With a slew of TV and film deals recently announced, Toronto-based startup Wattpad is casting its story-telling platform into Hollywood’s limelight amid growing interest from producers.
Wattpad, which offers mostly amateur fiction writers a free platform for their work, consists of more than 500 million stories and attracts a monthly audience of about 65 million users across a wide variety of genres in over 50 languages.
Wattpad earlier this month announced that online streaming service Hulu ordered a 10-episode series for Light as a Feather, a supernatural thriller based on a story that has garnered more than 2.9 million reads on its website. It also recently announced Sony Pictures Television acquired the production rights to another Wattpad story named Death Is My BFF, a series of romance and dark humour stories with more than 92 million reads. The announcements come after Wattpad’s Cupid’s Match aired on CW’s digital network CW Seed this past Valentine’s Day and a number of other content deals struck with Lionsgate, Komixx Entertainment and Entertainment One.
“There’s been no lack of meetings over the past few years,” said Aron Levitz, general manager of Wattpad Studios, the company’s entertainment arm, in an interview with BNN Bloomberg. “When you’re new to the industry, we had to take a couple years to explain what Wattpad is. This is a new way to consume content that is entertainment.”
Levitz added that Wattpad takes a cut of the rights it sells to studios and also generates revenue by taking a producer credit once the studio approves production. The company opened a Los Angeles office in April 2016 to be closer to industry contacts and further its live-action ambitions.
The TV and film deals come as Wattpad closed a funding round of $61 million in January led by Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. and also included Business Development Bank of Canada, Philippines-based Globe Telecom Inc.’s subsidiary Kickstart Ventures and Hong Kong-based Peterson Group as investors. The financing round valued the company at about $400 million, according to Bloomberg.
Wattpad’s moves in the entertainment industry also highlight the ongoing maturity of the Canadian startup market. Technology startups, bolstered by record financing deals, are increasingly casting their ambitions globally, as seen with firms such as Lightspeed POS Inc., Wealthsimple and Vidyard. Meanwhile, Canadian venture capital investment rose 11 per cent last year compared to 2016 with $3.5 billion invested in nearly 600 companies, according to the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association.
A significant reason why Wattpad has brushed elbows with major Hollywood players is a growing interest in using data and analytics to predict sure bets in the global film and television industry, which generated $286.2 billion last year, according to Statista. For example, both Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. use proprietary analytics that can determine what shows to green-light in an industry where about three-quarters of all TV pilots don’t get picked up for a season.
“We have data that shows not only what stories are growing but what genres are trending,” Levitz said.
He pointed to “dark mermaid” stories as a genre that Wattpad found popular on its platform a couple years ago. It is now the basis of Siren, a series that airs on one of Walt Disney Company’s cable TV channels.
“We’re starting to better understand how to meld the language of data to help both publishing and entertainment executives make those kinds of decisions,” Levitz said.
James DeJulio, the president and co-founder of Tongal, an online network of 150,000 professional creatives that has worked with Wattpad to produce its Cupid’s Match show, said the Toronto-based startup created a “creative populism system” that should be able to compete for ideas on the same level of Hollywood’s insular screenwriter industry.
"No longer is the work of creativity the providence of a few elite people in Hollywood," DeJulio said. "[Wattpad] is an open platform of ideas and Hollywood is starting to notice."
Wattpad’s next move will take their burgeoning success in Hollywood overseas. The company opened an office in Hong Kong where it will look to strike content deals with producers across Asia, notably in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, and it has plans to target European producers over the next year, Levitz said.
He said several more production announcements should come this year, but didn’t provide specifics given that negotiations with studios and other developers remain ongoing.
“If the announcements are growing, then our pipeline is growing at an even faster rate,” Levitz said.