Turning podcasts into screen projects

How audio content is driving an IP gold rush

Television networks have long turned to books and comics for inspiration, but in recent years, podcasts have become a hot Hollywood commodity. In 2022, some of TV’s most talked-about shows, including The Dropout, WeCrashed and The Shrink Next Door, were based on hit podcast series. Once purely an audio medium, podcasts are finding a whole new life and audience on screen.

The appeal of podcasts to production executives is the strength of the narrative. Liz Gately, senior creative executive at Spotify, who came to the streaming service from TV production,thinks some of the best storytelling across all entertainment genres is happening in podcasts. “Podcast creators are using the conventions of scripted dramas for incredible character development, making interesting structural choices and jumps in timelines to create big twists and turns,” she said. “Plus the eight-to-10 episode order is a great blueprint for streaming executives to see how the story unfolds over the season.” 

Spotify signalled a big push into podcasting in 2019, acquiring Gimlet Media shortly after its first scripted podcast Homecoming debuted as an Amazon series starring Julia Roberts. Gately clearly states that Spotify has an “audio first” policy but that a dedicated team, headed by Justin McGoldrick, is scouring Spotify IP for potential TV projects.

The first step in getting your podcast to screen is talking to producers who may want to option your work. An option agreement is a contract that ‘rents’ the rights to the podcast to a potential producer. This grants the producer the exclusive option to purchase rights to the source material if they live up to the terms of the contract and make a series or film from it. Options are not a great earner in themselves; the project will need to be sold to a network to make any meaningful money. The actual figures podcast creators make from TV deals vary and are often cloaked in secrecy, so it’s essential to realise the value of your IP before signing your rights away. Other factors, such as negotiating a share of profits and gaining producer credit on the project, can further boost your earnings and profile within the industry.

Despite the popularity of narrative-driven shows to audiences, with hits like Serial attracting over 300 million downloads, the limited-episode runs make them a harder sell to advertisers. That’s why – from a business perspective – it can be important for these shows to find a life cycle outside of audio. As Alice Sandelson, commercial director for audio at Tortoise, explains: “Particularly for investigative series, which are harder to monetise through ads and sponsorships due to their shorter life cycle and occasionally their subject matter, IP usage can be a useful revenue stream.” 

Tortoise – which attracted attention from streamers and production companies with the success of the series Sweet Bobbyrecently signed an exclusive multi-year first-look deal with Sky Studios to adapt its original podcasts into high-end series and features.

Amazon Music-owned podcast network Wondery has emerged as a key source of material for TV, with a back catalogue of hits including The Shrink Next Door, WeCrashed, Dirty John, Dr Death and the Tiger King scripted show Joe Vs. Carole. It’s often seen as a pioneer in the field. Explaining why so many podcasts are adapted for television, Wondery chief content officer Marshall Lewy says podcasts are more than just source material; they are proof of concept.

Taking an existing IP with a built-in audience makes the idea easier to sell to production executives, too, says Gately. “If you’ve got millions who’re already hooked by the story in a podcast, they will follow the story, particularly when there is a fascinating public figure like Elizabeth Holmes [The Dropout] or Adam Neumann [WeCrashed] at its centre.”

It’s not just whole podcast series that sell; sometimes, a stand-alone episode is enough to spark interest in a screen project. For example, the 2016 episode of This American LifeIn Defense of Ignorance’ saw Lulu Wang recount the story of her grandmother’s terminal cancer diagnosis and her family’s decision not to tell her the prognosis. The broadcast led producers interested in her story to reach out and help her make her 2019 film The Farewell.

With TV executives taking top jobs in podcast studios, the visual potential of podcasts is being considered – even subconsciously – at the initial podcast pitch stage. Liz Gately was instantly hooked by Patrick Radden Keefe’s proposal for Wind Of Change, the only project she’s ever bought on the spot in her lengthy career.

“Keefe played us a trailer in the pitch which started with, ‘I want to tell you the story of a song. It might just be the most influential song of the 20th century. The story starts in Moscow at Lenin Stadium in the summer of 1989.’ Once I heard the rumour that Wind Of Change was allegedly written by the CIA, I was in,” said Gately. “The trailer was so visual because Patrick painted a very specific picture. It had all the elements of a great film or limited TV series from the get-go.” 

Timescales in TV and film are much longer than podcasts, where producers can turn episodes around in days. As a former buyer, Gately explains that the different pieces of the puzzle take time. “You have to find the right showrunner, writer, director or producer who will drive the project forward. The creative team has to write outlines, a pilot pitch and series bible to bring out to all the streamers to pitch. Then when it sells, the pilot script has to be written, followed by casting and producing the pilot – it’s really a long process. Any quality passion projects take time to make.”

Although podcasting continues to see advertising growth rates outpace other digital mediums, last year’s 26% year-over-year ad revenue growth was a marked slowdown compared to 2021, when total podcast ad revenue grew by 72%. With the potential for economic uncertainty to affect future ad budgets, it makes financial sense for podcast companies to look for other ways to monetize their IP. While TV projects are not a fast track to financial gain, they may help to make returns on initial podcast investment and bring a brand new audience to original podcasts.