With Superheroes on the Decline, Could Hollywood Turn To Fanfic Next?

scary creepypasta face
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With comic books and superheroes no longer dominating the culture like they once did, the media and entertainment industry’s relentless hunt for new IP to adapt has been forced to shift its focus. Recently we’ve seen the rise of “brand movies,” relating the backstories of your favorite companies and products. Live-action anime and video game adaptations – once decried as creatively bankrupt and doomed to fail – increasingly dominate Netflix’s Top 10 and the global box office alike. Not so long ago, conventional wisdom dictated that movies based on toys had to be aimed squarely at young kids. But in 2024, “Barbie” is currently in the running for Best Picture.

Internet culture making its own contribution to the mainstream is certainly nothing new. TV shows and films based on user-generated online content have been hitting screens for decades now. Remember CBS’ short-lived sitcom “Sh*t My Dad Says,” inspired by a breakout Twitter account? Or Sony’s even shorter-lived 2018 attempt to turn the spooky internet icon Slender Man into a mainstream horror villain? Maybe not, but they happened.

In the past, these projects stood out. Their online origins were a big part of their story and played heavily into the way they were marketed. Most people seeing 2020’s “Zola,” an A24 crime comedy-drama inspired by a classic Twitter thread, were well aware of its online origins. The movie integrates the world of social media and smartphones directly into its visual architecture. It’s not just based on a Twitter thread, but it’s about how phones and apps have wormed their way into every aspect of our lives and shifted the way we think and behave.

Increasingly, deriving inspiration – directly or otherwise – from the work of online creators has become and everyday thing, rather than an unusual. Even quirky origin story. Speaking of the A24 studio, this week they released a trailer for the Sundance 2024 hit “I Saw the TV Glow,” from writer/director Jane Schoenbrun. It’s an original story, but pretty clearly inspired by the classic “creepypasta” internet folk tale “Candle Cove,” which was already adapted into a season of the Syfy anthology horror series “Channel Zero.” 

While Schoenbrun’s film – along with her previous release, the terrific “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” which is now streaming on Max – simply derives some inspiration from creepypasta culture to create something wholly original, actual explicit adaptations of internet originals have now become routine. Netflix regularly churns out original films and franchises that started life on “fanfic” sites like Wattpad. 

After reaching more than 1 billion readers on Wattpad, author Anna Todd’s “After” stories inspired a four-film Netflix franchise, which wrapped up with 2023’s “After Everything.” The streamer’s teen rom-com “Kissing Booth” trilogy – which helped to launch the careers of Joey King and “Saltburn” favorite Jacob Elrodi – were inspired by stories written by Beth Reekles, starting when she was just 15 years old. Writer Zoe Aarsen’s “Light as a Feather” Wattpad stories are now a Hulu original series, while Ariana Godoy’s Spanish-language romance stories “A Través de Mi Ventura” were translated to English as “Through My Window” before being adapted into their own series of Netflix original films.

For years now, Wattpad (which is owned by South Korean company Naver, along with the internet comic publisher Webtoon) has run its own production house, specifically aimed at developing shows and films based on its original stories. In 2022, the company claimed to have over 100 adaptation projects in development, with Naver dedicating $100 million to developing and producing fan-inspired books, films, and shows.

In some cases, the original creators get an opportunity to work on the Hollywood adaptations of their work, and use the opportunity to segue into a more high-profile stage in their careers. When Amazon ordered a first season for the YouTube animated pilot “Hazbin Hotel,” original mastermind Vivienne Medrano came on board to direct and produce in collaboration with A24 (them again!) and animation studio Bento Box Entertainment. 

But this is not always the case. Original “My Life with the Walter Boys” writer Ali Novak – who also started her publishing career at age 15 – got to know showrunner Melanie Halsall, and served as a consultant on the series. But wasn’t directly involved in making the Netflix version. “Sweet Home” comic creators Kim Carnby and Hwang Young-chan ended up enjoying the Netflix series based on their webcomic, but only after months of worry about whether or not the new creative team would get things right and keep their long-time fans happy.

Beyond the quality of the adaptations themselves, this full-court press to adapt and acquire the work of online creators, many of them under age 18, raises some obvious red flags. Wattpad Studios executives have a lot of success stories, say the right things to the media, and come at this from a very creator-positive frame of mind. Studio chief Aron Levitz told The Verge in 2021 that “to exclude the [original] writer from the process would be a loss of one of the most important tools that we have,” and that he sees part of his job as “helping… writers understand what it means to be in the industry.” 

But these deals nonetheless Wattpad in a bit of a compromised position, as both the studio attempting to market and ultimately sell a writer’s work, but also that writer’s representative during the process. As Levitz himself noted, when you’ve made something very popular, “the industry comes at you fast and furious.” If young internet creators are indeed the future of storytelling, as so many believe, it’s important that they’re protected through these various levels of dealmaking. And not just creatively but legally and financially as well.

That Sony “Slender Man” film provides a crucial example of how things can quickly go wrong. Ahead of their 2018 film adaptation, Sony purchased the rights to “Slender Man” from author Eric Knudsen, who posted the original internet meme on the “Something Awful” forums in 2009.

However, in 2019, an independent production company called Phame Factory wanted to release their own Slender Man-inspired horror film, called “Flay.” Sony sued, claiming that it owned the copyright on the character, and the two companies eventually reached a settlement.

But the whole case raised a lot of questions about just what Sony had actually purchased from Knudsen, specifically. Could any one person own Slender Man, a character that had inspired so much viral content from so many different creators? Does any villain even inspired by any of that output belong to Sony forever? Doesn’t that directly conflict with how internet culture and creepypasta stories function?

Other forms of internet content have even fewer, or no, protections from being mined for ideas or overtaken entirely by large, faceless companies. Last week, Google cut a deal with Reddit to train their new (allegedly racist?) AI models on the popular forum and aggregator’s content, which is entirely made up of writing by members of the public. And sure, most Reddit comments might not have a ton of individual value as IP, but it’s not inconceivable that some might.

Way back in 2011, Reddit user James Erwin actually scored a deal with Warner Bros. Studios to adapt a story he posted in a series of comments on the website into a film. (Erwin was responding to a prompt that asked “What if a unit of current US Marines are suddenly transported back to Ancient Rome?”) Erwin’s take on the actual script was ultimately rewritten by “Apollo 18” vet Brian Miller, and the idea was never actually produced into a film, but it does demonstrate the power that even some forum comments can theoretically have as Hollywood IP.

Yet Reddit posters aren’t going to see any of Google’s $60 million for their contributions. If the internet is going to continue to serve as a breeding ground for future million and billion-dollar media franchises, more and tighter protections for the original writers and creators will be absolutely vital.

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