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Dog eat dog
Skateboarding legends take on big business amid Z-Boys documentary’s unexpected acclaim

by Michel Cicero

The over-indulgent machines were their children.
There wasn’t a way down on Earth here to cool ’em...
And I laughed to myself at the men and the ladies who never conceived those billion dollar babies."
—Alice Cooper, Generation Landslide

The Setting

Dogtown: A run-down section of Santa Monica described fondly as “Where the debris meets the sea.” The nucleus of Dogtown is at the intersection of Bay and Main Streets. The Characters

Jay Adams: The beloved Z-Boy is known for his unsurpassed natural ability as both a skateboarder and a surfer. Though he never stopped skating, he didn’t pursue a career in athletics. Adams lives in Hawaii where he surfs and skates regularly. He’ll cash a check for his participation in the documentary if it comes, but isn’t panting in anticipation.

Tony Alva: The Z-Boys’ resident rock star, Alva is known for his flawless, aggressive skating style. Legend has it, he was the first to get air. He still owns and operates Alva Skateboards, has two kids and no beef with Vans.

Glen E. Friedman: The only photographer other than Stecyk to document the Z-Boys with his acclaimed photographs. He’s published a number of books, including the seminal Fuck You Heroes and has worked with musical artists the Beastie Boys, Black Flag, Run DMC and others. Friedman’s official title according to Sony Pictures Classics, is producer/creative consultant. Friedman is least likely to be seen playing ball on the corporate team.

Jeff Ho, Skip Engblom and Craig Stecyk: Together the surfboard maker, the entrepreneur and the artist formed Jeff Ho and Zephyr Productions Surf Shop in Santa Monica. Engblom and Stecyk coined the word Dogtown and the rest is history. Ho builds surfboards in Hawaii. Engblom owns Santa Monica Airlines and surfs four days a week. Stecyk, who has a permanent surfboard and skateboard display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History, has shown his work worldwide.

Jim Muir: Brother Mike made it big with his band Suicidal Tendencies while Jim, rather auspiciously, registered the Dogtown name and started a successful manufacturing company.

Stacy Peralta: Turned skateboarding into a legitimate business with Powell-Peralta, a business that helped him discover his creative side. He dabbled in television direction before going on to co-write and direct Dogtown and Z-Boys. His character has come under scrutiny with some of the Z-Boys following a proliferation of merchandise associated with the film.

Nathan Pratt: Pratt was the first and last Z-Boy to make the Jeff Ho and Zephyr Productions Surf Shop his second home. Though not lauded for his skating ability, he did pursue a career in surfing. Later he married into the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf business and now lives on an avocado orchard in Somis with his wife and two children. Pratt’s been wary of Vans involvement in the film from day one and is currently negotiating with Vans for a percentage of shoe sales.

Jay Wilson: The Vice President of Global Marketing for Vans Inc, Wilson has a number of impressive accomplishments to his credit. He believes strongly in the positive effects of sports on youth and spearheaded the Vans Triple Crown Series sports competition. He was instrumental in Vans’ funding of the Dogtown movie and wants people to get things into perspective.

Temple of the Dog

Walking distance from the crumbling artifices of the urine-stained ghost town that would later house the trendy Third Street Promenade, Skip Engblom and Craig Stecyk lamented the heat over vodka and papaya juice.

One said, “This is really the dog days.”

The other replied, “Yeah, this is really a dog town.”

It was the mid ’70s and sleepy Santa Monica’s glistening, cracked sidewalks had not yet felt the suction grip of Hollywood’s tentacles. Neither had Dogtown’s Z-Boys, whose life story rights would become hot property three decades later following an article in Spin magazine and the release of a little documentary directed by one of their own.

With vintage Dogtown skateboards selling for as much as $3,000 on E-Bay and the youth market for extreme sports at an all-time high, the timing was perfect for re-visiting the legendary Z-Boys and their sacred stomping grounds.

By all accounts, Stacy Peralta’s intentions were honorable. When Hollywood came on to the Dogtown buzz generated by the Spin piece, Peralta refused to sign on the dotted line. The sentient pretty boy who friends describe as “conservative” had seen enough bad skateboard movies to know the formula.

“I was worried that if Hollywood took a hold of this script, they would make a one-dimensional portrait of a time in our lives that was probably the most precious,” said Peralta.

In the past, fellow Z-Boys Tony Alva and Jay Adams had partially eclipsed Peralta with their aggressive style and scrappy good looks. The two had attitude and charisma to spare. Peralta’s technical skill and fresh-scrubbed appeal didn’t always turn heads, but his studious approach to the sport paid off.

At 19, he co-founded the skate products manufacturer Powell-Peralta, which led to his discovery of Tony Hawk, who he sponsored for 11 years. His “Bones Brigade” skate videos spawned an industry. Later his flair for filmmaking led to credits on Spielberg’s Hook and Bravo’s Influences series. Not bad for a geeky skate rat from West Los Angeles who hijacked swimming pools during the Z-Boys reign. Yet maybe not good enough for the divorced father whose achievements and failures were meeting him head on in the mid-life lane. The aspiring screenwriter had done well for himself, but certain goals were still unmet.

So, when Hollywood called, Peralta said, “I will only sell my rights if I’m involved in the writing of the screenplay.” Hollywood bigwigs didn’t bite. Eventually, he realized he could make his own movie—without them. It would be a documentary, and it probably wouldn’t make any money because, you know, documentaries are notoriously unprofitable, but it would tell the story—the right way.

A couple years later—with a Sundance Film Festival Best Director Award on his mantel for the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys and his script for the Hollywood feature film Lords of Dogtown signed, sealed and delivered—Peralta finds himself at the center of a dispute as stinky as a used pair of skateboard shoes.

Mad Dogs and businessmen

Getting a film funded, especially a documentary, is a little like sucking a raw egg through a pinhole. It’s exhausting and nauseating. It blows and it tastes bad, and if you succeed without egg on your face, maybe you can see your reflection in the mirror.

As Peralta tells it, Vans Inc. originally agreed to go halves with a Hollywood studio when, after six months of negotiations, the studio pulled out. Two weeks later, Vans came back and said, “You know what, we really believe in this project. We’re gonna finance it.”

Peralta’s gratitude for the skateboard shoe manufacturer’s altruism was undoubtedly palpable. But for a company that pocketed a profit in the neighborhood of $15 million last year, $400,000 wasn’t exactly risky. Wilson confirmed that the only thing Vans wanted in return was production credit at the beginning and end of the film. The cozy alliance was a coup for Vans and an obvious boost to Peralta’s career.

Peralta maintains that Vans had no creative input and was financing the film as a gesture of appreciation. Peralta was the first skater to be paid for wearing someone’s shoes, and those shoes were Vans. If it hadn’t been for the Z-Boys, Vans might have drifted into obscurity like the boys themselves.

Vans’ foray into the independent film business was unprecedented and Hollywood took notice. A recent promotional newsletter distributed to Cannes Film Festival participants by Anderson Entertainment remarked that Vans knew “the skateboarders would be plugging their shoes in virtually every action scene....”

As the little movie that could inched its way closer to the April 26 release date—and with critical acclaim for Dogtown and Z-Boys piling up in the form of film festival awards—a tab on the Vans Web site appeared: “Dogtown Shop.” Dogtown products are currently the most dominant element on Vans’ opening page. A link to the movie’s Web site can be found under the shopping tabs, nestled between “NBC Sports,” “Fox Sports” and “Vans Warped Tour.”

Flush right, a pair of colorful shoes stamped with the Dogtown logo appears next to the words “Available On Line Now.” Below that, the retro checkerboard shoe that Dogtown and Z-Boys narrator Sean Penn wore in Fast Times at Ridgemont High sits above the word “Shop.” Click on the link to the official movie site and while the page is loading, an ad interstitial or “pop-up window” materializes with, you guessed it, an ad for the Dogtown shoe.

Meanwhile, the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, has set a late summer release date for the DVD and VHS versions of the movie, and rumors of a video game have certain Z-Boys squirming.

Z-Boy Nathan Pratt, himself a successful, savvy businessman, saw the writing on the wall long before it appeared on a proposed agreement from Vans.

Pratt, who lives with his family in Somis, claims that when Peralta first told him that Vans was funding the film, he offered to finance it, but Peralta said he was committed to Vans.

When it came time to shoot Pratt’s interview for the film, he was handed a “standard release” requesting that he grant Peralta and producer Agi Orsi (the Dogtown Documentary Partnership) “the non-exclusive right, but not the obligation, to use [Pratt’s] name, likeness, biographical information, interview, appearances and voice in all media (defined as including but not limited to theatrical broadcast, television, cable television, video and the Internet) throughout the territory (defined as worldwide) in perpetuity in connection with the creation, filming, production, distribution, exploitation, promotion, marketing and merchandising of the Dogtown Documentary.”

Further, it offered Pratt “no compensation of any kind.”

The other Z-Boys had signed the release, but he refused. Approximately eight months later, with Pratt’s release still unsigned, he told Peralta he wanted a merchandise exclusion clause. “I don’t mind doing it for free if no one’s getting any back end, no one’s getting any profit, no one is getting paid, but we don’t want Vans making money off of our backs,” said Pratt. “I don’t want to see Dogtown T-shirts. I don’t want to see tennis shoes. I don’t want this to become the Vans Christmas 2002 line.”

According to Pratt, Peralta told him Vans promised there would be no merchandise. When the Vans catalog appeared, chock full of Dogtown merchandise, Pratt decided to go to bat for the other Z-Boys too.

But Vans’ vice president of global marketing, Jay Wilson, says he never made that promise. And besides, says Wilson, “There already [was] Dogtown merchandise”—Z-Boy Jim Muir’s been marketing it for years. Whatever Vans worked out with Muir was a standard business-to-business transaction. Theoretically, Vans is just selling what already existed (minus the shoes). As Wilson explains it, there is not now, nor has there ever been any merchandise marketed under the movie’s name, Dogtown and Z-Boys. Semantics or not, it’s an important distinction.

Who let the Alpha Dogs out

Tony Alva, a man never known for understating a point, doesn’t support Pratt’s effort. “He’s been calling the guys incessantly and giving them all this propaganda—he’s like the Adolph Hitler of the whole thing.”

To Alva’s mind, since he and Peralta are the only guys who pursued careers in skateboarding, other than Muir, it’s gravy.

“I’m taking it in stride because I see something coming to me that I worked toward for 30 years, and I’m going, ‘Hallelujah,’” Alva said. “Don’t get me wrong—I love these guys, but I don’t want to hear them bitching and moaning about not getting their fair share when, if they had their shit together and were out there working from day one, they would be getting their fair share.”

And if Wilson had dollar signs in his eyes, more power to him, Alva said. “Vans is in business to sell shoes, to make money. So for them to use the Dogtown thing as a marketing vehicle, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s 100 percent all-American capitalism,” he said. “And it’s only to our advantage. I’m a 44-year-old kid. I’m stoked when I get my check and a couple pairs of free shoes. It’s nice to be sponsored.”

Some would say that’s an easy stance to take from his vantage point, but what about the less fortunate of the Z-Boys, like Jay Adams, whose mantra is “100 percent skateboarder for life.” Adams said he feels misled but acknowledges that a series of miscommunications could be to blame. “And we can’t complain about it because we’re all reaping rewards from it in the long run in other ways,” he added.

Many think that if anyone deserves compensation for his involvement in the film, it’s Adams. He was the team’s golden boy, the one Stecyk credits for elevating the sport to an art form. With all the well-deserved accolades Dogtown and Z-Boys has enjoyed, the one segment in the film that garners consistent harsh criticism is the Adams sequence. Thrasher magazine recently reported that Ozzy Osbourne, along with a posse of trendoids, exited a screening in protest of Peralta’s film treatment of Adams.

The film’s creative consultant, Glen Friedman, sums up the over-dramatization of Adams’ plunge into drug addiction—through the use of morose music and emotionally manipulative childhood photos—as “Stacy’s novice technique.” It’s a remark that doesn’t even begin to illustrate Friedman’s exasperation with the whole project.

During the ’80s, when memories of the Z-Boys had faded, and only the most zealous skateboarding enthusiasts and collectors kept tabs on their whereabouts, Friedman kept the legend alive through books like Fuck You Heroes. When the film was in the earliest stages of development, Friedman’s involvement was practically mandatory. Besides loaning hundreds of his photographs to the project, by his own estimation, Friedman was responsible for getting permission to use Jimi Hendrix’s “Ezy Ryder” and music by Aerosmith, apparently no easy task and quite cost-prohibitive. Friedman also says he was instrumental in bringing Sean Penn on board to narrate the film, a windfall that gave the project instant credibility.

Their creative differences were numerous, but Friedman is quick to commend Peralta: “He worked very hard on the film, and he did something no one else could have done.”
At the same time, Friedman cannot disguise his disgust for the overtly commercial turn he believes the project took and what he considers unforgivable marketing ploys executed by Vans and Sony Pictures Classics. According to Friedman, Sony, which he says “pretends to be an art film company,” censored the f-word from the film after Sundance, in order to get a PG-13 rating. He alleges the word “fuck” was used a handful of times throughout the film by various Z-Boys during interview segments. For someone who’s used the word in nearly all his book titles, it’s not the word, but the censoring of it that’s offensive.

Said Friedman, “It’s the epitome of a sell-out.”

He alleges that Sony claimed an R rating would prevent advertising in youth-oriented publications. Friedman said he spoke with representatives from some of these publications and discovered the R rating was not a problem. He lambasted Sony Pictures Classics’ president Tom Bernard for allegedly stretching the truth about the rating’s effects to squeeze more youngsters into theater seats. “Tom Bernard [is a] complete scumbag asshole piece of shit. [He] bent the truth, and in the mean time they censored the movie,” Friedman said. “They’re advertising it as a film that won at Sundance, but it isn’t. If things have been changed, it’s not the same movie.”

Bernard says the Sundance version was a “rough cut” of the film and that no profanity was edited out. “Unfortunately, Mr. Friedman, I think, is not happy with whatever agreement [film producers] worked out for his services [in association with] the picture,” he surmised.

Whether or not the film’s integrity suffered is subjective. The fact that Vans is legally marketing merchandise under the Dogtown name is not all that earth shattering. What does stand out as a blatant example of the Vans/Sony marketing agenda is the Dogtown and Z-Boys movie trailer, the short promotional preview.

With a little more than 90 minutes worth of footage to choose from for the 1:49-second trailer, someone decided it was essential to include what most people would consider an insignificant moment in the film. It’s during the Wentzle Ruml interview when he describes the unofficial Z-Boys uniform. “We were wearing these shirts [the Zephyr Team T-shirts], Levis and dark blue Vans,” he says. If that’s not an advertisement for Vans, then the Z-Boys didn’t pioneer vertical skating. Neither statement can be proved because both are basically conjecture—but food for thought nonetheless.

Predictably, the trailer “sickened” Friedman, but what really killed him was some very deft editing to the portion in question. Instead of leaving Ruml’s description as is, the word “Levis” was cut out so what is actually heard is Ruml saying, “We wore these shirts and dark blue Vans.” Dodge ball, Doggy-style

Assuming Vans is milking the Dogtown movie for everything it’s worth, the question, of course, becomes when, if ever, the company will kick down. At press time, offers and counter offers were being passed back and forth like joints at a Snoop Dog concert. Vans’ Wilson (who coincidentally taught for eight years at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema and Television) would like nothing more than for the whole mess to be resolved.

Pratt thinks Vans is stalling. Along with other Z-Boys who prefer to remain nameless, Pratt would like a percentage of the shoe sales. But every time the ball’s in the other court, Vans’ paperwork comes back with new words—words like “video games.” Sony’s Bernard says his company has no plans for a video game.

Said Wilson, “We’ve always professed to help the Z-Boys out if we made some money on shoes or other things. We set up a sharing program with them, but you know someone always wants something else. Fame and fortune always drive people crazy.”

According to Pratt, the sharing program will pay out after Vans recoups its losses. With a rumored $5 million already spent on advertising, the chances of that are slim.

Argues Peralta, “These guys at Vans took a big chance. They believed in this film when no one believed in it, but now that everyone thinks it’s cool, everyone’s looking at Vans as this big Daddy Warbucks, and that’s not the way they are.”

Pratt says that “the way Vans has handled these negotiations is very telling.”

Throughout the process, he said, Vans’ lawyers have allowed unnecessary time lapses in negotiations to occur. Or, according to Pratt, they’ll call his lawyer’s office in the evening when they know the office is closed. “Is that a way to buy another week and wait for the movie to go out of the theaters and be old news?” asks Pratt. “They’re just playing corporate hardball.”

For all the good he’s siphoned out of the whole project, Peralta’s also suffered the most. He views Pratt’s decision not to sign the original release as calculated and has said he’ll never speak to him again. “The worst thing that happened to this movie from Nathan’s point of view is that it succeeded. He’s taken a beautiful situation and made it ugly,” Peralta said.

Peralta thought it salient to mention that Pratt’s been seeking an additional 20 percent for representing other Z-Boys in the matter, but not everyone thinks Pratt’s out of line in doing so. Jay Adams appreciates what Pratt is doing. “Nobody else is doing anything about it, so if he gets a little something extra for helping everybody get something, I don’t have a problem with that.”

Nor does he have a problem with Peralta, the film (other than his portrayal) and any of the Z-Boys. For a guy who’s found himself on the wrong side of the law, he shines through as the least self-seeking and most genuine of the pack. He thinks Peralta did a great job and hopes he prospers as a result, just as he hopes everyone does. Adams isn’t holding his breath for the big check from Vans; he’s too busy being real. “Hopefully in the long run we’ll make something out of it in other ways.”Dog spelled backwards
It’s an attitude that’s more likely to generate spiritual rather than monetary wealth and one Adams shares with Alva, who’s matured into quite the mensch despite his colossal ego. “We’re given an opportunity to spread the gospel. That’s why people love the Dogtown thing, said Alva. “It’s a positive statement [that says] live your life, do it your own way.” He added, “I like to wake up early in the morning and just feel like it’s another day and there’s gonna be a lot of good things going on.”

The moral of the story? There isn’t one—the story’s not over. If there’s a lesson to be learned, and there always is, maybe it’s “Beware of Mercury Retrograde.” Everyone knows you don’t make deals when the planet of communication goes in reverse. There’s also the “me-generation” factor. Dogtown was, after all, christened in the ’70s by Engblom and Stecyk. But even more relevant, from a metaphysical standpoint, is simple cause and effect, karma and dharma.

Way back when the Z-Boys got their first taste of success, following the famed Del Mar Nationals competition, they had to make some difficult decisions. Sure they were young, but for every action there’s a reaction. Many of the boys couldn’t ignore the carrots being dangled by potential sponsors. In the end, their achievements, along with the lure of financial reward contributed to the demise of Jeff Ho and Zephyr Productions. The men who had nurtured their talents and to some extent parented them, Jeff Ho, Skip Engblom and Craig Stecyk were forced out of business.

As water seeks its own level, some power beyond our understanding has a way of keeping things in balance. Just ask Stecyk, the man who, along with Engblom, coined Dogtown one scorching, endless summer day. He says he hasn’t been contacted by anyone regarding any of the aforementioned events.

To what does he attribute being left out of the loop? “The gods like me.”

Michel Cicero’s email address is michel@vcreporter.com