Jon Rockwood is standing in front of a sold-out theater at the Art Haus in Tahoe City, California, getting ready to premiere his 10th ski movie, appropriately called Labor of Love. He’s a little nervous but mainly excited to finally show his friends—the theater is packed with mostly people he knows—what he’s spent hundreds of hours over the last few months working on.
“There are times when it’s like, am I really going to put this out there? I get butterflies thinking, is that joke going to work? Is that song going to work?” Rockwood said before the premiere, which took place in early November. “When I’m in the theater watching the premiere, I’m almost not watching the movie. I’m watching the audience with joy. I wouldn’t have been doing this for 10 years if I didn’t enjoy putting my heart out there.”
There’s just one thing Rockwood needs to do before the movie rolls, which might explain his nerves. He asks his longtime girlfriend, a hard-charging athlete, grad student and ski coach named Allie Donovan, up to the stage, along with their 4-month-old daughter, Dottie. He gets down on one knee, pulls a ring box out of his pocket and asks her to marry him. She says yes and the audience stands and erupts in cheers.
After that excitement, it’s showtime. The lights dim, everyone sits and for the next 45 minutes, the audience takes in Rockwood’s view of the previous winter’s ski season. They see his friends skinning up Jake’s Peak, a classic backcountry ski route on Tahoe’s west shore, cracking jokes at the summit, then scoring powdery face shots with views of Lake Tahoe on their way down.
They see Donovan, dressing her pregnant belly in a pair of bibbed ski pants and heading out for her last ski tour of the season. Dottie, born last June, makes an appearance later in the film.
It’s a homegrown, family affair, for sure. Rockwood’s dad, Tom, flew out from Virginia to see his son’s movie in the theater. “The thing that strikes me in that theater is the feeling of community and deep happiness about this way of life,” Tom Rockwood said. “You don’t have to be a friend of the participants to find beauty and joy in Jon’s movies.”
Rockwood never set out to send a message or create a local movement. That happened on its own. “At the beginning, it was all about the ski action. I just wanted to get people fired up,” Rockwood said. “But over time, I’ve realized these movies have the power to inspire people, too. If my movies can get people together and encourage them to get out there and ski, then, absolutely, let’s be inspired.”
Besides a fraction of the theater’s ticket sales, this 37-year-old skier, who makes a living waiting tables at a pizza joint and coaching a kids’ backcountry ski program at Sugar Bowl Resort, doesn’t make money on this film. It’s a no-budget movie with zero paying sponsors. “It’s silly to say, but making these movies is part of Jon’s identity. It’s been this big part of our lives,” said Donovan. “Yeah, it’d be sweet if he made a bunch of money from them and we could go on vacation, but it doesn’t feel right to think like that.”
His films are entirely homemade, edited in a small loft in his house. (He often edits the film late into the night, after working a shift at the restaurant.) You won’t find Alaskan heli-skiing, exotic jet-setting or big-name pro athletes in this movie. Instead, you’ll come to see a bunch of friends earning their turns around the Sierra.
“I don’t have to answer to anyone. I don’t have to get this ski in the shot, or this jacket in the shot or this athlete in the movie. I’m not interested in any of that. I just tell my story in the mountains and that seems to resonate with viewers,” Rockwood said. “The reason these movies are successful is because of my love for skiing, not because of my talent or skill making movies. That’s why it works. Because I’m passionate.”
But this 10th film will likely be Rockwood’s last.
After studying economics at the University of Vermont, Rockwood moved to Tahoe for a couple of years to be a ski bum. He followed a girl and a finance job to Flagstaff, Arizona, and while he was there, a friend gave him a hand-me-down mini-disc camera. That was 2008.
Rockwood and his friend Bob spent all winter skiing Arizona Snowbowl and the surrounding backcountry and filming each other. Rockwood taught himself how to use editing software and put together a short recap of their season, entitled AZ Son!, which he showed to friends in his living room. This was before the age of Instagram, and GoPro cameras were only a few years old. “Sharing your experiences didn’t really happen then,” Rockwood said. “If you wanted to see skiing, you had to go to a big-name movie in a theater, read a ski magazine or have a DVD collection.”
When he moved back to Tahoe the next year, in 2009, he made another movie and because he needed something to list in the credits, he gave his made-up production company a name, JonBob Productions, in part after his friend Bob in Arizona. He edited the flick in his bedroom, hosted a premiere at a Mexican restaurant in Tahoe City and mailed DVDs to his family.
Year after year, he continued making and premiering ski movies for the fun of it—and he got better at it. He eventually got a drone, a gimbal and a new lightweight camera. “In the beginning, the films were a bunch of random shots put together, now it has a real flow to it,” said snowboarder Dane Shannon, a friend of Rockwood’s who’s been in nine of his 10 movies. “And he learned how to hold a camera—the shots are a lot less wobbly now.” This year’s film, Labor or Love, is a retrospective on the last 10 years and you can tell by looking at the old footage just how much his technique has improved.
Even when Tahoe suffered four years of low-snow seasons, Rockwood filmed his friends hiking over dirt and gave the movies cheeky titles like Benefit of the Drought or Call of the Mild. “During the drought, we always made lemonade,” Rockwood said. In the winter of 2016-’17, when it snowed a whopping 60 feet, he shot his friends skiing a “first descent” on a plow-built mound of snow in a parking lot and called the flick An Atmospheric River Runs Through It.
For 10 years straight, he has dragged his camera gear around all winter and then spent the entire month of October holed up in front of his computer, editing hours and hours of footage into a deeply personal, highly relatable film, often finishing it just before the premiere. Ask him why he’s kept at it and he’ll say, “I’m a nostalgic guy. It’s fun to look back on the season. It’s a fun editing process. Those days the camera comes out, those are the best days of the year.”
Back in that theater, as the screen fades to black on Labor of Love, the audience cheers and applauds what will likely be Rockwood’s last film. He has plans to pursue more professional guiding certification, and of course, he’s got his new daughter. “It is a labor of love. Outside of total stoke and love from your community—and you can’t put a price on that—it’s hard to keep going,” Rockwood said. “It’s bittersweet. It rips me apart. But there is not going to be an 11th movie. This is going to the best, last one.”