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Film studios are using podcasts to decide which movies to make

Cast member Julia Roberts poses with co-star Stephan James at a premiere for the television series "Homecoming" in Los Angeles in 2018.
Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
Film and TV production companies are increasingly use podcasts as their personal content incubators. The hit show “Homecoming” is one example.
  • Adam Epstein
By Adam Epstein

Entertainment reporter

Published

If you ever thought the podcast you obsess over would make a good movie or TV series, that’s probably because it’s supposed to be one.

Hollywood has mined podcasts for story ideas since the early 2000s. But the relationship between the film and podcast industries has now advanced to the next level. Film and TV production companies increasingly use podcasts as their personal content incubators, testing out ideas on the audio-based medium to decide if they should make the jump to screens.

Chernin Entertainment, the US production company behind movies like the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy and Ford v Ferrari, inked a deal with Spotify last month to adapt the streaming music giant’s growing library of narrative podcasts into films and TV series. Under the partnership, Chernin and Spotify will scratch each other’s backs: Chernin gets to mine Spotify’s original audio shows for movie ideas, while Spotify can sift through Chernin’s heap of unadapted intellectual property for concepts that might make more sense as podcasts. Of course, if those podcasts are successful, they can still be turned into movies.

“We can reverse engineer opportunities,” Peter Chernin, Chernin’s CEO and chairman, told Deadline. “We have 60-80 things in development which might work best first as a podcast. We also hear a lot of pitches and might find that something would benefit from having a podcast as its starting point.” Chernin is already adapting multiple Spotify podcasts into TV shows, including the true-crime narrative The Clearing.

Podcasts are an IP gold mine

Intellectual property is the gas that powers the Hollywood engine. It’s what the streaming wars were largely waged over. It’s what turned Disney into a global media juggernaut. Hoarding potentially lucrative characters, concepts, and stories—and then milking those things for all they’re worth (and sometimes more than what they’re worth)—is a strategy central to virtually every Hollywood content company’s plan for growth. Netflix, for instance, is laser-focused on cultivating its own IP since many of its hit shows, which it licensed temporarily from other companies, are now leaving the streaming service.

Books have long served as the most popular type of IP to turn into movies. But podcasts are quickly gaining ground as studios are starved for content to impress viewers and subscribers—and to differentiate their platforms from the legions of competitors. Relative to films and TV shows, podcasts are cheap to produce, and thus a low risk form of media with which to test out movie concepts. They are also often cinematic, utilizing voice actors, sound effects, music, and other narrative concepts borrowed from TV and film.

“These are things that have already been scripted, as opposed to books where you have to start from scratch,” Chernin told Deadline. “In some ways, you could argue podcasts might be the easiest IP to translate to film and television.”

Like many IP deals, some of these arrangements between Hollywood producers and podcasts go nowhere. But even when a piece of podcast IP isn’t ultimately adapted to TV or film, it still has value. Simply owning the IP keeps competitors from having the opportunity to capitalize on it. Hollywood companies frequently purchase the film and TV rights to books even when they know the likelihood they’re ever adapted to the screen is slim, simply to keep them out of the hands of rival studios. That has been a widespread practice in the book world for decades, and is likely to happen more and more with podcasts as the medium becomes more popular.

And while the track record of podcasts-as-TV isn’t perfect, there have already been several successes. Amazon’s psychological thriller series Homecoming, based on the Gimlet Media podcast of the same name (Spotify bought Gimlet last year), was a hit with critics and earned multiple Emmy nominations. The true-crime show Dirty John, based on the Wondery podcast, became Bravo’s most-watched scripted TV series ever when it launched in 2018.

Podcast platforms are starting to act like movie studios

Gimlet Media and Wondery are just two of many podcast platforms taking a cue from Hollywood in the way they write, package, and sell their content. Their podcasts are advertised with trailers and billboards, much like how a studio might market a big-budget movie. Though their goal isn’t just to serve as a breeding ground for movie ideas, that is very much built into the business model.

“We created an IP factory,” Gimlet co-founder Matt Lieber told the New York Times last year. “We’ve prepared most of the meal. Now you just have to put it on the table and eat.”

The strategy of making podcasts as ready-made for TV or movie adaptation as possible is similar to what journalists and producers have been doing with magazine articles. Individual journalists—and sometimes entire publishers—work with Hollywood producers in advance of a story’s publication with the ultimate goal of the story becoming a movie.

Journalist Jeff Maysh worked with the producer David Klawans on his viral 2018 article about the McDonald’s Monopoly scam. Maysh and Klawans “basically laundered their IP through the Daily Beast in order to give the movie pitch more oomph,” wrote Nieman Lab, a blog owned by Harvard’s journalism foundation. A week after the story went online, Fox won an intense bidding war over its film rights.

Other than perhaps Serial, we haven’t seen a podcast generate such public interest over its eventual movie or TV rights. But those bidding wars are happening behind the scenes. Most major US-based talent agencies have agents and divisions devoted entirely to brokering rights deals for podcasts. Gimlet has its own TV and production unit, called Gimlet Pictures.

The future of intellectual property in Hollywood

Both industries now understand they are intimately connected. Movie companies benefits from the access to troves of compelling podcast IP, while the podcast companies benefit from the increased exposure and, more importantly, the piles of cash Hollywood throws their way. Spotify reportedly paid $200 million to buy Gimlet to beef up its narrative podcast offerings; now Hollywood is ready to offer similar figures for the rights to turn those offerings into blockbuster films.

“Together, we can usher in a new era for podcasts as source material,” Dawn Ostroff, Spotify’s chief content officer, said in a statement about the Chernin deal.

The result will, in theory, be good for consumers too. They’ll get more content, and more ways to consume stories. It could be especially bountiful for podcast obsessives, as there will be a new wealth of narratively rich and cinematic stories—originally meant for movies—to listen to.

It’s not just the IP that podcasts can deliver to Hollywood—it’s the data too. A large part of Spotify’s investment in podcasts is because of the opportunities they present to marry data advancements with content. By listening to podcasts, consumers can essentially help Hollywood studios decide which ones they turn into movies and TV series. Gaining access to Spotify’s consumer data will help inform Chernin which ideas are popular enough to develop into movies and sell to distributors.

Podcasts thus give production companies a new way to compete with the streaming titans, which already base so many of their production decisions on the information gleaned from how users use their platforms. If, several years from now, podcasts are seen as the definitive source material for movies and TV shows, that will likely be why.