How Podcast Leader QCode Uses Star Power — Like an Upcoming Gina Rodriguez Thriller — to Disrupt the Industry

·5-min read

Gina Rodriguez is on the floor of an audio booth in Hollywood, stretching: The actor, late of “Jane the Virgin,” is taking a break as she records a new series for the prolific podcasting company QCode. It’s a sci-fi thriller called “Last Known Position,” and Rodriguez plays Mikaela, a submarine pilot who’s investigating what happened to a jet that vanished over the Pacific Ocean. What Mikeala is finding out is terrifying: There seems to have been a giant sea creature involved in the plane’s disappearance. Another actor is on Zoom, while the director, John Wynn, creator Luke Passmore and QCode staffers helm the recording booth.

Rodriguez is an executive producer of “Last Known Position” as well as its star. During the pandemic, she says later, she and her husband started “listening to podcasts like crazy.” So when QCode approached her over the summer about “Last Known Position,” the timing was perfect: “I was like, ‘Oh, this one’s freaking awesome.’” Not only did she love Passmore’s scripts, but the project, which will take her four half-days of voice acting, brings her into a new genre: “I’m obsessed with thrillers.” “Last Known Position” will premiere on podcasting platforms at the end of the year and roll out weekly.

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There was an added benefit: QCode, which was founded in 2018 by Rob Herting, a former CAA agent, has a high batting average selling its scripted podcasts for adaptation into other mediums. Since 2019, when it premiered its debut offering, “Blackout,” starring Rami Malek — a week after he’d won the Academy Award for best actor — QCode has sold a dozen of them to be adapted into television series, movies and even books. Would Rodriguez want to play Mikeala on a TV show or in a movie? “I would 100% make this,” she says.

Herting, 39, got the idea for QCode as he watched two simultaneous booms: one in intellectual property, the other in podcasting. With an initial investment from the production company Automatik and the management company Grandview, Herting struck out on his own. In total, the company has raised $7.9 million, with the last round of $6.4 million coming in October 2020, led by the wireless speaker company Sonos. Now, QCode is riding the wave of scripted podcast adaptations, as pioneered by Amazon with “Homecoming” and “Lore,” and Facebook Watch with “Limetown” — and by Amazon’s Wondery, whose TV projects have included “Dirty John” for NBCUniversal, “The Shrink Next Door” for Apple TV Plus and “Dr. Death” for Peacock.

When QCode was launching “Blackout,” it gathered the talent, but “no one had ever made a podcast,” Herting says with a laugh. Not creator Scott Conroy, a former client of Herting’s, not director Shawn Christensen, not Malek — and not Herting. Yet it turned out to be a huge success. “I think it proved out a lot of things that I was hoping,” Herting says. More than two and a half years after its release, “Blackout” continues to be on Apple’s ranking of top fiction podcasts — and Chernin Entertainment acquired the rights to adapt it in 2019.

Some QCode podcasts have been profitable based on the advertising alone. “But they’re not always,” Herting says. “I’d equate it to an independent film — it can work, but it’s far from a guarantee.” And though Herting’s goal for the company is for it to be an incubator for stories that can travel to other mediums, “none of it will work if we don’t make a great audio experience.”

QCode and Automatik are currently in post-production for QCode’s first two TV series, adaptations of the podcasts “Edge of Sleep” and “Gaslight,” which were both shot this summer in Vancouver (as overseen by Chris Ferguson’s production company, Oddfellows). They’re part of a deal with New Regency to make five series that will then be taken to market.

Of the projects that have been optioned, Herting says “Carrier,” which stars Cynthia Erivo as a truck driver and sold to Amblin Partners as a potential feature, and “The Left Right Game,” which features Tessa Thompson and sold to Amazon after a bidding war, are furthest along. With “Carrier,” Herting says, “there’s a script that everyone loves” written by the podcast’s creator, Dan Blank, and he hopes the movie can come together next year.

“The Left Right Game” started as a Reddit thread in 2017. The author, Jack Anderson, posted it under the name Neon Tempo, and the story went viral. Shortly after the podcast premiered, Amazon beat out Netflix and others for the rights. As for Anderson, Herting says, “He’d never written anything before,” and “now he’s an EP and creating a big show for Amazon.”

“That’s what I say as a former agent — he potentially has skipped so many levels,” Herting continues.

“Dirty Diana,” the erotic drama created by Shana Feste, featuring Demi Moore as the title character, is also in development at Amazon. It will be a HarperCollins book trilogy, too, Herting says, by Feste and co-writer Jen Besser. That Moore, Erivo and Thompson starred in these projects garnered attention, of course, and Herting says they benefit from wherever the stories go afterward: “All of our leads are executive producers, and they have a stake in the intellectual property.”

Herting has tried to land on the ideal number of podcasts to do in a year without “diminishing returns” — “I think it might be 20,” he says. And he isn’t even sure whether “podcasting” is the right term for what QCode does. So what is? “I don’t have the words!” He tosses a few around that definitely don’t work, like “audio drama” and “movies for your ears.”

It’s a new frontier. But narrative storytelling certainly has advanced since Herting first left CAA. Then no one understood what was he talking about at all. His answer to them was, he says, “Well, you’re just gonna have to hear it!”

Todd Spangler contributed to this report.

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