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A Preferred Producer: Hoff Productions between Basement and Buyout (Part 2/2)

In this week’s DocumentaryTelevision.com – we continue our detailed profile of Hoff Productions’ path from freelancer to a leading supplier to U.S. factual channels, including Discovery and NGC.

The story so far: Michael Hoff begins from a base in a spare room. He develops a respectable client list for Hoff Productions. But catastrophe always lurks around the corner.

In this post: Hoff builds scale off the company’s ‘WOW! TV’ strategy. What’s next?

(Budgets / $’000)

Phase 4: WOW! TV

  • In 2003, we expanded from 6,000 SF to 13,500 SF +/-
    • “For the first time I had an office where I could close the door.”
  • Bread & butter product:
    • Male-targeted and sensational
    • ‘WOW! TV’
  • Hoff’s output grew to 60 hours: 60-70 people
    • Peaked at 100-person staff
  • “Our breakeven is 30 hours, or a turnover of $10+/- million:
    • “Specials are loss leaders.”
    • “Single docs aren’t economical.”
    • “But even at this level, every year or so we faced the prospect of a wipeout.”
  • Budgets: “From $200 for hour-long series for the diginets to $400+/- for Specials.”

 More Risk: The Co-pro Trap

  • “2005 was another set-back year. It was a moment where we could have packed it up.” 
  • “We had done mainly co-productions, deficit-financing them so that we would profit from international, DVD and other rights that we retained.”
  • “But we realized losses with almost all of our productions. We had to scale back and let people go.”
  • “We shifted our strategy from co-pros to work-for-hire commissions, and we got back on our feet.”

 Changing Corporate Practice

  • “I personally delegated more of the production oversight and hit the road with our head of development, calling on clients every 3 weeks or so.”
    • “Maybe it’s obvious, but we found that the commissioning execs respond more often with a ‘yes’ the more often we saw them.”
  • Agent?
    • “We did work with an agent for a year or so, and he was often helpful.”
    • “But we decided that were we were better off spending the agent’s fees on internal Development.”

 Phase 5: New York! New York!

  • “We opened a New York office to be closer to our clients.”
    • “We also wanted to draw on a new talent pool and on different knowledge sets.”
    • “We wanted to be less insular.”
  • “Our Development team expanded to five, including two very established executives.”
  •  “We are focusing on character- and personality-driven programming. That’s what the networks want and we are delivering.”
  • “Our goal is to grow and maintain our traditional base of male appeal ‘WOW! TV’, while expanding into more character-driven programming for men and women, plus compelling formats.”
  •  “We are also gaining expertise in 3D production.”

 Programming Trend: From ‘Immersive’ to ‘Personalities-plus-Tape’

The last decade saw a big shift in network programming:

  • “In the early 2000’s, we worked on a mix of specials, limited series, and long-running series that weren’t character-driven. Some of them had presenters, but almost everything was narration driven.”
  • “About four years ago, every network said that they were looking for ‘immersive’ programs. ‘Immersive’ was suddenly the buzzword on every programmer’s lips. Maybe Crocodile Hunter was their model, I’m not sure.”
  • “By early 2009, almost 100% ‘big characters’ and ‘big personalities’.
    • “We used to write pitches that were based on possible people and concepts.”
    • “Now the pitches were based on really strong characters, and on tape that proved it.”
  • “Meanwhile, the competition between the channels has become more and more frenzied, and the programmer’s patience to let a show find its audience has diminished.”

 Business Trend: ‘Deals are More Sophisticated Costly’

  • “Deals are more sophisticated. People across the production process know so much more about rights and deliverables.”
  • “There are more talent-driven deals, and Talent adds a whole new layer to the negotiation.”
  • According to Michael Hoff: “Deals have become much more expensive:”
    • “We used to write a single paragraph pitch and not even bother to sign up the talent.”
    • “Now we can spend $25-30 in time, outside counsel and other resources to develop a concept, sign talent, and create the sizzle reel.”

 Hail Mary: ‘6 Mega-series and a few Specials’

We asked Michael Hoff what would change his life:

  • “Companies need to grow in order to survive.  It is almost impossible to be a ‘healthy’ company and stay the same size.  Bank loans, pay raises and promotions, increased overheads and health costs, and so on: they all require growth.”  
  • “Also, the company needs to grow in order for my job to continue to be personally interesting and to evolve.  My job description changes as the company grows.”
  • “For any kind of financial pay-out that would allow me to walk away, the company probably needs to hit about $20 million a year.  This is secondhand info, but we’ve never had any buyer interest at any previous size. I’ve heard that $20 million is the threshold for becoming an interesting acquisition or merger.”
  • “That would be the equivalent of six long-running mega-series, plus some Specials and pilots.”
  • “So in order for me to maintain an interesting job and secure a reasonable exit within the next ten years, I need the company to grow and evolve to that scale.”
  • “Or perhaps, in the short run we can become dramatically more profitable by improving our margins, which is forever a challenge.  Let’s face it, it’s a tough business.  It’s not for the faint of heart.”

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Hoff Productions Credit List

TitleYearClientFormat
Secrets of Alcatraz1992Golden Gate National Parks1×45 + misc.
Escapes from Alcatraz1995Discovery1×60
Secrets of The Gold Rush1995PBS1×60
Secrets of The Rock: Return to Alcatraz1995PBS1×60
Secrets of The Wine Country1995PBS1×60
Deadly Duels1996Discovery Channel3×60
The Guillotine1996Discovery Channel1×60
Wild Guide1996Westinghouse B’casting Intl13×30
Break Out1997Discovery Channel3×50
Pet Line1997Animal Planet65×30
Public Enemies on the Rock1997Discovery Channel1×50
Fix-It Line1998Discovery Channel50×30
Real Ghosthunters1999Discovery Channel1×50
Disaster Detectives1999TLC4×50
True Crime1999TLC2×50
On the Inside (Season 1)2000Discovery Channel6×50
Ties That Bind (pilot)2000DCI Diginets1×50
Ties That Bind (series)2000DCI Diginets12×45
I, Detective (demo)2000Court TV1x:05
Ghost Detectives2001Discovery Channel1×50
I, Detective (pilot)2001Court TV1×30
Mortuary School2001Discovery Channel1×50
On the Inside (Season 2)2001Discovery Channel2×50
Serendipity2001Discovery Health Channel6×50
Subterraneans2001HGTV1×60
Top Ten Travel (Season 1)2001Travel Channel10×50
Dungeons of Alcatraz2002Discovery Channel1×50
Extreme Funerals2002Discovery Channel1×50
Gardens of Alcatraz2002HGTV1×60
Generation Trap2002Discovery Health Channel2×30
How’s That Work? (Season 1)2002HGTV26×30
I, Detective (Season 1)2002Court TV12×30
I, Detective (Season 2)2002Court TV13×30
Motorcycle Lightning2002Discovery Channel1×50
Top Ten Travel (Season 2)2002Travel Channel10×50
Are We Cannibals?2003NGC1×60
Command Decisions (pilot)2003History Channel2×30
How’s That Work? (Season 2)2003HGTV13×30
I, Detective (Season 3)2003Court TV13×30
nD-Structible2003Discovery Channel1×60
Science Smackdown2003Science Channel1x:08
Subterraneans II2003HGTV1×60
The Launch2003Discovery Channel1×60
Top Ten Travel (Season 3)2003Travel Channel10×60
Alcatraz: Defying the Rock2004NGC1×60
Command Decisions (Season 1)2004History Channel13×30
Command Decisions (Season 2)2004History Channel5×30
Food Crazy!2004Travel Channel3×60
I, Detective (Season 4)2004Court TV13×30
Mother of All2004NGC4×60
Nextfest 20042004Science Channel2×60 + misc.
Quintessential…2004Equator HD1×30, 15x:07
Size It Up!2004Military Channel2×60
Best Ranger 20052005Military Channel3×60, 15×0:30
Critical Decisions2005NGC3×60
Interrogation Room (demo)2005Fox1×15
Interrogation Room (pilot)2005Fox1×30
MegaStructures: Berlin Wall2005NGC1×60
Monster Home Theater2005Discovery HD Theater2×60
Monster Truck Tech2005NGC1×60
Nextfest 20052005Science Channel1×60, 6x:01
Paint Job2005TLC1×60
Wet Paint2005TV One4×30
WingWoman (demo)2005We TV1x:10
Best Ranger 20062006Discovery Channel3×60
Conquering Niagara2006NGC1×60
Extreme Parenting2006TLC1×60
Fantastic Food Factories2006NGC2×60
From Tree To Table2006California Olive Oil Council1×15, 1x:02
Garbage Mountain2006NGC1×60
Geo Quiz2006NGC1×60
Hidden Armor, Found Treasures2006Smithsonian Channel3×30
Hooked (pilot)2006NGC1×60
MegaStructures: Golden Gate Bridge2006NGC1×60
Money Factory2006NGC1×60
Moonshine2006NGC1×60
Nextfest 20062006Science Channel1×60, 9×0:30
Of Mice & Women2006Zero Breast Cancer1×45
One Too Many2006TLC1×60
Shark Battleground: The Red Triangle2006NGC1×60
Surviving Alcatraz/Living Hell2006NGC2×60
Thrill Zone2006NGC3×60
Ultimate Factories (Season 1)2006NGC4×60
What’s Your Time Worth?2006Fine Living13×30
Animal Oddities2007NGC2×60
Chain Gang Girls2007We TV1×120
Climate Quiz2007The Weather Channel30x:01
Future Wheels2007Equator HD12×30
Hooked (Season 2)2007NGC3×60
Quit Your Job!2007Fine Living1×60
Top Ten 401(k) Mistakes2007Fine Living1×60
Ultimate Factories (Season 2)2007NGC6×60
Alcatraz webisodes2008DCL Online Services12x:03
Chain Gang Girls 22008We TV1×120
Devil’s Bible2008NGC1×60
Extreme Forensics (Season 1)2008Investigation Discovery13×60
Hooked (Season 3)2008NGC3×60
Weird, True & Freaky (Season 1)2008Animal Planet26×30
Chain Gang: Maricopa County2009Discovery Channel1×60
Extreme Forensics (Season 2)2009Investigation Discovery13×60
Hooked (Best Of)2009NGC2×60
Hooked (Season 4)2009NGC7×60
Killer Aliens2009Animal Planet1×120, 1×60
Madman of the Sea2009Animal Planet6×60
Man vs. Fish with Matt Watson2009Discovery Channel5×60
Trashmen2009TLC1×60
Ultimate Factories (Season 3)2009NGC6×60
Weird, True & Freaky (Season 2)2009Animal Planet26×30
Witch Hunter’s Bible2009NGC1×60

 

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1 comments

  1. Phenomenal site and reporting and generous sharing of info for up and coming newbies. Thank you for the work you are doing and sharing. The video panel series on Leftfield and Pawn Stars was also incredibly instructive.

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