With fall comes colder temperatures, fewer hours of daylight and ski and snowboard movie premieres, when packed theaters fill with anticipatory crowds that can’t wait for the snow to start stacking up. But for one ski movie company, this fall’s feature film will be its last. After 20 ski movies over a two-decade span, “Romance,” which premiered in late September in Denver, will mark the final feature from Level 1 Productions.
Josh Berman, founder and director of Level 1, describes the film as a 20-year relationship with skiing, but that doesn’t mean he’s breaking up with the sport. It’s just on to new beginnings. “I’m excited for the opportunities we will be able to make for ourselves by opening up to different projects, by telling stories and working on films that wouldn’t fit the mold we’ve created for ourselves,” said Berman, who started Level 1 in 1999 when VHS tapes were the norm, Freeze was the must-have ski magazine and twin-tip skis were debuting in terrain parks and on rails around the country.
Berman had originally wanted to be in front of the lens, as a pro skier. “I quickly came to the realization that I was not going to be able to keep up with the people who were doing it full-time,” Berman said. It was a simple switch-180 off a 10-foot tabletop that changed everything. He fell and shattered his tibial plateau and tore his lateral and medial meniscus, an accident that temporarily took Berman out of skiing.
Jeff Winterton, an influential skier and photographer who helped boost the newschool ski scene—where young skiers did jumps and tricks in terrain parks and on rails—on the East Coast in the late ’90s, became Berman’s mentor. He taught him how to use the digital camera that Berman had borrowed from his dad, and eventually, Level 1 was born. Long-standing Level 1 filmer Freedle Coty joined Berman in 2003 and has continued to lend his vision and creative style to the films since.
“The first real commitment to the process was in 2003 when I made the film ‘Forward,’” said Berman, who moved from the East Coast to Colorado for the project. “The other path I was going to take was either going to New York or Los Angeles to pursue a much more traditional filmmaking career.”
While other ski movie companies were putting out glitzy annual films with heli budgets and international travel, Level 1 made its way onto the scene, adding a grittier, indie flavor. Wide-eyed teenagers crowded local theaters to watch up-and-coming riders like Dan Marion and Steele Spence grind rails on urban staircases or hit hand-built, backyard jumps. It was unlike anything else being portrayed on the big screen at that time.
“I have almost entirely been committed to the annual feature films the last 20 years,” said Berman. “It has allowed us to put out what I like to think of as fresh content, but it’s also familiar in the sense that our fans know what to expect with the filming, the vibe and the athletes.”
Over the years, Level 1 has vaulted no-names to superstars. Take Tom Wallisch, who grew up in Pittsburgh, far from snow-covered mountains, and started shooting with Level 1 in 2007 when he won SuperUnknown, an annual competition Level 1 holds to bring visibility to lesser-known athletes by including them in a film segment. Wallisch went onto become one of the world’s top slopestyle and urban skiers. “I made some of the best friendships of my life,” said Wallisch, who appears in this year’s film, “Romance.” Per Wallisch, the time he spent “working with the filmers and like-minded skiers were the most fun years of my ski career.”
Berman won’t say this is the end of Level 1. It’s just the end of the yearly ski movies. So, what’s next? “The end of this chapter is bittersweet. In a lot of ways I’m going to miss the process and the routine,” said Berman, who plans to work on different projects going forward, including the SuperUnknown competition, which has been going on for 16 years now and isn’t going away. He also hopes to tell stories focused on people and places beyond the ski world. “I look forward to doing a lot of filmmaking that has nothing to do with skiing. I want to capture things I haven’t seen before,” said Berman.