Dream Big
a fanfic writer working on a story that can become a movie deal

How Fanfiction Took Over The Movies

It’s the era of the Wattpad girlies gone mainstream.

Ariela Basson/EliteDaily; Getty Images, Stocksy, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Universal

There was a time when fanfic was looked down upon. Passionate fans would only gush about their OTPs and dream up imagined scenarios for them in the dark corners of Tumblr and Wattpad, where fellow shippers could spend hours devouring every morsel of content about their fave pairings.

But now, there’s nothing shameful about being a vocal pop culture fan, and fanfic has gone mainstream. The form has become so popular, some of the most famous fics have been turned into hit movies. And these specific journeys from computer screen to movie theater hold some important lessons for fanfic authors.

Even before the Internet popularized it, fanfic has long existed as a way for creative superfans to take control of their most beloved characters. Back at the onset of the 20th century, Jane Austen fans were writing their own versions of fanfic, but the practice didn’t get its modern name until the sci-fi fanzines of the 1960s.

Of course, the Internet changed everything for both writers and readers. Sites like Archive of Our Own (AO3), FanFiction.net, and Wattpad exploded in popularity in the 2000s, though they were still considered pretty niche. That is, until almost every major book and movie release started coming from these fanfic sources. Now that studios have their eyes on fanfic like never before, here’s how four authors turned their fandom stories into blockbuster hits.

The Idea of You

Prime Video

The Idea of You’s source material isn’t technically fanfic, although the story was inspired by a deep admiration for a real-life singer. Author Robinne Lee published her debut novel in 2017, about a 39-year-old divorcée who begins dating a much younger British pop star. Lee has played coy about the book’s celebrity inspiration, but it’s easy to decipher that she based her male lead, at least in part, on Harry Styles.

“A few years ago, my husband was away on business and I was up late surfing music videos on YouTube when I came across the face of a boy I’d never seen in a band I’d never paid attention to,” Lee said in a 2017 interview about how the story came to be. “It was so aesthetically perfect it took me by surprise. It was like… art. I spent a good hour or so Googling and trying to figure out who this kid was, and in doing so, I discovered that he often dated older women, and so the seed was planted.”

Although Lee has gone on to try to diminish the connection between the fictional Hayes Campbell and very real Harry Styles, it’s undeniable that One Direction fans are at least a big part of what helped the novel become popular. The Idea of You was widely recommended by basically every 1D fan blog, and fan pages devoted to Styles were filled with reaction posts.

In a 2020 Vogue interview, Lee conceded she did research on One Direction for the book but clarified that she created Hayes Campbell as an amalgamation of several men. “I made him into my dream guy,” Lee said. “Like Prince Harry, meets Harry [Styles],” plus Eddie Redmayne, and details from some of her personal romances.

Lee also mentioned in that interview that she had previously worked on a novel more directly inspired by her past relationship with a younger man, but that book never sold. It seems the allure of celeb inspiration is just what the juicy romance needed, because The Idea of You was picked up for a movie adaptation a year after it hit shelves.

The lesson: Embrace the mystique.


Voltage Pictures

While The Idea of You may shy away from its roots as One Direction fanfic, another hit film series embraces the stan culture. Author Anna Todd began posting chapters of her fanfic After to Wattpad in 2013 under the username imaginator1D. As her pen name made clear, Todd was a massive One Direction fan, and each of the male leads in After was directly inspired by one of the boy band’s five members.

Todd was posting this fic in the heyday of 1D’s fame — the band had just embarked on its Take Me Home World Tour and was still a couple years away from going on a permanent hiatus. The fandom fervor quickly garnered Todd’s series millions of reads on Wattpad, and by the next year, she published novelizations of After that topped the New York Times bestsellers list.

With a lucrative book came a buzzy movie deal. Studios picked up the film rights the same year After topped the book charts. The deal spawned a five-movie saga, with a new chapter in Tessa and Hardin’s (the Styles-inspired character) love story hitting theaters each year from 2019 to 2023.

Styles himself has awkwardly avoided questions about the film series, but his bandmate Liam Payne hilariously reacted to learning 1D inspired them in 2020.

The lesson: Give the fandom what they want.

Fifty Shades of Grey


Perhaps the most famous example of a fanfic turning in a major movie series is Fifty Shades; fans know well how the kinky romance was born as a smutty reimagining of Bella and Edward’s relationship in Twilight. Author E.L. James began posting chapters of a novel called Master of the Universe on FanFiction.net around 2010 under the name Snowqueens Icedragon. Initially, the series’ lead characters were named Bella and Edward, but when James moved the novel to her own site, FiftyShades.com, she changed the names to Anastasia and Christian.

The renamed Fifty Shades of Grey book was released modestly in 2011 as a self-published e-book. But it quickly became a cultural phenomenon for tapping into the latent sexual desires of overlooked demographics. Oh, and the steamy twist on a famously puritanical hit pop culture saga was quite the draw as well.

After the next two books in the trilogy were published to even more fanfare in 2012, James found herself in the center of a studio bidding war for the film rights. While the three movies weren’t well-received critically, they were cash cows at the box office.

The lesson: Yearning is one thing, but sex sells.

The Kissing Booth


The Kissing Booth is its own interesting take on this online forum-to-movie pipeline, since the original story is not based on existing characters. Author Beth Reekles has made it clear her story is not fanfiction — however, the ascension from Wattpad to a major film series will sound very familiar to the fanfic community.

At 15, Reekles posted the first few chapters of a story called The Kissing Booth to Wattpad. The love story about a relatable teenager named Elle who’s hopelessly crushing on her best friend’s suave older brother, Noah, struck a fire within the romance-obsessed Wattpad readers in 2010.

Fast-forward a few years, and Reekles got her very first book published in 2012, with a deal to adapt it into a movie. The first of the Kissing Booth movies hit Netflix in 2018, with two more buzzy sequels in the following years.

Reekles said in an interview with The Face that she never expected her story to blow up in such a huge way, but now she’s happy that the higher-ups are actively looking at platforms like Wattpad for the next big book or movie: “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.’”

The lesson: Original content can still make it big.