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Its success has been hailed as “extraordinary” – not least because no one saw it coming. The YA romance After We Collided has next to no marketing budget and zero reviews – and has taken more than £1m after just two weeks in the UK. A few weeks ago, it wasn’t even in line for theatrical release. As the box office struggles in the pandemic, the industry has sat up to take note of this grassroots success. It is “completely unprecedented”, says Delphine Lievens, a senior box office analyst at Gower Street. “To do that based on no marketing – it’s a really impressive result.”

After We Collided is the follow-up to last year’s After; both are adapted from the “new adult” novel series by the US author Anna Todd. They follow the up-and-down relationship of college students Tessa (played by Josephine Langford) and Hardin (Hero Fiennes Tiffin – Joseph and Ralph’s nephew). Tessa is a headstrong and bookish young woman with parallels – the film insists – to Elizabeth Bennet. Hardin, meanwhile, is a bad-boy Brit whose eminent unsuitability is signposted by his many Ramones tees. Naturally, “Hessa” can’t keep away from each other, as much as their parents, love rivals and life circumstances conspire to keep them apart. Cue maudlin electro-pop.

The film rights were acquired in 2014 by Paramount, and the first film, After, was released in 2019, to modest results: a worldwide gross of $70m, of which $12m came from the US. It failed to achieve a cinema release in the UK, and went straight to Netflix. (The platform’s refusal to share audience data means we don’t know how it performed.) You might assume After We Collided would go down the same path, but the film’s producers, Voltage Pictures, struck a deal for independent distribution in the UK and Ireland with an obscure company called Shear Entertainment. Shear secured a first-week run at 47 locations – none, unusually, in central London. Even with that limited release on 2 September the film entered the box office at No 3, with an opening weekend total of £175,000. Other cinemas leaped on this box office life raft, and After We Collided expanded to 378 venues (more than half of all those open in the UK) for its second week – and were rewarded by an 151% increase on the opening weekend. The film’s UK box office gross currently stands at over £1.1m.

All this has happened in the face of minimal critical attention – and what little does exist has been almost uniformly negative, with unflattering comparisons to Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight – “the actors could be mistaken for the undead” snarked one reviewer of After.

But the overlap between professional critics and the target demographic of tween and teenage girls is practically nonexistent – and since Todd’s books have a massive global audience, reviews are of limited relevance. Fans say they relate to the characters and find parallels with their own lives. “[It’s] not for people to aspire to have this relationship, as it can be quite toxic at times, but it’s so that we can learn,” explains one. Many appreciate the unflinching treatment of darker material, including sex, drugs, fraught family relationships and trauma.

Hessa’s romance – not to mention the online community around it – has helped fans through their own tough times. “It’s a kind of escape from reality,” says another fan. “Jo and Hero”, as the lead actors are known, are singled out by many for their on-screen chemistry. Langford and Fiennes Tiffin may not have the mainstream cachet that Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson did as a result of Twilight, but they do reach millions of Instagram followers. The fragmentation of the media landscape means that After has emerged from between the gaps, at once undeniable and undetectable.

“Traditional media certainly underestimated the reach and impact of this series,” says Ben Dalton, a reporter for Screen International. Just as EL James’ Fifty Shades trilogy was inspired by Twilight, After began as fan fiction for the boyband One Direction. In 2013 then 23-year-old Todd started writing about an imagined college romance with Harry Styles on the social storytelling platform Wattpad. For nearly a year, she posted a short chapter every day, typing on her iPhone.

Driven in part by Todd’s fellow Directioners, After became a viral sensation on Wattpad, drawing 1m readers before she had even finished writing. Aron Levitz, head of Wattpad’s entertainment arm, says fans would gather online ahead of each instalment: “If it was a minute late, you’d see social media explode with people going, ‘Anna, why isn’t it posted yet?’”

That dialogue between writer and reader formed the basis for the community now driving its commercial success. “That’s what made it a hit: their love for the story,” says Levitz. Todd’s original stories continue to feature among Wattpad’s most read every years, having now amassed more than 1.5bn reads.

Todd’s work is the blueprint by which the films are judged. While some liberties were taken with the plot in the adaptation of After, Roger Kumble – the director of Cruel Intentions, who took on After We Collided – has been praised for sticking so closely to the book. “He really gave us the ‘book Hessa’ that we wanted,” one fan says. “The movie was everything the fans were hoping for,” says another. (The next two, After We Fell and After Ever Happy, were confirmed to be in production this week.)

Even now that she has industry backing, Todd calls herself a “fangirl turned author” and credits her success as her readers’ achievement as much as her own. They repay her in kind, talking of “Anna” as a friend and advocating for her work on social media (where most of the films’ marketing budget goes).

Their community even has a name: “Afternators” – and they are “as loyal and rabid as any fandom out there”, says Levitz. As one member put it: “When we work together, we achieve.”

Voltage president Jonathan Deckter gave credit to “the power of a strategic grassroots social campaign that spoke directly to our film’s target audience in the forum they prefer. Traditional release marketing will always have its place, but as far as Afternators are concerned, they live and breathe social.”

In adapting After, Levitz says, Wattpad consulted with readers: “This wasn’t done like most development is done, behind closed doors … It was about keeping them involved, something I think traditional industries aren’t used to.” More typically, he says, audiences are treated as the “commodity at the end of a production line” that culminates with “this big bang, red-carpet moment: ‘I hope they like it!’ But we don’t have to hope anymore – we knew After was going to be a success.”

The lesson from After We Collided’s success, says Lievens, is that “no distributor in the UK had identified that there was an audience for this film”. Independent distribution is usually a final resort for films considered too niche for mainstream audiences; and had Voltage not decided to push for a theatrical release, cinemas would have missed out on a cash injection of nearly £1m – from, it’s fair to assume, mostly young women.

By contrast, the industry had pinned its hopes on Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Tenet which, despite half a decade of hype, made only slightly more than After We Collided. The latter’s opening-weekend per-screen average was £4,366 compared with Tenet’s £5,358, despite showing in one-tenth the number of cinemas. Even more impressively, After We Collided also leapfrogged X-Men spin-off The New Mutants in its second week. The result suggests a disconnect between gatekeepers and cinemagoers that, at this desperate moment, may prove costly.

The blindspots aren’t just age and gender. Lievens points to the “huge unexpected success” of Fisherman’s Friend, carried by regional audiences in Devon and Cornwall; and the £4.5m box office takings of Rapman’s debut Blue Story. “There were lots of old white men scratching their heads and going ‘Where did this come from?’”

At Wattpad, Levitz believes there is fatigue with the old ways of entertainment and it is time for cinemagoers to be promoted to stakeholders. “In a world where more money is being spent on content than ever before, audience is going to make the difference – but the industry is not always used to listening to audience.”