an examination of Dietrich Mateschitz, Red Bull President and Amazing Art Patron

By Luke Shalan

Drink it and live!
I’m going to start off by stating the obvious. Where the Trail Ends is a Red Bull Media House production, which means two things: it has incredible financial backing and it holds the expectation of showcasing extreme action sports at a level never seen before, both physically in its execution and artistically in its filming. It also represents a new kind of hybrid in filmmaking, the corporate-sponsored documentary of a real event that wouldn't exist without the corporation, a truly odd form of real. Still, what it allows is more thrilling and human than most indie Sundance films. This brings up many questions about what we think of the documentary, reality, corporate sponsorship and extreme sports. The answers to these questions begins with Dietrich Mateschitz, the founder and president of Red Bull, the executive producer of Where the Trail Ends and the force behind much of the recent mainstreaming of extreme sports. He seems to view all this as a form of motivation for the generations to come and, most importantly, creating an ideal of the extreme.

Mateschitz, along with his co-founder Chaleo Yoovidhya, founded the Red Bull Company in 1987. It is a 5.43 billion dollar corporation that not only created a new brand of soda water, but also an entirely new category of it. Before Red Bull there was no such thing as the energy drink. Mateschitz reshaped a seemingly settled industry and now he is doing the same thing with sports. His promotional events, ownership of professional teams and now his documentary films are creating a new kind of “action” culture. Anyone who feels wary of corporate power might argue that he is trying to take over extreme sports, deciding what sports will advance and when, all with an eye towards Red Bull stock. However, I would argue that Mateschitz’s investment isn’t so much a product of capitalist greed, but a new and unique kind of arts patronage.

Just an actor in a greater drama
You can see this in almost every field of entertainment. There are the actors, artists, athletes, who are the face of the entertainment, and then you have the producers. The producers are the money and ultimate force behind what gets created. They don’t pick up the best picture Oscar for nothing. They do something that is crucial to creating art, but which we often miss: they shape and put in place the people who then go on to do the hands-on creation. In Red Bull’s case, Mateschitz is finding the talented athletes that can push extreme sports to new levels. He is seeking and creating an access point for the athletes to play their part. He is doing the same thing with documentaries. Without the production support of Red Bull what seems so natural in the progression of extreme sports would not be happening at all.

There is something more to this man than just another entrepreneur who hit the jackpot and gets a kick out of spending money on pet projects. Mateschitz has an agenda. It may seem random, but all these events, films and promotional stunts are really driven by one central idea: the creation of a new model for what it means to be human. Maybe Mateschitz’s agenda is the result of passion or boredom or corporate greed, but whatever the case Mateschitz has created or at least is trying to create three radically reconceived products: energy drinks, human beings and documentary films. One, we know about the drink. Two, re-conceiving human capability, well, that’s complex. So, let’s take a look at three, one of his groundbreaking films, and then maybe, just maybe, we will be able to answer how this man is attempting to create a new kind of human being.

The trail only ends when Red Bull says it does
Where the Trail Ends follows the journey of big mountain, downhill bicyclists and their search for the perfect downhill ride. They travel around the world with the financial help of Red Bull. There is an everyday, relatable quality to their trip, but when it comes down to it, at that level of riding, in order to get to the places that will challenge you and the sport, you need the help of sponsors. Red Bull is harnessing the real desire of these athletes, and then shaping and re-directing their energy into events that seamlessly lead to high quality documentary films. It is quite a feat of producing.

Mateschitz and Red Bull make sure that what they are documenting is dramatic and so they push the nature of extreme to the extreme and these riders are more than ready for the challenge. They go from the birthplace of big mountain riding, Virgin, Utah, to the Gobi Desert in China. From there, we see them in Salta, Argentina, the Fraser River deep in British Columbia and then Mustang, a remote village town on the border of Tibet and Nepal. In British Columbia they get so deep in the middle of nowhere that they end up towing their bikes by helicopter in order to reach the routes they want to ride. And even back home in the familiar territory of Virgin, Utah they face the challenge of competition. These riders are creating the future of mountain biking and feel tremendous pressure to uphold this responsibility of pushing the sport to the next level, but behind them, each step of the way, is Mateschitz and the Red Bull machine. You just don’t get to all those places without a patron.

Downhill Racer
But the film showcases more than just the riding. The team is always in some kind of trouble. There are elements of exploration, cultural differences and environmental awareness, which are of interest to more than just mountain biking enthusiasts. While in China one of the riders takes a nasty fall and needs to go to the local hospital, which turns into a fascinating depiction of cross-cultural medical distrust. Almost as critical as the riding itself is the cinematography. Every Shot could be frozen and displayed as a screensaver—rain dripping off the roof of one of the rider’s house, slow-motion high aperture shots of a campfire, the beautiful choreography of the cyclists riding, unbelievable helicopter shots, not to mention the high speed camera shots of dirt being kicked up by tires moving at unbelievable speed. You even get the relatively new technology of HD helmet cams, which helps the film reach a whole new level of intensity and intimacy in filming extreme sports.

Everything about this film pushes the limits: riding, filming, exploring and cost. Where the Trail Ends is an excellent film, but it doesn’t answer the question of why Mateschitz is investing so much money in producing this new and expensive vision of extreme action. Clearly it isn’t the money, considering that Forbes Magazine rated him as the 236th richest person in the world. In a fascinating profile in Bloomberg Business week, Mateschitz gives some answers, which are to say the least unusual. Mateschitz explains that Red Bull is a “philosophy” and not just a drink. He intentionally wants to blur the lines between his product, athletes and events. He says it is all part of one campaign, one world. It is not a question of money, but fun.

Red Bull is out of sight!
At the end of the article Mateschitz talks about his private island in the South Pacific. He mentions his interest in having his own independent state, the country of Red Bull, where the “rules would be simple. Nobody tells you what you have to do—only what you don't have to do." What I gathered from this insight into Mateschitz’s extraordinary life and professional goals is that he is an extremely daring business man, thinking in global terms about what it means to be human and what it might mean to become something new and extreme.

He has a vision

©CCA Arts Review and Luke Shalan

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