Commissioning report: Discovery’s John Hoffman

Discovery Channel doc boss John Hoffman tells realscreen how Racing Extinction set a bar for the kind of documentaries he wants to produce and acquire for 2016 and beyond.
February 1, 2016

Discovery Channel began 2015 by hiring former HBO exec John Hoffman to oversee  documentary and specials commissioning, and then, shortly thereafter, acquiring Louie PsihoyosRacing Extinction at the Sundance Film Festival.

The moves were definitely eye-openers in the doc filmmaking community which, it’s probably safe to say, raised eyebrows over Discovery’s recent forays into reality fare and headline-grabbing “docutainment” specials.

A year later, Hoffman has a slate of 10 original commissions and is working with 14 Academy Award-nominated filmmakers. He is already talking to producers about projects that can air across his doc slots in 2018 and 2019.

Discovery is not the only cable network or platform chasing buzz-worthy docs. Competitors such as National Geographic Channel, Netflix and PBS are aggressively moving into the feature doc space so there was a lot riding on Racing Extinction‘s success.

“I will admit I was genuinely nervous,” says Hoffman, who is also overseeing docs for Discovery’s sister nets Animal Planet and Science Channel. “It was a substantial investment. It was a commitment from the company all around the world. Every department and division touched this product. I guess you could say I staked my reputation on trying to find a title that speaks to the ability of the documentary to be brand-defining.”

Psihoyos, who won an Oscar for The Cove, had structured his examination of mass extinction like a spy thriller and fine-tuned its messaging with help from Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Productions to maximize the potential for social impact.

The legwork Psihoyos and Vulcan did to promote the film ensured that it had a timely message that would resonate widely across social media and has set a standard for producers and directors with films that have potential to receive the global event treatment from Discovery.

racing extinction

Racing Extinction

“There was a view here that we were successful before we went on the air because of the level of attention the film was getting,” explains Hoffman.

Discovery positioned the film as a worldwide event, airing it in 220 markets around the world on December 2 and promoting it for months ahead of time.

As a result, the doc’s premiere attracted a total of 16.7 million viewers including weekend encores in the U.S., with an unduplicated worldwide reach of 35.6 million total viewers, including the U.S. weekend encores.

The event-based strategy will continue in 2016, with Discovery giving two films similar global roll-outs. The next is Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa, which will air on April 9 as part of Discovery’s mountain-focused ‘Elevation Weekend’ strand. Another stunt-based fi lm with “prominent talent” involved will be announced early in the year.

In all, Hoffman will slot 25 films a year across various umbrellas that include big events or stunts, anthology series and limited series. Two six-episode limited series with well-known filmmakers are in production.

Some docs will be pegged to familiar strands such as ‘Shark Week’ and ‘Elevation Weekend,’ while others will fall under new strands to be announced in 2016, according to Hoffman.

“We are more in the commissioning than the acquisitions game,” he adds. “We have to be nimble in both. We have to commission when there are stories that we feel that have to be told, but not commit so much of our money that we can’t buy something when it shows up at a market or someone brings it to us.”

Hoffman has a focus on natural history and science, but wants to find ways to reinvent the blue-chip form by bringing on board filmmaking talent not usually associated with the Planet Earth-type doc series Discovery used to coproduce with the BBC.

“That form has really not performed well for American audiences so we’re investing in ways of reinventing the storytelling,” he explains. “We are trying to develop some fun approaches to documentary storytelling and working in novel ways with some of the best filmmakers in the business.”

For 2016, Hoffman has high standards to live up to. “[Our films] have to rate. They have to generate unprecedented social media numbers. They have to be uniformly seen as well-made, beautiful films,” he says.

“They have to get great reviews and they have to be award-worthy. I don’t think I’m being successful unless I’m hitting all of those measures.”

  • This story, part of our Commissioning Report, first appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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