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Wattpad Studios Head on creating 'smarter stories' that audiences will love

Aron Levitz, Head of Wattpad Studios joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the future of content creation and entertainment amid COVID-19 headwinds as well as break down why fan-created stories are becoming streaming successes.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: We've been talking a lot about how the coronavirus has dramatically altered the way we consume content overall, with so much of the content meant for the big screen debuting on the small screen. We're also seeing a big shift in the content creation process. Let's bring in Aron Levitz. He is story-- he is the CEO-- Head of Wattpad Studios, the storytelling platform behind films like "The Kissing Booth" and "After We Collided" on Netflix.

Aron, it's good to talk to you today. Walk me through the big shifts that you have seen overall as a result of so many of us just staying from home and streaming. You said that, look, there's a bit of a democratization that's happening, if you will, in terms of how content is now created. What specifically has really stood out to you?

ARON LEVITZ: Yeah, I think, you know, even speaking to one woman just now, it's showing the even greater importance of knowing who your audience is going to be before you start creating content. It's no good to just choose a script that you like or publish a book that you think you like as an editor or a creative exec.

It's really about knowing where the audience is, who's going to show up to either a streaming service or still go to a box office. And that, as we go into a world of more streamers, more global content, and more money being spent to create that content, that understanding of audience just becomes more and more important to increase the chance of success of your TV shows, of your films, of your series.

ALEXANDRA CANAL: Hi, Aron. It's Allie Canal here. I'm a big fan of "The Kissing Booth," so congrats on that. And full disclosure, I did write some fan fiction back in the day, so I love this platform. But talk to me a little bit about how these writers are discovered, because you do have over 90 million users. That's certainly a lot of content to parse through.

ARON LEVITZ: It is, and almost a billion uploads to the platform over our time. It really is a mix of art and science. In a moment of disruption of the entertainment universe, we have to look past just the words in the story, but also understand why the audience loved it.

And that comes down, in a lot of cases, to data, to understanding the parts of the story that audience engage with, why they engage with it, why they liked that tertiary character, what they didn't like about a runner plot that was going through it, understanding the biggest stories they're reading, but also the biggest trends around the world. In a year of so much change, we saw huge jumps in stories about, for example, mental health, where we saw kind of 32% growth in people catharsizing and kind of using fiction to talk about mental health issues.

So it's really understanding the data that helps us find these huge stories, and then using that data in really smart ways during the development process. You know, in a lot of cases, development's a little black box where writers' room starts, and you hope you get something out the other side after directors, and talent, and post all happens.

But we like to bring the audience into those rooms with us, turn it into a little bit of a glass box where we are looking at what the audience likes and using that to really create smarter stories at the other side that we know audiences are going to fall in love with, while the art side of it is still working with the best screenwriters, the best editors, and the best directors and onscreen talent in the world.

- Aron, speaking of data, I actually want to ask a little bit just about metrics. Because how are production companies and platforms measuring success now in the streaming era since movie launches are more than about just box office ticket sales? I mean, we saw with "Wonder Woman" that, of course, still being taken as a success, give-- even despite these relatively low dollar amounts. So how-- what is that new metric for success?

ARON LEVITZ: Yeah, the new metric-- it's a really good question. And that new metric is audience, did audience show up? And if you think about how streamers, you know, are thinking about their own success, it's always in user numbers. It's always in the number of minutes watched.

And if you can create amazing franchises like "Kissing Booth," like a "Wonder Woman" franchise, like, after, you know, you know you're going to have audiences coming back month-over-month to watch your service, and therefore keeping their subscription. So audience and engagement, how long people are spending really become the new metric that we should all care about. How many people tuned in to this? Because that number of people who are coming back month-over-month is always going to show success in those streaming services.

AKIKO FUJITA: Aron, you've talked a lot about how things have changed from the creative side of things. I'm curious the shift that you have seen on the studio side, the side that's acquiring the content. What is that-- how much of this-- you know, looking at sort of going beyond the writing rooms, how much of that is a result of trying to attract a younger audience? How much of that, do you think, is just the way that-- that we-- we've seen changes in the way we consume content overall?

ARON LEVITZ: I think it's-- it's a little bit of both. And I'd say, you know, when we started this studio about 4 and 1/2 years ago, those first conversations about OK, we have to listen to audience, we have to look at data to understand what they loved about something, it was a bit of a tough sell. But I think in the 4 and 1/2 years when we started seeing success that we have all over the world now-- we're producing in nine different languages and with 14 partners-- it's because people do want to now lean into what audience are saying, because you have these age gaps where you can't just listen to yourself.

You're not necessarily that target audience. When we look at our audience on Wattpad, really, 13 to 35 makes up 90% of it, and we have such a great Gen Z and millennial population. We know what they love. We know what they're falling in love with. We know where there's space on shelves or screens that aren't being created.

And I think you're seeing a real shift in the studio space to want to better understand that audience. Because they're seeing if they invest in it-- and if you look at something like "After" that, again, we went to box office during the pandemic, and we're the number 15 movie in the world this year of a story that maybe a lot of viewers here have never read or heard of, that's because we listened to the audience.

And we knew the audience loved that story, and we knew we could release it to great success for them. So it really is seeing that shift in entertainment of understanding that just-- just specifically choosing what I like is no longer good enough, especially when you're trying to reach different audiences, Gen Z, or different niches, people who like different types of storytelling that doesn't currently exist on screens around the world.

AKIKO FUJITA: OK. Well, it looks like you may be getting a pitch from Allie here. She's working on something. Head of Wattpad Studio--

ARON LEVITZ: I'm waiting.

AKIKO FUJITA: --Aron Levitz joining us. And our thanks to Allie, as well, for joining in on the conversation.