[The Wavelength Drive-In Cinema is back for 2021, bringing you a range of surf cinema, cult classics and family favourites from the clifftops of Cornwall, kicking off with Surf’s Up and Big Wednesday on Friday 16th July. Browse the full lineup and get your ticket here. Or, subscribe to Wavelength now to get free entry to a screening of your choice.]
While Big Wednesday is often celebrated for its authentic depiction of a cultural moment, there’s no doubt the film shaped reality just as much as it imitated it.
Beyond its abiding influence on the surfing consciousness, there’s the fact each of the central cast basically became the characters they played.
Gary Busey, AKA Leroy the masochist, for example, is known for a long string of real-life hijinks almost as mad as trying to ram himself into an oven. Like launching a tirade at a child interviewer on the red carpet, or having a fight with a fellow actor on the film Quigley over what the set for Heaven should look like (each reckoned they’d come back from the dead and so had a clearer idea than the other.)
Jan-Michael Vincent sadly faced similar, but ultimately more destructive, battles with alcoholism as his character Matt Johnson, while Billy Katt grew up to be the squeaky clean star of a show literally called ‘The Greatest American Hero.’
Then there’s Bear surfboards – the fictional brand created for the film that later made the leap to become a real-life behemoth of the surf apparel space.
How exactly that happened is a strange tale of plagiarism, betrayal, punch ups and profit, staring John Milius and Billy Hamilton. Here, we’re going to tell it in full.
It all began with the creation of Bear – the shaper cum guru at the heart of Milius’ fictional Malibu-inspired community – and the logo he would glass into the central trio’s steeds. Like many things in the film, both were inspired by real-life, drawing on the bestial nickname of board building pioneer Dale ‘Hawk’ Velzy and the red diamond design of Hap Jacobs Surfboards.
Beyond its presence on the boards used in the film– which were crafted by some of the top shapers of the day, including Tom Parish, Lance Carson and Billy Hamilton – the Bear logo serves as an ever-present ornament in a fast changing world.
It’s worn proudly on t-shirts throughout the characters’ hedonistic youth, including by Barlow’s love interest Sally as she delivers one of the films most poignant lines; “Back home, being young was just something you do until you grow up, but here it’s everything.”
Then, years later, after Bear’s shaping shack on the pier is replaced with a flashy downtown surf shop, the logo adorns almost every inch of available space, even lurching into three dimensions, as a stuffed animal head mounted on the wall.
Like the characters that wear it, over the course of the film, we get to see Bear Surfboards grow up.
Although Milius says he had no intention of spawning a real-life brand, others saw the potential as soon as they laid eyes on the emblem. Long before the movie hit the big screens, Steve Pezeman, then editor of Surfer Magazine, pulled it from some promotional material and began printing it on t-shirts which he sold through the mag. “We knew it would be a hot item,” he told the LA Times. “At the time, licensing wasn’t a big deal. It was more of a surfer prank than anything else.”
Speaking on the Surf Splendor podcast, Billy Hamilton – who did stunts on the film – remembers how one of the producers came to him as filming was drawing to a close to ask if he’d like to use the Bear logo on his own line of surfboards. “I don’t want to get into trouble with Warner Bros,” he recalls saying, to which the producer apparently replied, “Ah, I don’t think Warner Bros is going to do anything with this film. We’ve already given permission to four other people to use this thing.”
“So I just ran with it,” says Hamilton.
Despite the film’s poor box office performance, the brand, as Pezman had predicted, was indeed a massive hit.
“We started out with zero and that [first] year we got three million dollars in orders,” Hamilton recalls. “Next year, seven million dollars. Third year, we’re a twelve million dollar company. I’m making a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a month in royalties…”
Being a shrewd businessman, Hamilton had wasted no time in registering trademarks all over the world, however, he hit a bump in Europe after a lawyer informed him he needed the copyright of the original artwork if he wanted to continue his global expansion.
So, in ‘89 he says he called up Milius to see if he could get his hands on it and ask if he fancied coming in on the deal. The two were close, having worked on both Big Wednesday and Milius’ subsequent film Uncommon Valor and Hamilton had no qualms about letting on how successful Bear had become. Milius reportedly sent his assistant to the Warner Bros. studio and after some negotiations, managed to secure the rights to the artwork for an amicable $5k.
At this point in the story, it all gets a bit he said she said. Hamilton reckons as soon as Milius got his hands on it, he started trying to cut him out of the Bear empire. Milius says he offered to sell the copyright to Hamilton and his LA-based distributors for $5k, plus a few free t-shirts and they declined. Hamilton says he offered $50k and Milius turned him down. At some point during the negotiations, Hamilton decided he wanted to hash it out face to face.
“I get on a plane, I fly to Hollywood, fly to Paramount studios,” he recounts on Surf Splendor. “I go in, have a meeting with John [Milius]. I go John, what’s this all about. He goes sit the fuck down this is my deal, like some kind of a gangster. I said me? Sit the fuck down? I said John, this has been my deal for the last four years, you haven’t done anything to contribute. I’ve asked you to come in, I’m inviting you into my deal. I said I don’t think we’re seeing something straight here. I said If I’ve got to see you in court I’ll see you in court.”
After a little more movie script-inspired grandstanding, Hamilton alleges he got up to walk out, only to be clocked in the back of the head by one of Milius’ goons. The blow sent Hamilton sailing across the hall and into the desk of an extremely alarmed receptionist.
“So I turn around and I grab the guy right underneath his throat and throw him against the wall,” Hamilton recounts of the scuffle, “and I’m ready to give him the final cut and I’m thinking in my mind Hamilton don’t do this, this is a lawsuit, don’t do this and I just kind of dropped everything. Right about then, Milius comes in the office and says what the hell is going on here? I go you know exactly what’s going on here and I think you owe me an apology. And he said I don’t think I’m prepared to apologise and I said fuck you guys… I’ll see you in court”
“It ended up being a million-dollar lawsuit,” he continues. “We had to settle out of court and Milius won. We had to pay him $400,000 for copyright infringement and I lost the trademark.”
A full fourteen years after the movie came out, the Bear brand was back in the hands of the man who created it. “I was his friend,” says Hamilton of Milius, sounding uncharacteristically forlorn, “I had no idea he would backdoor me like that.”
One wonders if either of the pair found time during the fracas to reflect on the irony of how closely Bear Surfboard’s fate tracked to the narrative arc of the film that birthed it.
From frivolous beginnings as a semi-fictional logo to an established trademark with global licensees, wild commercial success and ultimately, a bitterly fought court battle, the brand became the star of its very own coming of age tale; a perfect fable for surfing’s era of unbridled commercialism, perhaps even more pertinent than the story of Big Wednesday itself.