Intellectual property is the lifeblood of entertainment, and Hollywood badly needs a transfusion.
Stuck recycling the same ideas and producing the same franchises, Hollywood is now looking to podcasts, news articles, and even songs and paintings to dredge up stories that could be hits with global audiences. Finding the right stories—and developing them into things that actually exist on screen—can be an arduous, money-draining process.
One company thinks it has found an efficient new way to sift through millions of user-generated stories to find the next Hollywood hits: artificial intelligence. And, on occasion, it actually brings fans of those stories into the arcane process of developing them for the screen.
Wattpad, a “social storytelling platform” founded in 2006 with 90 million users, is gaining traction as a source of intellectual property for film and TV producers. Anyone can upload their own stories to the platform for other users to read and comment on, all for free. (Wattpad makes money through advertisements, branded content, and a premium paid tier that offers additional features.) Some of these stories are then licensed out to Hollywood and other global film industries for adaptation, cutting the writers, who are often amateurs, in on the deal. Many are also published as physical books by Wattpad.
Among the dozens of Wattpad stories that became Hollywood successes are Netflix’s wildly popular The Kissing Booth film series, Hulu’s supernatural thriller Light as a Feather, and the indie film After, which was panned by critics but did well at the box office, earning $70 million on its $14 million budget. Wattpad Studios, the platform’s in-house entertainment branch that launched four years ago, has nearly 100 TV and movie projects in active development, collaborating with companies like NBC and Sony Pictures. This month, the South Korean internet giant Naver bought Wattpad for $600 million.
As streaming services compete not only with each other, but also with more traditional forms of entertainment like TV and film, new original content is at a premium. Disney, WarnerMedia, and ViacomCBS are converting their content behemoths into streaming-first enterprises and rapidly expanding the sheer amount of stuff they offer consumers. Apple and Amazon, meanwhile, are using entertainment as one more way to sell subscriptions to their other services. This provides content providers like Wattpad an opportunity to make their presence known to networks and streaming services that are looking for screen-ready stories to tell.
“Hollywood would be remiss to ignore them,” Jessica Cunsolo, the author of the wildly popular Wattpad story She’s With Me, told Quartz. Cunsolo’s story is now just one of dozens of Wattpad projects being adapted for TV.
Wattpad uses a machine-learning program called StoryDNA to scan all the stories on its platform and surface the ones that seem like candidates for TV or film development. It works on both macro and micro levels, analyzing big-picture audience engagement trends to identify the genres picking up steam, while also looking at the specific stories that got popular quickly and calculating what made them so appealing.
The tool can break stories down to their vocabularies and sentence structures (a story’s “DNA,” if you will) and then compare those to other stories to deduce what really makes a work of fiction popular. It also looks at how often users comment on stories and, when they do, what exactly they’re saying. Its goal is to examine all these clues to uncover the precise combination of story elements—genre, emotion, grammar, the list goes on—that hooks audiences to the point they’ll follow its journey onto a visual medium.
It’s the job of Aron Levitz, the head of Wattpad Studios, to lead the team that identifies the Wattpad stories that can make the transition to the screen. But there are far too many user-generated stories on the platform—almost a billion in total—for any one human or group of humans to sift through. So that’s where the robots come in.
“I’d argue we may have more uploads in a day than most people can read in a lifetime,” Levitz told Quartz.
Once StoryDNA surfaces the potential hits, Hollywood comes calling. In Wattpad Studios’ early days, Levitz said, he and his team were mostly the ones doing the pitching, but now movie and TV producers are asking them about ideas. He is also quick to point out that actual humans are the ones who shepherd the development of all projects from beginning to end once the robots help identify candidates. “It’s art and science,” Levitz said. “It can’t just be the numbers.”
But data does still assist in development to increase the chances of success. Wattpad and its partners are constantly referring back to a story’s audience—who they are, what they’re reading and how they’re doing it, and what those behaviors say about what they’d want to see on screens. Wattpad’s data analysts pull all the relevant audience engagement data on a story, transform that into a memo, and send it to whichever Hollywood parties are doing the adapting. It’s similar to the process of any Hollywood adaptation, except these memos are filled with numerical insights indicating things readers really responded to.
All screenwriters and producers who adapt a Wattpad story are given access to these data insights. But on some projects, Wattpad and its Hollywood partners take it a step further, and work directly with the readers of the original stories—an experiment that’s unheard of in the film and TV industry historically.
“Audiences are so much smarter than we give them credit for, and the fans of Wattpad prove that a thousand times over,” said Sabrina Sherif, a screenwriter who’s adapting the dystopian young-adult Wattpad story The Numbered for the company eOne, which has produced shows like Grey’s Anatomy and The Walking Dead.
The arrangement works like this: A select group of superfans are confidentially sent an early draft of a script. Then, in focus-group style feedback, they indicate what they like about the film adaptation from their unique perspective as loyal fans of the written story. It turns what’s usually a completely impenetrable process for the average consumer into a participatory one.
“When you involve fans in development, it gives them an attachment to the process, making them feel seen,” Sherif said. “They feel closer to the material.”
Sherif said she was at no point asked to follow exactly what the fans wanted. She merely used their feedback as a guide to validate some decisions she already planned to make. Their feedback, combined with data insights, helped solidify which plot lines needed emphasis in the adaptation. For instance, based on the volume of fans who commented positively about the revelation that a character in The Numbered was gay, Sherif knew her intuition about amplifying that part of the story in the adaptation would resonate with fans of the material.
“It was great to know I was going in the right direction,” Sherif said.
That relationship can be valuable to whichever network or streaming service buys the property from Wattpad and eOne. Most books come with a built-in audience, but this one comes with a built-in audience that’s also invested in the development process itself. It not only makes them more inclined to watch the show when it comes out, but leads them to become evangelists for the project on social media, which helps build buzz.
It’s probably no surprise that most of Wattpad’s Hollywood success thus far has been in the young adult (YA) space, which often attracts a very active, passionate, and online audience. YA is suddenly one of the hottest genres in the industry, as every streaming service from HBO Max to Disney+ is looking to expand its presence there to capitalize on the audience of mostly 18- to 35-year-olds. Levitz believes interest in YA is not new, but that Hollywood tastemakers had stopped listening to what audiences were asking for.
“We have been shouting YA from the rooftops for a really long time,” Levitz said. “We’re very excited to see the rest of the industry start to catch up to that.”
She’s With Me, one of the most popular stories in the platform’s history, is a good example of the genre’s reach, and its potential as a growing source of intellectual property for Hollywood. The YA story has been read by 146 million Wattpad users. While that number doesn’t include every time a user reads the full story (it counts only the times a user starts a chapter—essentially the literary equivalent of a YouTube view), it’s a staggering figure nonetheless. It’s one reason why the story is now being developed as a series by Sony Pictures TV.
“I’m still floored to this day when I see that number,” Cunsolo said.
Cunsolo’s story is quintessentially Wattpadian. She started writing on the platform for fun when she was 17, discovering it through a friend (she’s now 24). She had no intention of writing a story that’d later be adapted to television. But Wattpad users had other ideas.
“I wasn’t expecting anyone to read it,” Cunsolo said. “I was bored and wanted to just write.”
She posted the story on Wattpad chapter by chapter, and probably wouldn’t have even finished it if not for the audience response. She saw that users were reading it, and demanding more. So she obliged. Then the robots took over.
“Wattpad found it, fostered it, believed in it, and pitched it to Sony,” Cunsolo said. “And now here I am with those opportunities I didn’t think I’d ever have. I’m grateful the data was positive for me, but I have no idea how any of that works.”
The company doesn’t intend to be known only for YA fare. It’s pushing into other genres as well, including fantasy and horror. For instance, the company is now developing a movie based on What Happened That Night, a murder mystery story by Deanna Cameron that originated on the platform. David Arata, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Children of Men, will pen the adaptation.
Perhaps recognizing its potential as a global IP factory, Naver, its new Korean owner, is promising to expand Wattpad’s reach in Asia and leverage the platform’s strengths for its own comics and animation ambitions. Naver also owns Webtoon, an online comic platform with 72 million users. Combined with Wattpad’s user base, the two platforms have nearly as many active users as Netflix has subscribers.
It remains to be seen whether the strategy of crowdsourced story mining has a role in the future of film and TV development. The fan input strategy with Sherif on The Numbered is still in an experimental phase, and it’s possible nothing even comes of it. (Many book adaptations, whether they’re using fan input or not, never actually see the light of day despite years of development.) It’s unclear if these kinds of innovations can scale or be replicated on other platforms. But it’s something Hollywood needs to think about.
For now, most studios will probably continue to rely on the same crop of writers with whom they’ve worked before. (And when those writers get old, Hollywood will work with their kids instead.) But Wattpad’s strategy of using data to leverage a story’s existing audience—no matter who wrote them or how many credits those writers have on their resumes—is more than a passing intrigue in an era where the internet can make anyone famous overnight.