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Toledo director tells trials, triumphs

By Lori Weber

There's a tape recorder on the nightstand by his bed. The recorder is closer than his glasses, phone or alarm clock. Even with his eyes closed, Tom Hofbauer automatically grabs the recorder in the dark.

He mumbles something into the electronic device.

The unshaven Toledoan spins his dream onto the recording tape as it slowly winds around the plastic wheel, noting everything he speaks. He keeps his eyes closed; processing the image, keeping it alive a little while longer to better understand it. To make sense of it.

Hofbauer takes these visions and creates life - movies, improvisational comedy routines, sketches, screenplays, film ideas and directorial works. He is an alchemist of the entertainment industry. The salt-and-peppered veteran dabbles with concoctions of humor, drama and a touch of heartstrings. Tom Hofbauer is a director. He makes movies.

He turns off the tape recorder. Opens his eyes. Sets the recorder down. Prepares for his day.

Later, he'll listen to it to see if it made sense.


William and Dorothy Hofbauer, Tom's 90-year-old parents, can't hide the pride they feel towards their son. It's in their voices, especially when the emotion catches their words when describing him. His father, in particular, gets excited when someone mentions his youngest son.

"He is motivated," William said, "He may be 50, and an integral part of Toledo's artistic community, but he's still my baby."

As a child, Tom would memorize Bill Cosby's comedy albums. He would round up brothers and sisters to perform with him. Most children have lemonade stands in the summer but Hofbauer had plays and directed the other kids.

A smile spreads on Dorothy's face when she recalls Tom's clay figurine movie when he was at Cardinal Stritch High School in Oregon, Ohio.

"Tom always had the touch of theater in him," she said.

Through performing in plays and musicals, Tom Hofbauer invented himself as not only an actor, but also as a director of improvisational comedy when he wasn't before an audience. He wanted to know every aspect - whether it was behind the scenes or at the final curtain bow.

In 1976, Hofbauer graduated high school, and went to the University of Cincinnati. After two years of fluctuating grades, he left to attend Bowling Green State University. Armed with a degree in Visual Communications in 1981, Tom prepared himself for 10 years to take Hollywood for himself.

After years of rejection letters from agents, movie studios, corporations and investors, Hofbauer was at the edge.

"If I don't like something, I don't do it." he said. "But if I do it, I'm passionate about it. It consumes me."

On Interstate 75, Miami, Fla., at the Coconuts Comedy Club, the passion was gone. The clubs weren't paying enough to sustain his life in Toledo, nor the comedy circuit in Florida. Hofbauer hadn't made payments on his house in six months; it was close to being auctioned by the bank. He had half a tank of gas left in his car and there were rumors that the next club hadn't paid its performers in eight weeks.

Hofbauer needed the money now.

The imaginative writer was gone. Just a hollow shell who ate at the Marriot Hotel employee dining room in Dade County because it was cheap and they thought he worked there.

"I was sucking the pipe," Hofbauer said, his hands shaking. To hide it, he gestures away to some afterthought, but the bad taste of that experience lingers.

"I would be looking out of my hotel window and thinking 'If I fell, and just hit that air conditioning unit just right, I would be dead.'" The air conditioner was four stories below his window. The pavement was another six.

With his head pressed against the window, Hofbauer called his sister in Roanoke, Va. She didn't have to say anything other than "Hello Tom" and "The ideas will come to you Tom" and he started to come back from the trance of disillusionment.

Hofbauer barely said goodbye before the ideas starting coming again. A half hour later, he was driving to Roanoke, then back to Toledo to try a different routine.

He was going to make a movie.


For the 10 years after BGSU, Hofbauer jumped from job to job. He bounced from Los Angeles back to Toledo.

"Every step was indecisive," he said.

It wasn't until a friend took him to a comedy club that brought back the theater aspect of his childhood.

"It was coming back to me," Hofbauer said. "I was rejuvenated. It was what I needed to come back from a place of the mundane. I became a pitbull. Once I got a hold of entertaining, I wouldn't let it go. I was addicted to it."

With five o'clock shadow, a pair of glasses and a notebook of hints and lessons of the craft, Hofbauer circuited clubs, just itching for five minutes on stage. After his travels, he teamed up with figures from Los Angeles, New York, Detroit and Toledo, and created the "Around the Bend Players" in 1998.

Despite the creative outlet, it wasn't enough. He started to feel drained.

Even with an appearance on "Saved By the Bell: The College Years", Hofbauer wasn't able to continue acting. He didn't fit the type.

With fellow comedian Mark Zink, Hofbauer worked on screenplays, channeling their collaborative experience into comedy. Hollywood wasn't interested then. It didn't just close the door; it locked it.

"There is something about Tom Hofbauer that sparks passion," said Zach Lahey. "He has an influence

that inspires and spawns creativity."

Lahey, a Toledo born actor, lived in New York to pursue a career. He also came back home.

For Lahey though, the community theaters are his outlet for imagination. The 30-year-old feels that Hofbauer is the perfect person to "revitalize the industry again with fresh ideas and the heart, the passion and the eye for what really matters in film: the story."

"His work speaks for itself," Lahey said.

Tom Stamos, a cinematographer and director of photography, believes Hofbauer's editing techniques and focus are great teaching tools for younger filmmakers. Stamos has worked with Hofbauer a few times, and noticed the "intensity and drive that exudes from him."

"Magic. It's the only way to describe what he can do with film," Stamos said.

Stamos points out Hofbauer's feature film "In the Company of Strangers" as the perfect example. The story centers on a young man who is sentenced to volunteer at an AIDS hospice after committing a crime. Through his interactions with those dying from the disease, he comes to terms with his own frailty and fear of family.

"He makes life compelling. It makes sense."

Brady Kesling, an independent director and creator of Low Fidelity Productions in Toledo, strongly believes that Hofbauer is just a step away from showing Hollywood how it's done.

Hofbauer is "an easy going guy" who puts his movies together through the use of two Macintosh computers, a laptop with the screen saver, "Congratulations Academy Award Nominee", seven industrial size black CD cases, legal notepads, scrap paper and briefcases crammed full of ideas and possibilities. Yet he doesn't let anyone look at his notes. Ever.

"If you have a mental block, he will help you look around it - see new possibilities that weren't there before - a different angle to explore," Kesling said. "He is the one to go to."

As of July 15, 2008, there have been over 180 movies released this year that have grossed more than $1,000. This includes mainstream media movies as well as independent films from around the world that market themselves in the U.S., according to, an independent Web site that financially measures movie's gross earnings.

However, that is a fraction compared to the movies made that have not been able to reach a percentage of the public. More than 4,250 movies were made a year by both independent filmmakers and companies around the world from 1990 to 1995, according to the UNESCO Statistical Yearbook.

What could Tom Hofbauer, a director from Toledo, guarantee to investors?


Three years since the incident in Florida, Hofbauer was writing. He wrote every day. Notes, hints, quotes. Whatever made sense to him at that moment would find its way onto a piece of paper.

He starting writing a screenplay "In the Company of Strangers."

Since 1998, Hofbauer had been working a photo lab, camera production at television stations, working with community theaters and painting houses to make the payments on time. When he got home, he would work on the screenplay.

Every day. Every second.

Then it was finished.

Hofbauer knew working in the industry cost money, and lots of it, to get a movie off the ground and into the hands of a production team to film it. He needed investors, actors, a crew, a setting to go with his scene and a camera.

A Sony Cine Alta High Definition 24P digital video camera.

At a black-tie screening in November 2001 at the historic Valentine Theater in Toledo, Hofbauer showcased his feature film, and raised $20,000 for David's House, an AIDS outreach residence that allowed Hofbauer to shoot much of the movie there.

His movie was finished.

And Hollywood came knocking on his door.

"It's empowerment. It's a total rush of emotion and sensation to have the most fun you have ever had condensed into a project like that," Hofbauer remembers.

"Strangers" won several awards including the Director's Choice Gold Medal for Excellence at the Park City Film Music Festival in New York City, as well as Best Dramatic Feature Film at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.

One year after its release, it continued to win awards at the Telluride IndieFest, and the Key West IndieFest, at both competitions winning Best Feature Film.

A Los Angeles based film production company caught wind of "In the Company of Strangers" and asked Hofbauer to be the cinematographer for their documentary. It was supposed to be low-key because of the subject matter involving pedophilia in the Toledo Catholic Church Diocese. They needed someone from the area to get interviews, someone who knew people. Someone like Tom.

"Twist of Faith" premiered in 2005, and propelled the tiny documentary into the Oscar spotlight when it was nominated for Best Documentary. It didn't win, but the winds had changed for filmmaking in Toledo.

And Tom Hofbauer is still riding the wind.

Hofbauer is still very much involved with making feature films, shorts, documentaries and intense dramas. He spends much of his time doing research on two projects that have been developing over the past year. Hofbauer is currently working on a new documentary in Detroit with the same director and production crew he worked with for "Twist of Faith."

He doesn't like to tell people that he was part of an Oscar-nominated film.

"I don't know how to toot my own horn. I let my parents do that for me," he laughs. 

© Copyright 2008 BG News

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