Why fanfic is Hollywood’s latest obsession

Another alleged Harry Styles fanfic film is about to hit screens this summer, as Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine star in The Idea of You. How did the internet’s horny teenage fantasies become such big business?

In 2010, when Beth Reekles was 15, she uploaded the first few chapters of her novel The Kissing Booth on Wattpad, an online platform for publishing fanfiction and original work. Following an awkward teen girl named Elle and her life-altering, cataclysmic crush on her best friend’s older brother, the story was an instant hit. It was nice to see people saying they enjoyed [The Kissing Booth]. Sometimes people would comment and say, this reads like a movie, you should make a movie of this. I would think, That’s never gonna happen.’”

And yet, by 17, Reekles had secured a publishing deal; movie rights for The Kissing Booth trilogy were optioned not long after and, by the time she left school, the first movie was well into development with Jacob Elordi and Joey King cast in the lead roles. At the time, Reekles was working a 9 to 5 in IT and remembers watching the Netflix trailer at her desk in disbelief. I still didn’t think it was gonna take off in the way that it did.”

When the film was eventually released in 2018, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer at the time, reported that The Kissing Booth was one of the most watched movies in the country, and maybe the world.” It spawned one sequel, and then another. Since then, the speed at which fanfiction and Wattpad adaptations are popping up on Deadline, with news that they’re being developed into fully-fledged feature films or TV shows, has accelerated remarkably. In May, Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine are set to star in The Idea of You, based on a book by Robinne Lee that’s rumoured, though categorically denied (per a succinct DM conversation I had with the author), to be based on Harry Styles. If it were based on him, that would make the second screen adaptation of Styles in recent years. The wildly popular romantic drama After (2019), like The Kissing Booth, was first published on Wattpad and is transparently inspired by the former One Directioner. Poor IRL Harry isn’t even as booked in Hollywood as his fictional counterparts.

This isn’t necessarily a new trend. Fifty Shades of Grey, the best-selling book series of the 2010s which spawned a successful film series, started as Twilight fanfiction. But only recently has fanfic solidified as a consistent source of viable IP for Hollywood execs. And anyone with a remote interest in the film industry knows that the hunt for IP is a huge business, as producers would rather put money into a story that already has an audience. Just look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe abyss, a constantly unfurling ecosystem of content to be adapted. Movies fuel comic book sales and comic book sales fuel movies. This past year, Hollywood hit big with Barbie, an IP guinea pig that’s opened the toybox for plenty more films of a similar ilk: Polly Pocket and Hot Wheels are just two that are already in the works.

Wattpad and fanfiction adaptations, however, were up until recently seen as lightning in a bottle, a rare and potent confluence of fandom with a marketable story. Now, studio executives are wiser. Wattpad itself is the gold mine, a built-in community of more than a self-reported 90 million users.

A moment, though, for definitions: fanfiction is a specific genre of writing built off prefabricated characters from franchises such as Stars Wars and Game of Thrones, and real-life characters like Prince Harry and Liam Payne. Wattpad is filled with fanfiction, neatly divided by theme and character, but also original stories from authors like Reekles. Carving out the distinction between fanfiction and original work is a matter of legality, a barrier that protects authors from potential accusations of plagiarism. It is also a matter of pride – pride in the medium (like a novelist might cringe at being called a poet) and pride in originality.

Does Reekles feel the success of The Kissing Booth kicked down the door for more adaptations?

Definitely. There’s such a huge and passionate following from readers that I think has made the filmmaking and publishing industries really stand up and say, wow, there’s an audience here ready and waiting.” Wattpad executives have also caught on to the trend. In 2016, the platform, aware of its massive database of fan driven content, launched an in-house production company with the express purpose of finding usable content buried in the site and selling the rights to major streamers and studios. In 2020, their production arm started creating its own content: currently in production are adaptations of hit Wattpad stories The Hound and What Happened That Night. But Wattpad owes this growth to the original writers that populate the platform with content, the people who carved out a place online for community, self-actualisation and even sexual awakening when they felt isolated IRL.

When people say fanfiction, we’re kind of using their bodies and likeness as character development and inspiration”

Maxwell Vice, ex-fanfic writer

New York local Maxwell Vice was selling their self-published zine Ice Vice in Washington Square Park when editor-in-chief of Interview magazine Mel Ottenberg walked up to them. Mel offered Vice an internship; instead, they asked to be a writer. Though the job at Interview was their first professional writing gig, they were actually already published – on Wattpad. Vice’s most successful work was a 42-part series called Love or Payne, written aged 15. To date, it has over half a million reads.

When I met Mel, he asked me about my writing experience. There was a moment where I was like, I have a book [that’s been read] 500,000 times. It was hard to flex it because of the subtext. But I’m not a person that’s ashamed of my fanfiction origins. I know some people find it kind of dorky, but it is inherently dorky,” Vice laughs. We’re writers, why are we trying to be cool?”

Vice, now 24, is the manager of NYC club Nowadays, and an active presence in the city’s club and fashion scenes. For them, writing fanfic as a teenager was a way of exploring their sexuality. I was maybe 12 years old when I came out of the closet and One Direction just dropped their first song,” they say. When [I was] a gay kid, you didn’t really have any [mainstream] media that you could consume. I guess [fanfiction was] the first time I consumed queer literature. Then one day I just wrote my own.”

His first work, A New Direction [A 1D boyxboy romance], followed a Vice proxy joining One Direction through a contest and becoming the object of Zayn’s affections. I woke up the next day and, apparently, it was like the only gay One Direction fanfiction that was being written at the time. It got a lot of traction.” Vice pauses to consider. I swear that early generation of fanfiction writers had [some of] the first conversations around liberation and PC culture’, pronouns and body positivity – these are things that were kind of niche. I mean, there’s a queer Harry Potter fanfiction that taught me I was non-binary.” They consider fanfiction not just a medium but a shared language, a common tool for connection among teens.

The One Direction fanfiction everyone wrote had nothing to do with One Direction, but the characters were the boys because that was a common medium for the youth. Everyone knew what Harry Styles looked like,” Vice says. So, I think when people say fanfiction, it’s not like we’re not obsessed with the people, we’re kind of using their bodies and likeness as character development and inspiration.” It’s possible the reason boy band members are so popular in fanfic is their constructed blankness. One Direction was manufactured by The Powers That Be (in this case, The X Factor judges) to appeal to as many teenagers as possible, a perfect mashup of characters – the bad boy, the sweet one, the funny one – that generates intrigue. They’re a slate to foist your fantasies onto; in essence, they’re an adaptation of a person.

But despite Vice’s pride in the form, they disapprove of fanfic screen adaptations. Fanfiction needs to stay fantasy. I met One Direction and I felt so icky.” As a fanboy, Vice would camp outside their hotel with his friends. I was like, Bro, the amount of like teenage porn I wrote about y’all is not OK!’ The beauty of fanfiction is that it lives in your brain. Some things just belong in their original medium.” When I point out to them that fanfiction itself is an adaptation of reality, they were quick to reply: Exactly. It’s diluted. Imagine if I wrote like, like, Liam Payne and Niall Horan in love, and then you do a movie and it’s Timothée Chalamet and fucking Justin Timberlake. It’s just so far from the origin. Like, what am I watching?”

The obvious answer to Vice’s rhetorical question is that we’re watching an adaptation of an adaptation; we’re descending into the uncanny valley of storytelling. But, to quote Mark Twain, there is no such thing as a new idea.” Twilight lacked sex because of its author’s religious preferences; someone (E. L. James) read it and rectified that. Twilight itself is a dupe of Pride and Prejudice, and Pride and Prejudice is just a classic enemies-to-lovers. My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman and She’s All That are all adaptations of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. And Pygmalion is inspired by a W.S Gilbert play Pygmalion and Galleata, which is itself inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, most familiar to the Victorian audience as a character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

I really love when I’m scrolling on TikTok and I see an author that’s from Wattpad. We already have this instant connection”

Beth Reekles, author of The Kissing Booth

Retelling stories isn’t new. We want to bend characters to our own reality, until the fabric between who we are and what we want is sheer. We are obsessed with being the Main Character (just open TikTok), caring more about what the things we consume say about us, than what it is we’re consuming. Another thing that isn’t new: the enduring and unyielding nature of human horniness. Some of the strangest art is born from it and Wattpad-slash-fanfiction is no exception. This is all explored in Esther Yi’s debut novel Y/​N, which follows the narrator’s journey into fandom through fanfiction, dealing with the obfuscation of identity as Yi’s main character dogmatically follows the object of her obsession until, finally, she meets him. What happens when we get what we want? What do we actually want?

We don’t use the term I like this.’ We use the term they like this,’” said Aron Levitz, Head of Wattpad Studios, about the company’s creative ethos in an interview with The Verge. It’s about what audiences are in love with, and our job is to understand why they fell in love with it in the first place.” Wattpad utilises StoryDNA, a machine learning tool that processes the stories and synthesises what’s already trending – everything from engagement and shares to broader trends like plot arcs, characters, patterns in writing. As Levitz pointed out, macrotrends can be hyperspecific. Think: Muslim romances” or fantasy series about gay wizards.”

Thanks to this algorithm, fans are unknowingly at the helm of what film studios produce – stripping power from the publishing industry and exclusionary practices, nepotism and closed doors, but also from literary standards, extensive edits, criticism, away from process and practice. Ultimately, the result conflates what is good with what is popular, a seemingly inescapable trend that’s resulted largely in the sacrifice of culture at the altar of content. Mining alternative sources of IP means there will be even fewer chances in Hollywood for original screenplays to cut through all the noise.

That’s the worst-case scenario. But fanfic is also a lesson in supporting original stories from often marginalised, often young writers. As Reekles tells me, I really love when I’m scrolling on TikTok and I see an author that’s from Wattpad. We already have this instant connection. I really want to support them.”

Call it an IP money-grab, call it honouring a community oriented-grassroots medium, call it the oldest story in the book – Hollywood’s newest cash cow is a decentralised behemoth of horny teenage writers, queer fandoms and dorks. It remains to be seen whether Wattpad and Hollywood will make good on diverse community-led stories or if we’re in for a couple more iterations of Harry Styles; if it’s fact or ultimately (fan)fiction.

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