America has always been a land marked by pioneers and trailblazers, by entrepreneurship and vision. So, in 2004, when London based equipment hire firm HotCam sought to expand, founder Trevor Hotz could think of no better place to be.
“Back then a lot of our competitors were opening up in Manchester and Glasgow but that didn’t appeal to me,” says Hotz. “I’d first visited New York for a shoot back in 1982 while making the show Everyman – Miracle of Intervale Avenue for the BBC and it always seemed like a city that I could live in”
Fast-forward 30 years and HotCam New York is the preeminent destination for factual and reality TV producers in the US and BAFTA Award winning sound mixer Hotz is not just its CEO but also its visionary.
In his Manhattan office is a vintage US flag with only forty-eight of today’s fifty stars. It symbolizes the company’s identity: an authentically American firm with an Englishman’s heart that is shaped around values largely lost in the industry today.
Before New York, it was London that benefitted from these values.
Back in 1998, London was at the forefront of the wave of reality TV programming that would eventually re-shape the broadcast landscape.
Hotz, along with friend and colleague Alistair Cameron, had a vision for a different kind of company that would service this emerging market.
Specializing in documentary and factual programming, HotCam went about its business in a quiet and efficient fashion, putting an emphasis on supplying high quality kit and developing a rapport with clients rather than simply ‘shifting boxes’, the approach that was commonplace in the TV industry at that time.
HotCam’s success was fueled by this commitment to relationships; a client-centric model that emphasized support, education, quality, and consistency. A model that continues to win the firm major accounts to this day on both continents.
So, when the reality wave began to break on the shores of the United States in the early 2000s, expansion seemed natural and recces began.
“After my first visits in ’82 inspired me, returning to New York with a new vision and purpose only reinforced my initial impressions of the city,” continues Hotz. “I knew this was where I wanted to be”
The strongest catalyst for the move to New York came from Optomen’s Executive in Charge of Production Maria Silver who, at that time, was a Production Executive at BBC Production USA.
“We met, by chance, at Soho House,” explains Hotz. “I told her I was thinking about opening an office in New York and she said “Do you know what? You should because you do things the right way.” And that was it. I was sold on the idea.”
With commitment matched to vision work began.
A second trouvaille led to a partnership being formed with the New York based audio house Jim Flynn Rentals and it was from that relationship that HotCam USA was born.
“For any Brit, going to the States is very hard,” admits Hotz. “At the time I wasn’t able to open a bank account let alone an office. And getting financial credit to buy gear was almost impossible. Meeting Jim, becoming partners and working with him enabled me to get into the US system. Jim really helped me and he helped the company. He gave us a real head start.”
Hotz bought out Flynn’s previous investors and then, in early 2005, set-up shop in New York, taking a whole floor in a building on 21st street in Manhattan.
Working with British factual programme makers that were either opening offices in the US or simply using New York as a shoot location, HotCam used equal measures of ingenuity and luck to secure enough financing and equipment to support its commitments.
“It was all very last minute,” says Hotz. “We were getting finance agreed from the UK and then waiting for the finance to come in and also waiting for the greenlight from the producer. We took a lot of chances. We were personally in for an awful lot of money with no confirmations. But we had to get the finance in place in order to get the equipment so that we could say yes to the job.”
The first major project that allowed the company to buy a lot of gear was the BBC-produced ‘What Not To Wear,’ a fashion format for TLC that is now in its ninth season and one to which HotCam is still supplying kit.
From these humble beginnings HotCam New York grew to be a respected force in New York and America-at-large, developing a huge roster of freelance talent and an ever expanding stable of in-house technicians.
It is now its own corporation and is run independently from London operations, although the two companies do dovetail and staff work between the two sites, gaining valuable work experience on both sides of the Atlantic.
President Ali Grapes, who resolutely guides operation of the company, insists that the New York office is a “perfect hybrid of the core values that originally defined the London office amongst its competitors in the UK and the fierce dedication it takes to build and sustain a top boutique equipment hire firm in the US”.
Having now worked on some seriously big shows including Lion TV’s America Revealed (the US version of Britain From Above), History Detectives for PBS, American Pickers for The History Channel and Cake Boss for TLC it is an approach that seems to be working.
Now, with HotCam USA well established in the various facets of factual, entertainment and reality programming, Hotz is embarking on the biggest expansion since the opening of the US office.
“We’re still going to operate in the factual arena but we’re upping the ante too by buying high-end kit and looking to supply it to drama, feature film and commercials producers,” explains Hotz. “We’ve had lots of interesting discussions and we think it’s a market with a lot of potential. Plus it allows us to work with a lot more US companies, not just Brits.”
To make this expansion work, experienced cinematographer Andrew McLean has been brought on board as Vice President of Business Development.
Having worked on independent feature films and commercials for some of the world’s biggest brands McLean is ideally placed to lead HotCam into this exciting, but quite different, world.
Fortunately for McLean, where the launch of HotCam USA seven years ago was all a bit ad-hoc, this expansion is a lot more calculated.
“This time around we are totally self-sufficient,” says Hotz. “We get leases and we pay them off. We don’t have to rely on the UK. Plus I know the business out here a lot more now and I’ve got a good feel for it. Bringing in Andrew puts a capital E in Expansion. Pretty soon we’re going to have to move out of our present building because we simply won’t have enough space.”
The expansion will involve a major investment in equipment, a process that is already underway with commitments to the Arri Alexa and Red Epic digital film cameras - along with their appropriate peripherals, Zeiss and Cooke Prime lenses
There’s more to come. And, luckily, NAB is here just at the right time.
“We’ll have people in Vegas checking out new kit,” assures Hotz, “but we’re not a company to just spend recklessly. We wait until enquiries start coming in and then invest. We like to be sure about a camera before we add it to the inventory. The early adopter stuff we leave to other firms.”
While being first is not important, being the best certainly is and that requires hard work, concludes Hotz.
“This is New York and to make it work you have to make the business your life. Ali and I would eat, sleep and breathe the business on nights, days and weekends. That’s the way we started off and, to a certain extent, that’s how we still do things, although now we can take the occasional step back. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. New York is a working city. It’s one of the things that I’ve always liked about it.”
Hotz is clearly in his element in the US, whether he’s enjoying the hustle and bustle of Manhattan or relaxing in the quiet, densely wooded and mountainous area around his upstate New York home.
As possibly the only Englishman in New York currently blazing this particular trail, you’d be hard pushed to not consider him something of a pioneer.