Hollywood development execs for years have trolled blogs, YouTube and other internet sources in the hopes of finding untapped diamond-in-the-rough talent.
Now NBCUniversal’s Universal Cable Productions is looking to excavate fresh ideas for TV shows from the internet in a more methodical way, driven by a Big Data approach: The studio has partnered with Wattpad, a user-generated fiction community, to develop original television programming across multiple categories based on stories from Wattpad’s 2.3 million active monthly writers.
UCP has a first-look deal to produce TV projects derived from Wattpad content across six categories: mystery, thriller, teen/young adult, sci-fi, action, and general fiction. Projects UCP puts into development will be determined by data supplied by Wattpad — so the studio’s execs can see what stories or sub-genres are trending, and even get instant audience feedback on a script.
“We see Wattpad as our gold standard to find untapped voices,” said Dawn Olmstead, EVP of development for Universal Cable Productions and Wilshire Studios. “We’ll never abandon the traditional system. But what’s exciting about television today there are real untapped voices in this vast landscape. What makes Wattpad exciting for us specifically is that TV is a writer’s platform, not talent- or performer-based.”
It’s not the first entertainment pact for Toronto-based Wattpad, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month. The company’s recently formed Wattpad Studios division this summer launched an initiative with Turner’s TNT and TBS to run contests soliciting stories in the horror genre.
Wattpad Studios chief Aron Levitz said the data that the service is able to glean from its user base goes a long way toward eliminating hunches and guesswork when it comes to content development. The company has a team of about a dozen employees who analyze data and create algorithms to identify the most engaging themes, stories and writers on Wattpad at any given time. “We’re really changing from a standalone community to one that’s driving entertainment content,” he said. “We are giving tools Hollywood development teams didn’t have before, to make decisions about what to put money behind.”
Traditional entertainment companies are increasingly turning to digital media for new ideas, because they recognize its ability to tap into large built-in fanbases and to generate intellectual property “that resonates with the exact audience they are losing,” said Keith Richman, president of digital studio Defy Media. “This will only accelerate over the next few years as programmers try to connect with audiences — especially younger ones — who are now growing up in a world where there will be many more options for entertainment.”
Wattpad currently hosts more than 300 million original stories, with about 5,000 uploaded each day. The service boasts a total monthly audience of over 45 million readers who spend an average of 30 minutes per day with the service. About 90% of all Wattpad activity is via its mobile apps, and it offers stories in more than 50 languages in virtually every country in the world.
To be sure, Universal Cable Productions — whose shows include “Mr. Robot,” “Colony,” “Royal Pains,” “Suits,” “12 Monkeys” and “Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce” — is continue to tap other avenues for its production pipeline. It has development deals in place with players like Gale Anne Hurd (“The Walking Dead”), Doug Liman (“Edge of Tomorrow”), Sam Esmail (“Mr. Robot”) and Jessica Biel.
In addition, UCP recently set a first-look development deal with the Upright Citizens Brigade, the comedy theater troupe co-founded by Amy Poehler, and has an agreement with the Smithsonian Institution for access to its publication, museums and research library. And earlier this year UCP hosted “Pitch Fest,” which attracted more than 500 script submissions from unsigned writers. The winning pitch — Jeane Wong’s “The Thin Line,” a revisionist history series set in present-day America where segregation still exists after an unsuccessful ’60s civil rights movement — currently slated for development.
But Olmstead expects Wattpad to yield a crop of promising material. “When we met with Wattpad it was really clear they could be a great conduit for us to get an early read and find those untapped voices that are hard to get ahold of in Hollywood,” she said. “The fact that they are all over the world, and the way the site works – it’s reader and writer engagement. You can get real feedback to see what the audience is thinking about this material immediately.”
UCP and Wattpad are also aligned creatively, according to Olmstead: “A lot of the stuff on the site tends to be YA, sci-fi, and very specific genres. We love sci-fi here and we love YA, and that was the first inclination that we could find great and authentic stories.” Under the partnership, Universal Cable Productions can ask Wattpad’s top 100 writers to pitch treatments for specific show concept (for example, a werewolf show) and winnow down submissions from there.
Under the deal between the two companies, Wattpad will be co-producers on any of the resulting TV projects at UCP. The writers whose stories are selected will participate more than typical writers in terms of the creative process and financial participation, according to Levitz, declining to specify details of what those arrangements will look like. “We will keep them involved more heavily than a book that has been optioned, because they have an audience. They are there to help with the marketing,” he said.
One of Wattpad’s breakout stars — and one of the proof points for Olmstead in deciding to enter into the development deal with the company — is Anna Todd, whose Wattpad stories have been read more than 1 billion times and has 1.1 million followers on the service. The 27-year-old Texas native began writing One Direction fan fiction on Wattpad in 2013, and with its popularity Simon & Schuster published YA romance novel “After” and other books based on her stories. A movie adaptation of “After” is in the works at Paramount Pictures and Offspring Entertainment.
“I started it as a hobby,” said Todd, who now lives in L.A. “I found a place where millions of people loved the same thing I did. Neither Wattpad or I realized what exactly we could do with this, and they worked hard to get the deals done.” Her next romance novel based on her Wattpad entries is “Nothing Less,” slated to be published next month under Simon & Schuster’s Gallery imprint.
Of course, an ongoing issue for user-generated content sites is copyright infringement. Wattpad forbids copyrighted material to be posted without the express permission of the rights-holder, and the service has DMCA-compliant measures in place to respond to complaints. By and large, fan fiction is considered transformative works that falls under the fair use provisions of copyright law. But Levitz said Wattpad has multiple checks and balances to fight copyright violations and plagiarism, relying on user reporting and algorithms to catch offending material.
“We have a network of ambassadors to make sure the community is safe,” Levitz said, adding, “Wattpad is a very positive community.”