A Preferred Producer: Hoff Productions between Basement and Buyout (Part 1/2)
The scale of factual producers ranges from basement operators to ‘Super-preferred Producers’ like Pilgrim Entertainment.
We continue our case studies of U.S. production companies by focusing on Hoff Productions, which represents the next tier beneath the ‘Super’ category.
- Hoff Productions is based in the Bay Area, with a recently opened office in New York, and is led by Michael Hoff
- The firm currently enjoys revenues of around $12+/- million, based on 60 hours production and a staff of around 60-70 people
- Hoff’s clients have included Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, The History Channel, Fox, PBS, Science Channel, WEtv, Investigation Discovery and many others
- The company has produced more than 500 hours over 17 years
At the recent Westdoc Conference, we discussed in detail Hoff’s evolution from executive producer of KPIX’s Evening Magazine to freelance showrunner of The Adventurers (Group W / Discovery) to his situation today: he leads a thriving firm, but it is below the scale where he can earn equity through the sale of a stake in the company.
Our thanks to the Hoff Producions’ team for their generous and thoughtful access.
Phase 1: In the Basement
- Incorporated in 1993
- “I was basically a freelance line producer who managed to pick up a couple of shows with partners.”
- Initial projects: Secrets of Alcatraz, Escape from Alcatraz
- Budgets: $100+/- hour
- “I worked from a spare room in my house, and with virtually no overhead.”
- “I was in complete editorial control, selling, directing, writing everything, but it took forever to deliver.”
Phase 2: Embedded
In 1997, Hoff moved out of his back room and into a SF production facility / post house. The house contributed office space and posting services:
- No capital was at risk
- Small team with no privacy: “We all shared the same email address. One person would periodically print out and distribute emails.”
- Editorial control: “My individual ability to control shows diminished.”
- Initially a handful of hours / year for Discovery and PBS
- Then Hoff earned commissions for series that required larger staffs:
- Petline (65×30 for Animal Planet in 1997)
- Fix-It Line (50×30 for Discovery Daytime in 1998)
- Episode budgets were $20+/-
The Empty Pipeline
According to Hoff, “I developed, then shot and posted most of the field-based programs. We would be half way through the post and I’d realize that we hadn’t been out pitching for new work. There was nothing in the pipeline.”
- “In 1998, I hired a development person who also did legal, even production management … everything except production. We soon enjoyed a steadier workflow, and she shifted to FT.”
- “We sold 7 hours in the 1st year
- Real Ghosthunters (one-off for Discovery)
- Disaster Detectives (four hours for TLC)
- And True Crime (two hours for TLC).
But we were still one phone call from catastrophe:
- “For example, TLC called when we were at NATPE in New Orleans and told us that they were cancelling a four hour series.”
- “We happened to meet Mike Quattrone of Discovery at a Discovery Channel party. He was kind enough to ask how we were doing. We said we were crushed. We had just lost most of our business for the coming year. He walked across the room to TLC exec John Ford, said something to John, and the next thing we knew the project was back. Needless to say I haven’t forgotten, and I am forever indebted to them.”
“The goal was to develop ideas while we were in production, and to branch out and work with other networks beyond Discovery. Until then, I was involved in every step of production, but for the first time I hired a series producer.”
Phase 3: Two R’s: Rent and Risk
“In 2000/2001, we stepped up a level and began producing series for multiple Discovery networks, including Top Ten Travel for Travel Channel and Ties That Bind for the digi-nets.”
“In 2002, we branched out further with the series Serendipity for Discovery Health and, beyond the Discovery networks, with the series How’s That Work for HGTV.”
- “We moved across the Bay to Emeryville, renting an open plan office space. It was a 2,000 square foot bullpen. We still had no private space. When we needed to have a private meeting, we went outdoors, even in the rain, and sat at a picnic table.”
- “We established a credit relationship with a bank.”
- Investment in post systems
- 1 AVID: lease to own.
- $250,000 system and hardware
- Later bought additional systems when we reached 20 hours
- We produced around 12-14 hours a year
- Staff: 1:1 ratio.
- Twelve hours: 12 people. 20 hours: 20 people
- Our first series that was successful over multiple seasons was I, Detective for CourtTV:
- We produced 52 episodes from 2002-04
- Budget: $80-100+/-
- Other networks approached Hoff to produce shows with comparable formats
HR Begins to Matter
“Once we hit nine hours, and we were in Emeryville, I realized that I was a thru-put problem. I couldn’t field and write nine hours a year. I needed to delegate more.”
“And HR issues became more time-consuming: Who to hang on to? Who should be freelance? We began to expand our serious hires and engage experts.”
- Chief engineer, initially part time, then full time
- “There were constant hardware questions. We had a lot of challenges with on-lines. Things were always bouncing because of tech specs. Network specs were getting more and more rigorous, and we just didn’t have all the knowledge or technology that was necessary. It ate into our margins, every bounced master cost us at least another$5K.”
- “Getting tech specs right was always a challenge. For example, the channels increased their audio mixing demands from mono when we started to multichannel audio now.“
- “We initially relied on my father, an experienced businessman and attorney.”
- “We recognized that we needed Entertainment and Cable Network Legal expertise, and we began working with some specialist attorneys, though my father continued to handle the bulk of the work until a few years ago.”
Next Post: Part 2/2 on Hoff Productions
- Phase 4. Wow! TV
- Phase 5. New York! New York!
- Does it get tougher?
- How has programming changed?
- Hoff’s ‘Hail Mary’?