Office With a View: After decades in television, the former original content president is building the first audio studio dedicated to fantasy and sci-fi dramas
You wouldn’t think busted pilots or scrapped sci-fi scripts would have a home in today’s vast content market, but Mark Stern sees a place for them.
The Syfy veteran is building the first-ever studio to uncover those hidden gems and turn them into podcast magic. His 2-year-old company, Echoverse, is focusing on making audio dramas in the sci-fi, fantasy and supernatural genres, a market with a big appetite for podcasting, fandom and niche shows. After leading original content at Syfy for more than a decade and founding IM Global Television, it’s safe to say he has developed an eye for taking wonky ideas from development to distribution. But he saw a change in the TV industry that was less about telling stories and more about landing big names.
“I found television to be more and more challenging in terms of it being a space for creative voice and innovation,” Stern told TheWrap. “I got very disenchanted with how it became less and less about just telling great stories with new voices and more about what actor you have attached.”
Over the years, Stern has overseen works involving creators like Jenji Kohan, M. Night Shyamalan, Norman Lear and Phil Rosenthal. As president of original content at Syfy, he led the network to produce popular programs from “Battlestar Galactica” to “Ghost Hunters,” and these shows together have gotten more than 40 Emmy nominations. Now, as president of Echoverse, he’s bringing his TV experience to the podcasting world to develop high-quality scripted audio shows.
With a handful of releases slated for this year and more than two dozen others in the works, Echoverse is considering making its content widely available through streaming services like Audible or Spotify. But each project will come with a different strategy, with some self-distributed and some ad-supported. In the long term, the goal is to build an app to house all of the company’s content and serve as a forum for the sci-fi community.
“We really kind of left ourselves very open to finding the best distribution for each project and what the project is going to need,” Stern said.
In this edition of “Office With a View,” Stern discusses the difference between the TV business and podcasting, how he’s planning to find a home for his productions, and how podcasts can save projects that have been abandoned by other parts of the entertainment industry.
How are TV and podcasts different as a business?
The more you look into that [podcast] space, the more it really reminded me actually of the early days of cable TV. It was this opportunity to try different things. You had this big open white space to play. There wasn’t a lot of expectation or need for high performance, the costs were low, and I see a lot of that same opportunity and audio.
What was very important to me when we started the company was to have funding for both development and production and distribution, so that we can really work as a full fledged kind of film studio and control all the various means of both development, production and distribution. The economics of the audio really allow that to happen, as well. It has been a bit of a challenge to go from TV economics to audio economics, how those deals work and all sorts of other elements of it, but we are really about telling all sorts of different stories in the genre space.
What sort of projects are in the works?
Half of our slate is brand new concepts and … pitches have come in. The other half are from IP that exists, whether it’s book adaptations or graphic novels or adapting a card game. Also existing busted pilot scripts and feature film scripts that never got sold. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to dig out those stories that are really cool that didn’t get a chance to get made. What’s great about audio for us is, it is a really cool way to do proof of concept, so you can actually get something on its feet for not a ton of money and do it at an expert level.
What is an example of one of those busted scripts or ideas that never got sold?
We have this writer who has an amazing voice, who to be honest I don’t think would ever have a shot in television, because she has no credits, she has no background. But she’s got something to say and … we’re creating this supernatural drama about a doctor, a woman who runs a late-night clinic for supernatural creatures in Chicago. It’s just the great mix of supernatural, drama, romantic comedy that is really fun to work on something that different with a writer who has a lot to offer and also needs to be surrounded by some support and given some help to get there.
How do you handle distribution? Will you create your own platform?
We didn’t want to be beholden to either a company that was going to put us behind a paywall or an [app] with a bunch of ads. The intent is to produce four shows between now and mid-summer and have them all together and then really decide how we want to distribute those. Presumably, a lot of things that we’re doing are going to be self distributed and ad-supported in some way. Some could be sponsored or there might be projects that make sense to partner with a company like Spotify or Audible, depending on what the tradeoffs are for that.
We are going to be building a very robust website to support these shows, which will have additional content and opportunity for the audience to talk amongst themselves. They love to talk about these shows, and also tell you what you’re doing wrong with them and what they love about them. The longer term aspiration is to build an app and do the same thing, so this for us is a real 10-year journey of building these shows and having them become part of a much larger community and aspiration.
How has the pandemic changed podcasting?
I think we were all kind of holding our breath to see what happens when the commute goes away. When everyone ended up sequestering in their house, I think on the production side or development side, it was a tremendous opportunity to suddenly have all of these creative talents that don’t have an outlet and are looking for something to do and to get involved in and play with. We were able to launch pretty quickly because … everyone’s got free time, so even though I don’t have the kind of money that TV has to pay a writer, they are interested [and are] excited. It has really helped actually accelerate our process.
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