‘There’s a moment of catharsis happening’: behind Wattpad’s usage surge

Wattpad Studios head Aron Levitz says the pandemic has triggered an "unprecedented time in development," and studios across the world are taking note.

Aron Levitz picWith the production sector at a near standstill across the world’s major hubs, development has become the default focus for global networks looking to find the first mega-hit for when the world eventually emerges from lockdown.

But it’s not just screenwriters that are using the enforced downtime to work on scripts. According to Aron Levitz, head of Wattpad Studios, users across the world are turning to storytelling as they seek creative outlets for anxieties, fears and hopes stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the beginning of January, the amount of new stories written on Wattpad has grown by 151% compared to the previous period a year ago. As well, over the same timeframe, the number of new writers has increased by 125%, according to Wattpad data provided to Playback Daily. Globally, sign ups have increased by around 50% in the last 30 days too, while reading time has increased by 30%.

The Canadian online storytelling platform’s community of readers and writers has over 80 million monthly users, and 565 million story uploads from around the world.

While the transition from Wattpad reader to writer is a common one, Levitz said the period of lockdown is accelerating that process. More people are writing on Wattpad and, crucially for its Studios division, more industry decision makers are keeping tabs on what’s popping on the platform.

“This is going to be a really unprecedented time in development,” Levitz told Playback Daily. “Our partners in the entertainment industry are coming to us, saying ‘what can we be developing so that, when production sets open around the world, what can we jump on to make sure we’re giving people a type of entertainment they’re interested in,’” said Levitz.

Wattpad Studios has a multitude of deals with broadcasters, production companies and studios across the globe, including eOne and CBC in Canada, Sony Pictures TelevisionGermany’s Bavaria Fiction and South Korean talent agency Huayi Brothers Korea. And as certain countries get locked down, the Wattpad Studios head says the platform is seeing a corresponding uptick in the number of people writing stories on the platform. Over the past 30 days, Wattpad has seen the number of writers in the U.S. increase by 21% (the equivalent of 1.2 million people), while it has also seen significant growth in Brazil (27%), Mexico (26%), Indonesia (18%) and Philippines (6%).

Understanding audience appetites in specific regions will be crucial in determining what kinds of projects go into production when the world eventually emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, asserts Levitz. “Whether it’s Bavaria Fiction in Germany or Huayi Brothers in South Korea, we want to make sure we’re understanding better and better the trends in those areas, in order to feed that development process,” said Levitz, “because the world will have changed, and the [studios and content companies] realize that the things they were producing before [the pandemic] maybe aren’t the same things they want to be producing after.”

In a similar way that services like Netflix are seeing an uptick in interest in pandemic-focused projects (2011 feature Contagion, for example, has been appearing in the streamer’s “trending now” section), Levitz said Wattpad has seen “quarantine romances” jump up in terms of popularity, especially stories in which people meet and connect while physically separated in a quarantine situation. Writers have also started tagging their stories #pandemic or #coronavirus to make their stories more relevant.

But that doesn’t mean there is a new “pandemic” genre bubbling up on Wattpad. Levitz said Wattpad date indicates romance fans are still turning to romance and sci-fi fans are still turning to sci-fi. Where the story sharing platform is seeing an uptick, he noted, is in the dystopian genre – specifically stories about zombies, viruses and apocalyptic situations.

Whenever this period in human history is said and done, Levitz believes it will be looked back on as a golden age of development for film and TV, as more people than ever turn to storytelling.

“There is a moment of catharsis happening right now. I know we’re going to find some of the next great storytellers on earth over this period,” he said.