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Gideon Media’s Sean Williams on why creators should value intellectual property

In the final article in a short series on derivative rights and intellectual property, Acast’s Grace Ross, US Content Development Manager, speaks to Sean Williams, Co-Founder of Gideon Media.

Gideon Media creates complex, riveting genre entertainment, centered on pulse-pounding tales of science fiction and horror, which include Steal the Stars, The Designated Mourner, Grasses of A Thousand Colors, Give Me Away, The Earth Moves, and God of Obsidian.

This conversation has been condensed and edited from the original video recording, published on Acast’s YouTube Channel. This piece was made as part of Acast’s Audio Fiction Week. You can find out more about Audio Fiction Week at acast.com/audiofictionweek, or via #AcastAudioFictionWeek on social.

Grace Ross: Can you tell us about Gideon Media, and what you’ve been working on recently?

Sean Williams: I am one of the co-owners of Gideon Media with Mac Rogers, who is a playwright and audio-fiction writer. Along with our team of artists, we’ve been producing theater in New York for more than 20 years. About five or six years ago, we started applying those skills to making audio shows.

While we were making independent shows, we kept finding other corporate work, so we had a library of shows that hadn’t been released. This year we released all of them in a big burst, starting in May and going through just last week.

GR: Why is IP so important?

SW: It is really, really important to understand that derivative rights have a high value, and you should think about being bought out of them. Your work has value, your time has value, and that value is going to mean a lot to someone else.

Obviously, early in a career, you have to do what you can, but know that what you’re building is as real and as fungible — as economically movable — as building a chair or creating a piece of pottery. You sell it, someone else owns it, and then they can sell it for whatever profit they want.

So, either hold on to ownership of the thing you’re making, or make sure that you are bought out of that ownership at the price that you’re comfortable with.

GR: As you say, there’s a lot of value in these rights, and a lot of different rights that can be exploited. Steal the Stars had a novelization of the podcast with Macmillan — can you talk about how that came about?

SW: Macmillan was absolutely fantastic to work with. We love those guys so much. One of our producers at Macmillan, Marco Palmieri, who has since moved on to help start Realm, is an incredibly insightful editor, artist, and storyteller, and working with him was a huge joy. Jen Gunnels, who also helped us, was also fantastic to work with, and Kathy Doyle, who’s now running the feed, has been really wonderful to us as well.

With Steal the Stars, we knew Marco and Jen from our theater production, and they came to us with the proposal to create an audio drama that could be packaged and sold as an audiobook, free of all ads. They got writing samples from a bunch of writers, one of which was from Nat Cassidy, who ended up doing the novelization. It just so happens that Nat Cassidy’s been one of our dearest friends for decades and is an amazing writer.

We were able to develop 14 half-hour episodes for Steal the Stars and, at the same time — while Mac was writing and we were producing — Nat wrote the novelization. It’s a little like 2001: A Space Odyssey, when they did the novel at the same time as the movie. It worked out so beautifully, and we were thrilled with the deal because they allowed us to hold on to the derivative rights. They own the audio. They own the feed. Nat owns his novel, but we own the characters. We own the world. We own the thing that Mac created.

From that point forward, we were able to take the show and shop it around for film and TV deals. We were also approached by two different independent game designers — one was a tabletop RPG and the other an online multiplayer video game. Both wanted to use the world of Steal the Stars as the basis for the game. The rights for film and television were optioned by a production company, but we didn’t get to the distribution level.

GR: For new creators sitting down to build a world for their podcast, do you have any advice on what they should consider in those early stages, especially when it comes to derivative rights opportunities?

SW: When we build stories, either as a theater company or as an audio drama company, our artistic director Jordana Williams is really invested in the realities of the world. Why is this important? People have asked us a lot about a possible Season Two for Steal the Stars — but Steal the Stars is a self-contained story and ends rather dramatically.

Jordana really pushed on what the world outside of the main relationships is. What is the structure of the companies that we reference? What is the structure of the country that these people are living in? It is the United States, but in industry talk, it’s “five minutes from now”. So when the conversation about Season Two started happening, the world was there for us. The world existed, and we knew who the characters were. We knew about the corporations. We knew the good and bad guys that had been hiding under the surface, and we knew when they would pop up and how we could bring them in.

Number one, when you are creating fictional worlds, make sure that you know what the whole world can be — because then spin offs become easier, prequels become easier. The second thing is that as an audio dramatist, particularly for those of us who got into it via audio, or being musicians, or as people who’ve done a lot of recording, you are not going to have the same eye as a graphic designer. When it comes to creating merchandise or logos or anything like that, find a graphic designer that you can invest in and who will invest in the world that you’ve made.

Let creative people be creative, which is sort of the cornerstone of our entire company.

GR: That is such an important point when it comes to derivative rights: you have to let other people run with your idea in their areas of expertise. When I was a literary agent, I used to tell writers frequently, when their book was optioned for film and television, not to expect to be involved.

SW: Even worse is, if they do involve you, you now have a boss. It’s a very different world when somebody has given you money to own the thing you made. That leads to another good point: don’t sign over the derivatives until you’re ready, until you feel the price is worth losing them for. In the end, you’ve got to be okay with something, but just figure out what it is.

Your work begets more work. Understand that you’re not going to be cashing in on the one show. You create worlds. If you’ve got a show that somebody is willing to pay for, don’t sweat the fact that you might lose the characters that you love and the world you’ve created. Have faith that you are a storyteller and you will make more.

Acast would like to thank Sean for taking the time to chat. You can find a collection of all the Gideon Media shows to listen to at www.gideon-media.com. Gideon Media also participated in Acast’s Audio Fiction Week with some amazing, collaborative content, so check out its socials @gideonaudio for more. And don’t forget to shout-out your favorite fiction podcasts on social using #AcastAudioFictionWeek.

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