The number of podcasts being adapted for television is set to explode over the course of the next few years, with audio IP rivaling books as Hollywood’s go-to source for inspiration.
The podcasting business has been a growing source of intellectual property for the small screen for the last couple of years with the likes of Amazon’s Homecoming, USA Network’s Dirty John and ABC’s Alex, Inc. But Deadline understands that the number of podcasts in various stages of development to be adapted is now well into three figures. These includes the likes of Wondery’s crime drama Over My Dead Body and cult drama Guru: The Dark Side of Enlightenment, paranormal series Welcome to Night Vale, Neil Strauss’ investigative series To Live and Die In LA, basketball cheat scandal Whistleblower, Australian crime series The Teacher’s Pet, ESPN’s 30 for 30 on Clippers owner Donald Sterling The Sterling Affairs, and sci-fi drama Girl In Space.
They join previously announced projects including QCode’s Dirty Diana, set to star Demi Moore, and Tessa Thompson’s The Left Right Game, both at Amazon; HBO’s Nice White Parents with Issa Rae and Adam McKay, Apple TV+’s WeCrashed; and CBS All Access’ adaptation of iHeart Media’s serial killer story Happy Face, from Robert and Michelle King.
Spotify’s Head of Studios and Video Courtney Holt tells Deadline that the podcast business is in the middle of a “feeding frenzy,” while Rachel Ghiazza, Head of U.S. Content at Amazon-owned Audible, said we’re experiencing the “renaissance of audio.”
Deadline spoke with Holt and Ghiazza as well as over a dozen podcast creators, producers and agents as well as TV executives at the forefront of this move to ascertain whether this is indeed the next gold mine for ideas or just a short-term development fad.
“Podcasts have become the sexiest IP,” Caroline Edwards, Director of Podcast Initiatives at ICM Partners, tells Deadline. “If you have a successful show, it’s highly likely someone is eager to turn that into a TV or film project. This side of the business blew up after the success of Homecoming and Dirty John, which makes it a very exciting time to play in this space.”
CAA podcast agent Josh Lindgren agrees, saying the growth he’s seen over the past few years is “extraordinary.” “There was a real inflection point about two years ago and I think we’re hitting another inflection point right now. The podcast as IP for TV and film has really taken off in a big way.”
There are essentially two worlds within podcasting right now. There’s the daily or weekly interview and chat shows, the likes of The Joe Rogan Experience and Pod Save America, as well as limited-run, narrative-driven shows in both the fiction and nonfiction space. While the latter tend not to make as much money as the former due to less reliable sources of advertising, these are the shows that are being picked up by Hollywood.
“Podcast source material is more popular than ever. In the last year alone, podcast networks that have historically concentrated on producing chat shows are now incorporating original limited series into their slate,” says Oren Rosenbaum, Head of Emerging Platforms at UTA.
Television and film option fees have provided many podcast companies with bonus revenues on top of their more traditional ad sales and distribution partnerships. Max Linksy, co-founder of Pineapple Street Studios, which co-produced the Heaven’s Gate podcast with Stitcher that has been adapted for HBO Max as a four-part docuseries coming out last week, says the boom has been “totally wild.” His business partner Jenna Weiss-Berman says that limited-run shows are harder to monetize with ad dollars, so they can now often make up for it with option fees. She adds that the company’s business model shifted because of TV adaptation boom.
“We’re always making sure that we make a great podcast but we’re also now thinking in terms of derivative potential when we’re thinking about pitches,” she says. “We try to look for things that are cinematic that we could imagine as film or TV, which is definitely a new way of thinking in the podcast space and has become a major part of the business model for podcast companies.”
One of Pineapple Street’s breakout hits of the year was Wind of Change, a wild tale told by New Yorker investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe that asks whether the CIA wrote the famous soft-rock hit by The Scorpions. The show, which is co-produced with Pod Save America producer Crooked Media, is now on the brink of an adaptation deal.
Pineapple Street also produces true crime series The Clearing in association with Spotify-owned Gimlet Media. That show is being adapted by Chernin Entertainment, Weimaraner Republic Pictures and Endeavor Content, though it does not fall under the headline-grabbing first-look deal Peter Chernin’s company announced with Spotify in September.
The deal will see Chernin develop adaptations based on Spotify’s library of over 250 original shows including series from Reply All producer Gimlet Media and Famous Fates producer Parcast.
Deadline understands that the two companies are close to hiring an exec to oversee the joint venture, someone that Peter Chernin says will “live inside Spotify and constantly surface this stuff.”
Spotify And Audible Bring Money & Maturity To Market
Spotify’s Holt, who works for chief content officer and former the CW exec Dawn Ostroff, says there’s been an evolution in the quality of podcast storytelling in the past couple of years. “You’ve seen signals from a film and TV standpoint that proven IP is de-risked because there’s an established audience interest against it,” he says. “We’re heavily investing in IP so we should be looking at the full slate of opportunities that come with that IP.”
He adds that it’s not just the shows themselves, but also specific episodes contained within larger series that could spawn ideas.
Spotify hopes it can use Chernin’s output deals, including its film deal with Netflix, to move certain projects along the development process. However, some have questioned whether certain creatives may be disinclined to take their shows to Spotify for funding as they may lose out on potential option fees. “In the short term, I think it might dis-incentivize some from wanting to do deals [at Spotify] because your control is removed,” one source says. “But the alternative is, if it works out you also have a much cleaner way of getting it made.”
Holt says, “I can’t speak to the nature of our deals but on a macro basis, partnering with us and the opportunities that we lay out should be attractive to a lot of creators,” he says.
This is also evidence of the changing nature of the podcasting business – up until a few years ago, a very independent and somewhat scrappy business. The rising importance of rights and IP has seen the business mature.
Look at the way that some shows have figured out interesting business models. Slate’s Slow Burn is one of the most popular non-fiction shows, per Apple’s podcast charts. The first season, which told the story of Watergate, was adapted into a docuseries by Left/Right for Epix, and is being developed by UCP as Gaslit, a drama with Julia Roberts, Sean Penn, Armie Hammer and Joel Edgerton attached. Its second season, about the impeachment of Bill Clinton, is being used to inform the upcoming third season of FX’s American Crime Story.
There is also more money in the space with the likes of Apple and Amazon’s Audible increasingly funding original shows alongside Spotify.
Streamers Line Up Podcast-Related Inventory
Amazon, on the TV side, has also been at the front of this podcast boom with shows such as Homecoming and Lore as well as projects in development such as The Horror of Dolores Roach from Blumhouse and Home Before Dark co-creator Dara Resnik.
The company’s audio arm Audible has also been aggressively moving into the podcast space, from its origins as an audio book distributor. Audible’s Ghiazza says that she’s seeing “people embrace the format in incredible ways” and highlights feature film adaptations including Jesse Eisenberg’s When You Finish Saving the World, and Blumhouse and Priyanka Chopra’s Evil Eye as well as Jay Martel’s The Present, which is being adapted for TV by AGC Studios.
Ghiazza says there is no requirement to work exclusively with sister company Amazon Studios but that it’s “nice to be part of a larger ecosystem, particularly one that is focused on innovation.”
This is evidenced by the fact that Deadline understands its Irish crime drama original West Cork, which tells the story of the 1996 murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, has been optioned by Chernobyl producer Sister. The company, run by Elisabeth Murdoch, Stacey Snider and Jane Featherstone, has been increasingly swimming in the podcast pond with its option of BBC podcast Tunnel 29 and an investment in Chameleon: The Hollywood Con Queen producer Campside.
The streamers, including Netflix, HBO Max and Peacock, are seemingly more interested in this space than linear networks.
Netflix recently adapted Hrishikesh Hirway’s music podcast Song Exploder into a docuseries and is remaking horror podcast Archive 81 with Aquaman writer James Wan and The Vampire Diaries writer Rebecca Sonnenshine. A number of sources told Deadline that Netflix is starting to “dabble” more in the podcast space with the possibility that the streamer will fund more original podcasts in order to secure film and TV rights. Last year, it experimented with an original podcast companion to its post-apocalyptic drama Daybreak and has a number of non-fiction and interview podcasts about its own shows, but sources said that podcast lead Rae Votta is becoming a conduit between the podcast industry and the streamer’s content executives.
HBO Max has the aforementioned Heaven’s Gate and is remaking Spotify’s Two Princes as an animated special. The streamer’s general manager Andy Forssell also recently said that it was working to have podcasts on its mobile service. Its parent company WarnerMedia has also recently found success with crime series Down the Hill: The Delphi Murders, which was ranked the third top new podcast in the third quarter of 2020 per PodTrac, just behind the New York Times’ Nice White Parents and Wondery’s The Dating Game Killer.
Peacock is adapting Wondery podcast Dr. Death with Joshua Jackson, Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater, while its NBCU sibling studio UCP, a division of Universal Studio Group, is one of the most progressive studios in terms of adapting podcasts for television. In addition to Homecoming, Dirty John, Joe Exotic and Dr. Death, UCP has north of 12 podcasts in development and recently launched its own podcast studio – UCP Audio – as a way to control the IP from the start and avoid paying “massive” prices for option fees.
Its audio slate includes scripted series The End Up, starring LaKeith Stanfield, written by Will Weggel (Homecoming) and Danny Luber (Station Eleven) and produced by Mr Robot creator Sam Esmail, and non-fiction title House of Prayer, the story of alleged cult leader Anna Young. Both of these projects are being eyed for scripted adaptation.
“We’re always looking for unique stories with larger than life characters and what podcasts provide is cinematic stories,” Scott Nemes, UCP’s EVP, Head of Development, tells Deadline. “The market is on fire in terms of IP in general. Podcasting is an interesting phenomenon and people are shopping them before they ever air so you have to get ahead of them just like you do with books.”
Nemes adds that UCP’s roster of writers and producers is excited by the opportunities, highlighting Vida creator Tanya Saracho, who signed a development deal earlier this summer. “She is very excited about the idea of doing podcasts from scratch and creating new worlds that will ultimately serve as internal IP for shows,” he says.
Podcast Producers Fend Off First-Look Deals
UCP also has a first-look deal with iHeart Media, which produces shows such as Atlanta Monster, Disgraceland and Fight Night. Conal Byrne, president of the company’s podcasting division, says, “We publish more IP than any other podcast network with 15 new launches a month. Because we have that much IP… we wanted somebody who could handle hundreds of IP pitches a year.”
He adds that the two companies have identified a few projects to take out as per the two-year deal, which was signed in February. “If you are a major film and TV studio, it should be a requirement for you to have a medium-sized podcast team. I don’t know why you wouldn’t have that when the entire cost of a limited podcast series would cost you the same as a pilot script from a good writer,” he adds.
Podcasting overall deals are one of the hottest topics in the audio business. “There has been an increase in the amount of first-look deals with podcast companies,” says UTA’s Rosenbaum.
Pineapple Street’s Linsky, who expects the company to make around 10-12 original limited series in 2021, says that they have been approached “a lot.” “We just haven’t found something that feels totally right. I wouldn’t be surprised if we do but it feels like an early moment and the rules haven’t been figured out and the process of figuring it out is really fun.”
Cadence13, which has received interest for its shows including biker gang tale Relative Unknown and porn story Once Upon A Time… In The Valley, is in a similar position. Chief content officer Chris Corcoran tells Deadline, “I’m open to everything but I also like the flexibility of not being too limited. I think first-look deals are great… as long as they don’t limit the possibility of what a show can do.”
The current talk of the town is Wondery, the company founded by former Fox exec Hernan Lopez. The firm, which is reportedly in talks to be acquired by Amazon, has over 16 shows in different stages of television adaptation, including The Shrink Next Door with Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd and WeWork series WeCrashed at Apple. “[Overall deals] are something that get brought up a lot for us,” Wondery COO Jen Sargent tells Deadline. “I can’t talk about the details but we do have something like that lined up.” It will be interesting to see, if Wondery is bought, whether this arrangement changes.
Sargent says she believes that the podcasting business is around 12-18 months away from becoming mass market and reaching “tipping point.” “We’re first and foremost a podcast company and we create stories for the ear first. But the very nature of the types of shows that we’re greenlighting – they’re character rich – means they do lend themselves to TV. We do now have an eye on whether [a show] can be developed for TV because it’s become such a lucrative part of our revenue stream,” she adds.
There are other financiers also looking to enter the space. “Over time, TV has become a core part of a podcasters business so you have entrants starting to finance podcasts from the onset with the sole purpose of them becoming shows and films,” says Ben Davis, WME Partner, Digital. “We’re only at the beginning of bridging that gap.”
Can Anyone Break The Scripted Podcast?
The majority of the podcast shows we’ve mentioned are non-fiction documentary series, but the next frontier for podcasting is in scripted audio.
Leading the charge is QCode, a company set up by former CAA agent Rob Herting. It produces series such as Blackout with Rami Malek, Carrier with Cynthia Erivo, Gaslight with Chloë Grace Moretz and Borrasca with Cole Sprouse. The firm just raised $6.4 million from investors including speaker company Sonos, and Herting says the money will allow it to build out the team, which now include former Apple Podcasts exec Steve Wilson as chief strategy officer, and produce around 15 shows in 2021. He highlights the cost and speed of these titles, taking only around six months from start to finish with only a couple of days required from talent.
Scripted hasn’t had a breakout hit, but Herting says it’s coming. “It’s impossible to know what that show is but it’s coming and when that happens, the awareness will shift and change,” he says.
iHeart Media produces series including Second Oil Age and historical fiction Control Group. “Fiction hasn’t had its Serial moment, but it’s one of the next big genres in podcasting,” says Byrne.
The company has high hopes for upcoming sci-fi thriller There Be Monsters starring John Boyega and Darren Criss and has a number of scripted series coming in partnership with Blumhouse and Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland. “What maybe gated fiction so far is people associating it with the War of the Worlds radio drama that sounds a bit hokey and weird but people are getting over that now,” he adds.
QCode’s shows are largely dark thrillers, mysteries and crime shows but it has started moving into other genres including kids’ with Hank the Cowdog featuring Matthew McConaughey.
“There’s an opportunity for big hits in family, comedy and musicals. I’m excited to push the boundaries and see what else can work,” Herting adds.
Many of the podcast people that Deadline spoke to pointed to scripted comedy as a focus with many searching for the type of broad, Chuck Lorre-style sitcom hit that could open up the medium to new audiences.
ICM’s Edwards says, “There is a massive opportunity for whoever can crack a great, scripted comedy. What’s difficult in an audio-only format is sound design: horror and drama more naturally lend themselves to the medium because you can easily create the theater of the mind. So the person who can figure out what a podcast sitcom sounds like is going to be a huge success.”
The soap opera could also unlock some doors. Spotify’s Gimlet is looking for a daily fiction podcast and iHeart is seeking its own take on the telenovela. “The Grey’s Anatomy of podcasting will happen and that could change fiction podcasting in a great so that it’s not only high-concept horror shows but more mass-reach fare,” adds Byrne.
Cadence13 is also looking for stand-alone, breakout, movie-style hits via its C13 Features division, which is working with Endeavor Content on potential adaptations. Corcoran says it wants to create around three to five franchises in the vein of Jaws next year and market them like feature films.
One of the oft-repeated reasons why podcasts have suddenly become such a gold mine in Hollywood is that, outside of the pandemic, much of the town spends a lot of time in cars — you can’t read a script while you’re driving but you can listen to a podcast. As iHeart’s Byrne says, “This is just starting.”