Hot Podcasts In Demand for TV Producers
The $220 million industry is poised to significantly expand as Hollywood offers lucrative new revenue opportunities.
When news broke in the fall of 2015 that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had optioned the television rights to hugely popular podcast Serial, the audio format was still somewhat of a novelty. The idea that a podcast could be the basis for the next hit TV show was even more unusual.
In the two years since, Hollywood's hunger for the podcast format has only grown. And while Serial hasn't made it to TV yet, there are more than a dozen audio-inspired projects in various stages of development across town. Amazon has already debuted Lore, based on the Aaron Mahnke horror podcast of the same name; HBO on Feb. 2 will release a four-part 2 Dope Queens special adaptation of the Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson comedy podcast; ABC is prepping the March 28 premiere of StartUp-inspired comedy Alex, Inc.; and on Jan. 30, Bravo announced it was joining the club with a two-season, straight-to-series order for the Los Angeles Times' true-crime breakout, Dirty John.
The interest has proved a boon to the fledgling companies that are fueling the podcast explosion. Brooklyn-based startup Gimlet Media is creating a film and television arm called Gimlet Pictures to capitalize on the momentum. "There's definitely a fervor," says Gimlet Pictures head Chris Giliberti, who will split his time between New York and Los Angeles. "In a lot of instances what you see is a land grab because it's hot IP. But in our case, we've been very judicious about what we've taken to market."
Giliberti will lead a lean, two-person team — made up of executive producer Eli Horowitz and a yet-to-be-hired development executive — as Gimlet looks to build on its early successes and take a more active role in the development process. In addition to Zach Braff starrer StartUp, Gimlet has its first scripted podcast, Homecoming, set up at Amazon as a Sam Esmail-directed drama starring Julia Roberts. Meanwhile, an episode of tech-centric show Reply All will be turned into an Annapurna film starring Robert Downey Jr. and directed by Richard Linklater. "In a lot of ways, this is a formalization of activity that has been long underway," notes Giliberti. "It's a signal to the market that we're here."
For Los Angeles-based podcast network Wondery, producing projects with an eye toward film and television adaptation has been baked into the business plan since the beginning. "We knew that listening to a four- or five-hour podcast would paint a more accurate picture of what a story could look like as a TV or movie than a script would," says CEO Hernan Lopez, who spent years as an executive at Fox International Channels before making the jump to digital. Wondery has optioned four of its projects, including Sword and Scale and Tides of History, which are both at Ben Silverman and Howard Owens' Propagate.
While still small, the podcasting industry is growing quickly. The Interactive Advertising Bureau estimated last spring that revenue would hit $220 million in 2017, up 219 percent in two years, with advertisers spending more in the space and ad rates increasing (the average CPM is $25 but can more than double to $50 and up for the most popular shows). A Recode report has pegged Gimlet's 2017 revenue at about $15 million and its valuation (after a $15 million cash infusion last summer) at $70 million.
Yes, the money in film and TV can be lucrative. But Gimlet co-founder and president Matt Lieber says that the company is focused on remaining audio-first. "Developing Gimlet Pictures is interesting for the business on multiple fronts," he explains. "One is a new flavor of revenue, and another is growing the brand and growing the audience that we can send back to our podcasts."
The podcasting boom couldn't have happened at a better time for the TV industry. With 487 scripted originals airing in 2017, networks have never had a greater need for a fresh new hit that will rise above the noise. "Buyers are desperate for something that feels proven in any format," says one top rep. One of the selling points is that podcasts come with performance stats that help prove that audiences are not only tuning in week after week, but also sticking around for episodes that can run over an hour.
The agencies are also getting in on the scramble to scoop up rights to the latest Serial, Dirty John or Missing Richard Simmons. CAA counts Gimlet as a client. UTA, through emerging platforms agent Oren Rosenbaum, represents Lore's Mahnke as well as This American Life, Serial and S-Town. WME, which works with Pod Save America producer Crooked Media and negotiated the Dirty John deal, also will have a pipeline of projects through its IMG Original Content group, which has hired Panoply Media veteran Moses Soyoola to spearhead its podcasting effort.
There's no telling how long the podcasting land grab will last. But for many in Hollywood, it's not just about finding a new source of audience-approved IP. It's also about identifying and nurturing a new generation of writers and filmmakers. "If I'm the next Quentin Tarantino, I'm probably not working at a video store anymore," says Brett-Patrick Jenkins, head of development at Propagate, which shepherded production on Lore and counts Up and Vanished as among the podcast adaptations it is currently developing. "I'm probably trying to make my own podcasts."
A version of story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.