Feature-length movies made by and for surfers, mostly filled with a series of surf-action montages. Energetic and perfectly tailored for the audience, surf movies from the late 1950s to the late '70s were greeted with wild enthusiasm. "The surf movie is a high-energy situation," Surfer noted in 1975. "Next to actually being in the water, it can provide the most intense moments of our surfing lives."
The surf movie got started in 1953, when 41-year-old schoolteacher and former lifeguard Bud Browne premiered Hawaiian Surfing Movies to a full house at John Adams Junior High School in Santa Monica, California. The response to Browne's 45-minute film was enough for him to quit his teaching job and make a low-paying career by producing one surf movie a year—in similar fashion to ski moviemaker Warren Miller.
Three more filmmakers had joined Browne by 1957: John Severson (Surfer magazine founder in 1960), Bruce Brown (creator of the 1966 hit The Endless Summer), and Greg Noll (board manufacturer and big-wave charger). Together they invented a surf movie format that remained virtually unchanged through the decades, and transferred easily into the '80s- launched era of surf video. The surf movie design was simple: two or three dozen surf-action montages interrupted now and then by a comedy sketch or an on-the-road vignette; later movies often had brief surfer interviews, an animated short, an alternative sport detour (skiing, hang gliding, skateboarding), or an environmental-message sequence.
Early surf movies, almost without exception, were filmed exclusively in California, Australia, Mexico, and Hawaii; all of them finished with a big-wave sequence shot on the North Shore—usually at Waimea Bay.
Each filmmaker worked as a one-man production company, shooting, editing, and scoring, then barnstorming the movie from beach town to beach town, with one- or two-night live-narration screenings at local vet halls, high school auditoriums, and community centers. The work was sometimes fun, but just as often exhausting. "I can't think of a worse business," Noll later said, "than trying to rent auditoriums, hammer up posters and handbills, and go through all the bullshit of making surf movies, the way it was done in the old days." A first-generation surf film cost about $5,000 to produce, and filmmakers generally met costs and living expenses, and had just enough left over to begin the next movie.
Undeterred, the roster of surf movie-makers grew in the early and mid-'60s, with newcomers Walt Phillips, Bob Evans, Dale Davis, Grant Rohloff, Jim Freeman, Greg MacGillivray, Paul Witzig, and others all for the most part working on the same one-a-year schedule. As the surf industry was based in Southern California, so, too, were most of the surf filmmakers. Cat on a Hot Foam Board, Slippery When Wet, Cavalcade of Surf, Going My Wave, Surfing Hollow Days, Strictly Hot, and A Cool Wave of Color were among the best of the early surf films.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Columbia Studios' 1959 hit Gidget, Hollywood produced more than two dozen low-budget teen-romp beach films, including Beach Blanket Bingo and Muscle Beach Party, which always included a few brief surf shots. ("Surf movies," though, as always referred to insider-made movies.)
Surf movies as a rule were less interesting than the gatherings they attracted while on tour, as surfers—beer-soaked suburban teenagers, mainly— filed into the theater to whistle, shout, cheer, boo, hiss, stomp their feet, roll beer bottles down the aisles, throw paper airplanes, and occasionally sprint onstage to moon the audience. "Mass assembly was the real attraction of surf movies," Surfer's Journal said in 1998. "Here was a chance to define and validate yourself as a surfer, not just in a group of two, or five, or 20, down on the beach where you were supposed to be, but in a crowd of 200, or 1,000, or even 3,000."
The Endless Summer, after touring in the usual fashion in 1964 and 1965, was blown up to 35-millimeter in 1966 and put into general release, earning glowing reviews in Time, Newsweek, and the New Yorker. Brown had gone much further afield in his "search for the perfect wave" (memorably found at Cape St. Francis, South Africa), with sequences from Ghana, Senegal, Tahiti, and New Zealand, and his film had a travelogue plot of sorts. It featured less wave-riding than any other surf film up to that point, and Brown was obligated to explain most aspects of the sport to a nonsurfing audience. But dedicated surfers embraced Endless Summer just as readily as the landlocked surf dreamers in Des Moines and Minneapolis, and it remains the one and only surf movie masterpiece.
As surfing began taking itself more seriously in the '70s, and the number of filmmakers continued to grow—with Hal Jepsen, Scott Dittrich, Alby Falzon, Yuri Farrant, Chris Bystrom, Steve Soderberg, and Alan Rich among the contributors—surf movies still didn't much stray from the tried-and-true format. Endless Summer had turned the search for the perfect wave into the sport's Holy Grail; surfers fanned out by the thousands, looking for their own Cape St. Francis, and surf movies reflected the trend: France, Spain, Morocco, South Africa, and Indonesia had all been featured by the early '70s. Photography and editing were uneven through the decade, but Bill Delaney, Jack McCoy, and the MacGillivray-Freeman team set a high quality standard.
Surf movie soundtracks were often fantastic—and nearly always bootlegged. Bruce Brown used West Coast jazz master Bud Shank to score two of his early films, but nearly all surf movies from the '60s and '70s were backed with rock and roll lifted straight from the filmmaker's record collection. California's Scott Dittrich scored his 1974 film Fluid Drive with Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and Lou Reed; Hoole-McCoy's 1978 release Tubular Swells had Fleetwood Mac, the Allman Brothers, T. Rex, Steve Miller, Joni Mitchell, and the Temptations.
Audios-ynch sound, another popular '70s surf film feature, which allowed filmmakers to present surfers speaking onscreen, for the most part did nothing more than show surfers looking uncomfortable in front of the camera. Five Summer Stories (1972), Morning of the Earth (1972), Going Surfin' (1973), and Free Ride (1977) were the standout surf films of the period. Audiences were nonetheless more rambunctious than ever. "An unhappy crowd," Surfer magazine said in a 1975 surf movie notice, "eager for the film to end, hurled the projector and the film reels from a balcony into some empty seats below. The reels rolled down the aisle, unraveling the film, and the audience cheered and left."
Production costs, by this time, were going up. Free Ride, the last great second-generation surf movie, cost about $70,000; Surfers: The Movie cost about $400,000. With a few exceptions—including Storm Riders (1982) and Surfers: The Movie (1990)—surf movies went into a steady decline over the next few years. Threatened lawsuits from music companies forced moviemakers to abandon the bootleg soundtrack, and instead buy cheap original music, and the results were an audio disaster.
The 1984 video release of The Performers marked the beginning of what turned into a wholesale change in surf cinema from celluloid to videotape, theater to living room. DVDs and the internet did their part to further make surf cinema a private experience in the '00 and '10s. "Kids now have their little iPhones," filmmaker Chris Malloy said in 2011, and they're watching two-minute clips of what happened the day before. Somone does the best turn of all time on Monday, it's on the internet on Tuesday, and forgotten by Wednesday. A really important part of surfing is being lost."
While the publically-viewed surf movie was often declared dead, it has in fact not only survived (albiet in a scaled-down form), but improved in terms of quality. Kai Neville, Jack McCoy, Cyrus Sutton, Taylor Steele, Andrew Kidman and Thomas Campbell, among others, have all produced first-rate work, and taken their films to art house theaters. Dana Brown, son of Endless Summer's Bruce Brown, had a massive general audience hit with his 2003 movie Step Into Liquid. The 2007-founded New York Surf Film Festival, and other similar events, have further put a spotlight on surf movies and movie-going.
A 12-part documentary series, 50 Years of Surfing of Film, produced in 1997 by Surfer's Journal and Opper Films and later released in a four-video set, provides a surf movie historical overview; a more detailed survey is found in Surfmovies: The History of the Surf Film in Australia, a coffee-table book published in 2000 by Albie Thoms. Surfing in the Movies: a Critical History, published in 2016, examines the subject from a more technical and analytical perspective.