In what is being billed as an Australian first, Screen Queensland has teamed with online reading hub Wattpad to take up to three projects from book to screen using artificial intelligence and machine learning to determine what audiences want. The Toronto-based Wattpad, via which authors publish stories in serial form, claims to have around 80 million unique users a month, 90 per cent of them in the 16-35 age bracket and around 70 per cent female. Launched in 2007, it now hosts around 500 million “uploads” from around 4 million authors, with its audience distributed equally among North America, Latin America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. The likes of Margaret Attwood, Amy Poehler and Dan Brown appear on the platform, but the vast majority of authors are previously unpublished. Perhaps the most significant element of the platform, though, is the reader interaction. “It isn’t a one-way conversation where someone posts a novel-length piece and that’s the end of it,” says Aron Levitz, head of Wattpad Studios. “It really is a serialised form of entertainment where our biggest and best authors are posting week by week, the audience is engaging with them, asking questions, and arguing with each other right down to the paragraph level.”
From those interactions, says Mr Levitz, the company “collects around a billion points of data a day” using its Story DNA analytical software to work out what elements resonate with readers. “And we’re using that data to make better decisions in adaptation for film or TV or books, to have a better chance of success because of the built-in audience these stories already have.” Arguably, that makes a local joint project an almost perfect fit, given the emergence of “pathway to audience” as a mantra from Screen Australia and other agencies in recent years.
There’s a criticism implicit in that, of course – that too often screen creatives in this country have been driven by their own storytelling desires with not enough attention paid to whether or not there is an actual audience for their stories. Though that tells only part of the story, it is often cited as a reason for the market failure of so many Australian films and TV series. The Wattpad model, which favours YA-focused projects, comes at the creative equation from the opposite end: first you work out what audiences want, then you build it. It’s like audience-testing on steroids.
“Testing will tell you if a story is enjoyed by an audience, but we’re using that data throughout the development process,” says Mr Levitz. “You can take a bestselling book and give it to a screenwriter who has no depth of knowledge about what parts an audience likes, and they’re just doing their best to adapt a 400-page novel into a script. We’re actually giving our screenwriting partners the ability to understand what audiences were thinking at every step of the story.” To date, Wattpad claims almost 1000 properties have been developed for “screen, digital or book” platforms from stores it has hosted.
It counts among its greatest successes The Kissing Booth, which Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos claimed in 2018 was “one of the most watched movies in the country, if not in the world” (Netflix rarely releases hard viewer numbers); the Hulu series Light As a Feather, which has been nominated for 10 Daytime Emmy Awards across its two seasons; and the feature film After, which Mr Levitz claims was “one of 2019’s most successful independent films”, with global box office nearing $US70 million ($102 million) on a reported budget of $US14 million. For Screen Queensland, the partnership represents an opportunity for Australian creatives to develop projects squarely aimed at a global audience, with the potential for fan buy-in from the very start. “Developing work with an audience is not something we’ve done before, and that’s really exciting,” says Screen Queensland content executive Jo Dillon. “We’re always looking to tell distinctive Australian stories with themes that resonate with global audiences. Here we’re working with material that already has an audience around the world.”