A podcast offers up intellectual property in a particularly appealing format — compared with a book or even a script, it’s a stronger proof of concept of how a show or movie would actually play out. “It’s one step closer to seeing it onscreen,” Mr. Tarses said. “You already know what it sounds like.”
Like many of the properties bending Hollywood’s ear, “StartUp” is a very successful podcast; it’s been downloaded tens of millions of times since its debut in 2014. But podcast listeners still constitute a very different audience than viewers of network sitcoms, with different sensibilities. And the elements that make a podcast spark — internal conflict, patient world building, conversational digressions — don’t translate seamlessly to TV.
“There were things we loved about the podcast, but we had to turn it into an ABC show,” Mr. Braff said.
So the inside story of starting a podcasting company is refocused as a broad family comedy. Mr. Blumberg’s real-life business partner, the Gimlet co-founder and president Matt Lieber — who holds an M.B.A. from M.I.T. and started his career at NPR and WNYC — is recast as a scrappy salesman played by Michael Imperioli. It’s a bid to differentiate the characters and inject an Everyman foil to the insular and often absurd podcaster culture on display. “We wanted to have an in for the layman who has no clue what a podcast is,” Mr. Braff said. “He’s a character who is comically naïve to this whole world.”
Then there’s an invented character, the female producer Deirdre, whose central personality trait is that she is hopelessly in love with Alex — a retrograde note not on display in Gimlet’s offices or in its shows. Also, Alex carries a comically oversized old-time microphone with him everywhere he goes, a way to visually telegraph his job to viewers. In real life, “it’s not so big,” Mr. Blumberg conceded. Mr. Sacca, though, is unchanged: After an acting crash-course from Mr. Braff, the investor played himself.
Personality-based podcasts offer the temptation of a more effortless adaptation. Earlier this year, HBO spun the WNYC podcast “2 Dope Queens,” starring the comedians Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, into a four-part live special, and the network has struck a deal with the Obama staffers-turned-podcasters of “Pod Save America” to air a live series in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms.
“We didn’t want to dramatically alter their formula, and that took the pressure off them to continue doing what they were already doing so well,” Nina Rosenstein, executive vice president for programming at HBO, said of “2 Dope Queens.”
Some transitions from audio to visuals feel natural: The comedians Desus Nice and the Kid Mero’s cult hit “Bodega Boys” podcast has translated easily to the Viceland late-night talk show “Desus & Mero.”
Others, not so much. When the beloved podcast host Bill Simmons tried to take his interview style to HBO, on the late-night program “Any Given Wednesday,” he floundered onscreen. And even the most promising projects can fall through: “Serial” was optioned in 2015 for development by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the filmmaking team behind “The Lego Movie” and “21 Jump Street,” but the project languished and the option has since expired. The Serial team is now in talks to adapt its American gothic true-crime serial “S-Town.”
“The mediums want very different things,” said Mr. Blumberg, who previously worked for “This American Life,” including on that radio program’s TV adaptation that aired on Showtime from 2007 to 2009.
But increasingly, podcast makers are behaving more like TV and film companies, developing and packaging projects themselves. When Mr. Davis came knocking for “StartUp” in 2015, Gimlet ceded creative control of the adaptation to the network. At the time, Mr. Blumberg said, “we were barely putting our podcasts out the door.”
Now, Gimlet is developing and pitching its podcasts instead of waiting for Hollywood to call, and in January, the company started Gimlet Pictures, a new division headed by Chris Giliberti. “Homecoming,” the podcast network’s first scripted thriller, is now headed to Amazon, and this time, “our fingerprints are all over it creatively,” Mr. Lieber said.
Mr. Giliberti has an office on the studio lot, and he flies out to Los Angeles from Gimlet’s Brooklyn offices every couple of weeks. Eli Horowitz, who wrote the Gimlet show with the screenwriter Micah Bloomberg, is acting as showrunner of the Amazon series. Gimlet also recruited the show’s director, Sam Esmail of “Mr. Robot”; helped staff the writer’s room; and cast the star, Julia Roberts. (Gimlet’s representation with CAA, Ms. Roberts’s agency, helped.)
Gimlet is also working to develop an episode of its tech podcast “Reply All” — about a charismatic figure who used a new technology, radio, to manipulate the masses — into a film. The director Richard Linklater and the star Robert Downey Jr. are attached. Gimlet also recently recruited a new chief marketing officer, Jenny Wall, who’s worked at Hulu and Netflix.
When Gimlet recorded the first season of “StartUp,” the drama of the show hinged on the financial and personal risk of establishing a podcasting company. But relatively low-cost audio shows carry less financial risk than TV and film projects.
When Gimlet produced “Homecoming,” it could land in-demand actors like Oscar Isaac and Catherine Keener because it required only a couple days of work in front of a mic. The same is true of the network’s next scripted series, its first dramedy.
“Actors are open to doing a show with us because they don’t have to put on makeup, they don’t have to put on their Spanx, they don’t have to go on location,” Mr. Lieber said. “It’s fun, interesting creative work that doesn’t require so much.” Then, when the company pivots to casting an adaptation, it helps to already have respected actors in the audio version. As Gimlet pursued Ms. Roberts for “Homecoming,” it was able to send her the podcast with Ms. Keener in the role to help prove the company’s bona fides.
Studios and networks are not only drawn to the proven storytelling a podcast provides, but they also like the built-in fan base — one that’s easier to reach and engage than, say, people who have bought a book. Tens of millions of listeners have downloaded StartUp, and “now Gimlet can go back to those people and tell them about ‘Alex, Inc.,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s great synergy.”
For podcasters, adaptations also offer the prospect of drawing even bigger audiences to the original audio show.
Aaron Mahnke of the podcast “Lore,” who now serves as executive producer and narrator of the Amazon adaptation, has seen new listeners stream in from Amazon. These days, “a story can exist in a variety of different mediums,” he said. “It all feeds itself.”
But only to a point. “When we see headlines announcing a podcast gold rush, there’s a shift in the people who bring content to the table,” Mr. Mahnke said of “Lore,” which hit the jackpot with its Amazon deal. “I’m so in love with the medium of podcasting, and I’m conscious of how we can manage this growth without burning our listeners,” he said. “My caveat is this: Don’t get into it for the money.”
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