How young writers are busting into Hollywood with machine learning-fueled Wattpad
At 14, Katarina Tonks thought she was going crazy. A teenager with an overactive imagination in a small New Jersey town, Tonks wondered if it was normal to have so many stories in her head. So she talked to her psychologist mother, who recommended she take up writing. A quick internet search led her to Wattpad, an online social platform where anyone can write and share stories.
“I opened up a document that day and started writing,” says Tonks, now 23. “It totally changed the way I was expressing my imagination and the way I was imagining these characters. It turned into my outlet.” An outlet that just happens to have some 70 million readers — many of whom aren’t shy about sharing their opinions.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Feb. 3, 2019A previous version of this article stated that “After” will be released by Paramount Pictures. It will be released by Aviron Pictures.
Tonks found that out when around 15 she started writing her second story on the platform, “Death Is My BFF.” The dark romance exploring a relationship between the Angel of Death and a young woman caught on with Wattpad readers, who shared thoughts on their favorite characters and plot twists as Tonks expanded the story into a book series. Based on the response of fans — plus the input of a professional editor — Tonks rewrote the series, whose books in their original and updated forms have racked up nearly 62 million accumulated reads on Wattpad.
It was only a matter of time before Hollywood took notice. Last year, Wattpad Studios — which is responsible for adapting the platform’s most successful stories for the entertainment industry — brought Tonks’ story to television producer Paul Shapiro, who then hammered out an acquisition deal for “Death Is My BFF” with Sony Pictures Television.
“[Shapiro] told me on the phone he had certain criteria and mine hit the mark in every spot he wanted,” Tonks says.
Whether Tonks’ project will be produced is still unknown, but it wouldn’t be the first Wattpad story to go to Hollywood.
Last fall’s Hulu teen thriller “Light as a Feather” was based on a 2013 Wattpad story written by Alexandra Fletcher under the pseudonym Zoe Aarsen. And Netflix’s teen rom-com “The Kissing Booth,” came from Beth Reekles’ 2011 Wattpad story, written when she was 15. It did so well on Netflix that the normally secretive streamer put out the word that “The Kissing Booth” was its most re-watched film of 2018.
Beyond its handful of higher-profile productions, including a feature film coming this spring, Wattpad estimates that nearly 1,000 of its stories have been turned into traditional books, TV shows, films and other digital content. It’s partnered with NBCUniversal, SYFY, CW Seed and others around the world to develop film and television projects, and last week it announced that it’s launching its own publishing imprint, Wattpad Books. Already, six Wattpad Books titles are planned for 2019, including LGBTQ fantasy and mystery stories.
“Wattpad Books is one way that we are continuously becoming and expanding into a more full-stacked entertainment company. ... From creation to distribution to monetization, you will see that continue,” says Allen Lau, Wattpad’s co-founder and CEO. “Ultimately, we want to make sure we are helping our writers advance their career in as many ways as possible.”
A massive social network for readers and writers, Wattpad — with more than 500 million stories on the platform in more than 50 languages — has become a treasure trove of original content for Hollywood. Women 35 and younger make up the overwhelming majority of its users, who are closely tracked. Wattpad analyzes what its users are reading and how they’re engaging with stories to determine trends in fiction storytelling and identify potential bestsellers. Wattpad’s emergence in Hollywood underscores the rise of data-driven storytelling in a creative industry that traditionally has relied on inspiration and the instincts of a small group of largely homogeneous development executives.
“A lot of the things that get written on Wattpad are written by a writer who doesn’t see themselves reflected … who doesn’t see themselves on TV.”
— Aron Levitz, head of Wattpad Studios
About five years ago, the company began to invest in machine learning — a form of artificial intelligence in which programs analyze and learn from data. Machine learning enabled Wattpad to better recommend stories based on users’ reading habits, which in turn increased time spent on the platform. Wattpad also developed what it calls Story DNA technology, which deconstructs stories to their core — examining sentence structure, word use and grammar — to find the most popular trends in fiction and the next bestsellers.
One day, a Wattpad employee noticed that 5% of all reading on the site was going toward a romance story called “After” by Anna Todd. The story, which began in 2013 as One Direction fan fiction — written a chapter a day by Todd on her smartphone — has accumulated more than 1.5 billion reads on Wattpad and was published as a series of novels in 2014 by Simon & Schuster imprint Gallery Books, earning a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. In April, “After” will become a feature film, with Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Josephine Langford starring in the Aviron Pictures release.
For Wattpad, the success of “After” became an indicator that its stories could easily translate into other mediums.
Another indicator popped up in the Philippines, where a data-driven TV series called “Wattpad Presents” has adapted some of the site’s top-trending titles — close to 80 stories over 250 episodes and six seasons — since 2014.
Wattpad was launched in 2006 by Lau and Ivan Yuen. Back then, the goal of the Toronto-based company was for people to read and share stories on their mobile phones. It took years before they understood the power of the data Wattpad accumulated every day from readers and writers.
“We realized that with millions of stories and billions of data points, it’s just impossible for a human to figure out exactly what’s going on,” says Lau. “A machine is very equipped to analyze and find patterns from billions of data points.
“We know where these people are, how they read for example,” Lau adds. “Are they binge reading or are they just dropping off after a chapter and coming back in a day.”
Nearly three years ago, after the success of “After” and “Wattpad Presents,” the company launched Wattpad Studios to focus on adapting the most successful and binge-worthy stories for book publishing, gaming, TV and film.
“I’m not sure there’s anyone that can really look at such a giant library of fiction that we have and really derive the trends,” says the head of Wattpad Studios, Aron Levitz. “[Machine learning] allows us to be so far out in front of anybody else that we’re really able to not only find great stories though data, but great stories from people from amazing backgrounds all over the world.”
Levitz also touts the platform’s engagement levels, saying the site’s built-in audience takes out some of the inherent risks for creative industries. Each month, the Wattpad community spends 22 billion minutes consuming and creating content. The site’s structure allows readers to comment down to the paragraph level on stories, which becomes data that can inform the development process.
“When I’m taking a story [from] 100,000 words down to a 90-page film script, something’s got to go,” Levitz says. “The [Wattpad] audience can actually show us the parts they were attached to and the parts that maybe we can cut without losing audience.
“It’s not about taking away those brilliant creative layers that directors and showrunners and actors, directors of photography, bring to the process,” Levitz adds. “But in that moment of darkness, that every writers room has at some point on how to break that scene or what to cut in the editing room, this can really be an informative piece of data that can be helpful.”
Wattpad’s Story DNA technology is how Fletcher’s story “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” — which made its way to Hulu as “Light as a Feather” and was then published by Simon & Schuster as a traditional book in October — was found. Levitz says the story’s success demonstrates Wattpad’s blend of the art of creativity and the science of data.
“It has all the good parts of teen drama, some horror, some suspense. It has all the writings of a great book and, of course, we find this through data,” he says. “You’re talking about millions of reads in under six months. … You’re looking at half a billion minutes of total reading time on the story.”
The thriller about a slumber party game that goes wrong for five teens was written in 2013 by Fletcher, who studied film at New York University and worked for years in digital marketing while continuing to write. After publishing a first draft of “Light as a Feather” on Wattpad, Fletcher found rapid and intense engagement from readers. Five years later, the story is still one of the 25 most-read paranormal stories on the site, Levitz says.
“Writing in general is really isolating; you’re alone and creating a story. On Wattpad, you’re getting a lot of feedback every time you publish from your readers,” Fletcher says, just days after “Light as a Feather’s” fall book release. “If you’re being clever and planning a twist and they guess it, you’ll have to work harder.”
Fletcher says there was interest in developing the story for television almost immediately through Kelsey Grammer’s production company, Grammnet. Grammer worked with screenwriter R. Lee Fleming Jr. to turn the Wattpad story into a TV pitch, and the series was brought to life with AwesomenessTV and Hulu.
“I’ve adapted things before, and sometimes just because something is a good book doesn’t necessarily translate easily into a series or into a movie,” says Fleming, who’s written other teen TV shows and films, including 1999’s “She’s All That.” “With this one, I was really fortunate with the way things were set up. … All of that was sort of ripe to be adapted.”
Says AwesomenessTV’s cohead, Shelley Zimmerman: “[Wattpad] delivered this underlying IP with a strong fanbase and wonderful characters.”
‘A cultural compass’
The science of Wattpad — using data to detect trends in storytelling — doesn’t just smooth out the production process; it also helps shatter traditional barriers to Hollywood and the publishing industry.
“When you have the same figuratively 10 people who’ve chosen what we all watch on TV or go to the box office to see for the last 100 years, when you let audiences democratize the process, they start finding what they want,” Levitz says. “A lot of the things that get written on Wattpad are written by a writer who doesn’t see themselves reflected … who doesn’t see themselves on TV.”
As co-president and executive producer of Wise Entertainment, an independent studio focused on developing “everything that is not white male” for film and TV, Mauricio Mota says he constantly monitors Wattpad.
“For us, Hollywood is still designed around a lot of dogmas — it has to be IP, it has to have lots of celebrities, it has to be a New York Times bestselling book,” Mota says. “We keep hearing those ‘big truths,’ but at the same time the new approach is what really makes the bar go up and what makes things change. [Wattpad has] a huge hand in the pulse of new authors and new themes and new characters and new genres. It’s a cultural compass.”
Hila Lifshitz-Assaf, a New York University assistant professor who specializes in technological innovation, says that crowdsourcing is part of an ongoing trend of the last decade. One advantage, she says, is democratizing creativity and eliminating social barriers to creative fields. “It’s much less about connections and who you know,” Lifshitz-Assaf said.
But Lifshitz-Assaf also warns against not having a clear policy related to non-human contributors on platforms like Wattpad. She says it could endanger human writing and creativity.
She references a writing competition prominently displayed on Wattpad last fall — “Write With Zo” — which challenged users to write in collaboration with a Microsoft artificial intelligence program.
“It’s framed as, ‘Let’s write together,’ but it’s unclear about the writing style,” she says. “I think we will have humans competing with artificial platforms. … Soon they will start writing stories as well.”
Lau, however, insists that humans will always be part of the creative process, saying that technology will only help writers improve their craft, assisting with everything from grammar checks to writer’s block.
“A movie, TV show or writing is an art. There will always be humans involved,” Lau says. “But what we see, the machine is so capable, our Story DNA is so capable, we can turn the humans into superheroes.”
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