When Winnie and Alex Kemp submitted their first original fiction podcast “The Imperfection” to the 2021 Tribeca Festival, they set their expectations near the curb.
The couple, co-founders of the podcast studio Wolf at the Door, believed in the project. Making the nine-episode series — a surrealist caper about two impaired friends whose psychiatrist goes missing — had been a nearly yearlong labor of love, but early signals from the market had been humbling. An agent the couple hired to find distribution for the show had come back empty-handed, and emails to 200 journalists generated just one reply — a rejection.
At the Tribeca Festival, which dropped the word “film” from its name that year and expanded its focus on video games, virtual reality, music and audio, “The Imperfection” received a warmer reception. It was among the inaugural slate of 12 officially selected podcasts to premiere at the festival.
Being chosen by Tribeca meant “The Imperfection” was featured with the other festival selections on the Apple Podcasts and Audible home pages, helping it reach the top 20 of Apple Podcasts’ fiction chart. The show was later nominated for best podcast of the year and best fiction writing at The Ambie awards, the industry’s answer to the Oscars. And the Kemps got new representation with the Creative Artists Agency; last year, they sold the television rights to the show, and they will co-write the pilot script.
“It was a huge boon to us helping our first show get found,” Winnie Kemp said. “There are so many shows out there; the hardest thing to figure out is, ‘How do I cut through the noise?’”
Though it has never equaled the most prestigious galas of the film world, the Tribeca Festival, which began last Wednesday and will feature audio selections this week, has emerged as a uniquely appealing showcase for podcast creators. The demand for credible curatorial organizations is high in podcast land, where an explosion of titles — over two million have been created since the start of 2020, according to the database Listen Notes — has made it hard to break out even as overall listenership has increased.
While other festivals exist specifically for audio storytelling, and some documentary festivals include podcast selections, Tribeca’s history — it was founded in 2002 by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff — and association with Hollywood talent have made it an instant player in the audio community.
“This is the next frontier of interesting, creative, independent storytelling — so much so that discoverability has been a challenge for audiences,” said Cara Cusumano, the director and vice president of programming at the Tribeca Festival. “That’s our forte; there was a place for us to play a role in this ecosystem and deliver an experience that you won’t find anywhere else.”
This year, 16 podcasts are competing for various awards in fiction and nonfiction categories. The selections include Alissa Escarce, Nellie Gilles and Joe Richman’s “The Unmarked Graveyard,” a documentary series about the anonymous dead of New York’s Hart Island cemetery; Georgie Aldaco’s “These Were Humans,” a sketch comedy series that imagines the artifacts of an extinct human race; and Glynnis MacNicol, Emily Marinoff and Jo Piazza’s “Wilder,” a nonfiction series about the life and legacy of the “Little House on the Prairie” author Laura Ingalls Wilder.
The festival will also host live tapings and premieres of several podcasts that are not in competition, including “Pod Save America,” Crooked Media’s popular political talk show; “Just Jack & Will,” the actors Sean Hayes and Eric McCormack’s new “Will & Grace” rewatch podcast and “You Feeling This?” an Los Angeles-centric fiction anthology from James Kim.
Davy Gardner, the curator of audio storytelling at Tribeca, said the festival aims to demonstrate that podcasts deserve a comparable level of “cultural recognition” to films.
“Tribeca is giving these creators the full red-carpet treatment,” he said. “This is its own art form and we want to help elevate it and push it forward.”
Film festivals have long been the envy of audio artists. In the early 1990s, Sundance helped create a vogue for independent and art-house films that blossomed into a booming market. Filmmakers who entered the festival with few resources and no name recognition could exit it with the backing of a major studio and a burgeoning career.
No similar infrastructure exists for independent podcasters. As major funders like Spotify and Amazon have consolidated around easy-to-monetize true-crime documentaries and celebrity interview shows — a trend that has intensified amid industrywide economic woes and a series of layoffs — many artists have struggled to find support for less obviously commercial work.
“If you don’t have a promotional budget or aren’t attached to a big network it’s really hard to find an audience,” said Bianca Giaever, whose memoiristic podcast “Constellation Prize” was featured by the Tribeca Festival in 2021. (She is also a former producer of the Times’ podcast “The Daily”). “It’s a vicious cycle, because then less of that work gets made.”
Of course, even award-winning films at the biggest festivals don’t always become hits. And podcast creators at Tribeca have to compete for audiences and prospective business partners accustomed to filling their schedules with movie premieres.
Johanna Zorn, who co-founded the long-running Third Coast International Audio Festival and presented audio work at multiple documentary film festivals in the 2010s, said the payoff sometimes fell short of the promise.
“We went to some fabulous film festivals and we were happy to be there,” she said. “But did they help us get real press coverage? Get us into a room with people who could lead us to the next thing? Give us something that we could really build on? Not so much.”
To cast the podcast selections in an optimal light, Gardner and his colleagues have had to learn how to exhibit an art form not customarily experienced in a communal setting. They have planned around a dozen events at theaters and other venues around Manhattan that will pair excerpts from featured work with live discussions or supplementary video.
One thing they won’t include? Quiet rooms with only an audio track and an empty stage.
“I’ve tried it,” Gardner said wearily. “It’s incredibly awkward.”