Hollywood finds in podcasts a mine of content for television

Have you listened to a good podcast lately?

If you’re stuck with a scripted drama, you could be hearing an upcoming TV series, a result of Hollywood’s demand for material for the small screen and the acceptance that podcasts, whether fictional or documentary, are a valuable source of information. contents.

Podcast dramas based on true events such as Wondery’s “WeCrashed” about the WeWork debacle and Dateline NBC’s crime saga “The Thing About Pam” have been turned into television series with renowned actors like Jared Leto and Renée Zellweger .

But there is a new wave of fictional podcasts, some created with the express intention of judging a story’s worth for a second life on screen, emerging from pre-eminent newcomers to the world of audio. Gauging the value of a podcast has become a more cost-effective way to test a series concept than filming a TV pilot, and more compelling than a written pitch.

“Very traditional legacy media companies” see fictional podcasts as content to exploit, said Mark Stern, a former studio executive and director of original content for the Syfy channel for a decade. Stern himself has changed his strategy: He is president of Echoverse, a podcast studio launched in 2020 with a focus on science fiction, fantasy and supernatural stories.

“We really started this business as an opportunity to create the absolute best audio dramas, but also with an eye toward the possibility of them working as proof-of-concept intellectual property that could then launch TV shows, movies and graphic novels.” Stern said.

This mirrors the approach of Wolf Entertainment, whose franchises include “Chicago,” “FBI” and the classic “Law & Order.” The Dick Wolf-led company produces series such as “Hunted,” starring Parker Posey and Brandon Scott, as well as “Dark Woods” with Corey Stoll and Monica Raymund, the latter a drama in development at Universal Television.

For studio executives inundated with series pitches that often consist of a one-page description, a well-made podcast is a valuable alternative, said Elliot Wolf, executive producer of “Dark Woods.”

“You have the ability to really immerse yourself in an audio series that draws the story much better than anything you can do on paper,” he said. The executive joined his father’s company, then called Wolf Films, about three years ago and is part of a rebranding that includes storytelling in new media.

Stern detailed the financial advantage of testing the viability of a podcast-based series rather than a pilot. “Let’s say a really well-done season of a scripted podcast costs half a million dollars. Good luck getting an hour of TV for 5 million,” he said.

Andy Bowers, a pioneer in podcast production and technology, says it was only a matter of time before Hollywood caught on.

“I was pitching this to some production companies and studios five years ago, saying, ‘This is a great way to test concepts. You don’t need lighting, you don’t need to shoot on location, you don’t need expensive sets,’” Bowers said.

His reaction? “’Yeah, maybe later,’” she recalled. The “Serial” podcast, a journalism anthology, and a few other podcasts were causing a stir, but Bowers said the industry didn’t see it as “a medium for them,” even after reminding them that the hit 1950s sitcom “I Love Lucy” was inspired by a radio show.

Fiction is not something new in the world of podcasts. “Welcome to Night Vale,” a cult hit that has been adapted into books, albums and live shows in the United States and internationally, turns 10 years old.

But it took a confluence of events to raise the profile of podcasts and change attitudes: the proliferation of streaming services with a voracious need for shows, like Apple TV+ and Peacock, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mimi O’Donnell was hired as director of scripted programming for Gimlet Media, a podcast company owned by Spotify, after her drama “Homecoming” made a splash in 2018 with its adaptation for Prime Video starring Julia Roberts. But Hollywood has remained resistant to the value of fictional podcasts for television, O’Donnell said.

Then the pandemic halted television production and O’Donnell began to receive “a barrage of calls,” he said. The change was meant to happen, he said, and the pace hasn’t slowed, with some producers even trying to figure out what’s on the way before release, similar to studios jumping on a book before publication.

Non-fiction podcasts, with talk and news, remain more popular with audiences, but fiction is seeing increasing momentum. Spotify’s drama “Batman Unburied” debuted at the top of the company’s podcast chart in May, dethroning the Joe Rogan podcast.

Podcasts and their screen versions can be different, said O’Donnell, who was a theater director when she joined Gimlet. She cited as an example “The Horror of Dolores Roach,” which began as a play for a woman written by Aaron Mark and produced for the stage by O’Donnell.

She worked with the playwright on an adaptation for one of Gimlet’s first podcasts and it turned out to be a hit. It was acquired by Amazon Studios to be adapted into a series, and Mark wrote the pilot and served as executive producer.

“To me that’s a dream scenario of how a story can evolve in different mediums and the same creator can go with it … and figure out how they can live the story” in each of them, O’Donnell said.

Joseph Fink, who created “Welcome to Night Vale” with Jeffrey Cranor, echoed this point of view: “What matters is, how does the podcast feel? What is it that attracts people? And can we build that from scratch in this new form? Everyone will have to face this,” he said.

Fink and Cranor have so far resisted a television adaptation of their project, despite strong industry interest.

“The same thing happened with books and plays, people are realizing that podcasts are just as valuable and rich for storytelling,” Fink said. But, he added, “it’s important to us that if we do a ‘Night Vale’ show, it’s done in a way that makes us proud and feels like it’s still ours.”

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