Modern Love, the podcast based on The New York Times column about real-life personal love stories, recently premiered as a TV series on Amazon, with Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, and Dev Patel in the cast. Dirty John, which started life as a series of articles for The Los Angeles Times, was developed into a critically-acclaimed true-crime podcast, before becoming a 2018 TV series starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana. And Homecoming, a scripted experimental fiction podcast from 2016 (with the voices of Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer), was recently made into a TV series for Amazon with Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail as director and Julia Roberts in the starring role.
Homecoming is from Gimlet Media, the podcast company that was bought by Spotify earlier this year in a package with podcast network Anchor for $US340 million. The company is so serious about jumping from podcasts to TV and film that early last year they set up Gimlet Pictures, headed by Chris Giliberti, with the stated aim of becoming “the HBO of audio”.
Gimlet currently has four shows based on their podcasts in various stages of development or production with studios. One of them, an episode of Reply All called Man Of The People, about a medical conman whose miracle cures included transplanting goat’s testicles into humans, is being developed into a movie with Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Dazed And Confused, School Of Rock) directing and Robert Downey Jr. to star and produce.
They say, ‘If an idea doesn’t have a podcast attached to it, we don’t even bother running a pilot.’
Podcaster Jordan Harbinger
Giliberti feels he knows exactly why podcasts are proving to be such popular IP.
“Podcasts are simply the best source material,” he says from his office in Brooklyn. “There are numerous advantages. Look at Homecoming as an example. The podcast was broken up episodically, so you could already envisage it as episodic television. Those episode breaks aren’t necessarily evident in a novel or a comic book.
“Another thing is that in a scripted podcast you fundamentally already have something that reads like a script for a TV series. And you have character dialogue that is intended to be performed. That puts you way up the pipe in terms of what it could look like for TV. Plus, you might have the writer and creator of the podcast travelling along to the TV adaptation, so you can get a headstart on creating the show.”
Despite the podcast IP goldrush, Giliberti is adamant that Gimlet is not making podcasts with the sole purpose of creating properties for TV or film, because “the company was very much founded on the organising principle of creating the best narrative audio for podcast audiences and that continues to remain the mantra for us”.
Besides, if a podcast is picked up for development into a TV show, that’s no guarantee of success. Cautionary tales abound.
Welcome To Night Vale went to number one on the iTunes podcast list in 2013 after only a year on air, knocking This American Life off the top spot. It has also found success as a touring stage production. The show, narrated by a community radio DJ and set in a strange US desert town where conspiracy theories are real, fused elements of David Lynch, Orson Welles and H.P. Lovecraft, and seemed like it could be a surefire bet for TV. Sure enough, in late 2017 it was announced that FX had bought the show to develop into a series. Almost two years later, it’s no longer happening.
“TV is such a weird, confusing and exhausting industry,” co-creator Joseph Fink says of the experience. “Both my respect for people who make it their full-time career, but also my confusion about why they would ever want to make their full-time career, have really grown.”
Indeed, Gimlet’s first foray into TV did not go well at all. The source material was Gimlet founder Alex Blumberg’s popular StartUp podcast, which documented how he left a successful career as a producer at This American Life to start his own podcast company. It was bought by ABC to turn into the TV series Alex, Inc., with Matt Tarses (Scrubs) as showrunner and Zach Braff as star. And it got made.
To say it was not commercially or critically well-received is an understatement. It premiered in May last year to terrible reviews that called it “timid, broad and saccharine” and “overly cute, not particularly well-written and includes way too many bad dad jokes”. Tellingly, the Hollywood Reporter review stated: “The raiding of podcast IPs by TV execs may continue unabated, but Alex, Inc. offers no reasons why the trend should continue.”
When asked about the show’s failure, Giliberti diplomatically uses phrases such as “tremendous learning opportunity” and “a great starting point”. He’s also at pains to point out that Gimlet was not in control of the production, and that Homecoming is the first Gimlet Pictures production.
Interestingly, in Australia, one podcast is swimming against the current in the earbuds-to-screen crossover. In September last year, documentary-maker Ben Lawrence released his long-awaited film Ghosthunter, about Jason King, a security guard who goes out at night looking for ghosts while battling personal demons from his childhood that he can hardly remember. Lawrence had been working on it for seven years. When he and his editor were in post-production in 2017, they both became obsessed with the S-Town podcast, about the ramifications of a death in a small town in Alabama.
“We thought it was a wonderful piece of storytelling,” says Lawrence. “And we also saw similarities between what we were doing and the structure of that story and how they told it.”
Lawrence spent a year turning Ghosthunter into a podcast, which was made available on Audible in July, almost a year after the documentary premiered.
How did the visual storyteller find the transition to podcasting?
“What I found out early on is that the story room for a podcast is so exciting and risk-taking compared to a story room for a film,” he says. “I suspect it’s because it’s a newish medium and it’s got a growing audience who are just so hungry for the next story, so podcasters are willing to take risks and really push the form.”
Asked whether he would do double-duty again for his next documentary, Lawrence goes one step further.
“I’d actually make the podcast first and then the documentary. You can explore and build trust quicker when it’s just a microphone with you and the subject. There’s a lot less at stake. Filming is just so much more expensive. There’s more of a willingness to test things when you’re doing a podcast.”
As for the future of the podcast-to-screen model, Giliberti at Gimlet Pictures is bullish, not just about the numbers, but about the quality.
“I think we’ll see a lot more adaptations in the coming years, but more importantly I think the adaptations will be stronger creatively,” he says. “As writers and directors and networks come to understand what they’re getting with a podcast, they’ll learn better how to build a TV series off of it. As hot as podcasts are as a source of IP right now, they still pale in comparison to comics and I think there’s a lot of room for growth. It’s a huge market. I think we’ll see the trend increase for quite some time.”
Writer and author Barry Divola – who specialises in music, popular culture, food and travel – lives in Sydney, but his heart lives in New York.