its own with the Peoples' Choice. It may lack the monetary reward of the Showdown but it's become a coveted prize in its own right.

Of course the Pro Photographer Showdown is sold out. I'm not sure it matters since, once again this year, there's a surf photographer. Don't know if Morgan Maassen knows what a sweet deal he's stumbled into but in a town winding down a long winter, surf photographers seem to have a winning edge when they show up for this event. Oh well, hope springs eternal.

We'll silent disco the night away Friday, Big Air again on Saturday (thanks, Joey), celebrate 4/20 at 4:20 Sunday with The Wailers — duh, who else? — and watch the girls go round-and-round on the Roller Derby track Sunday before winding it up at the GLC for Best of the Fest.

It's easy to imagine WSSF is here to stay. Seems like it's always been here. But it hasn't. And, very likely, it won't be... someday. It's a living, breathing enterprise. It takes hard work, luck, skill, dedication, money, imagination and better management than most of us have experienced or can even imagine.

We don't own it. But it's our festival. We support it because we love it and we ignore it or take it for granted at our peril. It makes April come alive in Whistler and begs the question — where would you rather be than right here, right now?

Nowhere, dude. Nowhere.


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