Teton Gravity Research: Jackson Hole’s Action Sports Juggernaut
By Brian E. Clark
When Steve Jones was growing up on Cape Cod — that hook-shaped peninsula which juts into the Atlantic Ocean from the southeast corner of Massachusetts – he was certain he’d do something creative with his life that involved the outdoors.
He’s achieved that in spades, and then some.
Jones and his brother Todd founded the award-winning Jackson Hole-based Teton Gravity Research (TGR) in 1995. Since then, the sports media company has produced more than 50 films, many of which have won accolades for their depiction of skiing, mountain biking, surfing, whitewater kayaking and other action sports.
At the recent iF3 Movie Awards in Whistler, B.C., TGR’s latest snowboard film, Flying High Again, won four awards, including Film of the Year in the Pro Snowboarding category.
Flying High Again, TGR’s long-awaited collaboration with pioneering snowboard film director and Standard Films founder Mike Hatchett, also picked up awards for Best Backcountry Segment (John Jackson), and Best Urban Segment (Brandon Davis). The film is now on tour, with complete tour dates available here.
Davis was named the Standout Male Snowboarder of the Year. And Maggie Voisin was named the Standout Female Skier of the Year for her work in the company’s latest ski film, Legend Has It. Voisin picked up the award for a segment in Legend that featured the Montana native in the backcountry in Alaska, showcasing the skills that have made her a three-time Olympian and seven-time X Games medalist. Legend Has It earned nine total nominations.
Their first film, “The Continuum,” was inducted into the Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.
“I didn’t really quite know what I wanted to do, but by the time I was in high school, I was passionately obsessed with nature and sports,” Jones told me shortly after he and his family returned from a recent surfing vacation off Baja California. “At the least, I was pretty sure I’d make a career out of being in the outdoors.
“I was always writing, but nature was where my passion was. That’s where I could stay focused and apply myself and the creativity component of my mind.”
Jones and his brothers – including Jeremy, a pro snowboarder – raced sailboats as kids. They began surfing when friends got their drivers’ licenses and they could go to the Lower Cape to catch waves.
They learned to ski at Stowe, Vermont. But they’d never carved any turns in the West until spending a season ski bumming at Jackson Hole during college in New York. Both Steve and Todd finished their schooling at the University of Montana in Missoula.
But Jackson Hole drew them back to wait tables, wash dishes, ski and contemplate founding TGR.
“The thing that was so exciting about Jackson Hole is the high alpine, which we don’t have Back East,” Steve said of the resort, which covers 2,500 acres, has plenty of expert runs and a vertical descent of more than 4,000 feet.
“The whole upper mountain is natural terrain. There are groomers, but there are also bowls and couloirs and big open areas up. You don’t start to see cut trails until you get to the bottom of the resort. That part of it was pretty mind-blowing for me.”
The brothers began working with Wade McCoy and Bob Woodall of Focus Productions, who were senior photographers for Powder Magazine. They soon picked up sponsorships from Rossignol, Marmot, Smith and several other skiing and outdoor clothing and gear companies.
“At the the time, Rossi was one of the main sponsors of Warren Miller ski films, so we got invited to be in a ski movie,” he said. “We tried to drag them out into the backcountry, but they weren’t interested in that. That was a little disappointing and it kind of burst our bubble after we got to look under the hood of what ski films were.”
And from that experience, in part, the seed for Teton Gravity Research was planted.
“We thought that there was just so much more that you could do if you were willing to lug heavy camera gear into the side country and backcountry and really show full lines,” he said. “Those guys wanted us to ski through a frame and blow up a powder pillow. There is a place for that as well, but there’s so much more.
“We all got along, but we were kind of like ‘this isn’t real.’ We were in our early 20s and we thought that there was a bigger story to be told. Snowboarding was lighting things up then in a more youthful and progressive way. This was just before the X Games came into being.”
About the same time, the brothers were invited to go to Alaska and guide for Doug Coombs, a freeride skiing legend who died after a cliff fall in the French Alps in 2006.
“It was a really small, low-key operation,” he said. “We’d stay up there all spring to guide and ski, run out of funds and then hit the docks, scrounge for work and go commercial fishing in the Anchorage area.”
They bought their first 16-millimeter camera with money from their fishing jobs.
“That was 1995 and our first film came out in 1996,” he said. “It was all trial and error. We had friends who had filmed us for Warren Miller and we asked them questions. We stumbled a bit, loaded some rolls of film into the camera backwards that came back in infrared. It was some of our best footage, too.”
Jones said film at the time was quite expensive, but it was the heyday of commercial fishing and the pair had earned more than $20,000 each.
“Which for a ski bum, which was a lot of money back then,” he said.
Fortunately, executives at San Francisco-based VIO had seen a promotional reel they’d done and agreed to fund TGR with film and processing, he said
“At that time, a three-minute roll of film was $100 to shoot and process,” he said. “So that really opened doors for us because we then had unlimited access to film and were able to shoot as much as we wanted.”
The brothers went to the ski industry trade show that spring with their “promo reel” and got sponsorship dollars for finishing costs.
“That next summer we went back up to Alaska to replenish the coffers with commercial fishing money,” he said. “Then we came back did all the editing and cataloging of the film and came out with ‘The Continuum.’”
They then launched their first film tour, which Jones described as “a bit lackluster because we didn’t have a brand yet. We were driving it around the West to 50 or 100-person showings. But now it’s 1,000- to 2,000-person showings.
“We also launched the TGR website, which was one of the first action-sports websites. And we started our forums, which became the largest (online) ski and snowboard community. Then we quickly moved into multi-sport and here we are today.”
Jones said he and his brother “pretty much winged it.”
“Todd and I wrote a business plan,” he recalled. “The simple version of it is that we wanted to be the premier action sports lifestyle brand, captivate a large audience outside of the core and be able to bring these sports to the mainstream. From the get-go, we always looked at this as more of a lifestyle thing.
“We never just wanted to be a ski and snowboard company singularly. We thought that there was a much bigger opportunity in the adventure space, which has since turned into travel and culture and music and other things.
“From the beginning, that was the goal. But we didn’t have a roadmap. We knew it was really important to create a brand. And to do that, we really wanted to be a voice for exceptional athletes and bring them to life. At the time, they were being overlooked as testosterone-filled machismo guys who weren’t very bright.”
Jones said he didn’t see it that way.
“They had a ‘ski bum’ stigma, but we were looking at people doing all this amazing stuff in ski mountaineering and climbing that really required a high degree of problem solving and intellect and athletic precision,” he said.
“They also had unique personalities. We thought these are people who are overcoming the unimaginable and that their stories deserve to be told in an intelligent way that anyone could relate to because they were stories of human triumph. That was our goal, more or less.”
Jones said they wanted to produce the “action-packed, minimally story driven stuff that we still do today because that is the celebration that kicks off the season and the core audience loves. That’s a great part of our biz, but the storytelling component has always interested us, too.”
Though they consider Warren Miller a mentor and someone who paved the wave for action sports films, they often looked at his movies as a little silly.
“We constantly poked fun at their hokeyness. They were goofy. But they largely inspired us to do what we did. There were a lot of things going, like snowboard films out there where guys were really pushing the envelope. That was part of the motivation and catalyst for wanting to do TGR.”
Jones said TGR’s core sports are skiing, snowboarding, surfing and mountain biking.
“But we will do others, too,” he said. “For HBO, we did the ‘Edge of the Earth’ documentary series on some crazy missions. We had surfing on the west coast of Africa up to Namibia, a ski and snowboard episode deep in Alaska, a climbing episode in Kyrgystan and a kayak episode in Ecuador on a river that had never been run.
“Part of the reason we named our company TGR is because we are here to document gravity sports, the human powered stuff, but we’ve done some freestyle motocross filming, too. We did a series for Fuel TV a few years back. We’ll deviate a bit because considered that to be an action sport.”
Jones said shortly after TGR’s reputation was established, they began shooting for automobile makers and other corporations.
“It’s been 28 years now,” he mused. “Our first film was ‘Continuum’ and by ‘Harvest,’ we were doing outside work, at least for endemic companies. Like Rossignol, for example, who’d ask us to create a commercial or promo deal for them. By year three, we’d started to do commercial work beyond the outdoor industry.
“And when digital media came to be, that part became big for us. In the first five to 10 years, we would get jobs interspersed here and there throughout the year. But when the digital became a force and everyone started to reach their consumers online, we were turning work away.
“Everyone wanted social media shortcuts and short films, long form and all kinds of stuff. Our work-for-hire is now 15 to 20 percent of what we do, mostly to subsidize the growth of the brand.
“The stuff that we do commercially, which we call work for hire, is cool because it sometimes comes with bigger budgets and we get more tools to play with. It’s typically action centric and we are allowed to bring our athletes into it and they are paid by a third party outside like Ford. It also helps build our brand.
“And we continue to create TGR-centered content and do our global film tours. Things like that are much more valuable to us in terms of creating content that grows the TGR name.”
TGR also started selling merchandise early on. The company now has stores in Jackson Hole, Breckenridge and Bozeman. It will be opening new retail shops in Park City and Boulder soon.
“We had our first TGR products, hats, fleece, hoodies, etc. before our first film came out,” he said. “We got ahead of ourselves a bit there. That’s a challenging effort if you don’t have deep pockets. We were funding this ourselves and struggled a bit to keep it all together.
“As the brand started to to grow and merchandise began to generate revenue, we did flannels and micro puffies. But we have not gotten into technical outerwear. The whole merchandise thing from the get-go was part of our vision, back when action sports were really small.”
Just this year, TGR linked up with the Grateful Dead on a new collection of officially licensed clothing designs using iconic lyrics from the famed band’s songs.
TGR also is going into its third season of offering ski goggles.
“The story for us there was really organic because we’ve been shooting with Zeiss lenses for 28 years and really put them to the test in the craziest conditions: mountains, ocean, winter, summer…
“For a decade, leading up to getting into optics, we had the tagline: “See the world through our Lens.” So we figured we’d earned our right to be in this space. It was a natural extension for TGR. So that’s why we went into optics.”
Jones said TGR and the VIO company evolved together, launching the first digital Point of View (POV) camera and later partnering with GoPro, Sony Action Cam and helping develop to 4K aerial camera systems.
“VIO was originally a military camera that came into the action sports arena They reached out to us and we helped them develop that technology.
“We were side by side developing our GSS, gyro-stabilized aerial camera system and it’s arguably the most progressive aerial camera system in the world.”
TGR has also worked with drone companies since its early days.
“They’d send us product and we’d give feedback,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of that.”
Jones said the number of TGR employees fluctuates with projects in the works.
“Not including retail stores, we have about 30 people based at our headquarters,” he said. “But that doesn’t include contractors. When we’re doing an HBO, a TV series or commercial work, we have a collection of people and cinematographers who come in.
“So it’s like 50 who are part of that content creation machine. Then there are probably 40 retail employees. We also formally sponsor athletes through TGR Optics. Not including our Grom Squad – who are the up and coming kids – we have 12 paid athletes between surf, bike and snow.”
Jones, who is 52, said he figures he was on the snow 90 days this past season at Jackson Hole and 10 more at other areas.
“I know that because my kids ended up getting 115 days and they heckled me because I didn’t get 100 at our home resort,” he quipped.
“Both Todd and I are more than full time. We are in the office a lot, but we try not to lose touch with why we started TGR, the culture we created and the people who work for us.”
As for what’s next, Jones said the company is in discussions “with a couple of different entities that we’ve always thought were a good fit, a fun and exciting extension of TGR hospitality and experiences.
“So we are looking at TGR branded property in Big Sky with a theater, climbing wall, athlete experiences and rotating athlete residences where you could come in and ski with them or do off-season mountain bike or outdoor production clinics.
“It would be a fully integrated TGR property with all our own artwork, TGR television in all of the hotel rooms with action sports conferences and things like that. Another location that’s fairly far along is at Mammoth Lakes. We’re working with architects on the designs and what are the integrations into the property that make it TGR. That’s a big one.
“We launched our TGR TV live stream channel during Covid and there is a free component that you can download and a subscription-based option that allows you access to all of our premium content behind our paywall.
“We will continue to put resources into growing that as its own channel, continue to develop the TGR product, the merchandise, eyewear and all of the other stuff we’re into. We’re not slowing down.”
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.