It would be hard to exaggerate the impact that Josh Stewart has had on skateboarding. His filming style, his cult classic videos, his distribution company and his dedication to growing skater-owned and operated brands in the US, have all left an indelible mark on our community.
Long before everyone seemingly had their own brand and waved the flag of pure ideals, Josh was celebrating and supporting the independent and the underground. As Josh continues to lead this charge in 2016, I got a chance to catch up with him on all things Theories. The Josh Stewart Interview is below.
I heard you made over 7,000 copies of Static IV/V, sold through them quickly and had to make more. Is that true?
That’s true. I would never have imagined such a thing in 2015 could be possible, but we were overwhelmed by the support. And obviously grateful.
That’s a ton of hard copies to sell today, especially for an independent video. To date, how many have you sold?
It’s honestly hard to tell exactly considering how many copies we’ve given away to the skaters in the video, friends, contributors, etc. But I think a safe guess is between 8,400- 8,500.
That’s awesome, Josh. To me, this was a case where a video lived up to the hype. Were you surprised by just how intensely this video was embraced by the skate community?
It’s always hard to really get a sense of it when you’re in the eye of the storm. Overall, I can’t ever tell if people are being legitimately complimentary or just being nice haha. The skaters I was lucky enough to have involved are all such special personalities and unique talents that they all deserve to be embraced by the skate community. So, even though I was surprised by the way it was received, it was more of a sense of relief that some of these guys were finally getting some of the recognition they deserved.
There have been real shifts in the skate industry in the time between the release of Static III and the release of Static IV and V. What was different this time around when it came to creating, promoting and selling a video?
Well, when Static III released, the era of internet piracy had JUST hit it’s height. Up until then a popular skate video would sell around 30,000 copies. Then right around the middle of 2007, pirating and file-sharing exploded and it became really difficult to sell a dvd. Popular videos were lucky to sell 5,000 copies. So the video industry almost collapsed on itself. And brands, who relied on skate videos to promote their teams, out of desperation, began giving videos away for free with boards. And then, eventually, free online. But as this trend progressed and there was an overabundance of free videos and edits online, I think a lot of skaters started wanting something tangible again. They wanted something that felt like it had more soul and purpose behind it other than just to promote a brand. So a couple of years ago I started seeing a trend of skaters going out of their way to support and purchase underground dvd projects. So everything kind of went full circle and now it’s coming back.
Your distribution company, Theories of Atlantis, started as a blog and only sold independent skate videos. What made you decide to expand it?
Yeah, at first it was just a small collection of skate videos that I was a fan of. And then I started our little clothing brand ‘Theories”which consisted of a total of two different shirt graphics haha. But my friends Soy Panday and Vivien Feil told me they were starting their own board brand out of Paris called “Magenta” and their boards were being made in the US by Generator woodshop. So I offered to carry some of the boards/tees on the web store since I didn’t have to import them from overseas. Around this same time I was doing an interview with Pontus Alv on the TOA website and in the process I found out he was starting Polar Skate Co. So I offered to carry his boards as well. Slowly, a few shops started hitting me up asking if they could carry some of the boards. And then next thing I knew we had like 10 shops carrying our stuff. That’s pretty much how it started.
What ideals have you built TOA on?
Well, from day one, the whole TOA site was kind of meant to support the idea of independence and to promote the underground skate scene. Skateboarding is supposed to be about individualism, freedom and personal expression. But the overall skate industry didn’t really promote that at the time. The corporate era of skateboarding was at it’s most overwhelming point, and the big, flashy contest scene was celebrating the “sport” aspects of skateboarding which are the antithesis of individualism. I mean, you started seeing skate videos with slow-motion close-ups of skaters cheers’ing each other with beers every time they landed a trick or scenes with little kids smoking weed surrounded by stacks of money and barely naked women. Kids were being told that skateboarding would make you rich and famous. So, I wanted to promote skaters and brands who inspired people to be individuals, to be more creative with their skating and to use the actual streets instead of filming hammers down hubbas and handrails all day long. These were NOT popular ideals at the time. But I think skaters were hungry for something different. And we were in the beginning stages of a perfect storm with brands like Polar, Magenta, Hopps, Politic, Bronze, Welcome, etc, on the verge of shaking things up.
Do you have any formal education?
I got a two year degree at community college in Tampa and planned to go back to school after a year of traveling. But I just couldn’t ever tear myself away from working on whatever video I was in the middle of at any given time. I wish I had though. There’s a long list of classes I’d be stoked to have taken.
For anyone that doesn’t know, what does a skateboard distribution company do?
Essentially, the role of a distributor is to house a collection of brands and make it easier for skateshops to pick up a bunch of different gear from one source instead of having to place orders with 50 different individual brands and then pay for separate shipping fees for every single order. Some distributors just warehouse and resell products to shops. Others are more involved in promoting and creating media and events to help make their brands more recognized in their region.
You started to do even more than that though. You started to help the brands get their product designed and made in the US, correct? What all were you responsible for?
Well, there are many reasons why it almost never worked for foreign brands to be distributed in the US. The logistics are a nightmare. To import a skateboard or a piece of clothing from overseas is extremely expensive, as you might imagine. But then you have to pay a customs broker, and next you have to pay duties and taxes to the US government. By the time the product makes it to your warehouse there’s no margin left for the distributor to make it worthwhile. So when we started to approach this problem, it seemed like the only way it could work would be if I was to make a lot of the products for our brands here in the USA. I was still figuring out how the production process worked through the Theories brand, so it was a rocky start at first. Eventually, we were making stickers, tees, hoodies, hats, windbreakers for nearly all of our foreign brands. All while I was still working pretty much full time as a contract videographer and filming for Static IV at night. Production takes a ton of time and I would be at a factory in Brooklyn one day to oversee windbreakers for Magenta and then out in Jersey the next day to oversee some tees for Palace. Overall, it still wasn’t financially feasible once you factor in all the extra time it required, but I actually cared for the brands as if they were my own because the owners were either my good friends or, with a brand like Polar, I found inspiration from what the brand was doing and I thought it really had something important to offer skateboarding. To be honest, we still haven’t really gotten the production process smoothly ironed out, it’s still a clusterfuck here and there, but overall I think the initial risk of my time and energy was worth it considering the brands are all still thriving and considered mainstays of the underground, skater-owned movement.
I remember you telling me a while back that you were selling a good amount of product, but because of how the company was being run, you were actually losing money in some cases. What was happening? How have you gotten your operations straight?
Haha…..the truth of it all is, I’m not a smart businessman. I wish I had gone to business school at some point, but I’ve spent the last 25 years holding a video camera chasing skaters around the streets. There are a lot of specifics I won’t get into, but ultimately it doesn’t matter how many boards or tees we sell if our profit margins on those items don’t cover the expenses of running the business. So, one big problem is being a distributor of other people’s brands. There are many hands on a product from the start of it’s design until it ends up in a customer’s hands. And, since we are essentially a middle man, we make the smallest profit at the end of that process. And with a lot of our brands being from overseas, there’s even less of a margin to slice up. So, when your margins are that thin it takes an incredible amount of attention to detail to make sure that your overall costs aren’t actually eclipsing the price you sell for. Unfortunately, it’s happened plenty of times where I’ve sold a whole season of apparel only to discover later that the price we sold it for was less than a lot of the items ended up costing us. It’s very frustrating as you could imagine. But the skateboard industry has a very rigid price ceiling for tees and decks, so it’s a very tricky business to compete within. Especially if you’re trying to make good products that feel special and different from the sea of other brands out there.
Taking on greater responsibility for the brands you distribute and sticking with it through lean times shows an enormous amount of commitment and passion for what you do. Does being an actual skateboarder give you an advantage in this business?
Absolutely, nobody would be in this business unless they had a passion for skateboarding.
Can it also be a disadvantage? Can it cloud your vision?
Oh for sure, you can become so devoted to creating or promoting your own vision of skateboarding that it can often cause you to make unwise business decisions. The first 6 different independent skate videos I did before Static IV are a good example of that. It doesn’t mean that I regret it at all or see any of them as bad decisions. But, from a business standpoint, it’s not very wise to invest more resources into something than you get in return.
You’ve put together a really strong and diverse range of brands to distribute. How do you select the brands you carry?
As I said before, up to this point they’ve all been projects started by a good friend or something I’ve done a video part with in the past. But, our criteria more comes down to looking at whether or not a brand has a need to exist or offers something new to the industry. Does it provide an outlet to a neglected region, or does it have people behind it with deep roots in skateboarding? With so many small brands starting up over the last few years, we have to be really critical and picky. So it might not be fair, but I prefer to only support brands that are started/owned by people who contributed something significant to the culture of skateboarding. Be it as a skater, as a filmmaker or as an artist. There’s not enough room for every random enthusiast to have their own hobby brand on the side when so many people are putting their livelihood on the line to do something they really believe in.
Do brands that want to be distributed by TOA or sold in your web store hit you up often? Are you looking to carry more brands?
Yes, and it’s a very difficult thing for me because I have respect for a lot of brands that have contacted us. The truth is that we ARE looking to carry new brands. But it just has to really make sense. For a while I just wanted to keep things tight so that we could make sure to keep our original brands happy. But then Paul Shier hit me up and let me know he was starting Isle with Nick Jensen. I didn’t want a new board brand at the moment, but it was a no brainer. I didn’t debate it for a second because Paul and Nick are awesome skaters and personalities, but they’re also just generally great people. It made complete sense. But now there are so many new brands out there that we’ve just had to be extremely picky and I’ve been scared to take on anything else that has popped up so far.
What marketing and support do you provide your brands?
We do a lot to promote our brands, far beyond an Instagram post here or there. We put on art shows and events around the US in tandem with our best shops, we’ve shot and created commercials for some of our brands, we do road trips and tours and form partnerships with magazines to host video pieces, articles to promote our guys. We also team manage our foreign brands riders here in the US and help them in any way we can. And our website Theoriesofatlantis.com is another great resource that we use to help promote our brands’ riders as well as a lot of friends and brands we don’t even distribute.
What is your retail strategy for the brands you distribute? Is it tailored to each individual brand or do you bring an overarching approach to all of them?
Unforunately, it’s pretty much impossible to set up special terms and plans for each brand. We pretty much decide to offer a shop all the brands or none of the brands. With such a small staff, it would be a mess creating different order forms and line sheets for all our different shops.
How important is a distribution’s relationship with skate shops? What kind of support do you offer them?
It’s hugely important. The shop is the gateway through which skaters have access to our brands. If the shops think we’re kooks, most likely the skaters will too. We make sure to be very careful not to open up too many shops in any one area and we give special priority to shops that are very active in their communities like Labor, Kinetic, Orchard, Escapist, etc. And we don’t prioritize shops by how much money they spend with us, we prioritize them by how consistent they are in their support. A shop in Kansas can’t do the volume that a shop in NYC can. And we understand that so we just try to support the shops who show consistent support of our brands and especially to the shops who are real skate shops that are active in their communities.
With such tight distribution and only selling to certain shops, how do you handle the retailers that you won’t ship? Do they ever get upset with you?
Haha, absolutely. It’s hard for me because I hate the mentality of acting “too cool” for somebody or putting on an air of elitism. We’re not about that at all, but sometimes a shop hits us up too late and we already have 2 other shops really close to them. Or we’ll look at their website and find out that the shop also sells bongs and vaporizers. That’s always kind of nice because it makes saying “no” that much easier.
What made you decide to build out your own line of Theories product? Do you plan to expand Theories further as it’s own brand?
I started Theories before we started the distribution company. We released the first Theories tee on the night of the Static III premiere back in 2007. We had a table at the premiere with the shirts up for sale. We didn’t sell a single one haha. For any reader of the Theories of Atlantis site, it was pretty obvious that I have a lot of topics and issues that I’m fanatical about and love researching and discussing. So the Theories brand just allowed me to bring that into a visual and creative realm so it was more done out of fun than as a business venture. We have had a blast with it and it’s been doing better and better, so we definitely will continue to expand and push it as much as we can.
As someone marketing and selling skateboard product, how has the growth of social media and ecommerce changed how you to operate?
Well, social media has replaced the need to spend money on lots of print advertising. Which is awesome. But it forces us to pump out more media than we really want to. I’d prefer to be more selective and reserved. But in this new world of social media you have to be constantly releasing new content. It drives down the quality and meaningfulness of everything to a certain degree. But it definitely makes it easier to reach a bigger audience much more quickly and efficiently.
Those are definitely some of the pros and cons. Are there more?
The pro is that it has given everyone a voice. Even a person with very little skill or expertise has a chance to get noticed and reach a large audience. But it’s harder to stick out of the crowd now. Now everyone’s a “filmmaker”. It bums me out that the full length skate video has gotten so bastardized and the medium of video has lost so much of it’s value. Nothing feels special any more because we’re beaten over the head with new media every minute of the day.
Something I’m trying to do with this site is not put out content just to put it out. I want the features on here to be thought provoking, insightful, inspiring: something that can actually hold someone’s attention for 20 minutes. Do you feel the success of Static IV/V as well as sites like Quartersnacks are reflections of people’s desire for compelling, unique and meaningful content?
I dunno, it may be a combination of that and also a reflection of people’s desire to not feel like they’re being sold to all the time. There’s so much stuff out there nowadays that only exists for the purpose of making money. So I like to think that the things that are being done for more pure reasons are being supported by people who recognize and appreciate that.
What excites you about skateboarding right now?
I’m excited to see that a lot of skaters are embracing the spirit of individualism that got me so stoked on skateboarding as a kid. Kids are making their own zines, videos, brands, etc, at an incredible rate and I think that means that there’s a lot of new exciting stuff on the horizon. And corporate brands no longer are steering the fate of the industry. I honestly think nobody knows what’s going to happen next. And that’s scary, but exciting.
If a kid reading this wants to become a skateboard filmmaker, how would you tell them to go about it?
I always think the best way is to build your skills while helping to promote and bring awareness to your local scene or your crew of friends. Filming/editing is a symbiotic relationship between the filmmaker and the skaters in his/her local scene. And I think that’s the best way to start making a name for yourself. Because even if you don’t get a big break, one of your friends may get discovered as a result of your work and that friend’s opportunity will likely become an opportunity for you as well. I’ve seen a lot of filmers only focus on shooting with big name skaters that they think will help propel them into being respected and well known. But if it’s forced people will see through it. I think the best video work occurs between a filmer and skater who have a connection and friendship with each other. It comes through in the footage.
What about if they wanted to start a skateboard distribution?
Haha, well, that’s a different story. I’m still trying to figure that out for myself as well. So if anybody out there has some tips for me, I’m all ears.