July 2, 2014


“It’s going to work. It has to.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve repeated that to myself over the last year.

In August 2013, I left my job of nine years — a fantastic editing position at National Parks Magazine. It was a dream job. But as it turns out, it wasn’t my dream job. Five years in, film began singing its siren song. MediaStorm exploded onto the scene with powerful and authentic multimedia storytelling, and I was mesmerized, along with everyone else in the visual storytelling world. National Parks Editor-in-Chief Scott Kirkwood and I started experimenting with our own magazine content, pushing a handful stories beyond print, stalking the best of the best short-form documentary filmmakers and directing tiny projects from our desks. We obsessed over what made a film great — compelling quotes and the questions asked to get them, how to evoke emotion with a beautiful song, how to craft a call to action that actually inspires action. It was a science as much as an art, and I savored every crumb of wisdom we gathered.

Seven years in, I got the chance to direct and produce something on the ground, from scratch, when I spent a six-week sabbatical in Yosemite National Park. I rallied a bare-bones team of young, talented filmmakers, and four months later, we released two short films about diverse and powerful human experiences in the park. It was the most stressful, overwhelming process I’d ever put myself through. And I couldn’t wait to do it again.

Fast-forward two years to August 2013. My daughter had just turned one year old, and our family financial situation had never felt shakier between childcare, the uncertainty of my husband’s job and the endless maintenance required on a fixer-upper in the last affordable neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado. But I had a dream to chase, so I put in my notice at the magazine and set out to create something insane: a film series.

Somehow I managed to convince my best friend Dana Romanoff to join me. She was my gut-check. My cheerleader. My mad-talented, award-winning producer/DP with an eye for beauty, an ear for story and a mind for business. Together, we would build a rock-star team and create a series of 10 short films about powerful human experiences in the national parks. We would establish our series as the steady, high-profile drumbeat up to the National Park Service centennial in 2016. We would get our films in front of hundreds of millions of people via innovative digital platforms. We would partner with famous bands to embed our films into live music shows. We would convince the Park Service to program our stories into dozens of visitor center theaters in national park sites across the country. We would create an invitation to every American, regardless of age, race, religion, politics or economic status, to embrace and become part of America’s Best Idea.

We would call it “National Park Experience: Stories for a New Century,” which would be complete with a great brand and killer acronym: NPX.

It all seemed so possible, so obvious, even logical. And then we launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund our debut film, “Love in the Tetons.”

Don’t get me wrong — the campaign was a great success. Thanks to 431 amazing backers and a generous, unsolicited donation by REI, we exceeded our fundraising goal. But we learned some hard lessons, too. Like how much it sucks navigating Amazon Payments. How despite the thoughtful planning you put into rewards, delivering them can feel like a to-do list with no end in sight. How some of the friends, family and colleagues you’re certain will back you never actually come through. How stupid it is to write down your own social security number (read: crazy taxes owed) when you’re deciding where to direct funds — funds that you can’t even use to pay yourself and won’t be distributing within the same fiscal year. And then there’s the biggest bubble buster of all: How unsustainable it is to place all bets on a passion project that doesn’t yet pay.

But why dwell on the negative? We did it — at least the first part. We created a film, a pilot that makes our vision for NPX real. We’re submitting to film festivals and getting requests from festivals to submit. The Park Service itself has taken notice, as have other big establishments I can’t reveal publicly yet. And equally exciting, the film is about to hit the road with Mountainfilm on Tour.

So now what?

Well, we’re floating in a gray area for which I wasn’t entirely prepared. We aren’t just storytellers anymore. We’re event planners. Fundraisers. Networkers. Negotiators. Brand builders. Audience builders. Marketing directors. Business owners. Nonprofit execs. Social media managers. Website designers. Digital distribution experts — in some circles, at least.

We’ve been traveling, traveling, traveling. To Mountainfilm in Telluride, where Love in the Tetons played outdoors under the stars and twice more in a killer lineup of wilderness shorts. To the Stream Market conference in LA, where I scored invaluable face time with digital-platform execs from AOL, Yahoo, uLive.com and Maker Studios. To Washington, D.C., where the Park Service invited us to present our vision before the Centennial Advisory Board in an elite lineup that included only two other presenters: National Geographic and Brand USA.

I’m still basking in the glow of heartfelt huddles with Morgan Spurlock, Blue Chalk Media CEO Greg Moyer and writer/producer Dayton Duncan, who helps bring all those gorgeous Ken Burns films to life. And Dana and I continue to giggle over our ridiculous selfie with NPS Director Jon Jarvis. These are our heroes.

It’s been mostly fun and often petrifying. Nothing comes easy. Everything is twice as hard and takes at least three times as long as I think it will. Once, I even entertained the idea of giving up. I’m pretty sure this is the stage where a lot of people give up. But I refuse to be one of them.

So we’re working as hard as we can, staying as focused as possible and taking one day at a time. And we’re trying to remember who we are at our core: lovers of story. Lovers of places that keep people connected to something meaningful in the world. Total addicts of that magical moment when you share something that inspires you, and it actually inspires someone else, too.

These outtakes (below) are a start. If you think what we’re doing is cool, share it. If you think what we’re doing is critical, shout it from the mountaintops. And maybe, sooner or later, months or even years after we’ve taken this leap, the net will appear.

Amy Marquis

Amy Marquis is the director of National Park Experience. Her Yosemite film, The Way Home, screened at Mountainfilm in 2012 and won runner-up for the Moving Mountains Prize.

Love in the Tetons - OUTTAKES from National Park Experience on Vimeo.

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