Tom Opre, who lives just outside Kalispell, doesn't boast about his accomplishments as a sportsman, a globetrotter and an outdoor filmmaker. His living room does all the boasting for him. There's a dall sheep mount above his fireplace. The heads of deer, antelope, caribou, zebra, warthog and water buffalo line the walls. He has two rugs on the carpet, from a zebra and an Alaskan brown bear. The only thing missing is a camera.
These days, most of Opre's hunts aren't very private. He hosts NBC Sports' successful cable program "Eye of the Hunter," inviting tens of thousands of people across the country on trips to Alaska, Canada, Florida and his backyard in Montana. He even has people overseas tuning in; he occasionally exchanges emails with U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
"Our whole goal behind 'Eye of the Hunter' is to create the most well-produced, most-watched outdoor television show in the industry," Opre says. "Our goal eventually is to take it mainstream, to put it on the Discovery Channel or History Channel."
Opre grew up in the outdoors. His father, Tom E. Opre, wrote outdoor articles for Field and Stream, Outdoor Life Magazine and the Detroit Free Press for 30 years. Tom worked with iconic filmmaker and legendary angler Glen Lau in the 1960s, producing "Sports Afield," one of television's first outdoor programs. Much of what the younger Opre does today was influenced by his upbringing.
"I used to sneak in my dad's office and throw up rolls of 15mm film on the projector," he says. "It was cool, watching these guys on big lakes in Canada catching big northern pike. It inspired me, I think, to get into the business I'm in."
Opre ended up working for Lau after graduating from Grand Valley State University in Michigan in 1990. His career trajectory has been "unorthodox" since then, he says, starting with the founding of his own film production company, Tahoe Films Limited, the year he left school. "I just started doing shit," he says.
That included a stint producing films for the Discovery Channel's "Shark Week." It includes a long string of commercial projects for companies such as Sea-Doo watercraft and Chevrolet and his first televised series, on snowmobilers, "Extreme Velocity: Sled Heads," which appeared when extreme sports were nabbing serious airtime on cable networks and which spawned an ATV-centric twin, "Mountains and Mud."
Opre quickly set himself and Tahoe Films apart. He saw the competition as little more than junk. "We always film guys with helmets on," he says. "We don't film guys that are drunk, we always stay on the trail, always use designated water crossings. And it looks really cool because of how I film it."
Opre's obsessed with angles and composition. A dramatic musical score is his best friend, an editing room his playground. The tone of "Eye of the Hunter" isn't meant to be documentary, he says. It's dramatized to reflect the tension and suspense of a real hunt. And his pacing is frenetic. In an episode set to air this year, Opre squeezes a sketchy bush plane landing, a trek across an Alaskan glacier and a painstaking hillside approach on a group of mountain goats into a mere 21 minutes. Even his commercials are fast-paced; he'll use up to 50 or 60 shots in a 30-second bit.
"You can move the viewer around so quickly that they never really have a chance to think about what's really going on," he says. "They get caught up in it. That's just good filmmaking. It's that way in Hollywood, it's that way anywhere."
The industry is changing. Advances in technology have made high-quality equipment and production costs cheaper. The internet and a multitude of cable channels make distribution easier. The price of hiring a director of photography or a gaffer or a key grip hasn't changed, Opre says, but gone are the days when he'd get a camera package from Panavision and spend hundreds on processing film. Now, he primarily uses an $800 digital camera.
"Anybody can take a video camera today and go on a deserted tropical island with a dozen playmates in bikinis and film for a week," he says. "I guarantee somebody can take that footage and make a video that will sell. The challenge for us is to take these cool experienceshunting or extreme sports or whateverand film it in a way that makes it even more compelling."
Still, Opre says he doesn't really feel he needs to compete; he's in this less for the money than to motivate interest in the outdoors. But he is tailoring his productions in more creative ways. Through director's cuts, he's hoping to slow the pace of "Eye of the Hunter" and play off certain hunts as feature films. He's expanded the show's influence in recent years as well, by hosting an Extreme Huntress contest. The goal is to supply the hunting community with a pool of female role models who are "attractive, professional, have families and are good hunters," Opre says.
Critics have panned the Extreme Huntress contest. Opre calls them the "anti-hunting" contingent. 2010 contest winner Rebecca Francis fits Opre's description: She's a mother of eight with two bachelor's degrees, one in psychology and one in dental hygiene. She's been charged by an African lion and once felled an Alaskan brown bear with a single bowshot at 45 yards. Francis now works as a co-host on "Eye of the Hunter"a testament, it seems, to Opre's dedication to expanding the show's influence.
"It's a labor of love, really," he says of the show. "It's almost anti-climactic to kill something, because getting phenomenally great footage is in some ways more inspiring and satisfying than actually killing the animals."