Sex, sin and documentaries: Inside David Hoffman’s YouTube
Future News 129
As he approaches his 81st birthday, David Hoffman is only getting started on reinventing his career as a YouTuber and turning the traditional documentary on its head. The self-described straight talking, no-nonsense New Yorker has found online fame after decades of film making.
Hoffman, who now calls Northern California home, has had several hits on the Alphabet-owned platform thanks to his addictive historical film archive and an ability to “play” with YouTube’s algorithm by using eye-catching headlines, attractive thumbnails and leveraging search friendly keywords.
“The algorithm is trying to find my audience and it is a real [and sometimes unforgiving] entity – only 20% of my viewers are subscribers and the rest are searching YouTube,” Hoffman told FN. “The thumbnail thing really works. Males like sexy photos. It’s a joke how much the male audience goes up every time I post a video where the woman’s face gets you.”
Another favourite and successful tactic is to use 90-character-long video titles charged with emotional wording. A standout of this type would be Hoffman’s 2019 ‘Old Lady Reveals The SIN She Witnessed In The 1890s In Rural Maine,’ which has amassed 7.2 million views. “It was a popular video until I put ‘sin’ in the title. I thought it would make a bit of a difference…it skyrocketed the video,” he said.
With more than 1,800 videos uploaded to YouTube, Hoffman sometimes returns to old films to re-title them in a bid to attract his fickle “ally”, the algorithm. Sometimes it’s a long waiting game, as was the case with his second most popular video, ‘Magnificent Storyteller Soldier Reveals What He Saw In Vietnam’, a gripping 15-minute interview of poet and educator W. D. Ehrhart who served in the US Marines in the late 1960s.
It took two years for the algorithm to pick-up the video and present it favourably to YouTube’s 2.1 billion monthly active users. It now has more than 17 million views.
The excerpt was part of a much wider and ambitious project, PBS’ ‘Making Sense of The Sixties’, a six-part TV series which first aired in January 1991 (four months after Ken Burns’ critically acclaimed ‘The Civil War’ and almost four years after PBS’ American Civil Rights documentary ‘Eyes on the Prize’).
Hoffman directed and produced the series (executive produced by Ricki Green), training several teams to conduct almost 200 interviews in his own style over a six-month period in 1989. “At the time, this style of talking heads speaking almost directly to the camera (rather than off-camera, as is often done with a press interview) was something new. Now it is more common as a style.”
Around 100 of the interviews, including ones of director Oliver Stone and The Beatles’ Ringo Starr, made the cut. But as the film-making equivalent of oral historian Studs Terkel, Hoffman stressed he was and still is more interested in telling the stories of the working-classes.
“I wanted to interview extraordinary, ordinary people. I didn’t care if they were big shots. I set up the interview right and expected people to talk to people 25 years in the future – as if they were speaking to their children and their children’s children, allowing them to be as emotional as they wanted. And boom, out came these answers like the Vietnam vet’, who just let it out.”
The 1960s was a period Hoffman knew intimately well. Graduating with a degree in communications from New York’s Hofstra University in 1963, he soon found himself “out on the streets” and “in the action” with a hand-held, wind-up 16mm Bolex camera filming for independent documentary companies.
Hoffman began shooting for his first professional documentary in 1964 after a commission from National Educational Television, a forerunner to PBS. The resulting TV series, ‘Bluegrass Roots’, would air in 1966, around two years before the US held its first draft lottery since the Second World War. Hoffman’s asthma meant he avoided being sent to Vietnam by Richard Nixon and he instead used the late 1960s to concentrate on documenting the Civil Rights movement.
The son of an artist, Hoffman went on to embrace the back-to-the-land movement, a countercultural drive of the 1960s and 1970s which promoted self-sufficiency and rejected post-industrial urbanisation and its undesirable trappings. “Let’s leave the cities, let’s go back to the land – small town life, more reasonable.” He ended up in the “beautiful little town” of Camden, Maine, in the early 1970s and nearby Rockport, both sitting roughly north of Boston and east of Montreal on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
Hoffman still maintained his capitalist tendencies and moved his 10-strong production company, Varied Directions, with him. All was going well, with even the locals eventually accepting him, “sort of”, and his crew after toughing out Maine’s harsh winters. That was until the financial crisis of 1987, culminating in the infamous ‘Black Monday’ of 19 October when global stock markets dramatically crashed.
Fear and panic spread into all financial markets, including the mortgage market. Hoffman, who had “lots of mortgages”, got stung. “I bought real estate because it was great,” he said. Hoffman avoided bankruptcy by going into corporate consultancy. Telecommunications giant AT&T was a client, with Hoffman making dozens of films for the business out of the company’s Washington, D.C., office.
California came calling in the early 1990s when he began helping the start-ups of Silicon Valley with their communications efforts. Again, things were running smoothly until another financial crisis hit. The Dotcom bubble of 1995 to 2000 began to unwind itself in 2001 as the over-excitement in internet stocks stalled and then turned negative. A crash ensued and the internet companies began dropping like flies. Amazon survived, Hoffman’s investments didn’t.
“Because I knew nothing about money I was heavily invested in stock options, all of which failed. I had nothing and had just married, living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California. Beautiful. I loved it…but no work.”
Hoffman purchased a camera again and began making internet ads, uploading them to then nascent internet search directory, Google. The ad-word rich films took off and Hoffman was later hired in the late 2000s as a consultant by Google’s business development team led by Megan Smith, who later became the US’ Chief Technology Officer under Barack Obama.
Hoffman would begin to focus his efforts on YouTube in February 2006 alongside his DVD drive on Amazon, but he didn’t start using YouTube as his chief revenue stream until 2018.
Today, with the help of his wife, Hoffman uploads four films per week to his 70:30 male to female audience. A “collector of culture”, having acquired videos from other archives and film makers, he fully embraces the “free flowing” nature of YouTube and has a sharp eye for editing any boring, unnecessary or irrelevant sections out of his films.
“The big documentaries are only on Netflix and they’re very temporary,” Hoffman declared. “I don’t think the audience watches big documentaries long-term, I think that’s gone.”
Instead, he wants to build his channel (currently at 822,000 subscribers) to over one million subscribers who communicate directly with him. The overall goal? “Since I’m making it for people who will watch it after I’m gone, I want the channel to be as big, strong and as varied as it can be.”
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