It’s nutritious and delicious…programming, that is. It’s the calling card of Boston area Powderhouse Productions. The brainchild of former WGBH’ers Tug Yourgrau and Joel Olicker pulsates with creative energy, as the Bay State-based staff cranks out cable hit after cable hit. Their mission statement says it all: ‘To create POWerful entertainment that excites, inspires and deeply connects with our audience.”
The company started out small, in the basement of a Dunkin Donuts in Davis Square, Somerville, MA. Yourgrau and Olicker produced a one-hour documentary called ‘The New South Africa: A Personal Journey’. The program focused on South African native, Yourgrau, as he returned to his homeland in the post-Mandela era.
The doc led to their first job as a company for Harvard Business School. Then they were hired to produce episodes of ‘Discover Magazine’ for Discovery Channel. The duo worked on some NOVA programs and one-off specials, eventually relocating to an office above a local photo studio in Davis Square in 2000.
Named for an old Revolutionary War explosive storage facility in Somerville, the company expanded in 2001, adding an online AVID and a half dozen people, including current Senior Vice President, Production & Post, Rob Kirwan. They produced a two-hour special, ‘Engineering the Impossible’, a breakout hit which spawned the series ‘Extreme Engineering’, which, in turn, morphed into current cable mainstay, ‘Build It Bigger’, wrapping its 45th hour-long episode on The Science Channel.
Today’s Powderhouse produces a variety of successful programs in a number of genres, such as science and engineering, documentary, nature and animals, history, crime, fashion and docusoaps. The company is also developing reality competition vehicles.
Powderhouse creates programming that is popular with audiences, but that’s not all. ‘We need to make sure our content isn’t simply great entertainment, but delivers within the strategy of our client networks. Our shows must work within the context of the other programming on their air,’ explains General Manager Bill Borson. ‘Our client is the network. They spend a lot of time and money on research and the analysis to see what their audience wants. Our job is to understand deeply and develop content with that knowledge in mind.’
‘Our brand is ‘delicious and nutritious’, according to Kirwan. ‘It’s entertaining, first and foremost, but there’s something inside that provides a bit of nourishment. Maybe you’ll learn something. You’ll connect with a person or an idea in a new way. You’ll take away something. It’s never just junk food. And that is the core of our brand.’
From ‘Dogs 101’ and ‘Must Love Cats’ to ‘Build It Bigger’ to ‘American Plumber’, Powderhouse has become a go-to production company nationwide. One of their newest ventures is a program tentatively called ‘The Garden Transformation’. The series will document the massive 3-year reconstruction of New York City’s world-renowned Madison Square Garden. ‘Because of our success with ‘Build It Bigger’, explains Borson, ‘we’re the company they chose.’ Kirwan elaborates, ‘They said ‘we want you to do a show like ‘Build It Bigger’ for us.’ The program focuses on a project in the heart of New York City involving a sports arena, and, due to Powderhouse’s track record, MSG Network hired a Boston company to produce the series.
Also in the Powderhouse pipeline is a ‘reality competition show with heavy machinery’ called ‘American Hard Hat’. They will produce 12 half-hour episodes for Travel Channel, but it’s not your typical competition program. The concept? Construction workers from across the country will show off their skills with heavy equipment, competing in challenges you’d never see at a job site. ‘It’s actual construction workers using real equipment to see who the top one of the day is,’ explains Borson. The program is the inspiration of ‘Build It Bigger’ showrunner and Vice President of Production, Dan Miller, who brought it to Powderhouse’s Development, headed by Seanbaker Carter.
Selecting a host for a program is a critical step in the development process. During a host search, the company sends out a national call and takes into account the program format, the network’s target audiences, the roster of their agency CAA, and the ‘intangible element.’ Borson explains, ‘One of the values we bring the networks is coming up with great characters and the right on-camera talent to go along with the ideas.’
About a year ago, Powderhouse launched their own in-house casting department. For ‘American Hard Hat’, they cast TV veteran Steve Watson, a super- popular host since the breakout ‘Monster House’ on Discovery. Prior to forming their inhouse department, the company hit casting paydirt with Craigslist, landing ‘Build It Bigger’ host, Danny Forster. Now, the in-house casting team is constantly scouring the nation and the world for ‘unique, rich characters who can carry the concept through production,’ explains Borson. ‘People who can provide unique access to a world,’ adds Kirwan.
Powderhouse is also working to create a major network show in the near future. They cut a deal with Poison frontman/Celebrity Apprentice winner Bret Michaels to collaborate on a show about, of all things, brain surgery. Michaels underwent a brain aneurysm repair procedure at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, and then learned that Powderhouse’s Dan Miller had produced a pilot for an ongoing series based on the incredible life-saving work there. The result of that union is that Michaels and Powderhouse will soon be jointly pitching the show to networks.
‘Shows like that need a front person because of name recognition,’ Borson explains. ‘We’re starting to work with the networks and our agency to make deals with talent. And we develop concepts we think that talent would like to do. That can hopefully get us in some other doors.’
And, yes, there’s more. Powderhouse is moving into digital and mobile content. ‘We have a joint venture with a software developer to create our first Facebook social networking game. It’s called ‘True Pirates’. It’s a game in which you go back into the 17th century, sail the seas, try to get as much booty as you can and of course, knock off your enemies.’ ‘It’s like Farmville, but with real information about real pirates,’ Miller adds.
Borson believes that ‘the iPad and its mobile apps are game changers. And that bodes well for a content provider like us. The social networking game is first step for us in that direction, and there will be others.’
Powderhouse knows it can never rest on its laurels. The entertainment business is changing faster than ever, and the company must remain nimble to stay ahead of the changes. According to their mission statement, they strive to ‘excite, inspire and connect’ with their customers and their audiences. They’re aiming to expand that audience and deliver fresh content on multiple platforms. Powderhouse is truly bursting with creative ammunition stored in their creative arsenal. That’s POWerful entertainment!
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