Despite the growing popularity of triathlons, and the inherent drama in the extreme endurance sport, the sport has had only a brief moment in the sun in the film industry. What it Takes, a film from 2006, stands as one of the few full-length documentaries of the sport.
An unlikely pairing of endurance athletes plans to change that. Yanfeng Zhang, who has run about a dozen marathons and another dozen triathlons, had worked in a variety of positions in technology, retail, health-care and procurement. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say film is one of the few industries he hadn’t worked in.
Meanwhile, he ran marathons. “Back in 2008, when I was training for my first marathon, my mentor brought me a DVD called Spirit of the Marathon,” a documentary that followed six competitors in the 2005 Chicago Marathon, Yan said. “Even now, I watch that movie before every marathon I run.”
As he got into triathlons, he thought, “Maybe someone should do a documentary like that. Then I thought, maybe I should try that.”
Yan enrolled in the UCLA School of Movie and Television. In the midst of a mid-life crisis, Yan came to a simple conclusion: “I realized I had two passions – one is movies, one endurance sports.”
At a party last year, he ran into two friends who had been included in the sequel Spirit of the Marathon II, which covered the 2012 Rome Marathon. They told him that Gwendolen Twist, producer of the Spirit of the Marathon films, was at the party.
Yan tracked her down and made his pitch: Let’s work together to produce a triathlon movie inspired by your marathon films.
At first, Gwen said no. But the more she learned about triathlons, the more interested she became.
The result is a project to bring a feature-length documentary to the big screen in 2015. The film focuses on the 30th anniversary of Challenge Roth, one of Europe’s major triathlon races, which was held July 20. It focuses on two-time Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae and Ironman champion Tim O’Donnell, Ironman champion and new father Luke McKenzie, Challenged Athletes Foundation spokesperson and above-knee amputee Ironman finisher Rudy Garcia-Tolson, top Chinese age group iron-distance competitor Qi Dang and iron-distance rookie Bessy Leszczynski.
The project includes several decorated people behind the scenes as well, including executive producer and three-time Academy Award winner Mark Jonathan Harris, Emmy Award winning filmmaker Peter Henning and Emmy Award winning composer Jeff Beal.
“I’m just really excited about how our athletes performed. It’s going to be really exciting on film,” Gwen said. “The fact that I was on pins and needles on race day at the finish line means every audience member is going to have that feeling.
“People are going to be leaving the theater totally pumped, totally inspired. If people were thinking of doing a triathlon, this film will put them over the edge and get them to sign up.”
Both felt that they could reach a broader audience than What it Takes.
“Yan and I decided we wanted to go a totally different route. If you see that film, it’s very technical. You have to really know the people before you see the film. We wanted to introduce our characters.
“My goal is the significant other, who rolls their eyes that they’re being dragged to a triathlon film. They walk out of there like, Ohhhhh, I get it now. They’re entertained; they’re brought into the loop.
“I want to introduce our characters and bring them on the journey. They know what they’re up against. When they walk out of that theater, they care about those characters. Those characters will have a life after the movie.”
Yan and Gwen learned a lot along the way. They over-extended themselves in July, for example. July was race day, and they needed to be in Germany to film the run-up to the race, the event itself and the aftermath. Plus Yan had a triathlon to run at the end of the month.
At the same time, they were raising funds through the crowd funding web site Indiegogo. That effort raised a little more than $7,000. That money certainly helped, but it didn’t make much of a dent in the $500,000 budget they are looking to raise.
“We didn’t have any experience with crowd funding,” Gwen said. “Crowd funding really is a full-time job. You have to be out there putting out samples, reaching people. We were at the time filming. We were traveling. We left for Roth in Germany. For 10 or 12 days out of the 30 you have for crowd funding, we were in Germany filming, trying to get our helicopters, trying to get motorcycles, trying to get contracts, insurance.
“We were kind of hoping the crowd funding would be a beast of its own. We had some people to help us, but they didn’t have the reach that we do, and we just didn’t have the time or the energy.”
In the end, it was mostly family and friends that contributed, “so I’m actually honored and thrilled at the $7,000 we raised,” Gwen said.
Now that most of the footage has been shot, Gwen and Yan are focusing on the fund-raising, editing and post-production work, which should take about six months. If the film isn’t ready for release by the end of winter, they’ll consider holding off on releasing it until early fall, trying to position it after the summer blockbusters but before the Oscar competitors.
“Getting the critical footage was first. Then you make get a trailer,” Gwen said.
“Once you have a trailer, it’s so much easier for you to show someone your vision, to show the style to show the direction you’re going in, to show the drama you captured.”
Meanwhile, Yan promotes the movie, largely through Facebook and other social media, adding updates as the project progresses or personal notes like his latest race experience.
“We are financing this with our own money. So we are looking for sponsors and product placement. There’s definitely room, if someone wanted to come to the table with product placement, for us to pick up additional shots with product placement,” Gwen said.
“I’d rather have an organic product placement rather than ‘Nike proudly presents …’” Gwen said. “Don’t get me wrong. If Nike wants to come to the table, we’d be very happy.”
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