What 'Come Sunday' Could Mean for Future Podcast Adaptations

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

'Come Sunday,' which is adapted from a 'This American Life' episode, debuted on Netflix in what might be a turning point for the industry.

The Chiwetel Ejiofor starrer Come Sunday, which was adapted from a 2005 episode of This American Life, drops on Netflix at a pivotal moment for the podcast industry.

Since October 2017, an influx of podcast-to-TV adaptations — including Amazon’s Lore, HBO’s 2 Dope Queens and ABC’s Alex, Inc. (based on Gimlet Media’s StartUp podcast) — have hit the small screen, and TV adaptations of Dirty John, S-Town and more are in the works. On the film side, three-time Oscar nominee Richard Linklater is directing a movie adaptation of Reply All’s “Man of the People” episode with Robert Downey Jr. attached to star.

"What we’re seeing right now is the experiment period," Ira Glass, host of This American Life and producer of Come Sunday alongside his colleague Alissa Shipp, told The Hollywood Reporter. “If Come Sunday does well and some of these other projects do well, it'll prove that the podcast audience will transfer over to come see the movie, come watch the TV show."

Though Come Sunday isn’t This American Life’s first podcast-to-film adaptation — an episode of the show inspired the 2006 film Unaccompanied Minors, as did This American Life contributor Mike Birbiglia’s film Sleepwalk With Me — it comes at a moment of increased Hollywood attention on the podcast world.

Come Sunday, which debuted Friday on Netflix, materialized through the efforts of Marcus Hinchey, who for years had wanted to adapt an episode of This American Life, NPR’s radio show turned podcast that broadcasts hour-long narrative journalism stories to an audience of millions. Hinchey believed that the episodic format was primed for the big screen. "I think we'll see a bigger trend toward adaptations, and I think that we will see podcasts that begin to develop to be even more adaptable," he said.

In 2010, when This American Life handed him — on a CD — its 2005 episode "Heretics," about the evangelical pastor Carlton Pearson, who cast aside the idea of hell to the shock of the church, Hinchey knew he had found something special. 

Certainly, Come Sunday does not represent a breaking point for podcast adaptations. The slate of podcasts being optioned or developed is diverse in terms of style and format, but Glass believes that Hollywood will be watching to see whether their built-in followings show up to support the adaptations. 

"The way podcasting works, people have such a strong relationship with the podcast that they love because of the intimacy of podcasting, and I feel like that’s a good audience" to cross over into viewers of film and TV adaptations, Glass said. For instance, now that Come Sunday is out, Glass is reairing the 2005 This American Life episode that inspired it for his 4.5 million listeners.

Glass believes those fans will tune in to see the movie. “I think one of the reasons why the films [like Sleepwalk With Me] we did with Mike Birbiglia did so well was probably because Mike has been touring the country for years and has a huge fan base that loves him” —a fan base that developed on This American Life.

Although the format is different, the process of adapting a podcast for film is not especially unique. Glass was direct: "There's an intimacy to podcasts and radio that comes from the fact that you don't see the people, and there's an inherent emotional connection that comes from that," but "the truth is, when we make movies, we don't try to harness that at all, we don't think about that at all. What we think about is, ‘How do you make a nice movie?' "

Still, Hinchey noted that compared to adapting a book, with narrative podcasts "there's a little bit less wiggle room to invent or create things, narratively speaking, outside of what actually happened." To him, This American Life-style podcasts "work like oral histories," because events are directly recounted by the people who experienced them. The third-person voice of a book disappears.

If anyone from the industry is watching to see how Come Sunday does, Glass thinks they will make up their mind about the viability of podcast adaptations — and specifically whether built-in podcast audiences translate into increased viewership or ticket sales — soon. "At the end of six months or a year or two years, people will come to some conclusions," he said.