Wattpad's Hollywood formula (Cybercultural Daily Update 5-27-2019)

How Hollywood is mining user-generated content and hoping to strike ratings gold.

Cultural sectors discussed in today’s newsletter: TV & movies; books

Wattpad is becoming a regular feature on the Hollywood news website Variety. For a company built on User-Generated Content (UGC), the Toronto-based Wattpad has become adept at pushing the best of its amateur-created content into the hands of media gatekeepers - not only in Hollywood, but all around the world. Here’s a sampling of recent Variety headlines:

  • Entertainment One to Enlist Wattpad Superfans for Feedback on Scripts Based on User-Written Stories (May 25, 2019)

  • APOS: Singapore’s Mediacorp Unveils Wattpad, Vice Media Deals (Apr 23, 2019)

  • Sony Pictures Television Inks First-Look Deal for Wattpad Stories (Apr 17, 2019)

  • Wattpad Teams up With Times Bridge for India Expansion (Mar 13, 2019)

  • ‘The Kissing Booth 2’ Is Coming to Netflix, With Original Cast Returning (Feb 14, 2019)

  • Huayi Korea Strikes Content Production Pact With Wattpad (Feb 13, 2019)

  • ‘Light as a Feather’ Teen-Thriller Series Renewed for Season 2 at Hulu (Feb 05, 2019)

The Netflix and Hulu stories relate to two shows that were created by Wattpad users. The Kissing Booth is a young adult (YA) drama based on a Beth Reekles novel originally self-published on Wattpad. Light as a Feather is another teen show, this one based on a Wattpad story called Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board by Zoe Aarsen.

It’s not only television and movies that Wattpad has infiltrated, but the book industry too. In January the company launched its own publishing division, Wattpad Books, with six YA titles.

Wattpad’s ability to get the traditional cultural gatekeepers to accept its wares is in large part due to the amount of VC money it has taken - $117.8M in total, including $51M last January. That buys a lot of clout and industry contacts.

But what does it say about the traditionally studio dominated TV and movie industry, that it is now partnering with a UGC company? And does this validate amateur content as a pipeline for the cultural industries?

What’s in it for Hollywood

Let’s firstly look at it from the point of view of Hollywood and its extended TV and movie ecosystem (by which I mean the studios plus the big streaming platforms, like Netflix and Amazon).

Sony Pictures Television signed a first-look deal with Wattpad last month, allowing it to, in the words of Variety’s Todd Spangler, “comb through Wattpad’s 500 million stories for the next potential breakout entertainment property.”

What Sony is looking for can be summed up in two bullet points:

  1. Stories with a large, built-in fan base.

  2. Stories that closely conform to a popular, and profitable, genre.

Wattpad says it has a monthly audience of over 70 million now, who spend an average of 37 minutes on the site per session. It also claims that 90% of its users “are either Generation Z or Millennial.”

With a 70M user base, clearly the most popular content draws a significant audience. And since Wattpad’s user base is so young, that narrows down the genres that Hollywood will be able to apply Wattpad content to. Primarily, they’ll be looking for content for their YA rosters.

To further illustrate how the cream of Wattpad’s massive crop of UGC is being lapped up by Hollywood, let’s look at a recent example.

A hot Grim Reaper

In March, Deadline announced that another Wattpad book had been optioned:

Death Is My Best Friend, based on Katarina Tonks’ hit Wattpad book series, is being adapted for television. The project, from writer Lindsey Rosin (Cruel Intentions), Greg Silverman’s Stampede and Sony Pictures TV, is in very early development at Syfy […]

First thing to note is that Hollywood typically assigns its own writers to adapt the stories of Wattpad. In this case a writer, Rosin, who had success with the show Cruel Intentions.

The chosen Wattpad stories are, on the face of it, nothing special. Tonks’ story sounds like a fairly formulaic teen drama, with lashings of romance mixed with supernatural powers:

Death Is My BFF, the series, tells the coming-of-age story of Faith Williams, an ordinary teenage girl who on the eve of her 18th birthday discovers that she is the product of a prophecy, which makes her responsible for protecting the balance of all good and evil on earth. This task is soon complicated by the Angel of Death, an insatiable, sarcastic and undeniably sexy Grim Reaper, who has been tasked with collecting Faith’s soul and delivering it to the underworld. Now, Faith must fend off Death’s advances while also fighting evil spirits – all while attempting to navigate the drama of her senior year of high school, fight her own personal battle with anxiety and live up to the full potential of her extraordinary soul.

Just substitute the hot young male vampire from a popular TV show of this era with a hot young male Angel of Death, and we have our main heart throb character.

In all seriousness, it doesn’t matter what a literary snob like me thinks. This series has racked up tens of millions of views on Wattpad, so clearly it resonated with its readers. And to do that, the main characters must be compelling to that audience. So I take absolutely nothing away from its creator, who has no doubt put a lot of work into the series.

The writer, Katarina E. Tonks, is 23 years old and wrote the first draft when she was just 14. The first book in the series on which the TV deal was based on (apparently a rewrite of the original) has 18.9M “reads” and 666,000 “votes” (an appropriate number, as one of her Twitter followers noted).

Back to the Hollywood pov. If I’m a Hollywood executive, those engagement numbers resonate a lot with me! Not to mention the story ticks all the boxes of a supernatural teen thriller, a very popular genre for young people on TV.

It’s a numbers game

Wattpad has been intently looking for stories to take mainstream for a few years now. In October 2016, it set out to find content that will appeal to both Hollywood and book publishers, with the creation of Wattpad Studios. And like any VC-funded Silicon Valley company worth its salt, Wattpad is aggregating and crunching user data to drive that search:

We rely on your story’s audience engagement, community sentiment, data insights and our team of editorial experts to find great stories, unique voices and trends.

Central to Wattpad’s data-centric approach to finding the most potentially profitable content is (surprise, surprise) its proprietary AI technology, called Story DNA Machine Learning.

Ashleigh Gardner, deputy general manager at Wattpad Studios, explained how this works in February to The Bookseller:

Story DNA deconstructs stories into their elemental features, such as sentence structure, word use, and grammar employed. Combined with audience data, such as reading and engagement time, reads, commenting volume and sentiment, we have a data set unlike any others, allowing us to find stories that could be the next best-seller.

We are then able to compare stories to other content on Wattpad, as well as other public domain stories.

Regardless of the quality of stories this “machine learning” unveils, these numbers must be reassuring to Hollywood and book publishing executives. A formulaic story plus built-in audience will always be a solid bet, and Wattpad understands that very well.

(I should note that a book or story being optioned in Hollywood is far from a guarantee it will be made into a tv show or movie. Regardless, an optioned book is certainly a path to professionalism for the lucky Wattpad writer who gets it.)

The pros and cons of UGC

I wrote in my launch post for Cybercultural that I started this publication partly because of my dismay with how UGC has impacted the cultural sectors over the past decade:

While the read/write Web brought many positive things to our culture, such as Wikipedia, Flickr and social networks like LinkedIn, the downsides also became apparent over time. In particular, I learned that “User Generated Content” doesn’t make for a great arts and cultural sector.

Wattpad doesn’t change anything there, since even the best of its content is unoriginal and formulaic.

With that said, tens of thousands of people - sometimes millions - are reading the most popular Wattpad stories. So if a Wattpad writer has found an audience of that scale, who am I to judge?

Indeed, one of the pros of UGC is this ability for amateur creators to find an audience that enjoys what they do, and shows their support via likes and comments and shares on social media. And as Wattpad has shown, maybe - just maybe - that can lead to a book or TV deal.

Certainly the TV, movie and book industries have shown a willingness to tap into the deep well of UGC content on Wattpad. It may not be great content, but then a lot of the shows on Netflix, Hulu and other platforms are of middling (or worse) quality.

Plus, you never quite know what will become a breakout hit on TV. Keep an eye out for that sexy young Grim Reaper on a TV screen near you.


Cybercultural is a new email newsletter that covers the intersection of technology and the cultural industries. It was started by yours truly, Richard MacManus, in May 2019. Think of this as the beta period, since I’m currently working out the best formula for paying subscribers (starting 1 July 2019). All content is free until then.

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