Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Building Impossible: Nat Geo Refreshes a Traditional Factual Genre with Hoff Productions. How They Did It!

Building Impossible with Daniel Ashville stands out as our Summer Case Study selection:

  • The series may signal a renewed appetite for a Factual genre – Engineering – that has been a pillar of documentary channel schedules.
  • Hoff Productions refreshed the genre with a new talent who successfully crosses over to TV from the social media economy.
  • Nat Geo International greenlit the series after the producer had struck out in the US, validating my often-repeated mantra to producers everywhere: “Look outside your own borders!”

Here is how Building Impossible happened, from Concept to Delivery, in the words of executive producer Michael Hoff.


The Producers

  • The series was created by California-based Hoff Productions.
  • Led by Michael Hoff, the company is a veteran producer of globally distributed Science, Engineering, Crime, and Natural History documentaries.
  • Over 30+ years, Hoff has delivered more than 1,000 hours of programs to 20+ networks worldwide.

A YouTube Discovery

  • “In March 2021, Alex Hoff, who at the time was our head of development, found YouTube and Instagram clips of Daniel Ashville’s already remarkable social media presence.”
  • “We could see he was a terrific on-camera talent, and was very on-brand for our company, which has a history of mega-engineering projects like Nat Geo’s Mega Structures, Ultimate Factories, and Super Factories, and Discovery Science’s What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”

The Talent

  • Daniel Ashville built his own construction empire from scratch after turning away from his sports science studies at university.
  • From flipping houses, he established The Ashville Group, now after seventeen years comprised of Ashville Construction for design and build residential projects, Ashville Aggregates & Concrete for materials supply, and Ashville Plant Hire.

Becoming a Social Media Hit

  • In 2020, Daniel launched his YouTube channel, A Day In The Life of a Construction Entrepreneur offering an intimate glimpse into his life on the job.
  • His audience exploded, with YouTube views topping 63 million. and 200,000 Instagram followers.
  • Here’s a sample episode: Bloopers At The Quarry, Ashville Weekly ep138:

 

Talent Deal

  • Alex and Michael were struck by Daniel’s magnetic, on-screen personality and deep expertise.
  • The Hoff team approached Daniel and rapidly negotiated a “hold” agreement that established a window to develop the program concept, prepare pitch materials, and then pitch network buyers.

Concept

  • “A mega-engineering series with an amazing talent who doesn’t just point at stuff. He joins the teams, digs in, and gets dirty.”
  • Working title: “Mega Marvels.”
  • “We wanted to create a Docu-Reality series in which the host is embedded in the action rather than what you find in a traditional hosted Engineering series.”
  • Hoff created a 3-minute pitch reel from Daniel’s social media assets and available archive.

Estimated Budget

  • Based on past their experience in the Engineering genre, Hoff anticipated a budget in the range of $300,000 – $475,000 / hour, depending on the number of episodes ordered and other factors such as access and talent costs.

The Pitch: No Slam Dunk!

  • Initial U.S. pitch: Spring 2021.
  • “When we went on the road to pitch the project, we thought it would be a slam dunk. Daniel is such a terrific talent, and every network says, ‘Come to us with a great new talent and we will build a series around them.'”
  • “But the traditional documentary world has been turned on its head. No one in the US was buying Science and Engineering, even with the greatest talent that I’d ever worked with.”
  • “Alan Eyres at National Geographic Channel US said it wasn’t a fit for US, but he kindly forwarded the pitch to Nat Geo’s global team in London.”

 

Nat Geo International

  • During the Summer of 2021, Simon Raikes and Ben Noot at National Geographic Channel International reviewed the project.
  • They requested a budget and schedule.
  • “It seemed like it was right on their target. We have a strong global reputation for quality and cost-effectiveness in this space. Our previous productions have had long lives and have been seen all over the world.”
  • “Also, the talent is from a diverse London background.”
  • “The NGC International team made no significant initial redirections from our sizzle and development materials.”

The Co-production Deal

  • “NGCI initially wanted to coproduce the series. We went back to the US looking for partners to share the financing. Then when Roku bit at our pitch, NGCI arranged for Disney+ US to come on board to complete the financing.”
  • “The split was roughly two thirds NGCI and the balance contributed by Disney+.”
  • “Although the series was not financed by NGC US, all six episodes of the series premieres on the US channel in October.”

Format: Six episodes

  • MEGA CRUISE SHIP – Icon of the Seas (Finland)
  • ALPINE MEGA TUNNEL – Brenner Base Tunnel (Italy & Austria)
  • LAS VEGAS MEGA SPHERE – The Sphere (Nevada)
  • LA MEGA STADIUM – LA Clippers Intuit Dome (California)
  • AFRICA’S MEGA BRIDGE – Msikaba Bridge (South Africa)
  • MEGA AIRSHIP – Pathfinder 1 (California)

Production Timeline

  • Initial development in early 2021.
  • Pitching in Spring and Summer 2021.
  • Initial budgets and schedules were submitted at the end of Summer 2021.
  • The contract was signed around April 2022.
  • Pre-production began in May 2022.

Field Production

  • Field production began in October 2022.
  • “Not including travels days, we spent on average about 4-5 consecutive shooting days in the field for each episode.”
  • “We finished shooting in January 2023.”

Field Crew

  • Directors: Michael Hoff (4 eps); Ashley Adams (2 eps).
  • Shooters (2)
  • Assistant Camera
  • Sound
  • Associate Director
  • Fixer when needed.

Shooting Docu/Reality

  • “Our docu-reality approach relied less on rehearsed set pieces like traditional hosted documentaries.”
  • “The action is anticipated and roughly blocked, but in practice you never know what will happen and you can be sure it will only happen once.”
  • “These are big playing fields. Sometimes critical action happens unexpectedly 50 yards away.”
  • “You have to have eyes in the back of your head and as much camera coverage as you can afford without bogging down the actual field workflow. We had A and B field cameras, but then also a mess of GoPros, and periodically drones.”
  • “Oh and did I mention the issues of media management for all those cameras?”

Challenges: A Production Jigsaw Puzzle

  • “We probably lost six weeks in the schedule due to a major Covid-driven snafu with Daniel’s visa.”
  • “Also, there were immense complications in getting access agreements and synchronizing our promise of delivering a major build process while the world was struggling with critical supply chain issues. You can’t build a one-of-a-kind mega glass elevator if there is no glass available.”
  • “Construction schedules often slide, and supply chain challenges cause further delays. It was quite the moving jigsaw puzzle to fit it all together.”

Post & Delivery

  • Post began in November 2022.
  • “It was a complex process: we had to focus on the video and audio from many, many camera sources, often looking for that moment of sound that makes a scene! Audio drives video, the right sound makes or breaks scenes.”
  • “Here is also where we wrestled with Hoff’s interest in pushing Daniel’s on-camera spontaneity and docu-reality moments with the need to provide standard documentary set-up and story beats. It took a while before everyone was happy.”
  • Final masters delivered in April 2023.

Promotion

  • NGC International has heavily promoted the series.
  • Simon Raikes commented in Broadcast: “Building Impossible captures the essence of exploration and innovation that has captured our imagination from the very beginning. This series pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in engineering and showcases the remarkable achievements of human ingenuity.”

Scheduling

  • UK premiere: Thursday, September 14 at 8pm
  • U.S. premiere: Thursday, October 19 from 7pm to midnight
    • 7:00 PM ET/PT – Las Vegas Mega Sphere
    • 8:00 PM ET/PT – LA Mega Stadium
    • 9:00 PM ET/PT – Alpine Mega Tunnel
    • 10:00 PM ET/PT – Africa’s Mega Bridge
    • 11:00 PM ET/PT – Mega Airship
  • Rest of World: varies from region to region.

Michael’s Key Takeaways

  • Finding A Buyer
    “Nothing is simple anymore. You have to turn over every rock and leaf no matter what territory or platform. On the plus side, networks are more open to partnerships and unique deals.”
  • Value TV
    “Not every great factual show needs to be packaged with an extremely expensive, established A-List celebrity that pushes costs to $750,000 per hour and beyond. There is still a place for networks to grow their own talent and build great television at a great price. Depending on volume, great television can be made for between $300,000 to $425,000.”
  • Refreshing Genres
    “The audience’s interest in genres like engineering is eternal. It’s not going away. The issue is finding ways to evolve, refresh, and bring more emotion to the genre.”
  • Editorial Partnership
    “We worked closely with the network creative execs Simon Raikes and Ben Noot to find the style and pacing of the show. In particular we grappled with balancing the docu-reality elements with the traditional documentary elements. As with any new series, without a pilot there was a lot of back and forth and differing creative opinions.  But we were able to build a relationship based on mutual respect and trust. It became a terrific partnership.”

Key Creatives & Executives

Hoff Productions

  • Michael Hoff, Executive Producer
  • Ashley Adams, Executive Producer
  • Sean Boyle, Executive Producer, consulting with Hoff Productions. (Now Adventure & Exploration Programming at Roku.)
  • Alex Hoff, VP Development. (Now an independent production and development consultant).
  • Melanie Chilek, Executive Vice President
  • Luke Gasbarro, Executive In Charge

Nat Geo International / Disney +

  • Simon Raikes, Commissioning Editor, National Geographic.
  • Ben Noot, Global Acquisitions Director, National Geographic.
  • Christian Drobnyk, SVP, Programming Strategy & Acquisition, Disney Entertainment Television.

Talent

  • Daniel Ashville Louisy, Founder & CEO of the Ashville Group

More…