Hollywood is an addict. And as with all addicts, what satisfied it yesterday is insufficient today, forcing it to find new, often increasingly desperate sources of consumables to achieve a satisfying “high.”
In this case, the addiction is to intellectual property (IP), the recognizable brand names that have helped launch a thousand blockbusters, tentpoles, sequels, remakes and reboots. No longer satisfied with merely adapting best-selling books, remaking beloved hits, purloining comic books, repurposing graphic novels, grave-robbing old T.V. shows, transmuting videogames, and computer-generating “live-action” version of animated classics, Hollywood has found a wholly new, exotic strain of IP to mine: the podcast.
The recent sale of Helena Merriman’s popular podcast Tunnel 29 to U.K.-based production company Sister (Chernobyl, Girl/Haji) is just the latest example of pod-to-screen projects that have included such cable/steaming series as Dirty John (Bravo), Homecoming (Amazon), Lore (Amazon) and Up and Vanished (Oxygen). More than a dozen other pod-to-screen projects are reportedly in development for both the small and big screens.
So, why the appetite for this new drug-of-choice? From a producer’s point-of-view, the attraction is obvious. Like Mt. Everest was to Sir Edmund Hillary, it’s there. Studios love IPs. They come with built-in fans. They come with name recognition. They come with a proven track record of success. Granted, podcast audiences tend to be small compared to those of best-selling novels, but like with graphic novels, their audiences tend to be loyal and highly passionate. To risk-averse studios who must answer to their corporate masters, podcasts represent just one more arrow they can add to their development quivers.
And what about from the creators’ perspective? What unique attractions do podcasts hold?
First, there are no restrictions on format or content. Subjects of the most successful podcasts range from “true crime” documentaries to financial advice to horror fiction. Like radio, podcasts are “theater of the mind,” and you’re free to take them anywhere your imagination wishes to go.
Second, podcasts are relatively cheap to produce. (Especially compared to that other 21st century media invention, the web series.) Amateurs can get started for just a few hundred bucks. Even top-drawer audio production only costs a few grand a week. They don’t require a lot of technical acumen, and hosting platforms like Buzzsprout, PodBean, Libsyn, Simplecast and Megaphone make them easy to distribute.
For the creator, the obstacles to success are simple: Finding enough time, energy, and inspiration to produce content on a weekly basis, and then successfully marketing your product to potential subscribers.
Of course, like most artforms, podcasting is a highly competitive field in which only a scant few IPs ever make any real impact. Even the most successful podcasts like the aforementioned Tunnel 29 garner only a few million subscribers. The audiences for most podcasts tend to measure only in the thousands, or even the hundreds. These can be difficult to monetize, let alone sell to major Hollywood producers. Like with publishing, short film production, spec screenwriting, and all the other ways would-be filmmakers try to break into Hollywood, podcasting is a crapshoot.
But it’s a game Hollywood’s IP buyers are eager to play. Which is why many producers are now getting into the podcasting business. They have little interest in podcasting itself, but see the platform as a way to market their properties to IP-hungry studios. And if the current podcasting feeding frenzy is any indication, their instincts are correct. Writers in particular need to take note; technology has just afforded you yet one more way to get your voice heard, both figuratively and literally. Have a screenplay you’re trying to sell? Hire some voice actors and turn it into a four-part podcast. Have a book you’d like a producer to option? Pare it down to a six-to-10-part audio script – with sound effects! – and either narrate yourself or hire a voice actor. Genre isn’t important. What is important is to have a compelling long-form story, or a strong collection of related short-form stories, to share. And for those entering the market for the first time, there are plenty of exemplars for you to emulate. (Just Google “Most Popular Podcasts” and have at it!)
From its beginnings in the early 20thcentury, Hollywood has looked to other media for well-known properties it could adapt to film and, later, television. Its appetite, always voracious, has become truly insatiable now that it has hundreds of hours of cable and streaming TV to fill on any given week. To this content addict, podcasting represents yet one more way for it to get its desperately needed “fix” – as it waits breathlessly for technology to invent yet another source of ideas and storylines it can mainline.
Gee, just wait till they invent a real holodeck. – Allen B. Ury