For its 65 million unique monthly visitors, the digital literature website/social networking app Wattpad is a kind of internet safe space. It’s a nurturing, highly interactive community where its core 13- to 35-year-old readership spends around 20 billion combined minutes per month consuming and critiquing user-generated stories, in genres such as sci-fi, young-adult fiction, poetry, and horror, but also fanciful fanfic with titles like 50 Shades of Drake and Harry Styles Dirty Imagines. For Hollywood development executives, however, Wattpad has come to serve an altogether different purpose. Since launching its dedicated entertainment division Wattpad Studios two years ago, the self-publishing platform has evolved into a one-stop shop for fresh IP: an influential incubator for original storytelling with a decidedly Gen Y bent that media bosses are increasingly turning to for new TV shows, movies, and digital series.
To wit: the success of The Kissing Booth, a 2011 story turned book series written by then 15-year-old Beth Reekles that was read 19 million times on Wattpad before being adapted into an original film by Netflix. In May, the dismally reviewed movie exploded across popular culture, ranking on IMDb as the fourth most popular film in the country (behind Deadpool 2, Avengers: Infinity War, and Solo: A Star Wars Story), subjected to numerous published “explainers” (calling The Kissing Booth, variously, a “sensation” and “Everyone’s Obsession”) and touted by Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos, in an interview with Vulture, as “one of the most-watched movies in the country, and maybe the world.” Also in May, Hulu made a ten-episode straight-to-series order for the teen supernatural thriller Light As a Feather, based on a story by Wattpad writer Zoe Aarsen (one that has been read 3 million times on the site to date). In June, Wattpad entered into a partnership giving the Munich-based multi-platform entertainment company Bavaria Fiction exclusive access to more than a million German-language stories on the site. The CW network has experimented with adapting Wattpad-generated content into pilots and web series for its digital channel CW Seed since last summer. And in 2016, Wattpad inked a first-look deal with NBCUniversal’s Universal Cable Productions to produce TV projects based on writing by the site’s active monthly writers — who now number around 4 million — across genres including mystery, thrillers, teen lit, and general fiction.
Which could all be attributed to standard operating procedure in an era when traditional entertainment conglomerates are increasingly turning to digital-first media — blogs, YouTube, even Snapchat — in the hopes of finding diamond-in-the-rough content. But to hear it from Wattpad Studios’ chief Aron Levitz, as well as entertainment executives from companies in partnership with Wattpad, the Toronto-based publishing platform’s devoted community of readers provides a secret weapon in developing content with road-tested mass appeal: data. By actively commenting — often paragraph by paragraph over the course of, say, a 300-page online book — Wattpad readers function as a highly motivated focus group, helping dictate plotlines, vetting characters, and even the deletion of scenes.
“This is a whole bunch of information the industry never had before,” Levitz tells Vulture. “We can go to the audience in a story and see not only if they like or dislike the lead male character. We can read the comments that actually say, ‘Yeah, this is where half the audience decides they like him and half the audience decides they hate him.’ We can look at whole chapters that don’t have any comments and drop the right pieces out. We can draw up two casting videos of two potential female leads. And through our social feeds, go, ‘What do you think?’ And we’re gonna get tens, hundreds, maybe thousands of comments that are gonna point us in one direction or another.”
Contrast that development process with the relatively speculative M.O. employed by Hollywood since time immemorial, whereby entertainment execs and producers provide “notes” on scripts and then screen pilot episodes or early cuts for test audiences, making final alterations only after filming is finished. Historically, the decision to tweak or finesse these projects ultimately comes down to the intuitive choices of just a few people in positions of power. Wattpad, meanwhile, is disrupting that status quo through crowdsourcing and its fervid social-media interface; about 90 percent of the site’s activity comes courtesy of its mobile app.
In October, the multinational entertainment distribution company Entertainment One entered into a partnership with Wattpad to develop original film, television, and virtual reality projects. Under the deal, the site “curates” content for eOne — specifically sci-fi, character-driven, and female-driven properties — and deploys its community to help its hired screenwriters. Although none of the projects have yet made their way to the screen, according to Jocelyn Hamilton, president of eOne’s Canadian television division, several are currently nearing completion. And the company’s stated hope is that readers’ passion for the projects will sustain all the way from adaptation to release.
“As an innovation, it’s such an interesting new way to get feedback more immediately,” Hamilton says of Wattpad’s crowdsourcing. “We have the data that tells us, this is who they like, this is what they comment most on, we can take this as guidance. Even if they dislike things, that’s so helpful. Then the writer takes that and fleshes the material out in a way that will work for our type of audience in an audiovisual format. That community of fans ends up taking ownership to help take it to the next stage. It’s like Kickstarter. You take ownership and then we can utilize that in bringing it to fans. And bring that audience over to watching the eventual end product.”
For a generation of writers willing to set aside their authorial egos in exchange for thousands of points of feedback, Wattpad’s writer-reader dialogue has certain demonstrated upsides. Katarina E. Tonks, for one, began writing her darkly comic series of fantasy stories Death Is My BFF in 2011 when she was 14 years old. In 2015, with no small amount of input from the site’s community of commenters, she undertook a total rewrite of the series, which has now racked up more than 92 million reads. And in May, Sony Pictures Television acquired the rights to Death Is My BFF — which follows the wisecracking and sarcastic Angel of Death as he comes to claim the soul of a spunky teen named Faith Williams. “Faith has five days to hold off signing away her soul, but demons, an arrogant playboy, and her own conflicted feelings for death don’t make it any easier,” reads the story series’ logline.
“When I update on Wattpad, I would think of it like a TV show,” says Tonks, now 22. “You write a chapter and someone will go, ‘Oh no! I want these characters together.’ Or, ‘Oh please don’t make that happen!’ And you try to incorporate that. That’s an aspect you don’t get when you’re writing normally. You don’t have someone reading line by line, chapter by chapter as you’re writing. Saying, ‘Maybe you should do this.’ Or ‘This is great!’ You realize, Maybe I should hone in on that. It’s a very different experience. It helped me tenfold.”
“You really see passion on Wattpad, people really supporting each other,” she adds. “They’re like-minded people. The readers want to have a relationship with you. That’s not something you get being a ‘normal’ author.”
On Tuesday, Wattpad announced a new joint venture with Tongal and Syfy called “Story to Screen — A Digital Pilot Project” to adapt the Wattpad sci-fi thriller Expiration Date as a digital series. But if there is still one growing pain corollary to Wattpad’s current run of Hollywood success, it’s the site’s lingering association with fanfiction — across the interwebs, Wattpad is commonly referred to as a “fanfic website” — which, for all its passionate readership, exists in a purgatory of sometimes murky copyright ownership and is largely seen as a poor cousin to fictive works of pure imagination. According to Levitz, 70 percent of Wattpad’s user base are women, 95 percent of users are between the ages of 13 and 35, and romance is overwhelmingly its most popular genre. But he says fanfic comprises only a statistically scant amount of the site’s content.
“We have so much more original fiction than fanfiction,” Levitz says. “Eighty to 85 percent is original fiction. Romance is the biggest thing in our world. But we have the biggest horror writing community in the world.”
It’s fair to say the ten-year-old company’s metamorphic growth has been fueled primarily by young women looking to share the kind of stories that tend to be shut out of mainstream publishing. Asked why the site gets more traction with women than men, Wattpad executives point out that unlike other social-media platforms or YouTube, where commenter vitriol can reach ugly extremes, Wattpad has strenuously maintained an anti-trolling ethos and “welcoming” online environment that has fostered engagement among female readers and writers. It also helps that romance literature/erotica is the publishing industry’s most lucrative genre and women are the primary consumers and producers of both — both on and off the site. “One of the things we’ve invested in is making sure our community is a safe space for creators,” Levitz says. “And we ensure that people who come have a positive experience.”
In a post entitled “The Master Plan” by Wattpad co-founder and CEO Allen Lau, the executive calls out Hollywood’s business-as-usual development process for film and television as “inherently inefficient.” “Only a handful of people need to buy into an idea before millions of dollars are invested in a project. No one really knows if people will show up at the theater and actually enjoy the movie. There’s no solid evidence to show that the movie will be a success. Right now, the entertainment industry operates on hunches,” Lau writes.
Embarking from that standpoint, Levitz says he has been beating the drum for Wattpad in and out of Hollywood’s C-suites along with a somewhat ominous message: ignore Big Data at your own peril.
“You have the town of L.A. that’s run for the past 100 years on its gut,” says Levitz. “And as we’ve seen more and more money be put into content, more places to sell it, and more people who want to watch it; if you’re not being smarter about the bets you’re placing, you’re going to find yourself in a hole. The data we bring, the built-in audiences, the extremely compelling story lines, as well as being able to change the development process — it’s about giving you a tool that will help you be more successful.”
“It’s why we’re creating great partnerships,” he continues. “It’s to be able to better serve our audiences who want to see these adaptations, who want to see books on the shelf, who want to see the digital series, or go see the blockbuster movie version of their favorite story. Our five-year plan is to capture as much of that ecosystem as we can.”