It's often said that when fate closes a door, it opens a window, and for Hollywood creatives, the closed door of uncooperative studio executives may just lead to the open window of eager podcast production houses.
It’s probably come to your attention that, at time of writing, US writers and actors are currently on strike over a number of issues including better pay and conditions, and the encroachment of AI into creative spaces. Both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA unions are striking, with the AMPTP - the entertainment industry’s trade body for collective negotiation - hit by picket lines and work stoppages.
The last major strike was in 2007, when the WGA downed tools for three months. The impact of this action is still being felt to this day - the lack of writers led networks to commission a huge influx of reality TV shows to fill airtime - and a joint strike by both writers and actors is likely to be even more significant.
It’s the first time both unions have gone on strike at the same time for more than 60 years, and represents a major problem for the entertainment industry - but a big potential opportunity for podcasting. As with all strikes, it's a game of chicken to see who can hold out the longest; the strikers are banking on holding out long enough for production stoppages to become too much of a financial risk for studios, and the studios are aiming to draw the strike out until striking workers are forced to give in in order to feed their families.
This is where podcast producers can come in.
I’m not an expert on the terms of the strike, but as far as I understand, podcasts are fair game for both writers and actors - as long as they're not being produced for struck companies, or used as loopholes to get around the strike rules.
This means that podcast production companies have access to the entire corpus of the entertainment industry's most talented creatives, most of whom are probably looking for non-struck projects to work on. What's more, many are likely to be somewhat disillusioned with film and TV, and seeking new mediums to explore. This gives podcast companies the opportunity to snap up world-class talent for new projects without the risk of them being tempted away by shinier Hollywood offers.
Note that I'm not advising producers to simply slap a big star on an otherwise unrelated project - Spotify’s recent pull-back from big-name podcasters should be proof enough that name recognition alone isn’t enough to carry a podcast. However, getting the right talent on a project that they really resonate with can supercharge its potential.
Fiction podcasting is the most obvious avenue for podcast production companies to work with both writers and actors currently on strike; it’s a genre that’s growing in popularity, and applying proven talent to a winning formula seems like a golden opportunity.
However, producers should resist the temptation to create fiction projects with the goal of optioning the IP for TV and film later down the line. Although this is a popular and effective way to monetise fiction podcasts, taking advantage of striking workers’ availability only to then sell the results to the very companies being struck is disingenuous in the extreme. Instead, these projects can be used to build out subscription offerings through instant access to series boxsets.
Documentary podcasting is also a ripe opportunity with fewer potential pitfalls; not only do actors make excellent narrators for scripted documentaries, their voiceover talents are perfect for adding life and colour to these shows through dramatic reenactments, as seen in podcasts like True Spies.
Chat and discussion-based podcasts are also a strong potential avenue; one of the most popular podcasts in the US this year has been SmartLess, a show which features big-name hosts but trades more on their shared chemistry than their star power. Finding a group with a similar dynamic shouldn’t be hard; for example, I’m amazed that Nick Frost, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have never done a podcast together, and I suspect that the first producer to make that happen could happily sit back and cash the Patreon checks for the rest of their natural life.
On that note, it’s worth remembering that podcast companies don’t need to have a UK presence to take advantage of this situation; the WGA and SAG-AFTRA both boast a great deal of UK-based members, and both stipulate that anyone crossing the picket will be barred from joining in the future, so home-grown talent may be just as up for grabs as individuals in New York or LA.
Podcasting is increasingly borrowing the conventions of big-budget TV and film productions to boost its appeal - so podcast companies seeking to make a larger splash may as well take advantage of the screen entertainment sector’s current turmoil and borrow its talent as well.