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From fanfiction to Netflix hits

Wattpad’s plan to become the A24 of teen dramas

Kate Marchant was in the kitchen of her childhood home, standing across the room from her mother, when she got the email: Robbie Amell, who appeared on the CW’s Flash, was interested in adapting her book into a feature film he would produce and star in.

For Marchant, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California who got her start writing Harry Potter fanfiction, learning that Amell wanted to adapt something she wrote was a dream come true. Her novel, Float, a teen romance set in a beach town, had been released chapter by chapter online over the course of seven years — far from the traditional process of writing a manuscript and hoping it finds its way into an editor’s hands. She had started it when she was just 15.

“That was probably the best email that I’ve ever been able to read to my mom,” Marchant told The Verge over Zoom from her family home. “She was very close to tears, which is always something that kind of moves you — to see your mother cry.”

Marchant is one of a growing number of successful authors who have emerged from Wattpad, a free-to-use platform that allows authors to publish their original work or fanfiction online. The company launched in 2006 and now has more than 90 million monthly users, with nearly one billion stories published that generate 22 billion minutes per month in total reading time. Like LiveJournal and Tumblr before it, Wattpad allows burgeoning authors and fans of different shows, books, movies, or celebrities to find a place to celebrate their shared fandoms.

Now, Wattpad wants to work with its authors to create an empire that expands beyond its webpages. Executives are turning their eyes to the burgeoning streaming industry, where platforms like Hulu and Netflix need a consistent flow of movies and TV shows to keep people watching. Teen romances, dramas, and comedies are in high demand, and Wattpad is sitting on a treasure trove of IP just waiting to be adapted. Young authors who start using Wattpad to experiment with their own writing could soon find themselves navigating the intricacies of Hollywood at a time of industry revolution.

Marchant has some help. She has a talent team now, working with an agent and talent manager through Wattpad Books and Wattpad Studios. She’s also currently working on her next book. With an education in entertainment business and creative writing through the University of Southern California, she’s also prepared to enter the studio space to ensure her work gets adapted the way she sees the story playing out.

“I was preparing to buckle down for the next three years and query agents and scour the publishers marketplace and really try super hard to prove that my audience on Wattpad was worth something — but Wattpad already knows how much that audience is worth.”

A production still from The Kissing Booth, a Wattpad story adapted into a Netflix film.
Photo by Marcos Cruz / Netflix

Executives at Wattpad realized years ago that they were sitting on a treasure trove of intellectual property. In 2016, Wattpad decided to launch its own in-house production company, Wattpad Studios, to find stories on the site that it could sell to major entertainment companies, including major studios like Paramount and Sony or streamers like Netflix. Initially, Wattpad Studios would option the rights to books that came from Wattpad Publishing and then hand control over to whichever producer paid for the rights. In 2020, Wattpad expanded its Studios business to start producing films on its own based on the works that appear on its site, possibly generating more revenue for Wattpad and giving the company more control.

As more people turn to streaming and as more streamers compete for constant attention, one group of viewers sits at the center: teens. Teenagers spend more time watching Netflix than almost anything else, according to a research team at investment firm Piper Jaffray, as reported by Business Insider. In turn, Netflix tries to find the next big teen movies (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Kissing Booth) and TV shows (Outer Banks) to keep people tuned in. Netflix, WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal, Paramount, and Sony are all buying. Before HBO Max launched, WarnerMedia pitched a portion of the platform to shareholders and investors as a go-to for the teen demographic. HBO might have adults cornered; HBO Max would help bring teens in.

“The decision makers can no longer ignore the power of YA,” Aron Levitz, the leader of Wattpad Studios, told The Verge. “When you have streamers, their metric is audience — it’s not awards, it’s not what I, as an executive, personally like. It’s, ‘We have to grow our subscriber base.’ They are being forced to listen to their audience, an audience who likes YA.”

Netflix and Komixx Entertainment’s The Kissing Booth, Hulu’s Light as a Feather, and Aviron’s After are some of the higher-profile titles that have come from Wattpad authors. In October, Netflix announced that 66 million people watched The Kissing Booth within the first four weeks of the film’s release, putting it up there with new seasons of Stranger Things and The Witcher.

To find out what stories might be worth Wattpad licensing, the team uses a machine learning tool called StoryDNA. StoryDNA allows executives like Wattpad to look at micro and macro trends emerging in stories on the platform. On one hand, Levitz can see if a story is being read, shared, and engaged with by tens of millions of fans — and those figures alone can sometimes prompt Wattpad to start a conversation about adapting a writer’s work. That’s the micro trend.

The macro trends, Levitz told The Verge, are far more interesting. These are subcategories of stories that are popping up in different languages and countries around the world — stories that Hollywood may be missing but Wattpad can see from a straight data perspective are bubbling up. Then, executives “dive in from a machine learning standpoint and deep learning standpoint” to understand exactly what’s connecting. That can be “Muslim romances” or “fantasy series about gay wizards,” Levitz gave as some examples.

“What are the emotional ups and downs? What paragraphs do users really love?” Levitz said. “We don’t use the term ‘I like this.’ We use the term ‘they like this.’ It’s about what audiences are in love with, and our job is to understand why they fell in love with it in the first place.”

Studio and network partners will sometimes come to Wattpad and say they’re looking for a project that’s “X, Y, or Z,” Levitz added. He and his team will go through their collection of stories to see if there’s something that might fit, but they will try to address the more concrete story they’re looking to develop. Float is just one example of how it works.

“For us, we go, ‘Okay, we hear what you’re looking for, but the underlying reason you’re looking for this is because you want a story that talks about a found family instead of the family you’re born with,” Levitz explained. “A story like Float meets that specifically, and we get the process rolling.”

Hulu’s Light as a Feather, now in its second season, started as a Wattpad novel.
Photo: Hulu

Many Wattpad authors’ careers started in their bedrooms. Marchant would work late into the night, typing out chapters in bed while her sister tried to sleep just a couple of feet over. Another writer, Deanna Cameron, would sit in her bed in Kingston, Ontario, not too far from Toronto, typing on her laptop, typing late into the night as she worked on sending out individual chapters into the world.

Cameron started writing on Wattpad in 2011, after moving over from “another website” where she mainly wrote Lost fanfiction. She started writing her novel What Happened That Night when she was 18 and quickly noticed a difference: millions of people were paying attention. As she wrote, Cameron’s audience would let her know what they liked, what they didn’t, and would beg to know when more would be available. She started connecting with those strangers, Cameron told The Verge over Zoom from her place in New York City, hinting about big reveals in upcoming chapters. Eventually, “people started posting, ‘I can’t wait for chapter 16! Chapter 16 is coming out in a couple of days!’”

In May, it was announced that Cameron’s What Happened That Night is being made into a film. David Arata, a longtime Hollywood screenwriter who wrote the Oscar-nominated script for Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, is set to pen the adaptation. It’s still in the earliest stages, and Cameron doesn’t know how much control she’ll have over the process.

It’s easy to see why the story blew up. What Happened That Night, a young adult murder mystery, is chock-full of character descriptions that scream teenage angst (“black skinny jeans, black hoodies, black beanies, even a black winter parka with a faux fur-line that she chopped away with scissors into a black mesh trash can”) and typical teenage behavior (“They gazed down at the screens of their oversized iPhones, and used their manicured thumbs to scroll down, tribal print hats on their heads and texting gloves on their hands.”).

While writing the story, Cameron connected with fans through every new chapter published. She had full control over what happened and could work with the audience — if she wanted — to figure out the story. There was time to answer questions and respond to excited guesses about what happens next. Cameron told The Verge she sometimes worries about her work getting lost in translation as it goes through the adaptation process, saying “I’m a bit of a control freak.” For writers who have spent their entire careers with full autonomy over their work, ceding that control over can be difficult.

“When it’s your own creative thing, you don’t know if you want to give it to somebody else,” Cameron said. “I kinda want to just do it all myself, please.”

Levitz and his team try to work with Wattpad authors, especially young ones, to help them understand how the optioning and adaptation processes work. Wattpad Studios has all of the data it needs to help sell a title on the business end — it can bring figures and numbers to the Netflixes and Sonys of the world — but it still relies on Wattpad’s authors and their communities to parlay just how much these stories travel.

“To exclude the writer from the [adaptation] process would be a loss of one of the most important tools we have,” Levitz said. “With that being said, part of the studio’s job is helping those writers understand what it means to be in the industry.”

Each project is different, Erik Feig, a longtime Hollywood producer and former head of Lionsgate Films (he oversaw the Twilight, Hunger Games, and Divergent series adaptations), told The Verge. On After, one of Wattpad’s biggest success stories, the author, Anna Todd, was heavily involved. She appeared on set often and helped to produce, Feig said. His production company, Picturefirst, is currently adapting Along For The Ride by Rachel Meinke as a feature film. However, Meinke hasn’t been closely involved. Feig wouldn’t say if that will change going forward.

Marchant doesn’t call herself an adult yet, and that helps her connect with the young adult audience reading her work. Having a room full of adults trying to make sense of what is authentically a teenage story, and trying to figure out how to make that work for as many people as possible, runs the risk of losing some of the authenticity. As producers on all of the projects that get picked up from Wattpad and where Wattpad is included in the deal, Levitz said it’s their responsibility to ensure all notes studios pass on to them get to the writers, and they attempt to ensure writers’ concerns are heard if it’s a traditional studio working on the project. Some writers receive outside deals for their work that appears on the site, but doesn’t include Wattpad in the process.

“If you didn’t set out to be one of the most influential writers in the world, like a lot of our writers become, the industry comes at you fast and furious,” Levitz said. “We have a responsibility to take a moment to educate them, and help them make sure they really understand what happens next.”

After started as One Direction fanfiction on Wattpad. It’s since spawned two movies, including After We Collided (above).
Photo: Aviron

Now, Wattpad’s goal is to become the next A24 or Blumhouse. To make that transition work, the company has brought on Feig in a new advisory role. It’s that connection between writers and fans that attracted Feig to Wattpad.

“When you go to Wattpad, wildly different genres exist, there are different authors, different fandoms, different levels of execution, and yet you know what Wattpad feels like,” Feig told The Verge. “There is an opportunity to have some analogous version of that in adapted media as well, whether it’s film or TV.”

With more networks, studios, and streamers trying to find stories to turn into films, Marchant feels like “it truly is the future of the way that creative industries are going to have to go,” noting that it’s hard to “trust a boardroom with old white men in suits making decisions about what teens want. It doesn’t work.” Studios, networks, and streamers know they want: franchises or stories with huge built-in audiences. That’s why Netflix is partnering with game studios like Ubisoft to adapt worlds that millions of people know and Hulu is ready to pounce on any popular YA novel. For Feig, seeing Wattpad authors build that kind of excitement and long-lasting fandom on a website, and moving it over to streamers, is the goal.

“I really, really love that it’s not just passive reading, but a lot of the fan engagement around the channels on Wattpad are kind of interactive — something is created, where something is consumed, where something is ripped on by fanfiction, that’s a kind of fuzzy virtuous circle,” Feig told The Verge.

Levitz and his team have plans to tap even more writers to publish books or option out their online works, while writers like Cameron and Marchant are preparing to move into the next phases of their careers — all while keeping their Wattpad presence as active as possible. The script for Cameron’s book is being written, and Marchant is writing her next novel — one, she hopes, might also be adapted into a series or movie.

“Teen creators are the future of YA, and that’s a future these streaming sites want to build on,” Marchant said. “It’s undeniable. We’re undeniable.”

Correction January 14th, 9:50am ET: An earlier version of this story said Robbie Amell starred in Arrow. He was in The Flash. The Verge regrets the error.

Update January 14th 10:56am ET: The story was included to include additional details from Wattpad about the adaptation process.

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