Los Angeles-based High Five Content is dropping its newest audio documentary Son of a Hitman on Spotify today (May 5) as the two-year-old production house builds out its slate of multi-platform non-fiction.
Produced and hosted by Jason Cavanagh (pictured right), the 10-episode podcast dives into the “deadly world” of Charles Harrelson, an alleged hitman and father to actor Woody Harrelson.
Cavanagh – who has served as producer, showrunner and executive producer for Discovery, Bravo, PBS, History and MTV, among others — investigates each of the three murders Harrelson was charged with, including the first assassination of a federal judge in U.S. history.
The audio documentary will also seek to unravel the claim that Harrelson was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Andrew Jacobs (left), who founded High Five in 2018, says Son of a Hitman is the company’s “biggest” audio documentary project yet, and its second released in the last six months.
Before launching his own outfit, Jacobs worked in production on shows for MTV, Discovery Channel, BBC and TLC — to name a few — and then in development for Stephen David Entertainment and Atlas Media Corp.
At High Five — which calls itself “platform-agnostic” — Jacobs says he wanted to focus on a smaller slate of projects, which meant finding “more opportunities to monetize those projects.”
Specializing in non-fiction, the company produces unscripted TV to feature documentaries, digital or branded series and podcasts. Outside of development, High Five has a feature doc in post-production, a project in the works with HGTV and a docuseries underway with Discovery.
“I developed non-fiction content for TV for over a decade. At some point along the way, I got frustrated. There were incredible stories I wanted to tell that just didn’t have a home on TV… I knew I wanted to redefine some of the parameters around how I could get a great story to audiences,” he says. “We’re creating IP, building new relationships, learning to produce in different ways, and most importantly getting to tell stories we’re passionate about.”
Realscreen caught up with Jacobs and Cavanagh to talk about Son of a Hitman, the cross-pollination between television and audio production, and whether the COVID-19 pandemic will attract more non-fiction producers to the audio documentary space.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Could you talk a bit about the Son of a Hitman podcast, and the genesis of the series?
Andrew Jacobs: I first started developing Son of a Hitman as a limited series in 2014 while working at Atlas Media Corp. and the story quickly turned into something very serious. When I left Atlas in 2018, Bruce Klein was generous enough to let me take the podcast rights. That’s when I started talking to Jason about the project.
Like anything, Son of a Hitman has been a team effort, with fantastic partners in Spotify, as well as Ash Sarohia and Scott Bernstein over at Tradecraft, along with a whole host of other people, especially Brett Harrelson.
How can experience in non-scripted TV production be applied to audio, and what are some of the key similarities and differences between the two mediums?
AJ: When we’re doing audio, we’re stripping out a lot of the requirements and conventions of TV, which in one way, makes it easier to produce. But it also becomes a more intimate form of storytelling, which creates its own unique challenges. And while there are a lot of good ways to produce audio right now, there is no one right way to produce audio. I think we’ve found that bringing in people with audio backgrounds and matching them with folks with TV backgrounds has worked really well. The key for us is experience with documentary storytelling.
Jason Cavanagh: My background is in showrunning unscripted TV series… So for me, story is first and foremost. The first steps were to outline the way we saw the season playing out, in sort of a dream scenario, and then backing into that with a production plan.
That being said, the biggest challenge in producing an ambitious documentary podcast like this was dealing with a much tighter budget than a typical TV series. As a result, everyone on the team had to wear a lot of different hats.
Is there a pathway for High Five Content’s audio projects to become television series? What would that process look like?
AJ: Absolutely… But I think if you’re developing a podcast with the primary goal of turning it into a TV series, you’re doing it wrong. Audio is its own thing. When we set out to produce a podcast, we want to make the best damn podcast possible… And if eventually there’s a TV version too, great.
Do you foresee more production companies moving into this space in the future? And, moreover, in your view, could the pandemic play a role in that evolution as producers look to branch out in new ways?
JC: It does seem like everyone has a podcast these days, but it’s not easy to cut through the proverbial noise. The bar is being set higher and higher, so I think the content needs to be strong. That being said, as production companies are forced to find alternate sources of income during this pandemic, anything that allows for remote production is probably going to gain in popularity.
AJ: What it boils down to is whether or not it makes financial sense for a production company to devote time, energy and resources to producing audio content because the price points are quite different.
As production has mostly ground to a halt, will you be focusing your efforts more on podcasts/audio?
AJ: On one hand, we’re able to continue producing audio content right now in a way that we couldn’t for TV. On the other hand, it’s still an advertisement-driven business. So some podcast networks are facing some of the same questions TV networks are — in particular, will the ad buys be there? I think our strategy at High Five Content right now is to put our focus on what kinds of stories people will want during this time, and after this is all over. And then decide from there, is it a podcast, a TV series, something else, or all of the above.