Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 03/01/21

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What’s old is new again. Scripted audio entertainment thrived on radio from the 1920’s through much of the 1950s when it largely pushed aside by the advent of television. But the art form is finding renewed life in the emerging era of the podcast. In fact, such marquee names as Matthew McConaughey, Demi Moore, Cynthia Erivo, Remi Malek and Kristen Wiig have recently provided their voices, acting talent and industry heft to podcast projects. The trend has, if anything, been sped up by the COVID-19 pandemic that has hampered movie and TV production and threatened the very survival of many theaters.

One company that is particularly well-positioned to benefit from all this is At Will Media. The award-winning podcast production house founded by restaurant entrepreneur Will Malnati who saw the boom coming and leaned into it. His company, that opened for business in 2016 and has since produced branded content for the likes of The New York Times, GQ, Hearst, Morgan Stanley, Town & Country, Viacom and The Clinton Foundation, kicked off its scripted slate with the Webby-nominated series 14 Days with Felicity starring Jordan Klepper (The Daily Show) and Heléne Yorke (The Good Fight). The ripped-from-the-headlines satire mined laughs from the premise that actress Felicity Huffman managed to sneak her cell phone into prison to communicate with friends, family, agents, managers and old rivals while serving a two-week sentence over her much-publicized college admissions scandal.

Malnati’s company has followed up on that success to partner with actor/filmmaker Paul Feig’s digital production company Powderkeg to produce the upcoming true-crime scripted parody The Case of Adirondack Rose exclusively for Spotify. And that’s just the beginning as the company gears up to launch a slate of scripted series featuring major celebrities in 2021.

I spoke with the podcasting visionary about what led him to take the leap into the industry, why he sees scripted podcast content as the next entertainment frontier and if he sees opportunities to include quality faith and family-themed storytelling in the mix. Beyond all that, his story is an inspirational one about the value of working to use what you’ve been given to realize your God-given dreams.

JWK: You’re the grandson of the founder of the popular Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria chain out of Chicago which is now owned by your father. You went on to open successful restaurants in New York City, Bangkok and Dubai. In 2013 and 2015, respectively, Zagat and Forbes had you on their 30 Under 30 list of young restaurateurs and entrepreneurs to keep an eye on.  With a background like that, what led you to leap into the podcast business?

Will Malnati: To back up to before I started to get into the restaurant industry on my own, I had always had a passion for production. I worked in music production. I loved being in a recording studio. I worked in television production. I worked for the show, if you remember, it was called Punk’d that Ashton Kutcher created for MTV back in the day and I worked for a production company of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. These were just kind of like summer gigs that I had. Sometimes I would get out of school early and head out to LA to do these internships or jobs. So, I always knew I loved it.  I definitely had early experience in production. I loved everything about it. Then, as it happens to many people, you kind of start thinking “Okay, what is my real career path going to look like?”

Because I had studied hospitality in college and, coupled with the fact that my family is deeply rooted in restaurants, it felt like a natural progression for me to, once I graduated, go into the hospitality industry. I had also worked in, you know, ten different restaurants of my family and outside of my family growing up. It was in my blood. I was able to pick up a restaurant job quickly. I became a young manager and worked my way up that way. When it was time to kind of do my own thing – when I felt prepared for that because I had worked at other people’s hospitality businesses for quite some time after graduation…I took the opportunity to kind of see what building a business would look like.

But, throughout all that, I had that production passion inside of me and I very much was wondering to myself a lot of the time when I was still working in restaurants “Will I ever be able to get back into that in some capacity?” It was always on my mind but I was pursuing restaurants so I kinda stuck with that.

Then what I started to realize is that the hospitality industry, at the level that I was operating at, is not so dissimilar from production in general. There’s lots of moving parts. You’re building a team. You’re building a culture. You’re building a sales force. You have to sell. You have to interact with big companies and clients, at times. So, a lot of the muscles that I was flexing as a young restaurateur, I realized have a lot of crossover to any type of production – whether it’s TV, film or, ultimately, what I started to really learn more and more about when I turned 30 – podcasting.

JWK: Did you ever think of doing a show for the Food Network?

WM: Actually, one of the first shows that I produced was (about) a food blogger who would go around to parts of New York City and it was kind of like we were experiencing him on a food crawl. He’d go to three or four different restaurants and we were with him almost like a documentary-style podcast. He would speak to the owner and he would try the food and we’d try to take something that usually is visual and make it a podcast. That, for me, was like a natural progression. That was what felt safe to me at the time (because) I knew food and I (was) starting to learn podcasts. So, I felt good about that.

Cut to now and we have a couple of different hospitality partners that we produce shows for. So, hospitality-driven content is very much still somewhere in my wheelhouse.

JWK: How did At Will Media come about?

WM: I guess I started to kind of dip my toe in the water of podcast about five years ago. I started thinking that a lot of things weren’t being done in the podcast space that I felt like maybe I could try – similar to the “food crawl” concept I just mentioned. I hadn’t heard of anything like that five years ago, so we tried it out.

I guess when I first was really starting the thing it was to test out the market (and) to see what I could learn about podcasts. I knew that I had the ability to create a business. So, once I started feeling out the industry, I was starting to think to myself “Wow! I could actually build a company around podcasts. I think that this thing is growing as an industry and it’s not going anywhere but up.” I really felt like if I could build a business in hospitality then maybe I could build business in podcasts.

JWK: What makes a good podcast?

WM: Great question. I think these days there are so many more formats and so many more different types of shows and hosts than has ever existed in the space. I think what we look at as a company, specifically, is what is not being done in the space – and, if there is something similar being done in the space, how do we make if better or how do we make it more unique?

We do a lot of scripted narrative podcasts which is something that is still very new to the industry. What makes a good scripted (podcast) is different than something else.

JWK: What makes a good scripted podcast?

WM: A lot of film and TV companies are starting to look at podcasts – and a lot of screenwriters or showrunners are starting to look at podcasts – and (they) say “Can I just take this script that I have – that I pitched as a TV show that didn’t end up going forward – dust it off and just have people record it rather than film it?” A lot of people (have the) attitude that that’s all it takes.

What we know – and what we’ve tested – is really that a script for audio is much different than a script that is meant to be for a visual medium. So, what makes something good for audio isn’t always the same thing that makes something good for film or TV. It’s easy to confuse people, for example, when we’re dealing with audio. You have to be really careful about how much you’re throwing at a listener and how soon you’re doing that. How many characters are you introducing?, for example. You gotta be careful with that. How are you showing something to a listener with their ears rather than with their eyes? How are you going to create a world with sound rather than what you can easily do with visuals? (It’s) a lot more complex in some ways.

JWK: In one way this is really new and cutting edge but, in another way, it’s a lot like old-time radio.

WM: That’s right. It’s interesting that you bring that up because I think that we always look at back in the forties and look at the “teleplays” that were happening and people were listening to on their radios and we say this really was an early version of TV. Now, we’re going back to that format in a way that’s way more sophisticated. You have way more tools to work with to really heighten sound. You have Dolby getting involved in sound mixing and mastering now for podcasts. It’s taking what was really invented back in the early 1900s. This is the 2.0 or the 3.0 of that…What we know is that people like to consume – and have always liked to consume – audio (storytelling) with characters. (Podcasting) isn’t just hearing a host talk to a guest. There’s (the) opportunity to really fall in love with a story and fall in love with characters – through your ears.

JWK: You mention the idea of scripts developed for movies and TV being converted into podcasts but I would imagine that could go the other way to. For instance, War of the Worlds was a radio broadcast (1938) before it was a movie (1953).

WM: That’s right…I love the War of the Worlds story (and) that (the radio audience) thought it was real. It was very much like Blair Witch (1999) for film. The way that it was marketed was “This is real!” or this is found (footage) in the case of Blair Witch. There’s definitely conversations that we have a lot around that.

JWK: You had an early success with 14 Days with Felicity. Tell me about that. 

WM: 14 Days with Felicity was our first try at a scripted narrative. We created something that had a distribution cadent – or a release cadent – unlike anything we had heard to that point in podcasts which was it was following Felicity Huffman’s time in jail based on the day that she actually went to jail and kept going throughout the days that she was actually in jail. So, it was tied to the timeliness of that story that people were reading about.

Typically, you would have a story like the college admissions scandal and (you would say) “We’re going to create a podcast about it and we’re gonna release it whenever.” What was interesting about that was that we really relevant to when she was actually serving her sentence. It was a parody. It was very much an exaggerated version of what would happen if she were able to sneak her cell phone into prison with her. Who would she call? Who would she text? Who would be leaving her voice notes, etc? It was just an interesting way of kind of bringing content like that to life (in) the way that Saturday Night Live would.

JWK: Did you get any reaction from Felicity Huffman?

WM: We never did. I think what we did hear was that there were some people that were close to her that listened to it. We never got official confirmation the she had heard it but we knew that enough people that knew her had listened (so) she may have heard it.

But, again, that was our first go at a scripted podcast. We had a lot of fun. We did it on a tight budget. We did it in a tight timeline. It really gave us a sense for what was possible in the space.

JWK: Now, you have a deal with Spotify to produce a podcast called The Case of Adirondack Rose which is sort of a spoof of those Dateline-style true crime shows.

WM: Exactly. It’s a partnership that we have with Paul Feig’s digital production company Powderkeg. It’s really funny. Obviously, anything that Paul Feig touches is brilliant in terms of comedy and so it was a really an opportunity for us to partner with someone like him – and his team is amazing.

The most recent thing (currently out) is Sorry Charlie Miller for Audible. We’re calling it a “crime comedy.”…It’s an underdog story that really allows for real character development and allows you to really love these characters and got to know them over the course of ten episodes.

JWK: At least at the outset, you seem to be focused on scripted comedies. Do you see At Will getting into other genres? This being Beliefnet, I’m wondering if you see possibilities for faith and family-themed scripted podcasts?

WM: That’s a good question. We do have another project that’s in production right now that is a drama. It’s kind of an action drama. So, it’s a step outside of comedy for us (that) we’re really excited about with some really great talent attached to it.

And, yeah, as far as your question about (whether there) could there be more scripted (podcasts) for different audiences and different genres, absolutely. I think that it’s still early for this type of content but we feel like the more content that is in the space, the more it will become part of regular consumer behavior where they’re saying “Okay, I listen to a few different two-way interview-style podcasts but I also listen to one kids-themed scripted podcast and I listen to one dramatic scripted podcast.”…The more that is happening and the more that listeners are seeing scripted (podcasts) become more available, I think that all formats welcome and all audiences will have something for them.

JWK: Where do you see you company in five years?

WM: That’s a great question and something that we talk about every day. It’s something that I lie awake thinking about. We want to be the next A24.
A24 is an independent film company that has great taste. They do a great job with making things happen on a lean budget and they have a very unique kind of marketing strategy for each of the projects that they do.  They think about things differently.

Where we’re headed right now, especially in the scripted space, is we’re going to have lots of opportunity – and we already do – to be able to upstream a lot of what we’re doing in the audio space to the television and film space. If there was a company that had that same great taste and unique ability to bring things to market in the podcast space – just like A24 (in the film space) – that would be us.

JWK: Have you received any interest from film and TV companies to develop projects for them via podcasting?

WM: We have a first-look (deal) with Amazon Studios as a part of the work that we do partnered with Audible. For Sorry Charlie Miller…we’re in the process of putting forward a strategy for going to television.

JWK: What advice would you give to aspiring podcasting entrepreneurs?

WM: As the podcasting space continues to grow at the rapid pace that it is, I think two things happen. One, there becomes more opportunities for any person who wishes to enter the space and create a company in it. The second thing that happens is it becomes way more competitive and it’s going to be more and more difficult for people who come into this space off the street to be able to compete with some of the people who have already had years (in it).

JWK: It’s a lot like the early years of radio or television – and you’re in a position like William Paley when he was starting CBS.

WM: Absolutely – and I’m so glad and grateful that I got into it when I did because it allowed me to really get my bearings and learn who the players are and how things work in this industry so that right now we can really hit our stride. All of that prep work over the past years have allowed us to really be in a great position in the industry.
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Murder Among the Mormon drops this Wednesday (3/3) on Netflix. The three-part docuseries chronicles a real-life murder/bombing mystery involving documents that called into question the origin story of Mormonism, rocking the foundation of Utah-based Church of Latter Day Saints in the 1980s. You can read my review following the trailer below.

IMHO: While my above interview with Will Malnati notes that the true crime documentary genre so abundant amid the current TV landscape is certainly ripe for spoofing, there still some examples of the form that demonstrate that they don’t all have to come off as Dateline-style tragedy exploitation. Proof of that comes via the three-part Murder Among the Mormons premiering Wednesday on Netflix. Not only is the story itself truly gripping but it’s told in a humane way that respects the dignity of the fallible human beings involved and makes an important statement about how vulnerable we all are – including those we hold up as experts – to a well-orchestrated deception.

The procedural story held me throughout but the last chapter is particularly chilling as, with the killer revealed, it explores how an evil mindset can utterly disregard the value of human life while simultaneously twisting both science and faith in an all-out assault on truth. Highly recommended as a warning about the very real danger of fake news.

PS: You can read my review with Murder Among the Mormons co-director Jared Lawrence Hess here.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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