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Q&A: The Hunt for Hidden Fandom
How Aron Levitz uses story data to find what audiences actually like — scoring Hollywood deals along the way
Ed Note: A version of this interview first appeared on The Optionist, our sister newsletter about intellectual property. We thought Levitz’s insights about audience, serialization and fandom would be of interest to Ankler subscribers. Also, a reminder! There are just four days left to vote for Hollywood’s house of representatives in our Agents, Managers and Attorneys poll.
Two of the interesting spaces to get a handle on what stories people gravitate towards are self-publishing platforms Wattpad and Webtoon, which each boast about 90 million monthly users. Founded in 2006 in Canada, Wattpad allows anyone to upload and read stories — all through serialized storytelling. It is part of the self-publishing phenomena that has swept the internet over the last 15 years, originally driven by fan fiction but now also featuring many wholly original stories. (Don’t forget Fifty Shades of Grey began as self-published Twilight fanfic).
Some notable hits on Wattpad include Anna Todd’s After, which was adapted onscreen in 2019 and originated on the platform as fan fiction about Harry Styles ($14m budget against $69.5m gross), and Beth Reekles’ The Kissing Booth, which became a massive YA hit for Netflix in 2018 (and was written when she was a teenager). Today, more than 100 Webtoon and Wattpad stories have been put into development, including the Wattpad web novel Boot Camp, and an animated adaptation of the hit Webtoon Lore Olympus (1.2 billion views with two published collections to hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list) is being made in partnership with the Jim Henson Company.
Webtoon was launched in Korea in 2004 by Naver as a platform for digital-first web comics designed to be read on phones via vertical scrolling. In January 2021, Naver acquired Wattpad in a $600 million stock and cash deal.
As part of the deal, Naver combined Wattpad and Webtoon’s separate adaptation divisions into Wattpad Webtoon Studios and named Aron Levitz, who had pioneered Wattpad’s adaptation efforts back in 2016, as the head of the studio. Naver also invested $100 million in the effort to fund adaptations.
I spoke to Aron to learn what kinds of genres and stories are working on the platform, why he believes serialization is so much better than the binge model for developing fandom, and what we can learn from data generated by the large communities of fans on both sites.
Optionist: Let’s start at the beginning. Explain what Wattpad and Webtoon are.
Levitz: Wattpad is the world's largest social network for readers and writers. It's a place that anyone can come and tell a story that takes a form of a web novel. It’s not written all at once, but posted serially. Our biggest writers started posting one chapter at a time, week over week, and built their audiences that way. It really is a new place for story creators to find an audience. And while Webtoons may not be as common knowledge, the complete analogy to the web novel is the web comic. This is a digitally native version of a comic, which is vertically scrolling and that art form actually takes on a very different feel as you read it. It's meant to be viewed on your device, as opposed to a regular comic where they kind of try to port it via PDFs and other variations onto your device. You bring all this together and all of a sudden you have 170 million plus people around the world coming every month to those two platforms reading, writing, and telling their own stories all over again.
We forget that what is new is old. More than the novel, serialized reading was how people read in the 1800s.
Absolutely. Dickens wrote many of what we call his novels through weekly columns in a newspaper. And what's really interesting about that — and I think streamers today are dealing with this heavily — is that serialization creates a moment for fandoms to form. It gives you a moment where you're waiting for that next installment for fans discuss what just happened, find questions that the creator didn't answer, argue over if they liked if the characters went left versus right. And that's where fandom is built. It's built in the spaces. Binge watching doesn't have that advantage always. It doesn't let fandom be created, because all your content is out at once and now you wait 18 months for the next season to come out. So I think what both platforms did really well in understanding fandom is giving creators, first of all, a less monumental task of creating — you don't have to create a whole manuscript or 52 episodes of a Webtoon — and you can work with the audience, understand what they like.
You’re in conversation with your audience
I think the thing that Webtoon and Wattpad brings that is new is the ability to immediately communicate. You don't have to find your fandom. Your fandom is there in front of you. And I think that's what's really changed entertainment greatly. And I kind of talk about this a lot. What’s really interesting about Webtoon and Wattpad is we know the active fandom. It really gives a different way to interact with a fandom that they really have not had a chance to before.
What genres are big on the platforms?
As a studio we get to work across genre. We’re developing amazing horror like the Hound, fantasy romance like Lore Olympus, that we're developing with the Jim Henson Company. It's one of the biggest Webtoons in the world; it’s a retelling of the Hades and Persephone myth if they lived in 2022. That's one of the really interesting things about the studio, is we can service the entire entertainment and publishing industry in a way that most IP platforms cannot. We see romance definitely as strong, YA as a psychographic, not necessarily a genre.
Tell me about your audience.
Our audience is Gen Z and millennial. A good mix of that 13 to 35 age range. We skew on the female side. We are a global company — you can write in 55 plus languages — about 25 percent of our audience is in North America; 25 percent the European Union; 25 percent Latin America; and 25 percent Asia. From the studio standpoint, we're actually producing in 10 different languages at any given time. So we have hit TV shows in Philippines and Indonesia. I think the biggest Spanish movie of all time on Netflix, Través De Mi Ventana (Through My Window), is an adaptation of Venezuelan author Ariana Godoy’s novel. We're already shooting the next two with Netflix. So we are really able to use this local storytelling as global power that we focus on as a studio. On the Webtoon side, of course, they have huge strength in Korea where the company originated, a massive following in Japan and quite a huge following in the U.S. as well.
One of the things that I noticed is the number of stories by, and about what we think of as typically underrepresented groups. Are the barriers to entry lower on the platform?
I'll actually say it a different way. It's not that the barrier is lower, there is no barrier. If you have an idea, you can bring it to our platform. You don't have to be justified by the industry, you don't have to hear, ‘oh well we saw that before.’ I'll give you a really good example of that. The entertainment industry for years said, ‘Well we don't need rom-coms anymore, they don't work.’ Then this little thing called The Kissing Booth happened, which started as a Wattpad story. Hollywood went, ‘What do you mean people wanna see a YA rom-com?’ When you talk about barriers to entry, no matter what your background is, there isn't one. You'll be surprised how underserved even a mainstream story like Kissing Booth could be simply because of an age demographic. So to be able to be open for anyone who wants to tell a story and let them grow their own audience, grow their own fandom, is really a core reason why, I think, we get such interesting storytelling.
Are there genres that land in the U.S. but not elsewhere in the world, and vice versa?
That's a really, really good question — one that I don't get often. I think what's interesting is that genres are fairly universal, right? Love, I'm scared, I laughed, someone gets punched in the face — these are all universal entertaining moments, but the mythology that drives them can be very, very different. So a horror story in Mexico that's based on more of a local ethos than, say, a horror story from Germany may be something that shoots up the charts because everyone relates to it in a certain way. We can see at any given time a genre shoot up the list. And it's often driven by a story that was locally written, that tells a story from a local viewpoint that isn't the same kind of global storytelling that we see again and again. Romance, comedy, horror, sci-fi, fantasy all play all over the world constantly.
I was struck by the global nature of your audience, which is something lots of people have been pondering since the success of Squid Games. It feels like there is much more of an exchange between the U.S. and the world going on now, versus on older model where it felt like we just sent out our culture.
I think actually the drastic change that's happened is that production values all over the world have improved remarkably. Another thing that's changed is that if you look, we have generations who don't really understand what a border is anymore. If you read Tower of God today on Webtoon, did you know that started in Korea? Does that matter to you? No. You have streaming services that are global. You may watch it dubbed, you may watch it subtitled, but it's just a story being told to you. And in a world where we are all so much more connected globally through technology, the ability to see how something happens in another part of the world and either relate to it or don't relate to it, is really visceral for us now. To watch how someone else falls in love in another country instead of the U.S. story of two kids meet at a mall again, that's really interesting if you're growing up in the world and trying to understand conceptually what love is even. I think that original form of storytelling is so important to us as viewers now and actually is the thesis behind our platforms. The power of fandom, the power of letting writers write what they want is supplemented by the power of the fandom that wants to read things from not just their own backyard. It's not just an echo chamber of the U.S. anymore.
Tell me about the adaptation part. How has that evolved?
It has changed a lot in the five-and-a-half years I've been doing this. When I started, it was me with a spreadsheet in L.A. saying, who wants to buy a link?
How have you used what you learn on the platform to figure out what stories might work best as adaptations?
What you're kind of nailing and touching on now is that mix of art and science — how do we listen to audiences, understand the data behind them and why not only what's big, but why they're important to those audiences. What parts did they love? What parts didn't they love? What were the logic flaws in this, what characters need to be expanded? Can we age them up, age them down? I have an entire content strategy team whose job is to just understand what's important on the platform and how that can be viewed through the lens of different kinds of entertainment.
What do you know about what your readers like?
What becomes really interesting is on Webtoon, a reader can comment down to the paragraph level. We can look at a paragraph and it may have 700 comments. And what you think is a really obvious moment — let's say it's the first love between the two lead characters — when you read those comments, you realize it's a divisive moment, where half the audience falls in love with the main lead and the other half decides that they hate them. That little bit of subtext gives a tool to a writers’ room, to a creator, to a director, to maybe give a different gaze to that one scene instead of just making it this triumphal moment. Maybe the music changes to a minor key and you can really nod to what an audience feels and that is it. And then of course on the other side of it, go back to them and market directly with them, alongside them, as we're bringing things to screens everywhere. So it's a very different process, but it's so supportive of the industry and the talent that we end up working with in Hollywood and globally to help them create better and create really interesting stories that our fandoms love.
Do you have first-look deals or is it on a project-by-project basis?
We work in kind of every way imaginable. We do amazing one-off projects — for example, the horror story Gremoryland that we're developing with Vertigo in the U.S. We also have a broader partnership with Viacom International and Paramount Plus that's focused more on the E.U. We're talking about slates of development with Frreemantle as well.
Are you involved as producers?
We're a producer on every project, but producer has a lot of meanings of course. We are involved creatively on every project, but our job is not always to be the lead producer. It’s not always to be the capital “P” producer, but to make sure that the fandom is heard in that creative process.
What are you doing differently now that you have that $100 million investment?
The first and easiest one that everyone who reads this will understand is we have to move faster with that at our disposal. We can point at the right story attached the right talent and get moving immediately with it.
You’ve been doing this for about six years. I'm curious, what have you learned about story development and audience that you didn’t know before?
The one thing that I've learned is that audiences are really smart. They see things that we will never see and they see more than we'll see. You can read Save the Cat a million times and think you understand story theory and how many acts it needs, and when you show it to an audience, they see those same things plus more. In fact, we have given scripts to fans and look at the comments they give us. They catch everything our development teams do and then give us 30 percent more. What I've learned is, if there is something important to audience, they will look past grammar, they will look past logic, they will look past how a story's being told. If something visceral is there for an audience, it will keep them there. That has really shifted how I think about story.
In some ways the platform does brings together two things; in terms of television, it's the recap and the show together. In some ways, you're talking about the immediacy of commenting.
If I can nerd out for a second here, that's where the data becomes really interesting. I don't have to watch Stranger Things and then go on Twitter to see what everyone's talking about. I'm right there, that content and the commentary around it in one place.
Your data allows for both quantitative and qualitative insights, right? Streaming services can get quantitative data. But the commenting — qualitative data — isn’t something they can easily collect.
Absolutely. There's actually a third layer on top of that. That's just data at the story level. We can then apply that to a macro level which allows us to seek global trends in what's happening. For example, during the pandemic we saw stories that were tagged mental health shoot high up as people are trying to find ways to deal with the isolation that we all felt.
You mentioned mental health. Can we see changes in what people are reading as we enter a post-pandemic moment?
I'd say what was really interesting during the pandemic and I think that kind of continues on is things that were big got bigger. So some of our biggest stories, which are based in escapism and wish fulfillment, being placed in other worlds, they continued to do well. We saw some things like mental health, which was very part of a moment. What's interesting is, as we come to a new way in the world of thinking about the pandemic, we're seeing people continue to want to tell their stories. And now the thing you may be looking for is escapism.