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Report On Business Magazine How this Canadian company is using AI to create the next Disney

Allen Lau (left) and Aaron Levitz.

Shrieks fill the lobby of the Pacific Theatres at the Grove in Los Angeles as the stars of the young-adult romance film After arrive to walk the red carpet.

There’s singer and social media influencer Pia Mia, glamorous in a yellow strapless gown, strolling by a corralled crowd of 120 excited girls. She stops to take group selfies, eliciting a fresh wave of hysteria. More unbridled enthusiasm greets co-stars Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Josephine Langford, two of Hollywood’s Next Young Things, as they make their entrance, her sparkling red suit drawing the paparazzi’s attention.

Inside the theatre, one teenager starts to freak out as she realizes she’s standing in the same room as Anna Todd, the author whose books served as the source for the movie. “Is she there?” the girl says loudly to a friend, pointing toward Todd, seated close by. “Oh-my-God, Oh-my-God! One-two-three! One-two-three!” she recites quickly, trying to control her anxiety before exclaiming, “Anna!”

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Six years ago, Todd was an aimless 24-year-old military wife living in Texas when she began tapping out After on her smartphone in a Target checkout line. It started as a piece of fan fiction based on the boy band One Direction, and it made her a publishing superstar. The After series, which follows the intense relationship between college good-girl Tessa Young and troubled bad boy Hardin Scott (inspired by Harry Styles), was published by Simon & Schuster and has sold more than 15 million copies, topping bestseller lists in several countries. Cosmopolitan has called Todd “the biggest literary phenom of her generation.”

Singer Pia Mia, who has a supporting role in After, poses with fans at the premiere in L.A.

Sean Silcoff

But this night in early April really belongs to the Toronto company that exposed Todd’s story to the world in the first place: Wattpad Corp. After is the first Hollywood film adapted for the big screen from a story published on Wattpad’s online platform, which connects writers with readers. Since its launch in 2006, Wattpad has become a social networking star, with more than 70 million users, predominantly young women from 13 to 35 (the company estimates its user base includes one in three teenage girls in the U.S.). And it has redefined the solitary acts of reading and writing as collective experiences. Wattpad’s four million authors upload roughly 500,000 posts a day (the site has a catalogue of 565 million stories), allowing readers to not only consume their content, mostly for free, but to interact with writers and fellow readers via votes, direct messages and comments. These range from emojis to one-word reactions like “LMAO” to thoughtful feedback occasionally written in full sentences.

You won't see J.K. Rowling or Salman Rushdie among Wattpad's largely amateur cadre of writers, but you'll find every imaginable genre, from children's literature and sci-fi to horror and Great Gatsby fan fiction. Looking for Filipino taxi stories, Muslim romances or explicit erotica? They're all on Wattpad too. Users spend 22 billion minutes a month on the platform, mostly on their phones, writing a combined 200 million comments and messages. The average session lasts 37 minutes—10 minutes more than Snapchat or Instagram.

Wattpad’s ability to hold the attention of notoriously hard-to-reach millennials—who knew so many young people staring into their phones were actually reading fiction?—has made it a draw for advertisers, which account for most of its estimated US$25 million-plus in annual revenue.

That’s just a start. Wattpad has ambitions far beyond ad-driven social media. Its readers are throwing off billions of points of data a day—a vast, real-time trove of insights that reveal what kinds of stories speak to them and how. By using artificial intelligence algorithms to mine that data, Wattpad believes it can determine which of its stories could hit it big as books, movies or shows. “You can view Wattpad as an intellectual property factory that can generate entertainment properties organically and in large quantity,” says co-founder and CEO Allen Lau. Writers “might not realize they have a big hit on their hands, but the numbers will not lie.”

The big question now is how many more Anna Todds Wattpad can find among its crowd-sourced content and whether it can capture a piece of the action. To that end, in 2016 it established Wattpad Studios, devoted to striking licensing deals with outside publishers and studios, acting as an agent for the writers and wresting co-production roles for itself.

Wattpad has since signed deals with production giants in Europe, Asia and Canada, and with Sony Pictures Television in Hollywood. Streaming service Hulu has ordered two seasons of a show based on Wattpad young-adult horror story Light As a Feather, Stiff As a Board. And Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, said last year that its filmed adaptation of Watttpad’s The Kissing Booth was “one of the most watched movies in [the U.S], and maybe the world.” On the publishing side, Wattpad has helped writers strike hundreds of deals, and this year it will start publishing under its own imprint. Other experiments in monetization are under way.

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The company’s vision—backed by US$117 million raised from top venture capital firms in Canada and the U.S., and from Chinese Internet giant Tencent Holdings—is to upend the traditional Manhattan publishers and Hollywood producers, which greenlight books and movies based on gut instinct. In Wattpad’s view, that’s inefficient, biased and risky. Its data-based approach, says venture capitalist and Wattpad board member Peter Misek, can “effectively de-risk the content-creation process at all levels.”

The company has had a couple of hits already, but there’s a lot riding on After. Producer Aron Levitz, the fast-talking, glad-handy head of Wattpad Studios, sums it up best as he stands outside the Pacific Theatre: “I’ve got naches and shpilkes and everything right now.”

Sandy Nicholson/Fuze Reps

Allen Lau, the star of the Wattpad saga, is a quiet, slender Hong Kong immigrant whose thoughtful manner and owlish features (not to mention his orange cable-knit sweater and brown leather fanny pack) belie a take-on-the-world confidence. “My superpower, if I have to pick one thing, is that I’m able to see things most other people cannot yet see,” he says during an interview at Wattpad’s Toronto headquarters.

Lau's journey to the top of the Canadian startup scene starts with a love story. One summer night in 1988, he was out with some friends in Toronto when he met 18-year-old Eva Tsang, another new arrival from Hong Kong. She was outgoing; he was not. Her first impression of Lau, a year older than her and heading into his second year at the University of Toronto's engineering school: “What a nerd!”

Months later, when Lau finally asked her out, she declared she was only interested if he had intentions to marry. They’ve been together ever since. When she was in her early 20s, Eva’s father died. “Allen was literally holding my dad’s hand and said, ‘You go at peace—I’m taking care of your family,’“ Eva recalls. “That emotional support meant everything to me.”

Eva, in turn, inspired Lau to take an entrepreneurial path. Frustrated by the bureaucratic nature of his first post-university employer, IBM, he followed Eva, who’d graduated from U of T engineering a year behind him, to a startup called Delrina. Eva was having all sorts of fun working at what was then one of Toronto’s few software success stories, making a program that enabled personal computers in the Internet 0.0 era to communicate with fax machines. (Symantec bought Delrina for US$415 million in 1995.) Working for Delrina convinced the young couple they were startup people.

Lau stayed at Symantec until following Eva again in 2000 to Brightspark Labs, an incubator run by two Delrina founders. In one gig, Lau worked for his wife; in another, she worked for him. When Eva got pregnant in 2002, she left (the couple now has two daughters, and Eva runs venture capital firm Two Small Fish). Lau went on to become chief technology officer of game-maker Tira Wireless.

By the mid-2000s, he'd started to lose interest in Tira. In his downtime, he dusted off a program he'd built on a lark earlier that decade: a rudimentary app to read books on his Nokia cellphone. His first upload was the Book of Genesis, but he couldn't bear reading on the tiny screen. “I knew it was not feasible, and no one would use it,” he says.

Then came the Motorola Razr phone, whose screen was big enough to fit 10 lines of text. Lau decided to revive his app, thinking there might be demand for the reading equivalent of YouTube, which had debuted a year earlier, in 2005. Coincidentally, a former Tira employee named Ivan Yuen showed Lau a reading app he was developing—one that enabled people to upload their own writing as well. “I hadn't thought of this,” says Lau. They agreed to start Wattpad together.

To fill the app, Lau and Yuen uploaded thousands of classics available free in the public domain. A year later, they had just 1,000 users reading novels like Pride and Prejudice. In mid-2007, they received a cheque from Google for $2—the grand total of their advertising revenue for the month—and considered shutting down. But since their costs were so low, they stuck it out. Within a year, Wattpad started coming alive as the missing ingredient showed up: writers.

Their first hit came in November 2008, when a teenager in Britain calling herself @RedFlame uploaded a Victorian vampire novel called Blind Truths and invited her friends to read it. Her 150 Wattpad followers told their friends, who told some more, “and it started to snowball,” says Lau. By early 2009, Wattpad had launched an iPhone app, and hundreds of writers were posting chapters. Lau had made it a habit to read every user comment. But that summer, he found he couldn’t keep up. “It was like I was walking into an endless town,” he says. “That’s when I realized we were really taking off.”

Eva Lau gets credit for creating Wattpad's inclusive ethos.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Eva Lau deserves much of the credit for putting Wattpad on its current path.

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As the community grew, Wattpad writers began accusing others of stealing their ideas or creating fake accounts to goose the popularity of their stories. Comments turned nasty. “Most of our users were female and very young,” says Lau. “It was kind of awkward for me and Ivan to interact with them.” He and Yuen (now Wattpad's chief product officer) turned to Eva for help.

Calling herself Wattpad’s “webmother,” she established content guidelines and a strict code of conduct, influenced in part by her background (“Chinese culture is not very confrontational—harmony is a big trait”). Of utmost importance was establishing what Eva calls “basic human respect” by cracking down on mean-spirited attacks and limiting criticism to the constructive variety. Social-engineering tweaks helped, like changing the name of the “review” field to “comment” and restricting feedback to 2,000 characters to cut down on rants. They banned trolls and closed accounts, including that of one of Wattpad’s most popular but vituperative writers. There was blowback, says Lau, “but it was the right decision.”

Today, Wattpad relies on 15 employees—more than 10% of its staff—and 500 volunteer “ambassadors” to ensure Wattpadders uphold the community’s standards so that nascent writers feel comfortable expressing themselves. Some prohibited content slips through: If you look hard enough, you can find stories about bestiality, incest and sexual enslavement, and some parents have complained on family-values watchdog sites about inappropriate content. But Wattpad’s commitment to inclusivity sets it apart from other sites that have allowed toxicity to fester. Donald Trump might be the king of Twitter, but he wouldn’t last a day on Wattpad.

Eva Lau's legacy is evident at WattCon, a Wattpad-sponsored fan convention in midtown Manhattan this past October. The vast majority of the 350-odd attendees are women, and many, if not most, are people of colour. (Women account for the majority of Wattpad staff and 50% of its leadership team, while almost half of its employees are non-white.) On a tall whiteboard, attendees are invited to finish the sentence: “Wattpad is…” Many write: “Home.”

Several writers in attendance, including some of Wattpad’s most popular, say the positive feedback they received on the site encouraged them to stick with it. “The community is so young and so inviting, you forgive the mistakes,” says Bronx-based Tyronickah Buckmire, a 24-year-old Grenadian immigrant who wrote her first young-adult fantasy story on 2016 under the handle Teace Findlay.

Lindsey Summers was an unemployed 20-something living in her parents’ garage in Los Angeles in 2013 when she posted a chapter under the handle DoNotMicrowave. Readers loved the story, about two teen strangers who fall in love after accidentally swapping cellphones, and urged her to keep writing. By the time she posted her 12th chapter, The Cell Phone Swap had been read eight million times. (Like YouTube, each separate visit to a Wattpad story counts as one read.) It has since topped 100 million and debuted in book form in 2017. Summers has also earned money writing content for brands that advertise on Wattpad. “I think my parents were just relieved I was actually doing something with my life,” she says.

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Wattpad's director of creator development, Samantha Pennington, is overcome by all the positivity as she ends the first day of WattCon. “I can't believe this is my job,” she tells the audience tearfully. “I am so humbled and moved by all of you.”

Wattpad’s story might be non-fiction, but it does have a fairy godmother. In October 2011, Wattpad was getting ready to open the doors of its new headquarters in Toronto’s north end. The company had sent an invite to Margaret Atwood, though nobody counted on the legendary Canadian writer actually showing up. But suddenly, there she was, playing foosball and talking innovation with Lau (Atwood is a techsavvy entrepreneur herself, having helped develop a remote-signing technology called LongPen). She took a shine to the company and started calling herself its “fairy godmother"—Lau even made up business cards for Atwood that said so. A few months later, she wrote a column in The Guardian extolling Wattpad’s virtues, noting the platform emulated the participatory nature of video games while encouraging writers to shape their stories based on reader feedback, as Charles Dickens had done. She even released some of her own work on Wattpad and presided over a poetry competition called the “Attys"-all voluntarily. Wattpad, she tells Report on Business, is “a literacy facilitator. It’s also an entrance point for people who are quite young.” If it had existed in her youth, she adds, “I would have been on it in a shot.”

Atwood was the first famous writer to endorse Wattpad. But others were noticing its star-maker qualities. Earlier in 2011, Wattpad had surpassed two million users and raised US$3.5 million in a financing led by New York's Union Square Ventures. While other VCs asked for spreadsheets with financial projections, USV wanted Wattpad to shut off its only source of revenue. Wattpad was generating about $500,000 a year in advertising sales, but Union Square partner Albert Wenger argued that running generic and often tacky ads debased the user experience. USV specialized in backing firms that harnessed network effects, like Twitter, Stripe, Etsy and Kickstarter; Wenger wanted Wattpad to focus on attracting writers and readers, and worry about monetizing later. Lau didn't agree, but could see Wattpad's future depended on expanding beyond advertising to generate revenue.

Meanwhile, publishers were reaching out directly to Wattpad’s popular writers. Teenager Abigail Gibbs got a six-figure advance from Harper Collins to turn Dinner with a Vampire into a series of books, while Beth Reeks, a 15-year-old from Wales who writes as Beth Reekles, scored a three-book deal with Random House U.S. for her young adult romance The Kissing Booth after it got 19 million reads on Wattpad.

All these deals were great for Wattpad’s profile but not its finances. Like other self-publishing sites (including FanFiction.net, where 50 Shades of Grey debuted), Wattpad didn’t own its writers’ intellectual property, and publishers often had stories pulled off the site.

Lau recruited a handful of outsiders, starting in 2012, to help him figure out how to build a business around a platform that now had four million users. (Eva left in 2013 after community management became too much of a strain on family life.) One key arrival, Candice Faktor, who had led Torstar Corp.'s digital innovation business, oversaw early monetization experiments as Wattpad’s general manager. “We were clear we were an enablement platform. There was a lot of passion and purpose on the leadership team, but there was no clear view on how we were going to exactly get there,” says Faktor, who stayed at Wattpad until 2016. Monetization schemes, the team agreed, had to deliver value for its writers, the publishing industry—which initially regarded Wattpad with suspicion or indifference—as well as advertisers and other partners.

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Efforts included a Kickstarter-type crowdsourcing campaign to fund writers (it didn’t catch on) and a brand-promotion program that enlisted popular Wattpadders to write short stories on the site tied to products like Sour Patch Kids candy. Millions read the stories, but the program was “difficult to scale,” says Lau.

Early on, Faktor led her colleagues on a strategic visioning exercise to imagine a magazine cover story about Wattpad five years later: What would it say? “We all had some version of this idea that one of these writers on our platform becomes a world-renowned breakout star,” she says. “And it’s all because Wattpad got her there.”

Midway through 2013, Wattpad staff noticed a spike in referrals coming from the search term “after.” “What is ‘after?’ “ Faktor remembers them all thinking. “It was just such a weird term.” Millions of other referrals streamed in as users texted a Wattpad link to their friends. “Then we realized, 'Oh my God, After is actually a story that’s going viral, and lots of people are looking for it.”

Wattpad had promoted stories before, but this one was a force of its own. Todd's story accounted for 10% of overall traffic and racked up hundreds of millions of reads; it even crashed the site. Wattpad executives wanted to meet the author, who went by the handle Imaginator1D. “This was so big,” says Lau. “We could smell it. When you see a unicorn, you know this is a unicorn, but how can we make it a win-win?”

Faktor and her team sent several emails to Todd, but she initially ignored them, assuming they were from pranksters. When she finally did respond, Faktor arranged to meet the writer at a rooftop patio in Hollywood. It turned out she was a fan-fiction junkie who had become obsessed with “punk edits” of the boys from One Direction, created by rabid fans superimposing tattoos and piercings onto digital images. One day, she decided to write a story on Wattpad, imagining the band members as punks in college and casting singer Harry Styles as the lead. She wrote thousands of words a day, and kept fans engaged in the rocky relationship between Hardin and Tessa with regular cliffhangers (What is Hardin yelling about? Will Hardin and Tessa shower together? Who’s Molly?). She also responded to messages and feedback, at one point correcting the colour of a car after a sharp-eyed reader noted it was different in an earlier chapter. “It was like, ‘Wow, this person has nailed the way in which our platform works best,’” says Faktor.

“As a reader, if I tried to contact my favorite writers 10 years ago, no way would they have even known I existed,” says Todd. “Now, I have readers who not only comment on the story, they direct-message me every day. It breaks down the barrier from writer to reader, and I’m really happy I can be part of that.”

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Cosmo has called After author Anna Todd “the biggest literary phenom of her generation”

Eric Charbonneau/Wattpad

Wattpad’s execs told Todd that they wanted to help turn After into something bigger—both for her and for the company. “We were very mindful and thoughtful about creating a relationship,” says Faktor. “This was our first foray into the entertainment business.”

Todd and Wattpad struck a deal that would be a model for subsequent arrangements. Wattpad would help land Todd a publishing deal (while keeping the original story online) and take a cut of book sales. It would also help sell screen rights to the story while securing a producer role for itself, with all the related financial incentives that go along with it: producer fees, plus a share of box office and distribution revenue. After’s engagement statistics landed Todd representation by United Talent Agency, a film deal with Paramount and a US$500,000 advance from Simon & Schuster. When the first book came out in 2014, it was a publishing sensation and proved that leaving the story on Wattpad didn’t cannibalize book sales.

“It was the first time that, if you were in the publishing industry, you couldn’t ignore Wattpad,” says Melissa Nightingale, who ran global marketing for Wattpad from 2014 to 2016. “To end up with a New York Times and international bestseller from an author you hadn’t heard of, who didn’t have a PhD in English literature, who hadn’t worked with a traditional publishing company to get a deal, was a really interesting moment for the company and the industry. If you didn’t know who Wattpad was before, it was very hard to ignore after After.”

Halfway around the world, Wattpad had another hit. In 2014, the Filipino network TV5 proposed shooting a series based on Wattpad stories, called Wattpad Presents. The Philippines was already Wattpad's second-largest market behind the U.S., and the series was a sensation, running for 200 episodes and improving TV5's ratings by 30%. Wattpad didn't have to do much and earned a seven-figure sum from the deal.

Inside Wattpad, the monetization strategy began to take shape, inspired by Chinese reading and writing site Cloudary, which had attempted a similar scheme. (Cloudary is now part of China Literature, which has 213 million active users and US$734 million in revenue, and is controlled by Wattpad investor Tencent.) Wattpad continued to earn millions off advertising. It explored ways to get users to pay for content that had been free previously. And in April 2016, it launched Wattpad Studios to co-produce Wattpad stories for print, film, TV and digital platforms.

Its biggest challenge was that the company didn’t own the underlying IP—the writers did. To lock in some value from that content, Wattpad had to persuade them it would act as effectively in representing their financial interests as it had hosting their stories.

And Wattpad did have some IP of its own: the engagement data generated by stories on its platform. Wattpad knew who was reading what, and could pinpoint popular trends and story preferences. It knew which stories readers loved and which moments resonated the most, based on their comments. Only Wattpad could walk into a room with a publishing house or studio armed with data about how and why certain stories connected with audiences.

“That’s the proprietary IP-the data we own,” says Lau. “One big distinction with Facebook is that there is no privacy concern with Wattpad, because this is about how people consume the content. It’s not about where you live-we don’t care about that.” But while the data belongs to the company, it’s also “helping [the writers'] IP become more valuable,” says Lau. “Ultimately everyone wins,” since Wattpad benefits when its writers do. “Our goal is to help creators on our platform make money and build a nice career out of this.”

Well, maybe a bit more than that. “It’s obvious that we’re not just building an app or a community,” Lau wrote in a blog post to commemorate Wattpad’s 10th anniversary, in November 2016. “We’re building a global multiplatform entertainment company … Hey Mickey Mouse: The next Disney is coming.”

Joanna Kerns leaps out of her director’s chair, beneath a cramped black canopy in a Santa Clarita skate park, as two actors finish their 12th take of a scene. “That’s it! Twelve is fantastic,” barks Kerns, a veteran TV director and actor who co-starred in Growing Pains. “Ladies and gentlemen, I need all this to move.” Within 10 minutes, the tent, monitors and crew have relocated to a different vantage across the park.

It’s the morning of the After premiere, and 50 kilometres from Hollywood, in this sun-scorched bedroom community, filming is under way on Light As a Feather’s second season. The shoot is fast-paced and lean, with fewer than 75 people on set, compared to 200 or 300 on a typical production. The Emmy-nominated show, about teen girls who start dying off in the manner foretold during a party game, has helped put Wattpad on the Hollywood map, and it’s at the vanguard of industry changes. Light As a Feather airs on Hulu, one of the digital streaming services reshaping how entertainment is delivered. Hulu hasn’t shared viewer figures with Wattpad or with Awesomeness, the Viacom-owned production company that makes the show, but they assume it’s doing well, since Hulu renewed it for a second season.

The show’s cast includes YouTube stars and young actors almost guaranteed to draw millennial viewers, and producers have responded to fan feedback on social media, for example by writing in a love interest for gay character Alex. Most important is that the series is based on “a piece of IP"—Hollywood-speak for an original story—which streaming services have indicated is “a really important element to selling a project,” says Melanie Krauss, the Awesomeness executive overseeing the shoot. “Wattpad is invaluable because they have tons of original IP.”

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The executive charged with transforming Wattpad into an entertainment giant is Aron Levitz, a 30-something mechanical engineer who once worked at BlackBerry, negotiating strategic partnerships with mobile music, video and gaming brands. He also did stints at Kobo and Xtreme Labs before joining Wattpad in 2013 to help develop some of its early monetization efforts. Levitz carries himself like a cocksure young producer, with a signature look that includes a vest, tie, sneakers and white-framed glasses.

“We never ask, ‘Do I like that story?’” says Levitz, the general manager of Wattpad Studios. “It’s, ‘Do we understand why the audience liked it, and is there a TV show within that that we can structure?’“

All that data has encouraged some of Wattpad’s production partners to experiment. Canada’s Entertainment One Ltd. signed a development deal with Wattpad in 2017. For its first project, a series adapted from dystopian Wattpad story The Numbered, eOne plans to run a draft of the pilot script by a group of “superfans” on Wattpad. “It’s completely innovative for us” to incorporate fan feedback into the production process, says Jocelyn Hamilton, eOne’s president of television in Canada. “We don’t want to distance the fans. We want to translate their fandom over to another medium, and we want their blessing and feedback along the way.”

Wattpad has invested in machine learning to root out stories that share attributes with popular works and genres. Its “Story DNA” program then analyzes data around each one to determine how and where readers have responded to it and to benchmark their engagement in relation to time spent reading. That helps to “significantly improve the success rate of a project as Wattpad stories are brought to life on other platforms,” says Lau.

But it can take a long time to get a show into production, and there's still no guarantee a popular Wattpad story will work in another format or that fans will embrace adaptations that stray from the source material they love. Besides, Hamilton acknowledges much of the writing on Wattpad “is pretty amateur,” which means identifying IP that deserves the screen treatment is akin to finding “a needle in a haystack.”

Wattpad has a longer track record in publishing, where it has helped hundreds of writers land book deals, 90% of which earned out their advances within a year (more than four times the industry average). Lau’s team noticed that publishers had a habit of picking stories they liked, rather than the ones Wattpad data showed audiences preferred. So, the company decided to become a publisher itself. Wattpad Books will publish six books in 2019 across North America, starting in August with The QB Bad Boy & Me, a teen romance story by Tay Marley with 28.7 million reads online. “This is an evolution of what we’ve been doing for a few years,” says Ashleigh Gardner, who oversees Wattpad Books. “It absolutely lets us capture more [value] by being the publisher as well.” With a built-in audience on Wattpad, “the chances of failure are lower because we’re able to make better predictions about what will sell.”

Wattpad is also hoping some readers will pay to use its platform. In 2017, it began offering a premium service that allows subscribers to read Wattpad stories ad-free for US$5.99 a month, and last October it started testing a program that makes readers pay for chapter-by-chapter access to select stories, taking a small cut.

So far, Wattpad says the program has been a success—The QB Bad Boy & Me, one of the first and most successful stories in the paid program, has generated tens of thousands of dollars for New Zealand-based Marley. Paul Kingston, a Canadian-born comic and writer in L.A., says his horror story, Goats From Lambs, provides “a nice little instalment—though I’m not paying rent with it.” But some readers have complained about the fee. “YouTube went through this,” says Kingston. “I would just chalk this up as growing pains. But I definitely see this as a big step for Wattpad.”

“I think we’re in a very good place,” adds venture capitalist Wenger. “Wattpad is growing multiple and differentiated revenue streams, and is on a path to profitability. It was maybe longer in the making than other things, but I’m feeling very good about things that we’re now getting to work.”

After’s journey to the big screen took some dramatic turns. Paramount initially commissioned a script, but sat on it for a year and a half before returning the rights on the condition that the film be financed outside the studio system. Indie production company CalMaple Films signed on, the script changed, and the film lost its original female lead. At the last minute, Langford stepped into the role of Tessa just before shooting began in the summer of 2018, with CalMaple and two other production companies putting up the film’s thrifty $14-million budget.

Sandy Nicholson/Fuze Reps

The off-camera drama hasn’t dampened Levitz’s excitement. “This is one of the first fan-driven, data-driven stories to hit screens,” he says.

The audience reaction to After’s premiere is enthusiastic, with plenty of cheers and applause (particularly for a cameo appearance by Anna Todd, whose fans calls themselves Afternators). The critics, meanwhile, trash it. Germany’s Bild calls it “50 Shades of Puberty,” and reviewer Oliver Kube says the film features “beautiful young people with mosquito-sized problems from which they make elephants.” Variety forecasts it will earn between US$3 million and US$12 million in North America when it opens on 2,138 screens on April 12, up against the DC Comics superhero blockbuster Shazam!, then in its second week. After’s co-producer Mark Canton, best known for action fare such as 300, isn’t worried. “I think internationally, it’s going to be a total juggernaut,” he says on the red carpet.

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He’s right. The opening-weekend tally is a ho-hum US$6 million in North America, reaching US$12 million by late May. But overseas, After opens at No. 1 in 17 territories and generates US$55 million-plus in non-North American receipts after six weeks, surpassing Shazam! in France, Germany, Italy and Poland, and making After the top-grossing indie film of 2019 so far. On May 19, Todd tweets out a picture of a script for After We Collided, writing: “We’re getting a sequel guys.” Within 20 minutes, her followers have “hearted” the post 3,700 times. That day, international distribution rights to the sequel go on sale.

“In our gut, we knew After would do well; it was just a matter of how well,” Lau says a week later. “I don’t think anyone would question whether Wattpad can make money any more. Now it’s three things: scaling, scaling, scaling.”

With additional reporting by Tara Deschamps.

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