For a few years now, the Toronto-based storytelling app Wattpad has been a crucial piece of Hollywood marketing. After all, with a monthly audience of over 45 million people, most of them young and female, Wattpad offers access to a key, movie-going demographic. And Wattpad users, who use the app to create and upload hundreds of millions of stories, are by nature very social and loyal creatures. They post adoring comments not just on the stories themselves, but on specific paragraphs and turns of phrase. In so doing, they "start to feel ownership with the writer," says Aron Levitz, head of the newly created Wattpad Studios. "They're helping to create this property. A lot of writers will say, I wrote my first story with Wattpad, it was amazing. I wrote my sixth story with you, and my eighth and ninth because the audience egged me on."
This unique relationship between readers and content has led studios like 20th Century Fox and Universal to tap Wattpad to promote some of their biggest films. For Fox's The Fault in Our Stars, the film, based on the John Green novel, was given a profile on the site, and Wattpad authors were asked to write special stories related to the film. The cover of each book was a movie poster for the film. According to Wattpad, the campaign reached over 8 million readers who spent more than 4.6 minutes engaging with the content. Universal took a similar approach with films like Unfriended, Ouija and The Purge: Anarchy (besides romance, Wattpad readers also have a jones for sci-fi and horror stories), and Wattpad recently worked with the CW to promote Jane the Virgin.
But now Wattpad wants to more than just help Hollywood market its wares, it wants to help create those wares. Emboldened by the success of Wattpad author Anna Todd, whose serialized story After (over 1.3 billion reads and more than 6 million comments) was optioned in 2014 by Paramount and is being developed into a feature film (it has also been published as a book by Simon & Schuster), Wattpad has created Wattpad Studios, an in-house production company of sorts that will help identify the next Todd's and partner them with movie studios and TV and digital networks. The hope is to churn out Wattpad-inspired entertainment.
The first fruit borne of this arrangement is a deal with Turner and its upcoming Tales from the Crypt horror block on TNT, which M. Night Shyamalan is curating. The programming, which debuts next year, will be a horror anthology series based on the 1950s EC Comics horror comic of the same name (which had previously been the basis for an HBO series that ran for seven seasons between 1989 and 1996).
Through contests and other opportunities, Wattpad writers will be invited to submit stories to Turner, and the winners will have their stories adapted for the horror block. TNT, along with sister network TBS, will also scour the greater Wattpad landscape, using the site's trend-identifying algorithms, to try and tap new writers and ideas that could be developed for TV, digital, and other platforms.
Levitz says that besides creating more opportunities for Wattpad writers, the idea is to help Hollywood "take the guess work" out of hit-making. Besides the built-in audiences that come with every Wattpad story, the company has reams of analytics and data that can indicate to a director, say, or a screenwriter, which scenes and moments are most beloved by fans—and which aren't. Working with UTA, Wattpad Studios will pinpoint writers through its Wattpad Stars program (its top influencers), and then connect them with an entertainment partner. There are no plans as of yet to develop an in-house development team. Rather, Wattpad will be a producer on the project and stay involved through production and release. The company will also help with marketing and promotion.
Levitz spoke with Co.Create about the value that Wattpad writers can lend to Hollywood; how, exactly, a Wattpad movie campaign works; and why the company is a "rock star" in the Philippines.
To a get a more granular sense of how Wattpad has traditionally engaged with Hollywood, Levitz gave a play-by-play of the marketing campaign for the 2014 film The Purge: Anarchy.
Universal, he says, "comes to us and says, look, you have a rabid horror community. Ninety percent of them are 13-30 years old. That's a great horror demographic. And they go, How do we reach them? They come up with the right creative approach. In this case it was, what if we gave two of our top horror-thriller writers the space to work in? Which was, what if crime was legal for 24 hours? That's all we're going to say to them. What do they come back with? One of the stories, called Mr. Composure, is one of the most haunting stories I've ever read, and he wrote it for the brand.
"Then we actually create reading lists around other themes that are important. In this case it was rebellion, which is one of the underlying themes of the movie. So we look for great rebellion stories on Wattpad and create reading lists around them. So now we have the creative kernel for Universal and we promote it to our community. We don't use banner ads, we have some around the site, which of course get put to work for them. But we're using places where we're naturally suggesting content. When you first go onto Wattpad it says, here are the books we like—so there we can promote some of the Purge commissioned work. The writers say they're working with NBC-U, and the book covers we use to promote them are basically movie posters. They have the premiere date and whatnot. So it's a very innovative campaign, but at the end of the day the stories are amazing. You're basically asking your favorite people to do their favorite things."
Levitz says that Wattpad's key advantage is not just being able to say who's big now, but who'd going to be big, through its nuanced data supply.
"When you go on Wattpad you can see how many reads something has, how many comments. That's for everyone to use. But that is not always the best way to tell what will be successful. So we're able to look at data and algorithms in the background, whether it's unique readers, whether it's total reading time on a story, whether it's how many times people have reread a story, whether it's demographics or geography—where people are reading from. The density of social interaction based on unique readers. We can even get into, creatively, what chapters have the most comments, and then go down to specific paragraphs that have the most comments. So if you're a director or a screenwriter, you know what scenes are sacred to fans, what moments are sacred to fans. As well as what moments don't play with fans. So we can give data not only to help us understand sizes, but the acceleration and speed by which stories are growing.
"All that data helps us predict. And that's one of the biggest things that studios are going to be able to do. We're able to look at people who will be big. Who might not have 100 million reads today, but who are on the right trajectory, who are following the same path as some of our biggest writers. And then we can find those writers earlier and deal with them much earlier, and help them capture the right part of their career at the right time."
Wattpad's 2 million writers are different from print authors for a variety of reasons. They publish their stories on the fly, posting chapters as soon as they finish them, rather than going through an editing and publishing process that can take months, even years. They also have a very active relationship with their fans which gives them a unique power that studios and networks can use for their own benefit as they're developing a Wattpad project.
"Wattpad is social. It's serially written," says Levitz. "We have 250 million-plus stories and 45 million people coming in to read them every month. In general, the stories are written chapter by chapter, which lets the communities socialize around it, communicate around it. Our writers have a very different relationship with their audience. You can go to any major published writer, go to them and say, okay, I need you to go to everyone who read your last book and ask them this question. None of them can do that. Anna (Todd) can do that right now. I can text her, and she can ask anyone who's ever read After that question. And that is a powerful tool while you're developing a project."
Wattpad has already had success producing a TV series. In the Philippines, the company works with TV5 to produce a weekly series called Wattpad Presents based on—so far—40 different Wattpad stories. The show is watched by millions of viewers and reaches 30% of the Philippines' millennial demographic.
Levitz says the company's success in the Philippines was a big factor in decided to move ahead with Wattpad Studios. "It's been a key learning that this is real," he says. "We can really do this."
Explaining the TV program's success, he says, "We are kind of rock stars in the Philippines. I don't know how else to say it. We are quite mainstream there. They have a big mobile market, they're highly social networks, and they love, they're highly influenced by U.S. pop culture. Everyone speaks English. Even though all of the stories (for the show) are written in Tagalog, for the Filipino audience.
"We recognized a hole in the market, especially for this show, which is made for a teen audience. The stories are written for and by Filipinos. So we can be culturally nuanced. We're not taking a Spanish written piece from Spain and sending it to Colombia. (Wattpad users hail from all over the world, including Russia, the U.K., and the United Arab Emirates; users can adjust the app's language setting accordingly.) We really have a massive global appeal, which means that Wattpad Studios is not just domestic. Internationally it's going to be really important, because we have local writers writing for local audiences."