Podcasts pique Hollywood's interest with fiction series

New York (AFP) –


Two years ago, podcasts devoted to fiction were a blip on the radar, but the genre is gaining momentum -- under the watchful eye of Hollywood, which sees it as a hotbed for new movies and television series.

There are only a handful of fiction podcasts, almost drowned out by the talk shows, true crime, science and history series, but their numbers and quality keep going up -- "Blackout," "Passenger List," "Carrier" to name some recent entries, soon to be joined by "Motherhacker" or "Frontier Tween."

"It's something we hoped would happen, and now we're seeing it really gaining momentum and traction," said Rob Herting.

He founded a production company, QCode, barely a year ago, and already it boasts several successful series, including "Blackout," in which a massive electrical outage threatens the very foundation of society.

A major sign of interest in this new format are the top-tier actors -- such as Rami Malek ("Blackout"), who in February won the Oscar for Best Actor -- lending their voices to audio fiction series.

Just two years ago, "when I started, nobody was thinking about fiction shows," said Mimi O'Donnell, who is in charge of the genre at Gimlet, a production company bought by Spotify in February.

But she has seen an influx of writers, including "creators that have never done anything in audio but are really well-known in film, TV or theater."

Many writers at QCode also come from those fields, even if the link between styles isn't always evident. "It's absolutely a new muscle to flex and an exciting challenge for a lot of them," said Herting.

Podcasts, which until recently were heavily tethered to reality, are just beginning to realize the potential of audio fiction.

"What audio drama can do is build this amazing connection to the listener," said Marc Sollinger, co-creator of the podcast "Archive 81."

"By removing images, it lets the listener create with their mind's eye and imagine the characters, the settings, the monsters, the situations," he said.

"And the images that they create are going to be so much better, so much more interesting than a film with a $20 million budget."

In Herting's opinion, "people are turning to audio because they can't stare at screens anymore."

It's somewhat ironic that the saturation of images has contributed to the revival of a medium almost wiped out by the rise of television.

During the 1930s and 1940s, radio was the preferred medium, and audio fiction was a major genre.

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles created a mass panic when thousands of Americans heard him reading passages of "The War of the Worlds" on the radio and believed Martians really were invading.

- From sound to image -

In a growing podcast landscape, where audio platforms seek out premium content that will attract listeners and paying subscribers, the fiction podcast can seem like a way to stand out.

In addition to drawing writers and actors, there is growing interest in the genre in Hollywood, always hungry for new material.

"Homecoming," the Gimlet podcast adapted by Amazon and starring Julia Roberts, made a big impression.

In mid-October, Facebook Watch (the social media giant's video platform) will launch "Limetown," the televised version of a podcast produced in 2015.

"We're ... building these new stories with the hope and intention that they can build and grow into TV shows," said Herting, a former Hollywood agent.

"That's something that we factor into our business model for each piece of content that we make."

O'Donnell has a different approach: "There's no way you could be developing audio thinking about, 'It should be a film,' because it's just completely different," she said.

"We're not choosing something in the hopes of what might happen after," she added.

"One of the things I really like about the podcast fiction medium is stories that exploit the sonic potential of the medium," said Sollinger.

"I like stories that don't feel like they're just television scripts with the images cut out."

For Herting, the next step for audio fiction is creating a big hit. "I don't think the scripted side and fiction has those yet, and I think they're coming," he said.

English-language podcasts are able to become global successes since they aren't limited by the rights and territoriality that often constrain television shows.

Spotify and Gimlet are therefore looking at "stories that feel big in scope for audiences all over the world," said O'Donnell.

"Those are starting to come to us as well as thinking outside of just the United States, New York," she said.