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The Long and Winding Roads to Hollywood

In November 2018, Amazon Prime Video released the first season of Homecoming, a ten-part series helmed by Sam Esmail and headlined by Julia Roberts and Stephan James. The psychological thriller was critically lauded, banking a few Golden Globe nominations and a second season renewal. Not a bad showing for one of the first major podcast adaptations to successfully hit television screens.

The story around Homecoming’s journey to television streaming has become the stuff of podcast industry lore, in part aided by a behind-the-scenes audio companion released by Gimlet Media prior to the show’s TV debut. Gimlet, of course, was the publisher behind the original fiction podcast series, and with Making a TV Series, the podcast company was playing up the Hollywood romance angle to help market the adaptation. Tinseltown clichés aside, Homecoming’s evolution from fiction podcast to Glitzy Streaming Miniseries did, indeed, seem vaguely like something out of a fairytale, at least in the context of the brutally difficult world of film and television. The televisual version of Homecoming appeared on the Amazon streaming service less than two years after the podcast began its run, making it something of a unicorn among adaptation stories.

“It seemed crazy, but it seems crazier now — now that I’ve seen how things normally work,” said Eli Horowitz, who co-created the podcast and later became the co-showrunner (along with co-creator Micah Bloomberg) on the Amazon version. “It was nothing we expected or were looking for. We had zero thought or plan or even hope of it being a television show.”

But it did, and it also contributed to the beginning of a now-notable trend. Within a few years of Homecoming’s streaming service debut, articles proclaiming that podcasts have become “a Hollywood gold mine” became commonplace to a point where one could be forgiven for picturing podcast creators giddily stashing tinsel-laden thousand dollar bills beneath their freshly installed Casper mattresses. But by and large, this impression was largely as fantastical then as it is today.

“A lot of things have gotten optioned, but it’s still a huge crapshoot in terms of what actually gets made and what that process looks like… maybe the most unusual thing about Homecoming was not just that it was a podcast, but how fast the whole experience was,” said Horowitz, who eventually left Gimlet to develop his own projects.

“I have a couple of TV and podcast projects currently in development — whatever that means,” he added with a laugh.

Let’s take a beat to unpack what being “in development” means, in case you’re unfamiliar. It doesn’t mean a show is actually being made. An optioned work can be “in development” for years (or even decades) as agents, creators, and producers do their best to entice big-name actors, directors, and distribution companies to attach themselves to the project, raise money, and then actually make the thing. (In industry parlance, this is called “development hell.”)

A critical step during this period is finalizing an agreement with the company optioning your intellectual property. Unfortunately, this usually involves potentially soul-crushing conversations with lawyers and business executives who might not really care about or understand your work. Sarah Rhea Werner, whose hit fiction podcast Girl in Space was optioned by a well-known production and distribution company, says it took a full calendar year to finalize her contract.

“I guess that was normal… and even a little bit fast,” Werner told me last week. “We were going back and forth on property ownership — who gets book rights, who gets graphic novel rights, who owns the merchandise, who gets profits from that.” Her agent also advised her to fight for an executive producer credit and a co-writing credit on the pilot, both of which can translate into considerable payouts. The agent eventually got that agreement in writing, and Werner signed on the dotted line.

But not all was well on the production company side of things. “Everything was constantly in flux,” she said. “I had a director, and I lost the director, and then I had another director. People were getting fired, and businesses were getting acquired, and people were getting hired.”

Eventually, Werner’s original development team at the production company was reassigned, and just like that, her deal fell apart. “You’re just in a tsunami that you can’t control,” she said. As of this writing, Girl in Space remains in development, but Werner and her team are searching for a new production company.

When I asked Werner what it felt like to put so much work into something and have it disintegrate seemingly overnight, she was surprisingly upbeat about the experience. “I came away from it knowing how to write for TV,” she responded. “I have knowledge of all of these different people in the industry. I have an open invitation from certain people to submit things to them. So I’m crushed, but I’m also weirdly okay.”

Paul Bae can probably relate. Nearly three years ago, his popular podcast The Black Tapes — which he and co-writer Terry Miles had originally created in 2015 to call attention to their screenplay of the same name — was in development at NBC. After the deal went public, many publications toasted Bae’s success, with headlines that ran the gamut from announcing the show was “in the works” to claiming it was already on its way to “becoming a TV show.” Today, The Black Tapes hasn’t yet been greenlit, but Bae has been pitching other ideas to the networks and revealed to me that he has at least two original television projects in development. Interestingly, neither project originated from a podcast.

Bae explained that, in retrospect, The Black Tapes ended up being the perfect calling card, with the podcast’s popularity giving him the opportunity to get his foot in the door. “Now it’s at the point where I’m fortunate enough to have developed a reputation where people know that if you get a pitch from Paul, you might not buy it, but you’re going to have a good time,” said Bae.

On the other end of the spectrum from Bae’s and Werner’s experiences is Wondery, which holds what I think could be argued as the highest podcast-to-Hollywood success rate in the business. But when I spoke to Marshall Lewy, the company’s Chief Content Officer, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid that positive assessment. “I think there’s a little bit of a misconception that we’re like an IP factory,” says Lewy. “Our goal is to make podcasts that reach a wide audience and are successful on their own merits.” (Taking a quick beat here to say that this strikes a bit of contrast with statements previously made by ex-CEO Hernan Lopez, but it’s a new era at Wondery, and so I’m rolling with it).

Lewy credited Wondery’s track record in Hollywood to the way in which its producers and sound designers inject each show with cinematic flair. By way of example, Lewy pointed out that Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell signed on to the adaptation of The Shrink Next Door before they even had a script. “They just heard the podcast and were so taken by those two characters that they became involved with the project right there,” he claimed.

In contrast, Hrishikesh Hirway had been turning down calls from Hollywood types who saw TV potential in his hit podcast Song Exploder. “It didn’t seem that appealing to me,” says Hirway. But when musically themed video properties such as The New York Times’ Diary of a Song started popping up, he figured he should take a meeting. But still, he recalls that “nothing anyone was saying was making me feel enthusiastic.”

It was only after a buddy in the business encouraged Hirway to reimagine what the show could be like on his own terms that his temperament shifted. “I took a few days and reconceived what the show could be, and that’s when I got excited,” he said. With help from his agent, he pitched Netflix, and the team was receptive. It felt like things were moving in the right direction, but as these things go, everything suddenly went silent.

“For months I was like, ‘are they making an offer or not?’” he recalled. “I just kept waiting for a day when it would be like, ‘It’s on!’ And honestly, it didn’t happen. I never had the day where I was like, ‘Oh, it’s really, really happening.’” In fact, the creator first learned that his show had been greenlit from a Netflix staffer that he ran into at a party.

In any event, Hirway finally got his yes. What followed was a period that involved figuring out how the show would look and feel, in practical terms. Throughout my conversations for this story, one thing I kept hearing over and over again — aside from “if you’re serious about a career in Hollywood, get an agent” — was “know what you want, but also be flexible and collaborative.” Being rigid with your ideas, Bae told me, “is a good way to shut yourself out of Hollywood right away.”

Hirway went into the adaptation process with one stipulation: The TV version had to retain the intimate feel of the podcast. In the original version of Song Exploder, the artist(s) reveals the construction of a song in first-person narrative. You rarely hear Hirway’s voice, which he believes is critical in creating a feeling of intimacy between the artist and the listener. So he was surprised when Morgan Neville — who, along with Hirway, executive-produced the series and directed one of its episodes — suggested he appear in the TV version. Neville insisted that by removing himself, the result would make for a less intimate experience for the viewer. And while Hirway did eventually agree to the shift, the prospect of seeing himself on TV still took an emotional toll. “I wasn’t comfortable,” he said. “But being in the show allowed people to have a sense of like, here is this person who does this thing. I’m more than just a name in the credits. And I appreciate that.”

Toward the end of our conversation, Hirway told me that his Netflix contract for Song Exploder has run its course. He’s produced the eight contracted episodes and said he’s excited to move on to other projects, which I naturally took to mean making music — he’s in a few bands — and/or new audio projects.

“No no no,” said Hirway. “I’m working on a new idea for TV.”

Looks like podcasting’s collective romance with Hollywood is here to stay.