He’s seen a lot. At Berlanti Prods., veteran programming executive David Madden served as executive producer of HBO Max hit “The Flight Attendant” as well as stalker romance “You.” As president at Fox Entertainment he helped launch “The Shield;” while overseeing programming at AMC Networks, his oversight included “The Walking Dead,” “Better Call Saul,” and “Killing Eve.” He even won an Emmy as executive producer for HBO’s 2004 TV movie “Something the Lord Made.” And so for his next act… he’s running an internet studio that believes that stories posted online by anyone could be made into the next hit.
It sounds like the sales pitch for a sketchy screenwriting contest, except for the part where it’s totally true. Before Netflix had a hit teen rom-com franchise in “The Kissing Booth,” and star Jacob Elordi became the “Euphoria” rogue and a James Bond candidate, it all began when writer Beth Reekles self-published the story on Wattpad. Here, internet fandom is binary: Wattpad stories sink or swim.
That ruthless crucible for new-yet-proven IP is a nice facsimilie for Hollywood, which increasingly turns toward self-published corners of the internet. Last May, South Korea-based Naver acquired Wattpad for $600 million and merged it with the company’s own online comics platform Webtoon, committing $100 million for development and financing.
“Overall reads and platform performance is just one piece of it,” said Madden, who now serves as head of global entertainment for Wattpad Webtoon Studios, which is currently developing its properties with Paramount Global, Australian government funder Screen Queensland, Philippine broadcaster GMA-7, and Italy’s Leone Film Group. “I also want to see what the engagement is like off platform, too. Are fans talking about it on social media, are they telling their friends about it, are they wearing it on a T-shirt or a sticker on their laptop, are they keeping that interest going outside of just reading the latest chapter?”
South Korea-based Naver acquired Wattpad last year and merged it with the company’s own online comics platform Webtoon, committing $100 million for development and financing. Madden fielded IndieWire’s questions by email about his confidence in Hollywood’s fan-driven future and gave us his take on the state of affairs at his formidable former employers. Read our Q&A below.
Wattpad WEBTOON Studios
INDIEWIRE: First off, why did you leave Berlanti Productions? Was it your choice to not re-up or theirs?
DAVID MADDEN: It was mutual and completely amicable. Greg [Berlanti] and Sarah [Schechter] have built an incredible business at Berlanti Productions. I’m so proud of the work I did there over the past couple of years. The reality is, given the general upheaval in the world, I wanted to try something new. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a lot of great shows and with some amazing talent. This is an opportunity to explore some of the new models for identifying great stories and to try to turn them into great films and television. Wattpad Webtoon Studios is bringing a new approach to giving creators a home and listening to fans. It’s perfect for this moment when the entire industry needs both more content and a better chance of success for each project.
You’ve got a lot of prestige TV on your resume and a background in the pretty traditional development process at Fox. Wattpad’s process seemingly could not be more different. Which way is better?
I don’t think there is one right way because at the end of the day, it’s just about finding good content. Wattpad and Webtoon offer an enormous catalog of hundreds of millions of digital comics, stories, and IP that already have massive fanbases. Our data can show us exactly what audiences love and are reacting to. So it’s exciting to go through a development process where it’s not just me and a screenwriter developing a script — but rather me, a screenwriter, and insights from millions of existing fans that can help that script. But that said, to some degree the two processes are exactly the same — identify strong material, find the best person to write it, and the best possible home.
What kinds of TV and films should we expect to see coming out of Wattpad Webtoon now that you’re there, that we wouldn’t have seen previously?
I’ll bring my own eye to the studio, but I’m working with a great team, and we’re all looking for stories that have longevity and heart — which come from a constant focus on deep character. We have so much quantity across both platforms; the trick is to mine for quality stories within that quantity.
Wattpad titles selected for adaptation have often amassed tens of millions of reads. Is there a magic number that places a title in consideration?
There’s no magic number, but numbers can tell a compelling story and reveal things that are easy to miss. We can look at overall reads, but also reactions throughout a story, or story growth and engagement over time. We can also compare these things against other popular titles to get even more data from on-platform performance.
But overall reads and platform performance is just one piece of it. I also want to see what the engagement is like off platform, too. Are fans talking about it on social media, are they telling their friends about it, are they wearing it on a T-shirt or a sticker on their laptop, are they keeping that interest going outside of just reading the latest chapter? All of this paints a picture of the fandom behind a story, what they love about it, and how they interact with it. Together, this mix of art and science helps us make better decisions about what will eventually move the needle and lead to success on screens.
Do you see your old stomping grounds AMC being gobbled up amid continued consolidation? Why or why not?
I think AMC has done a remarkable job of maintaining their independence in a daunting economic climate. Many predicted they would have been “gobbled up” long ago. (I thought so, too). Although it seems smart to bet on continued M&A, I’m rooting for them to stay alive as a separate entity as long as possible.
Are you surprised how viable a business Fox has continued to be after Disney cherry-picked it apart?
I am a huge fan of Charlie Collier and Michael Thorn, so I’m not that surprised. I still have a lot of affection for the FBC brand — some shows I worked on are still on the air — and if any team can keep adventurous broadcast programming alive, it’s Fox.
What’s the best way for Wattpad Webtoon Studios to complete its projects? Through independent production, getting a distributor on early, co-financing?
All of those options offer pros and cons. What we’re focused on here is not necessarily picking one lane and sticking with it, but rather looking at the individual title and deciding the best route based on the nature of the production. Some will make more sense to link up with a distributor early on, like Lionsgate did with our upcoming film “Float.” Others will benefit from a co-financing situation, particularly in different countries for our international titles. We can explore any option that makes sense to bring these incredible stories to screens around the world. With as much content we have going into development and production, we have just as many options to get them made.