Podcast dramas turn into TV shows in Hollywood’s reassessment





This image released by NBC shows Renée Zellweger as Pam Hupp in a scene from “The Thing About Pam.” Zellweger plays a Missouri woman accused of killing her best friend Betsy Faria in 2011. Faria’s husband was initially convicted of the crime, with Hupp as the star witness against him, but he was exonerated in 2014. ( Skip Bolen/NBC via AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Have you been listening to any good TV shows lately?

If you’re glued to a scripted podcast drama, you might be auditioning for a potential TV series — a result of Hollywood’s demand for small-screen material and the realization that podcasts beyond the non- fiction are a valuable resource.

Fact-based podcast dramatizations such as Wondery’s “WeCrashed,” about the WeWork business debacle, and Dateline NBC’s crime saga “The Thing About Pam” have become television staples with A-list actors, including Jared Leto and Renée Zellweger.

But there’s a new wave of fictional podcasts, some made with the express intention of judging a story’s worth for a second life on screen, emerging as prominent newcomers to the audio world. They’re taking to podcasts as a more cost-effective way to test out a series concept than filming a TV pilot, and more persuasive than a written pitch.

“Very traditional and legacy media companies” see fictional podcasts as content to exploit, said Mark Stern, former studio head and head of original content at Syfy Channel for a decade. Stern himself has shifted gears: He’s president of Echoverse, a podcast studio launched in 2020 with a focus on sci-fi, fantasy and supernatural stories.

“We really started this business as an opportunity to create absolutely best-in-class audio dramas, but with a very keen eye for them to serve as proof of concept IP (intellectual property) that could then launch TV, film and graphics. novels, Stern said.

This mirrors the approach of Wolf Entertainment, whose network franchises include “Chicago,” “FBI,” and the everlasting “Law & Order.” The Dick Wolf-led company produces podcasts including “Hunted, with Parker Posey and Brandon Scott, and “Dark Woods” with Corey Stoll and Monica Raymund — the latter drama in development by Universal Television.

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

“You have the ability to really immerse yourself in an audio series that paints the picture much better than anything you can do with the written word,” Wolf said. He joined his father’s company, then Wolf Films, about three years ago and is part of his rebranding which includes storytelling in new media.

Stern detailed the economic benefit of assessing the viability of a series based on a podcast as opposed to 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, said Hollywood had to step up.

“I was touting this to some production companies and studios five years ago, saying, ‘It’s a great way to test concepts. You don’t need lighting, you don’t need location shooting, you don’t need expensive sets,” Bowers said.

Their reaction? “’Yes, maybe later,’ he recalls. The journalism anthology “Serial” podcast and a handful of others were buzzing, but Bowers said the industry didn’t see it as “support for them” even after reminding them that the TV sitcom 1950s hit “I Love Lucy” was inspired by a radio show.

Fiction is not new to the world of podcasting. “Welcome to Night Vale,” a cult hit that has become the basis for books, albums, and live shows in the United States and around the world, celebrates its 10th year.

But it took a confluence of events to raise podcasting’s profile 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 has been hired as head of scripted programming for Spotify-owned podcast company Gimlet Media after her 2018 drama “Homecoming” caused a stir with movie star Julia Roberts topping the charts. adaptation of Prime Video. But Hollywood has remained resistant to the value of fictional podcasts. on TV, O’Donnell said.

Then the pandemic slowed screen production and “a wave of calls” came in, O’Donnell said. Change was meant to happen, she said, and the pace is relentless, with some producers even trying to figure out what’s in the pipeline before release — kind of like studios jumping on a book before release. .

Non-fiction podcasts, driven by talk and current affairs, remain more popular with audiences, but fiction is gaining traction. Spotify’s drama “Batman Unburied” debuted in May at No. 1 on the company’s podcast charts, displacing Joe Rogan’s podcast from its usual perch.

Podcasts and their on-screen incarnations will be different, said O’Donnell, who was a theater company manager coming to Gimlet. She cites the example of “The Horror of Dolores Roach”, which began life as a solo play written by Aaron Mark and produced for the stage by O’Donnell.

She worked with the playwright on an adaptation of the play for one of his early Gimlet podcasts and it turned out to be a winner. It was picked up by Amazon Studios for a series adaptation, with Mark writing the pilot episode and serving as co-showrunner.

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

Joseph Fink, who co-created “Welcome to Night Vale” with Jeffrey Cranor, echoed that view. “What matters is what is the podcast like? in this new form? Everyone is going to have to deal with this,” he said.

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

“The same thing that 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, that it’s done in a way that we can be proud of and feel like it’s forever. ours.”

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This story corrects Wolf Entertainment’s former name to Wolf Films.

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