There’s not question that the television industry is competitive, and it can be hard for a small prodco to break through the noise and find its niche. In ‘Small Companies, Big Ideas’,realscreen chats with some indie prodcos who’ve innovated and thrived, showing the unscripted world that sometimes the best things come in small packages.
Below, we chat with Rob Shaftel, founder and executive producer of Hit+Run — a full service production company known for high concept and high quality story-driven programming. Since launching just over a year ago, Hit+Run has produced numerous series including cult hits Way Past Midnight for Red Bull TV and American Down Low for Complex Networks, and is currently in production on a second season of I Was Prey for Animal Planet.
Prior to launching Hit+Run, Shaftel served as SVP of development at ITV Studios America. Previously, he held positions at Leftfield, Discovery and Spike.
Do you see yourself as a small company and are there any other stereotypes you find yourself trying to fight that come along with that?
I like being called a small company. To me it signals to the networks that I’m really involved in everything, which I am. I’m involved in the development and creation of our shows and I’m involved in the production of our shows, not just creatively but also in personnel decisions made as we decide to hire people.
What are some of the advantages that come along with being a small company?
I think one of the biggest advantages is that I have the ability to make decisions and make them swiftly. We don’t have to set a meeting next week to talk about the decision we might make a week after. I can just consult with my team and make the best decision possible for every situation. I think the other big advantage is I can really pick and choose what projects we develop, and I can pick and choose how we make those projects. I just think it really leads to everything being more handcrafted.
As a smaller player, what’s your strategy when it comes to breaking through the clutter and succeeding in such a competitive market?
In the case of I Was Prey, which got the biggest order of the year from Animal Planet, we made the decision to not just make it a shock value show… we handcrafted every element of the show to make it better. Just to give you a few quick examples, we decided to not have a ton of animals on the show. We decided to have very few. We said, ‘Let’s not have actors and recreations, let’s not smother the show with experts commenting on what these people did right or wrong. Let’s instead make this show about people who have overcome the most extreme life and death situations. Let’s give them a voice and let’s build an intimate connection with them and the audience. Let’s bring the environment to life with great visuals, some first-class sound design, and let the audience really live the experience with them.’
So to get back to how that cuts through the clutter, it’s really the stories that make our shows unique, even if it’s in an existing genre like animal attacks.
You’ve noted in past interviews that Hit+Run focuses on “high quality series.” Do you have a checklist in mind of what makes a show high quality?
I think it really starts with looking at every element of the show and asking how we can do it better or differently, and how can we bring production value to unexpected areas. I go back to the sound design elements of I Was Prey because you just don’t see a lot of non-fiction cable shows putting a lot of emphasis on sound design, so I knew that was one area where we could be better than the rest.
Also, I know that when we attack things visually, we need to think about how we differentiate ourselves. In I Was Prey, the choice to not have actors and to bring the environment to life was challenging because you can’t rely on actors to play a part. We had to be super creative, which allowed that show to be better and allowed that show to connect with the audience more.
I don’t get caught up if the genre has been done before. There have been previous animal attack shows — everybody knows that. But we just asked how we could make it different, and started with those three thinsgs: storytelling, visual and audio.
How did you approach this series from the perspective of a a smaller company?
One of the advantages to owning a business and being as small company is that the network gets to work with you directly. It allowed me to have really clear vision for the show. We didn’t overcomplicate things — we didn’t have too many cooks in the kitchen and we didn’t have to have massive creative meetings. It was really as simple as having a few calls with the network saying ‘Here’s how we want to see this.” I guess it comes down to how I and other folks on my team were really fearless in our in our vision — we didn’t really have to worry about anybody saying no to us at our own company.
How did your past professional experience at ITV and Discovery impact your company today?
One of the things that I gained at ITV was access to an international marketplace. And having worked with Discovery, being involved in so many greenlight meetings from the John Ford era, I understand how important the future international sales of a show are. I know that our show is doing really well overseas. It’s in a lot of territories.