411 Redux

“As skaters, we don’t pretend to know everything about snow, surf, or BMX,” says Josh Friedberg. This isn’t exactly an odd statement coming from a person responsible, with the rest of the 411 crew, for making the best-selling video magazine in skateboarding’s history. The odd part is that Friedberg and 411 are making snowboarding, BMX, and surfing videos. “But, we’ve made it a point to get people involved that have the same kind of background in their respective sports that we have in skateboarding.” Big things are changing on the 411 front, things that may indicate the shifting tides in skateboarding.

Back when 411 started almost a decade ago, the company blindly entered the limited video market. Most videos were made by board companies and considered disposable–after a month or two most sold out and were never requested again. Generally, skate videos were considered marketing tools, but 411VM was a bi-monthly video magazine that would cover skating in the same way a paper mag does. Steve Douglas, president of 411 Productions, says that in many ways videos are more complete than paper. You can gauge the sarcasm in an interview, for instance: “Videos don’t lie.”

The word spread. 411VM shot up the mainline of skaters faster than anybody expected. A few imitators followed years later, but 411VM remains the strong leader.

It wasn’t a clean blast to the top, however. “People had no idea what we were talking about,” Friedberg recalls. Before the first issue was released, he had trouble relaying his vision to the rest of the skateboard industry. “We had to produce a demo before we started to convince people it was a viable format. It was a lot like pulling teeth.”

While living rooms filled up with skaters burning their retinas out staring at the recent issue on a TV screen, others weren’t so stoked. Marc Johnson, for instance, lists video magazines as one of his five pet peeves on crailtap.com. Some skaters feel that video magazines emphasize tricks over everything else. But one thing nobody can argue with is that 411VM changed the role of video cameras in skateboarding. And realizing how some skaters felt, 411 Productions developed an answer.

On Is On

Kirk DiAnda was editing a video when I called him to ask some questions. He’s the creative director for 411 Productions and, according to Douglas, the “motor” behind On Video, a 411-produced video magazine that focuses more on personalities than rapid-fire tricks. “I wanted to focus on who’s important in skating,” DiAnda says, lowering his voice as if afraid to speak ill of the video mag that made his job possible. “I had an idea to slow down the pace of the video.”

At first he proposed changing 411VM, but that was shot down on the simple axiom: If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. Sure, some people disliked the style and format, but a lot more loved it. “They didn’t like the idea of changing 411VM to fit (my) ideas,” he says with a shy laugh. Instead, they handed DiAnda his own video project, and On was born.

By producing On, 411 was definitely diving into the water before checking the depth first. With its emphasis on personality and history (a skateboarding class most skaters would flunk), On focuses on actual skaters rather than their tricks. Skaters, in a knee-jerk reaction to the generally cute style of the 1980s videos, wanted to cut out the condiments and just serve the beef. Or at least that’s what most of the industry thought. In the mid 90s, some skaters didn’t even want their faces shown in videos, just their feet and the trick. A lot of videos at that time were essentially trick catalogs, but eventually personal flavor made a comeback. In the past few years videos such as Tilt Mode Army, The End, and some of the TransWorld videos injected doses of personality into riders’ parts.

411VM toyed a bit with personality, with features such as “Day In The Life,” but knew their viewers expected to be strafed with tricks. DiAnda explains why some older skateideos are still popular, even if the skating shown is dated. “I don’t like how skating isn’t epic anymore. (Today’s) tricks can’t stand the test of time–they could, but not the way skating is being presented.” If a video is just a blast of tricks, it’ll only last as long as the tricks are relevant.

But getting top skaters to see things through his eyes was more difficult than DiAnda thought. “It was hard,” he recalls. “There were a lot of negative connotations connected to video magazines.” But once the first issue came out, everybody gave a sigh of relief. “I think people heard about the ideas, but didn’t know how they would turn out. We had a lot of positive feedback.”

With the success of On, 411 Productions now had videos that satisfied the bipolar attitudes of skating. In the process, the style of the video has shown how open today’s skaters can be. The strict “rules” of skating that killed freestyle and halted vert in its tracks have evaporated, and most people hadn’t noticed. “I was surprised to see young kids react so positively to the project,” Friedberg says. “We initially aimed it toward a more grown-up skater, but seeing history gets everyone excited. The biggest compliment is that after watching On, people love being skateboarders and want to go out and skate. You can’t ask for more than that.”

As an example, in the Fall 2001 issue of On, there’s some late-70s footage during the introduction of a guy carving Kona Skatepark’s banks while doing a handstand on his board. Not a three-foot long carve, this guy rides the whole park. DiAnda laughs as he recalls how he put it in as a trippy little clip and was ambushed by the excited response to it. Every skater who came in to visit, even the ‘core little street punks, wanted to watch it over and over. It’s probably the most talked-about video part in the last few years.

“On Video has been very successful in establishing its place in skateboarding much quicker than we anticipated,” Friedberg says. “Skateboarding is such a rich sport and full of amazing stories that are only known by a few people. Newcomers and the old guard alike have been drawn to On’s presentation of the past, present, and future of skateboarding.”

Multitasking

Times are changing, and whenever that happens it inevitably lights the fuse for arguments in the skateboard industry. The thought of a ‘core skateboard company crossing over into anything non-skate can cause an automatic ick reaction, until you pause and think about it. Tony Hawk takes BMXers on his Gigantic Skatepark Tour, TransWorld publishes magazines that cover a variety of sports, and now 411 produces BMX, snowboarding, and surfing videos. No longer do skateboarders own sole rights the name 411VM. “Right now we’re solidifying the foundation of what we do best–producing video magazines that connect people to their passions,” Friedberg says. He and Douglas nailed it with skateboarding’s 411VM, so why not hire talented video heads in other sports and produce the same products of passion for them?

411 revolutionized the peripheral-sports video market. Today pro bikers hang out with pro skaters, and there probably aren’t any peripheral sports that cross over as much as snowboarding and skating. But, for a variety of reasons, skate is still king at 411. “Skate (circulation) is around 40,000 copies an issue, but we did close to 50,000 of Issue 50,” Friedberg says. “Snow (tops) is around 30,000–on average 25,000 and growing. We?re projecting between 10,000 and 15,000 initially for BMX and surf.” Friedberg claims that with 411VM’s high pass-around rate, viewership for the magazines hits two-million.

With the new video mags, the specialty-contest and tour videos, as well as an upcoming trick-tips series, 411 Productions has 30 projects set up for this year. And with distribution everywhere from ‘core skate shops (who get the vids at least a month before non-skate shops) to places like Best Buy (which supposedly moves more DVDs than any other store), 411 videos are easy to get in your hands. The staff has quadrupled in the past two years to 40 full-time employees between the main offices in Fountain Valley, California and the snow offices in Denver, Colorado. The company had to hire a project manager and an editor for the snow, surf, and BMX titles, along with a couple of staff filmers for each. “With all the projects, we rely on freelance contributors,” says Friedberg. “We have around 90 cameramen who contribute worldwide.”

That’s just the video department. 411 has its arsenal aimed at that cable box in your living room, bypassing the DVD or VCR. “We’re also putting a lot of focus on marketing and further building our distribution channels,” Friedberg says. “Once we have everything on track, television is going to be our next area of focus, along with a few other things we don’t want to let out of the bag quite yet.”

We can only hope that 411 does take a swing at TV. Besides a few shows that heavily involve skaters, most of the skating on the boob tube is unwatchable shit, filtered through a boardroom of suits. No wonder there’s a buzz in the BMX, surf, and snowboarding community regarding 411 Productions and their products. When I asked Douglas about the reaction in those communities to his company’s involvement, he said the most common response was, “It’s about time.” than any other store), 411 videos are easy to get in your hands. The staff has quadrupled in the past two years to 40 full-time employees between the main offices in Fountain Valley, California and the snow offices in Denver, Colorado. The company had to hire a project manager and an editor for the snow, surf, and BMX titles, along with a couple of staff filmers for each. “With all the projects, we rely on freelance contributors,” says Friedberg. “We have around 90 cameramen who contribute worldwide.”

That’s just the video department. 411 has its arsenal aimed at that cable box in your living room, bypassing the DVD or VCR. “We’re also putting a lot of focus on marketing and further building our distribution channels,” Friedberg says. “Once we have everything on track, television is going to be our next area of focus, along with a few other things we don’t want to let out of the bag quite yet.”

We can only hope that 411 does take a swing at TV. Besides a few shows that heavily involve skaters, most of the skating on the boob tube is unwatchable shit, filtered through a boardroom of suits. No wonder there’s a buzz in the BMX, surf, and snowboarding community regarding 411 Productions and their products. When I asked Douglas about the reaction in those communities to his company’s involvement, he said the most common response was, “It’s about time.”