You could write Hollywood’s next blockbuster on your iPhone

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Wattpad: The social reading and writing app that’s transforming the entertainment industry
Wattpad: The app that's transforming the entertainment industry
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Ever dreamed of penning a Hollywood blockbuster? Turns out there’s an app for that: social reading and writing app Wattpad.

With more than 70 million monthly users (and growing fast), Wattpad is a low-key App Store hit. The app is like Instagram, but for sharing stories instead of photos. It’s a great way to find fantastic new stories — and it’s flipping the script on how Hollywood makes movies.

I could do better than that!

There was a time when movies were made exclusively by Hollywood’s elite, with the rest of us watching in star-struck silence. Those days are long gone, though. Thanks to social media, fans now get vocal when they don’t like what they see.

More than 1.5 million signed an online petition insisting that HBO remake the final season of Game of Thrones. Similarly, some Star Wars fans became so enraged by Episode VIII that they demanded it be struck from the canon.

But why limit yourself to signing petitions? If you think you could do better, why not put your money where your mouth is and write your own story?

With Wattpad, you can write a story on your iPhone, build a following for it, and, the next thing you know, get discovered by a Hollywood producer.

Your audience awaits

The idea behind Wattpad is simple. It’s a self-publishing app, where writers post their stories, one chapter at a time. Aron Levitz, Head of Wattpad Studios, told Cult of Mac: “Our community of readers and writers grows every day…  showing readers, writers, publishers and entertainment executives that Wattpad is the place to find great stories.”

What makes Wattpad unique is that, of its 70 million monthly users, only 4 million are writers. The rest are all readers — and a new user joins Wattpad literally every second.

That’s a massive potential audience that can turn things upside-down.

For instance, although traditional publishers rejected Brittany Geragotelis’ novel, Life’s a Witch, it clocked a staggering 21 million reads on Wattpad. Thanks to this success, Geragotelis signed a three-book deal with Simon & Schuster.

You don’t even need to excel at writing polished prose to become successful. Most Wattpad stories start out as a rough first draft. Thanks to feedback from readers (in the form of comments and votes), they get better as they go along. Writers learn what works and what doesn’t — and can finesse their stories accordingly.

Hollywood is listening

If you signed that Game of Thrones petition, you’re probably out of luck. The chances of a remake are slim. But on Wattpad, Hollywood execs really are listening.

In 2015, Anna Todd wrote After on her iPhone, when she was 23 years old. Now it has become one of the top-grossing indie movie of 2019. It debuted at No. 1 in 17 countries and has recently been green lit for a sequel.

Another Wattpad user, Beth Reekles, wrote The Kissing Booth in her spare time. Acquired by Netflix, it became one of the streaming service’s most-rewatched original movies of 2018.

Light as a Feather, the Emmy-nominated hit Hulu show based on Zoe Aarsen’s Wattpad story, is about to enter its second season. And there are plenty more success stories like these.

Wattpad is a social network for sharing stories.
Wattpad is a social network for sharing stories.
Photo: Wattpad/Cult of Mac

Spec scripts are dead. Long live Wattpad.

Once upon a time, if you had an idea for a movie, you could send a speculative script to your favorite director. If they liked it, they might just turn it into a film. Thelma & Louise, Good Will Hunting and many other brilliant movies came about that way.

But these days, selling a spec script has become almost impossible. Under today’s increasing commercial pressures, movie producers are less willing to take a risk on a story that does not already have a keen fan base. And that’s where Wattpad comes in.

Stories like After build such a massive following on Wattpad that they seem almost guaranteed to become hits when they reach the big screen. Fans of a Wattpad story likely will flock to see its movie adaptation, regardless of what the critics say.

Wattpad is disrupting the entertainment industry

The way Wattpad connects writers directly with their audiences is having a profound impact on the industry.

Traditionally, writers had to pitch their stories to literary agents. These agents would then sell the book to editors. Editors work for publishers, who market and distribute books to readers. And if the book proves popular, the agent may then sell the rights to Hollywood.

Wattpad eliminates all these stages, putting writers directly in contact with readers. There are no gatekeepers to tell you that your book sucks. If you believe in your story, you publish it. It’s that simple.

This interaction between writers and readers results in an unprecedented and valuable source of data. Wattpad analyzes this data using machine learning, deep learning and recurrent neural networks to identify new trends in storytelling long before Hollywood’s lumbering studios catch on.

It’s a technology the company calls Story DNA.

Story DNA: The Siri of storytelling

Machine learning is a major emerging trend in the tech industry. Apple uses it to help Siri get better at anticipating your needs and understanding what you are saying. Similarly, Hollywood now uses the technology to predict which movies are likely to become box office hits.

To do this, machine learning systems require huge amounts of data from which they can “learn.” In the case of Siri, that data is all the information contained on your iPhone. For Hollywood, it’s usually historical box office figures.

One such system, Cinelytic, lets Hollywood producers “play fantasy football with filmmaking.” You pick the actors who will star in your movie, and Cinelytic projects your likely box office figures. Swap out one star for another and the projections change accordingly.

The trouble is, a machine learning system is only as good as the data fed into it. Systems based upon historical data may not shed much insight on future trends.

What you get out is only as good as what you put in

This is where Wattpad’s data could prove invaluable. Over half a billion stories have been shared on Wattpad, with more being added all the time. And writers are constantly responding to reader feedback. So emerging trends soon show up in Wattpad’s data.

The company launched Wattpad Studios in 2016 to sell these insights to the entertainment industry.

Levitz explains: “Some of the most interesting things we see on Wattpad are people taking control of different genres and writing what they can’t find anywhere else. We see amazing new worlds being built every day as Wattpad writers bring new life to old genres.”

One recent example is the growing popularity of Muslim love stories. In 2018, Wattpad readers spent an average of 1.7 million minutes per month reading stories tagged #MuslimRomance, #Muslimlovestory or #IslamicLoveStory, according to the service. Wattpad also is partnering with the likes of Sony Pictures Television, Syfy and eOne to supply this kind of data-driven insight, the company says.

Today, Wattpad Studios does more than just sell data, though. By connecting promising writers with studios and publishers, it is effectively replacing the role traditionally occupied by literary agents.

“We have the world’s largest and most passionate focus group, and we take our cues from what they like,” Levitz said.

Getting discovered is getting tougher, but machine learning can help

All this data may be very handy for Hollywood, but it’s not such a great thing if you’re a new writer trying to get discovered.

Wattpad says that nearly a thousand stories from its platform have been published as books, or turned into TV shows, films and digital media projects. Which sounds like a lot until you consider just how many stories are churned out by the publishing industry and Hollywood each year. And it’s a drop in the ocean when compared to the half a billion stories already uploaded to Wattpad. Standing out in a sea of half a billion stories is a pretty tall order.

As on Instagram, where your followers and likes determine how much of an influencer you are, popularity on Wattpad is all about your “reads” and votes. Acquiring these is not easy unless you are already established. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

Fortunately, Wattpad uses its Story DNA machine learning technology to help give new writers a break.

White Stag by Kara Barbieri did not have many reads when it was discovered by Story DNA. But the system identified it as significant because users spent 6.5 times longer reading it than the average time spent reading the top 1,000 fantasy works on Wattpad.

As a result of this insight, White Stag received promotion on the Wattpad homepage. Now it has clocked 1.2 million reads — and Barbieri signed a three-book deal with Macmillan.

The remarkable thing here is that Story DNA is recognizing quality, not just quantity. So even if your story doesn’t have many reads and votes, it could still be spotted by Wattpad’s algorithms.

We all can dream

The promise of getting discovered by Story DNA and being picked up by Wattpad Studios is attracting ever more writers to the platform. Myself included. (Couldn’t resist a plug there.)

In addition to writing, I have also become an avid reader on Wattpad. I enjoy using it far more than Kindle or Apple Books. And it’s not just because most of the books are free. What makes reading on Wattpad so special is that you get to interact with the authors directly. Once you’ve read a few books this way, switching back to conventional e-books feels oddly impersonal and dull.

So if you have a story worth sharing, why not download Wattpad and start writing it today? It could become the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games.