The new talkies: Audible is ready for its Hollywood close-up
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Actors have always been a nomadic tribe, trekking to New York for the theater or Hollywood to work in the movies. But these days, with Hollywood having largely abandoned making dramas and reality TV eating up thousands of hours of airtime, legions of actors, eager to practice their craft, have found work as narrators of audio books.
To hear Audible chief executive Donald Katz tell it, his Newark, N.J.-based company is one of the few growth sectors in acting these days. Audible is the largest producer and seller of digital audio books, issuing more than 1,000 titles a year, all in need of narrators. “If you sat at the Broad Street train station, you’d see dozens of actors coming off the train every day, heading to our headquarters,” he told me last week. “We’ve got six studios, running two shifts each day to keep up with the books we’re doing.”
Until now, most of the actors were off-Broadway and TV working stiffs, moonlighting from their day jobs in regional theater or on various “Law & Order” shows. But Katz told me he is about to launch an ambitious effort to rebrand a new line of literary classics. After months of intensive negotiations, Audible has signed up a host of stars, including Dustin Hoffman, Kate Winslet, Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Samuel L. Jackson, Anne Hathaway, Annette Bening and Susan Sarandon.
Audible is offering the prestigious group of Oscar-worthy talent unusually high fees for their services, but the real attraction for actors, who often spend years waiting around for a plum dramatic role, is simple enough: The actors picked the book they wanted to read. When the new series debuts early next year — it’s tentatively called Project A List, though Katz is looking for a more formal title — audio book fans can hear Winslet reading Emile Zola’s “Thérèse Raquin,” Hoffman reading Jerzy Kosinski’s “Being There,” Jackson reading Chester Himes’ “A Rage in Harlem,” Sarandon reading Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding” and Hathaway reading L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
“In recent years, people have been talking about the audio book experience as being like movies for their ears, which is probably what inspired the idea,” Katz says. “For me, actors are true artists. They hear the music in well-composed words, so they know how to use a performance to make a book all their own. I mean, I’d pay Dustin Hoffman to read from a cereal box. So if we’re going to put out the work by the country’s most celebrated authors, they deserved to be read by our country’s most celebrated actors.”
The arrival of A-list actors also opens up a whole new avenue for marketing books for Audible, a subscription service whose members download an average of 18 books a year. Katz says that Winslet, who was one of the first stars to sign on, had always wanted to do a film version of “Thérèse Raquin,” but even though the Zola story has been staged as a play, film, miniseries and radio serial over the years, it was a tough sell to get made in today’s Hollywood. So she jumped at the chance to play the part, even if it were only as a narrator of the book.
Sarandon felt the same way about getting a chance to read “The Member of the Wedding.” “I don’t know if you could get that story made today,” she says of “Wedding,” which after being a hit on Broadway in 1950 was made into a film that earned Julie Harris a lead actress Oscar nomination in her screen debut. “Let’s face it, I don’t know if you could get ‘Thelma & Louise’ made anymore either. But I’d been really moved when I read McCullers’ play, so I thought it would be a great challenge to do it.”
Sarandon, who recently finished doing her reading over several days at the Audible studios, said it was a different experience from being in a film or a play. “You’re really on your own, because you’re not getting any energy or interplay from other actors. It’s frankly a lot more lonely, being there by yourself. But I got to tell a great story, so I’m not complaining. I just had to remember to stay sharp. When you’re the narrator, no mumbling allowed!”
If Audible’s actor-driven literary series works, it will be another feather in the cap for Katz, the rare publishing mogul who began his career as a writer, serving as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Outside while penning award-winning books including “The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears.” At New York University, he studied under novelist Ralph Ellison, whom he credits for helping him grasp that the oral storytelling tradition, from campfire tales to blues laments, is the definitive American literature.
Katz was an early convert to the digital revolution. “I knew audio books were a fantastically immersive experience,” he explains. “But it was mis-positioned in a physical format. I’d get 35 tapes and be out jogging, trying to find tape No. 7 in my fanny pack.”
Katz developed the first portable digital audio player in 1997, but it wasn’t until Steve Jobs unveiled the iTunes store that Audible found a successful commercial niche. Audible remains the exclusive supplier of audio books to iTunes, even though the company was acquired in 2008 by Amazon.
“The other thing Don managed to overcome was our old prejudice against audio books,” says Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Michael Lynton, whose friendship with Katz dates back to Lynton’s publishing days as head of the Penguin Group. “Serious readers used to say, ’I don’t listen to books. I read them.’ But largely due to Audible, people no longer feel that way, just like no one has any snobbery today about great writers and filmmakers working in television.”
In fact, Audible bears a close resemblance to HBO, another subscription service that has attracted a loyal audience by providing quality entertainment — entertainment populated with many of the same actors that are in Audible’s A-list series.
“Like HBO, we’ve created a service that people want to have as a regular part of their entertainment experience,” Katz says. “Having these great actors join up with us is just an extension of that. We told them, ‘You don’t have to worry about hair and makeup. It’s just you, the microphone and the text.’ And then we get out of the way and let them bring the books to life.”
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