This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
First, learn this name: A.J. Cargill. Don’t bother searching it in Google, there isn’t much there.
There isn’t much about the podiums that Cargill stood on throughout the 1990s at the defunct World Extreme Skiing tour. You won’t learn that she shared the podium with Chris Davenport at one of those contests, or about how she cut her teeth doing backflips with Shane McConkey, two of the most influential skiers in the sport’s history. You won’t learn that Cargill was part of the original crew for whom the term “freeskiing” was invented.
“If we didn’t pry it out of her she would never have told us,” said Sierra Schlag, producer and athlete of “Advice for Girls,” the all-women ski film that is currently touring the U.S., including stops this weekend across the Colorado high country.
“I think it’s because people have made her believe it’s not as important as it is. Which is sad, because it is really, really important,” said the film’s director Sara Beam Robbins.
“Advice for Girls” joins a very short list of all-women ski films created in the past decade. The storyline threads through three generations of women skiers, starting with Cargill, who is 57, and ending with a cohort of pre-teens.
The first all-woman ski film, “Pretty Faces,” came out in 2014. It was written and directed by Lynsey Dyer, Cargill’s younger cousin, who also features prominently in “Advice for Girls.” By that point in her career, Dyer had accumulated a stack of accolades, including repeated Female Freeskier of the Year awards, an overall World Tour title, and being the first woman with a cover shot on Freeskier magazine.
Dyer made “Pretty Faces” because she was regularly skiing big mountains with groups of women — women like Ingrid Backstrom, Rachael Burks, Angel Collinson and Elyse Saugstad — but when it came to casting the annual films, she’d be lucky to share the set with one other woman. “Nexus” arrived eight years later, and was the first ski film with an all-woman cast, producer and director.
“Advice for Girls” is the first ski movie with an all-woman everything — cast, crew, director, cinematographers and producers.
“So we were like, OK, well at least we’re different in that way,” Robbins said. “Like we were trying to find a reason to justify making another woman’s film because they already exist. We had to be like, wait a second, that’s pretty messed up for us to believe.”
“There’s two films,” Schlag said. Two films in almost 10 years.
The only girl
There are three major companies in the freeskiing film world: Teton Gravity Research, Matchstick Productions and Warren Miller Entertainment. All three are known for their annual films that feature the past season’s best athletes, biggest cliff drops, and wildest (or weirdest) stunts.
Over the past 30 years, the total number of film segments, known as parts, that have featured female skiers across all three companies is 401, compared with 2,560 parts skied by men, according to an analysis by The Colorado Sun.
At TGR, the first film to feature more than three women appeared in 2002, but it would take another 15 years to reach that four-woman high. Matchstick’s first four-woman film came in 2012. Over that same period, the average number of men featured in TGR films was 17 and 13 in Matchstick movies.
Warren Miller Entertainment’s numbers are substantially higher, with most of their films featuring 10 or more women. Their 2015 film, “Chasing Shadows,” for instance, featured 18 women, and 95 men. Still, the split between genders is proportionally similar to the other two companies, at about 15% or 1 woman for every 6 men.
One of the reasons for the historically low numbers is the way that skiers are cast in films. Occasionally a brand will reach out to get one of their sponsored athletes some camera time, but in general there is no path to landing a part. So the industry-accepted standard is: know someone.
And that’s what Schlag, Robbins and their co-producer, Addy Jacobsend, set out to change with “Advice for Girls.” Not the way that women get into ski films, but the number of “someones” who can help get them there.
Quit your day job
It started with a poem that Jacobsend, who coaches kids’ skiing in Utah, wrote after one particularly inspired day. Its title was “Advice for Girls.” The poem became an idea for a 7-minute movie, and, after a few discussions with Robbins, spiraled into the 45-minute, nearly 30-athlete film that it is today.
In November 2022, Jacobsen and Robbins brought Schlag into the team, and by the end of December both Schlag and Robbins had quit their jobs to focus on the movie full time. One of their first tasks was to find the money to make it. The initial budget for the movie was $165,475. It ended up costing closer to $250,000.
They reached out to brands and received a fraction of their budget, then turned to Kickstarter, where they raised over $47,000 from 431 backers. They also found private donors who Robbins described as “women who just really believe in what we’re doing.” They are hoping to get the rest of the money selling tickets and merchandise.
In a word, the funding is “scrappy,” Schlag said.
For context, Matchstick Productions raises around $1 million per film. Most of Matchstick’s funding comes through advertisers who trust the company’s 30-year track record and distribution network. But independent films don’t have that leverage, so they rely heavily on Kickstarters and brand sponsorships.
Athletes who appear in Matchstick films aren’t paid directly by the film company, Matchstick Productions co-founder Murray Wais explained. Most athletes have contracts with brand sponsors that include a certain number of media or movie spots. So they are paid indirectly by the companies they ski for.
But Schlag and Robbins wanted to update that model and put all of their athletes, as well as their crew, on payroll.
“If we were out here pushing this message that women need to be valued but then asking people to work for free? That’s not cool,” Robbins said.
If young girls don’t see themselves in ski movies, then they won’t grow up to be adults who ask to be in ski movies. Then the next generation of young girls doesn’t grow up with those role models. The cycle perpetuates itself, said Angela Crampton, senior communications manager for SheJumps, a nonprofit that gets women and nonbinary folks into the mountains.
It hit Wais one day while he was skinning up a mountain near his home, listening to a podcast interview between female skiers who he’d worked with before. They were talking about how they didn’t feel like they could speak up in the context of ski films, that they had to protect their spot.
“I was floored,” Wais said. “I always thought that I was, like, kind of an open door, you know? Like, bring your voice to me and let’s try to make this happen. And they didn’t feel like they had that choice. They felt like they were just privileged to have the opportunity, so they didn’t want to speak up and say anything.”
In 2017, Ingrid Backstrom, one of the foremost women in freeskiing, did bring Wais an idea. Not an all-women’s film, but a film that featured equal numbers of men and women. It would be called “When Beavers Attack.”
The film’s major sponsors, including The North Face, were behind the concept but not the title. It was changed to “All In” and released as Matchstick’s 2018 feature. Since then, Matchstick’s films have featured 32 parts skied by women, almost the same number that were featured by the company in the preceding 25 years.
Since releasing “All In,” the company hasn’t had to make a concerted effort to go after more women skiers, because more women skiers are coming to them, Wais said. “The network has expanded. And the women who are in it don’t feel like they need to protect their place. They actually feel like they need to bring other women in.”
During a Q&A at a screening of “Advice for Girls” in Golden, an audience member asked the most glaring question of the cast and crew: What is their advice for girls?
The crew exchanged glances, egging each other on with raised eyebrows and closed-mouth smiles. After a few moments, Robbins broke the silence: “Know your value and add tax.”