Don’t tell Terri White, but I’m really not a massive film fan.
Yes, I’ve watched what feels like week’s worth of Netflix through lockdown, but I couldn’t tell you anything about the actors or the directors or the broader significance of the movies I’ve seen. And from that position of almost total ignorance, I’m in awe of the Empire Editor-in-Chief and her team; not only do they talk intelligently about films, but people are paying to listen.
“I just call the Empire main podcast like the gateway drug“
Hear Terri White talk about the Spoiler Special Podcast:
Bauer’s flagship movie magazine has been charging readers to tune in to its Spoiler Special podcasts for just over 12 months. And, initially a trial, the paid podcasts have just become a permanent fixture.
Empire launched its Spoiler Special series to complement its regular weekly film podcasts. Terri describes the weekly show as the ‘gateway drug’, with coverage focusing on news around the run up to the release of a film and a review of five or six minutes the week it comes out.
”We’ll start coverage a year out sometimes even more if it’s a film we’re really interested in. But our big moment, the cover moment or the major feature is usually four to six weeks before release. It’s quite broad in that sense,” says Terri.
In contrast, each Spoiler Specials podcast comes out after the film release. Each episode features three or four members of the Empire team and often the makers of the film being talked about. In a plot-heavy discussion running for one, maybe two, sometimes three hours they dissect every twist and turn of the plot.
Get stories like these directly in your inbox every week
Click here to subscribe to our (free) FIPP World Newsletter
Terri gives the example of a discussion about scissors in the horror film US.
“With US, we talked about the symbolism of the scissors and Chris actually spoke to (writer and director) Jordan Peele for that. And we asked very, very specific questions about characters, about plots, about cinematography, about endings. It’s really a deep, deep conversation at that point.”
Not being a serious film fan, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the dangers of spoilers in regular entertainment media. But Terri explained it’s incredibly important to avoid ruining storylines for an audience who hasn’t seen a film yet. “We don’t go anywhere near them.”
But after the fact? That’s a very different story. “We knew there was a massive conversation after people had seen a film, and now TV shows. People want to dig into those spoiler details.”
Terri describes Spoiler Specials as hugely popular and by hugely popular she means massive: the Avengers: Endgame Spoiler Special scored half a million downloads. It was this popularity that sparked the idea that people might pay for the podcast.
The paid version of Spoiler Specials launched in January 2020 on Glow, one of a limited number of platforms that could support paid podcasts at the time. The launch price was GBP £4.99 (US $7) a month and I think it’s fair to say the initial reaction was mixed.
Some on social media were supportive, recognising the need to fund the creation of the podcasts. But “£5 a month for 2 podcasts, you gotta be out of your damn minds!” wasn’t a completely unique response on Twitter.
Listeners suggested making access free for subscribers, launching a voluntary Patreon subscription or simply looking to good old-fashioned ad-funding to keep access free. But Empire stuck to its guns and charged £4.99 throughout the 12-month trial.
“We did a ton of research,” Terri says. “We wanted to see if the appetite was really there for people to pay for podcasts. For some people, it was too much and it was a barrier to entry. But actually, £4.99 was the most commonly suggested price point from the audience.”
Twelve months in, the Spoiler Special package has been re-engineered to take account of audience feedback. The podcasts now sit on a new platform and with a new, lower price point. “We were looking at what we do permanently, and we decided to bring the price down to £2.99 ($4), and move platforms to Supportingcast which allowed us to bill in Sterling.”
Subscribers get a minimum of two Spoiler Special episodes a month plus exclusive access to 100+ archive episodes. Alternatively, prospective listeners can sign up to Empire’s new ‘VIP Club’ membership package. For an annual fee of £85 ($118) they’ll get access to all Spoiler Special content plus a print magazine subscription, a Picturehouse membership card plus entry to exclusive events.
Thinking about Empire’s VIP Club and podcast-only subscribers, I can see a pyramid of Empire readers. The Superfans at the apex buy everything the team can produce. At the base, casual readers buy the magazine occasionally on the newsstand and listen to podcast episodes when there’s a film they are interested in.
Terri doesn’t share my crass, commercial vision of her audience: “We’re not trying to work out how much we can rinse out of them on each platform.”
To her, Empire is for anyone who loves film and she is wary of any ‘elitism’ around how much of a film buff you have to be to engage with the brand. She wants it to speak to everyone and anyone who loves film.
“Somebody said to me when I first came into magazines in 1999, that the very best magazines are brilliant gangs. The Empire audience, whether that’s listeners to the podcast or readers of the print mag are absolutely one big, massive gang.”
If Empire’s audience is a gang, Spoiler Special listeners are some of its most committed members. One of the most popular episodes is a three-hour conversation between host Chris Hewitt and Mission Impossible director Chris McQuarrie.
“They will listen to three hours of Chris Hewitt talking to Chris McQuarrie, because for them this isn’t just a film, it’s their lives in many respects, and is their great defining passion.”
SAVE THE DATES!
Digital Innovators’ Summit: five in-depth DIS webinars with deep dives into key innovation areas for the year. 9 March, 23 March (central theme will be podcasting!), 6 April, 20 April and 4 May
Direct-to-Consumer Global: D2C Global is a new FIPP event focusing on the direct-to-consumer business of media. 8-10 June and 15-17 June
Learn more here
That passion for the brand is at the heart of why Empire can charge for its Spoiler Special podcast.
“I think we have an offering that is really unique,” says Terri. “We have access to the filmmakers and then we have the expertise of the film. And that for me, like with the print mag, is why people pay for it. People are paying for that insight and that expertise that they can’t necessarily get in lots of other places.”
Terri thinks most magazine brands, especially if their main source of revenue has been print, must be looking at ways to monetize other aspects of their portfolio.
“It would be daft not to be looking at ways that we can make media brands make money into the future. I think print media will always exist, but there’s no way to deny the fact that it has declined over the last 10 years. For us, it was about making Empire future proof, making sure that we continue to grow and expand the brand.”