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From Demi Moore to Matthew McConaughey, Screen Stars Are Turning to Podcasts

12/25/2020 | 12:15pm EDT

By Chris Kornelis

Early in the pandemic, Demi Moore spent hours in her bathroom listening to women describe their fantasies.

"I think about my ex," says Melanie Griffith, an actress playing a character named Carrie, in a line from "Dirty Diana," the podcast Ms. Moore was working on. "We're in our old house. You know, the house we lived in when we were still married."

In the scripted drama, produced by Qcode Media, Ms. Moore plays an accountant who secretly runs a website that streams audio of women sharing their intimate desires. The original plan was to record the show with a cast on a sound stage, but when the pandemic hit, the production went online and the actors interacted with each other remotely over Zoom, from makeshift studios in closets and spare rooms at home.

"I went to different rooms and recorded myself and said, hey, which one sounds the best?" Ms. Moore said in a recent Zoom call. "It ended up being my bathroom."

A-list celebrities like Matthew McConaughey, Kristen Wiig, Rami Malek and Cynthia Erivo are turning to scripted fiction podcasts with the production qualities of TV and film -- just without the pictures. Alongside film, TV and theater, scripted podcasts have become a popular, somewhat pandemic-proof medium for actors and writers to tell ambitious stories.

Many more will join them in 2021. Amazon's Audible has a James Patterson series, "The Coldest Case: A Black Book Drama," planned for next year, starring Aaron Paul and Krysten Ritter of "Breaking Bad" fame, as well as Nathalie Emmanuel, who played Missandei in "Game of Thrones." Spotify has a slate of scripted shows planned around DC Entertainment characters, with "Batman Unburied" premiering in 2021. Qcode, a startup podcast company that focuses on scripted shows with marquee names, such as "Dirty Diana," has 15 new series planned for next year.

The shows are part of an evolution in audio storytelling that is blurring the lines between podcasts, radio dramas and audiobooks. Audible, for example, is producing original programming starring and sometimes written by actors like Jesse Eisenberg and Daisy Ridley that doesn't have to fit any predetermined length or format. These Audible Originals could, for example, be five hours, 90 minutes or 30-minute episodic stories.

"I talk a lot about this renaissance in audio that we're seeing, but I really think it's just the beginning," says Rachel Ghiazza, the executive vice president at Audible who oversees U.S. content. "We're not even close to seeing what's going to happen in the space yet."

Picture this

Actors and creators say they're drawn to the surprisingly immersive, even consuming quality of the audio medium, as well as the ability to create new worlds at a fraction of the cost and logistical headaches of telling a story on screen.

Rob Herting, chief executive of Qcode, says the budgets for his shows are generally in the low to mid six-figure range, significantly less than the cost of mounting a TV show with the same story and cast. There's also no traveling to a set in Atlanta. There are no costumes. There aren't weeks spent away from family. Actors can record the shows from home, usually in less than a week. With lower overhead and time commitments, Ms. Moore says chances can be taken on original stories, riskier topics and ambitious concepts that would take significantly more resources to pull off on screen.

"This just kind of opens up the amount of stories you can tell," says Shana Feste, the creator of "Dirty Diana." "Now I could tell a story in space if I wanted to. I could record it next week and it would sound like we were in space," without the need for realistic, evocative visuals. "And that's really exciting."

Indeed in Qcode's "From Now," a podcast that began releasing episodes on Spotify and other major outlets last week, Richard Madden plays an astronaut on a spaceship that returns to Earth 35 years after it disappeared. He performed the opening moments of the show -- "Mission control, do you copy? Captain Harrow's dead! They're all dead!" -- hunched over a desk while quarantining in a Los Angeles hotel room.

Mr. Madden, who played Robb Stark in "Game of Thrones," says he performed in a lot of radio dramas for BBC early in his career, and remembers walking on gravel and carpet in the studio to get different sound effects. The difference with podcasts like "From Now" is that sound effects are taken care of by sound designers and engineers, often from the TV and film industry, leaving the actor with the sole duty of performing with his voice.

Brian Cox, who plays Mr. Madden's twin brother in "From Now," is well known for his performances in epic blockbusters like "Braveheart" and hit TV shows like HBO's "Succession," but he says "radio" -- his catchall term for audio, including podcasts -- is his favorite medium.

"You tune right into the imagination," he says. "You cut through everything. It's all about the words and the words paint the pictures. And if it's a good radio script, it's a good painter of pictures."

Eye on the screen

Unlike true-crime podcasts, a genre that was given a shot in the arm when "Serial" took off, there has yet to be a megahit for scripted podcast fiction. But the format has proved popular with audiences and created a new pipeline for getting stories onto the screen. "Homecoming" and "Limetown" were two early examples of podcasts that made the jump to screen.

"We definitely wanted our sonic world to provide a very visual experience and we want to create a large intellectual property that has a real engine to go further," says Rhys Wakefield, the co-creator of "From Now." "To come to the screen eventually, that's definitely been a part of its design from the get-go."

Mr. Herting left his job as an agent at Creative Artists Agency in 2019 to start Qcode, in part because he wanted to create riskier, original stories that, when demonstrated in a podcast, could be more easily developed into television, film and theater productions. He even structures deals with stars like Ms. Moore and Messrs. Cox and Madden to make them executive producers and give them first crack at taking their roles on screen. "Not to say that it's going to work every time," says Mr. Herting, "but it'll certainly get its day in court, I think, if [a podcast] goes out and is successful."

Several Qcode shows are in various stages of development for TV and film, including "Dirty Diana." But, while she's eager to bring "Dirty Diana" to the screen, Ms. Feste says something is lost by adding video. "The sex scenes that you listen to, you can use your imagination," she says. "They're probably so much sexier than what we'll be able to create in 'Dirty Diana' the television show. I don't know. We're going to try our best."

SCRIPTED FICTION PODCASTS: WHERE TO START

-- "Homecoming" (Gimlet Media): This series, about a therapist who works with soldiers, was brought to the screen by Amazon Prime Video, with Julia Roberts in the lead role.

-- "Motherhacker" (Gimlet Media): A financially compromised mom gets wrapped up in a phone phishing racket. Season 2 is expected early in 2021.

-- "Moonface" ( James Kim): Rob Herting, CEO of podcast company Qcode, calls this independent coming-of-age story about a young man struggling to tell his parents about his sexuality "the Sundance hit of fiction podcasts."

-- "Carrier" (Qcode Media): Cynthia Erivo, who received a best-actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Harriet Tubman in "Harriet," plays a long-haul truck driver who picks up a load that...may be more than just vegetables.

All shows available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other outlets.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

12-25-20 1214ET

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