Studios are hungrier than ever for intellectual property. Comic books drive the highest-grossing films (Spider-Man: No Way Home is currently flirting with $2 billion). Magazine articles spark bidding wars shortly after publication (see Netflix’s Inventing Anna, based on a New York magazine cover story). And books are regularly optioned before they’ve even hit the shelves. But, taking a look at 2022’s buzzier offerings, podcasts seem to be the source material du jour.
The first half of the year is a parade of podcast adaptations, particularly in the TV space, where such limited series as the horror drama Archive 81 (Netflix), the WeWork postmortem WeCrashed (Apple TV+), the Watergate miniseries Gaslit (Starz) and the Tiger King-inspired drama Joe vs. Carole (Peacock) all come courtesy of podcasts. And whether the inspiration is a work of journalism or narrative fiction, showrunners say that coming armed with an audio sample to a pitch meeting can increase the chances of getting a green light.
“It more clearly shows the tone of the work,” says Gloria Calderón Kellett, the prolific TV writer-producer who recently signed on to turn the Gimlet podcast The Horror of Dolores Roach into an Amazon series. “It is also a great way to build an audience and test out material. Then it’s the fun of translating that into a visual medium.”
Having a podcast as proof of concept also can aid in securing talent. Calderón Kellett had One Day at a Time star Justina Machado listen to Dolores Roach before getting her to sign on to the series. Julia Roberts famously picked Amazon’s adaptation of Homecoming as her first TV gig, and she’ll return to the medium in Gaslit (based on Leon Neyfakh’s Slow Burn podcast) alongside Sean Penn. Jared Leto, Anne Hathaway and Kate McKinnon also are joining podcast adaptations.
Dolores Roach, like Archive 81 and Homecoming, is a work of fiction. But nonfiction pods seem to be at the center of the current moment — often because that’s what writers and producers are listening to in their spare time. New Girl creator Elizabeth Meriwether got turned on to ABC News podcast The Dropout before agreeing to translate the project — an examination of discredited Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes — into the new Hulu miniseries of the same name starring Amanda Seyfried.
“What the podcast was starting to do, but couldn’t because of the fact that it’s objective journalism, was to get into [Holmes’] head and start to understand what her motivations were,” says Meriwether, who initially questioned what a scripted adaptation could even add to the Holmes conversation. “Then I realized that that was the part of the story that hadn’t been told.”
Meriwether already is at work on her next adaptation of a podcast — Wondery’s Dying for Sex, about a real woman who left her husband for a sexual walkabout after getting a terminal cancer diagnosis — into a series for FX.
This trend also has been a boon for news media, which was historically cut out of the adaptation game. “We’re seeing our industry leverage podcasts more as the genesis of IP for development into film and television,” observes Agnes Chu, president of Condé Nast Entertainment. In 2020, Chu left Disney+ for the legendary publishing house, whose podcasts, like its print features in such titles as GQ and Vanity Fair, are now being pitched for adaptation. “Because we have a team of creative leaders across film, television and audio working with our editors early in the process, we’re together able to shepherd a concept through the entire ecosystem.”
But success as a podcast doesn’t necessarily translate to success on other mediums. Take Apple TV+’s recent podcast-to-TV spin The Shrink Next Door. The streamer did not reveal viewership — but even with its pedigreed cast (Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell star), the project landed with considerably less fanfare than the 2019 Joe Nocera-produced podcast on which it was based.
Yet enthusiasm is unabated. With podcast output growing annually, adaptations are on track to do the same, and you can count on several of this year’s Ambies nominees to get optioned. “It harkens back to the days of radio plays, and our imagination does the rest,” says Calderón Kellett. “It is such a great way to test out material and an exciting way of telling stories.”
This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.