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Hoff Productions: An Independent Producer Manages the Ups and Downs

2015 November 18
by Peter Hamilton

This week’s story is about how to succeed in the very tough world of independent production.

Our case study is Hoff Productions, whose ups and downs we covered back in 2010 in a popular post titled A Preferred Producer: Hoff Productions between Basement and Buyout.

  • Hoff was on a ride.
  • But, as you can see from the chart, some not-so-busy years followed.
  • And then, an upswing…

hoff

2015 Snapshot

This year, Hoff will deliver 40 hours to 6 buyers:

  • What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Series for Science Channel
  • Mobsteel: Car series for NBC Sports Network
  • Behind the Screams: Crime/Horror series for Reelz
  • Animals Gone Wild: Clip series for Nat Geo Wild
  • Specials for Animal Planet and Nat Geo Wild
  • Breitling: Branded content for the celebrated watchmaker

Here is: We Are Breitling: The Anthem

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Pitching Today

We asked Michael Hoff to share his insights into today’s drivers of the unscripted sector, and how Hoff Productions is managing them.

First, I asked him what have been the major changes in the pitching process for U.S. networks since 2011?

There are three clear trends…

  1. Back to Brands
  • When it comes to branding, we’re definitely in a “Back to the Future” mode.
  • Networks are truly retrenching and trying to do whatever they can to bolster what has become an almost complete lack of brand recognition.
  • They are becoming more conservative and less likely to poach into other network’s territories.
  • However, given that a number of networks’ brands are extreme vague, the boundaries can still be hard to pin down.
  1. Pricing Is Down
  • Networks are conflicted by the general decline in viewership matched by a decline in brand recognition.
  • For many of the major factual cable networks, there is now a clear, two-tier approach:
  • Their short term solution is to cut production budgets, and pay less for the majority of programming.
  • With some of the savings, they are investing in noisy blockbuster events that they hope will bring people into the tent and shore up branding. There is though still plenty of opportunity to deliver “value” TV.
  • That means for most programming production, price points are going down about 10%.
  1. International
  • The importance of international programming is back.
  • Domestic networks struggling for production dollars need the support of their international colleagues.
  • At the same time international markets are becoming more and more important financially. The future dollars are overseas.
  • The US feels like almost a loss leader, a branding tool for the international strategy.
  • Given all of the above, there is once again a focus on the question: “Will these shows travel?”

Implications for Hoff

So given these trends how is the Hoff team pitching differently?

  • The type of programming needed today is right up our alley. So we are literally channeling what’s in our DNA.
  • We’re very conscious of price point. We research the networks’ budget sweet spots, and design our pitches accordingly.
  • We prefer higher price points, but we’re well known for delivering value.

International

  • We have a long history of both co-pros and commissions that travel well.
  • Our Factory, Crime, and clip shows have enjoyed a universal appeal for decades.
  • Examples are Ultimate Factories, Hooked: Monster Fish, Animals Gone Wild, and Extreme Forensics.
  • So our focus is on reinventing these franchise series, contemporizing them, and giving traditional content a new snap.

Team

  • Our Development team extends across generations.
  • A wise exec once said that you need to have at least three champions in the room to get any project greenlit.
  • When we can work with different levels and generations of execs it makes it much more productive.
  • We are strong on human story-telling. There is more to good television than just process. We have to deliver heart, conflict, and humanity.

Flexibility

We’re smarter about space and equipment.  We no longer overreact to expansion.

  • When we needed office space, we didn’t rent more, we squeezed more in.
  • We kept our equipment purchases practical and limited, we didn’t overbuild.
  • Kept a key core of management and creatives, but quickly adapted to needs.
  • We quickly hired good new people, even if they were pricey.
  • And when we didn’t need their expertise, even though it was tempting to hold them, we let them go.

New Blood

  • We used to stick to mostly homegrown and local, but now we mix in very strong show runners and production staffing from around the country.
  • We’ve been able to introduce new people and new ideas without undermining our positive culture.

Diverse Slate

  • We’re known for noisy documentaries series and specials.  They are frequently narration-driven.  But that wasn’t enough.
  • We worked hard to create the skills and talent base needed for character-driven programming like “What Could” and “Mobsteel,” and it’s really paid off.
  • We still do the best clip-based series, but that’s just for starters.
  • We feel that we can do anything.

Better Production Management

  • This was a three year process of transforming our execs and our systems.  It was painful, but so worth it.
  • Our present team is so fast, so smart, and they completely understand the business inside and out.  They’re pros.

I Learned to Love My Clients

  • In the distant past I didn’t always understand or empathize with the challenges of our clients.
  • I found the process often annoying and even angering.
  • Now, I better understand their world view, their challenges.  And I understand if I want to succeed, our company and every team member has to not only deliver a product that works, but we need to do it in a way that makes our clients’ jobs easier.
  • We always need to be a part of the solution.

Michael Hoff’s Final Takeaways

  • Five years ago when you covered us in DocumentaryTelevision.com, we were on a high. I thought I had figured it all out.
  • But there were many ups and downs ahead, and until recently more challenges than ups.
  • Back then we knew how to develop, sell, and make the shows.
  • But we needed to evolve when it came to business and production management.  It’s taken 3-4 years to re-tool and rebuild our approaches and infrastructure.
  • Now, we’re on a roll.
  • I like to think we built a durable and smart engine designed to take the bumps and bruises, and still grow.
  • This business is not for the faint of heart. You have to love the content.  You have to plain love the craft of making TV shows.
  • Like the old Timex commercial says, now we can “Take a licking and keep on ticking.”
  • Then again I should probably use an analogy connected with our terrific branded client Breitling. Like them, we now have a history of innovation, we’re extremely durable, and every show makes a statement.

Programs

Mobsteel (NBC Sports Network)

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? (Science)

Animals Gone Wild (NG Wild)

Behind The Screams (Reelz)

Killer Hornets from Hell (Animal Planet)

Breitling Branded

More Reading

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