Star rising on state’s film tax credit

by Lisa van der Pool
Boston Business Journal
August 28, 2009

Tug Yourgrau is finding good
success with his production shop.

Powderhouse Productions Inc. operated under the radar for more than a decade, quietly creating well-received non-fiction cable television shows that feature everything from engineering achievements to roller coasters to felines.

But the Somerville-based production company’s star has risen in recent years with a boost from the state’s film tax credit. Extra cash generated from the incentive has helped the business grow and has given the company the flexibility to be more daring with the types of series it is producing.

Revenue for Powderhouse, which has created TV series for cable channels including the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and TLC, is expected to nearly triple to $12 million this year, from $3.7 million in 2006. Its ranks have swelled to its current 60 people, up from 35 three years ago. And Powderhouse recently tripled its office space to 14,000 square feet.

Meanwhile, the company is hoping for a hit with its latest Animal Planet show, “SuperFetch,” set to debut Oct. 3. Described as a dog-training show infused with slacker humour, the program features trainer Zak George teaching pooches unusual tricks. One canine learns to ride a tandem bicycle; another helps his owner change a diaper.

“SuperFetch” is a departure for Powderhouse from classic documentaries into “factual entertainment,” said Tug Yourgrau, Powderhouse president and co-founder. “For the last two or three years we’ve climbed to a point where we are on people’s radar nationally,” Yourgrau said. “We’ve become a name player.”

Powderhouse is one of several local production houses that has reaped the benefits of the state’s film tax credit, which works by giving a 25 percent tax credit for every dollar spent on film production in the state. For Powderhouse, half of its revenue qualified for tax credits last year.

Powderhouse “is having enormous success,” said Nicholas Paleologos, executive director of the Massachusetts Film Office in Boston. “They’ve been a very successful local company that has become an extremely successful local company with a national profile. The tax credit has given home-grown companies the ability to compete for national business that they might not otherwise have been considered for.”

Yourgrau and his business partner, and Powderhouse CEO Joel Olicker, founded their shop in 1994 with the idea of making documentaries for TV. The men met while working as producers at WGBH in Boston.

After handling several projects, including one for the Discovery Channel, Yourgrau and Olicker realized one-off programming was not going to be a successful long-term strategy. Instead, they planned to seek out steady series work, which would enable the company to grow. “We realized if we kept that up, we couldn’t make a living. It’s more cost-effective to get series work,” said Yourgrau.

After a two-hour “Extreme Engineering” special for the Discovery Channel in the late 1990s, Powderhouse was asked to produce an “Extreme Engineering” (in which the Big Dig was featured) series.

Over the years, the company has produced programs for the History Channel (“The Works”), Animal Planet (“Dogs 101,” “Cats 101,” and “SuperFetch”) and TLC (“Kids by the Dozen”). Powderhouse has worked on a total of 10 series.

The tax credit has also allowed the company to hire a four-person development team. It was that team that developed “SuperFetch,” after Animal Planet asked for a show involving George.

“They are enormously visually creative and they have a great sense of casting,” said Charlie Foley, vice president of development at Animal Planet. “They make shows that have a rich sense of story and a rich look, but also give you facts and insights … We expect to be doing a lot of business with Powderhouse in the future.”

Powderhouse films mostly in Massachusetts and for that reason locals often pop up in their programs. Indeed Beth Tucker, a South End resident and digital PR manager at Boston-based guerilla marketing firm Street Attack, was approached on the streets of Boston to appear in SuperFetch with her terrier-mix Dobby. Over a three-day shoot at Tucker’s South End brownstone, a crew filmed Dobby as she learned how to take out the trash for Tucker and her husband. “She is actually taking the trash out for us on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Tucker said. “It’s pretty ridiculous.

Ultimately, the Powderhouse team hopes to continue its growth and create more factual entertainment programs that could ultimately compete with the most successful companies in that genre, including Original Productions, which makes “Ice Road Truckers,” Pilgrim Films, known for “American Choppers” and Figure 8 Films, famous for “Jon & Kate Plus 8.”

Powderhouse aspires to work with a greater range of cable networks, including Spike, Comedy Central and Bravo. The firm even signed on with an agent in Hollywood about a year ago.

“That has given us a profile we haven’t had before,” Yourgrau said. “We can probably get a meeting anywhere now.”

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