The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ Bernie Su explains how he helped turn Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into a hit, Emmy-winning Web series that raised nearly half a million dollars through the power of crowdfunding.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(November 27, 2013)
Had Jane Austen been a twentysomething today rather than at the turn of the 19th century, maybe she would have been a blogger instead of one of the most widely read English novelists in history. But alas, lacking a good Wi-Fi connection, she stuck to writing novels that still define romantic narrative.
Already more adapted than nearly any novelist ever for the big and small screen, Austen’s work was recently reimagined yet again – this time for the Internet – in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, an award-winning Web series which wrapped earlier this year. Based on Pride and Prejudice, co-developers Hank Green & Bernie Su turned Elizabeth Bennet, the original novel’s beloved heroine, into Lizzie Bennet, a video blogger in the present day, whose tale unfolds entirely before a Web cam.
To think this is a gimmick would be a mistake. The 100-episode Web series connected with thousands of fans with little or no promotion other than a Kickstarter campaign that set out to raise about $30,000 and quickly made nearly half a million while winning an Emmy for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media and a Streamy for Executive Producer Su for comedy writing.
Su spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the crowdfunding campaign and how exactly he and his writers retold one of English Lit’s greatest romances through a single Web cam.
This entire series stays in the video blog format – what kind of challenges or opportunities have you found that gives the show from a writing standpoint?
Photo: © 2013 Pemberley Digital
Ashley Clements and Julia Cho in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.
The challenge is the obvious one – writing to a blog format, the camera always has to have a reason to be there and to be on…but it wasn't too bad once we started really getting going.
The limitation really helped us, in my opinion. What it did is it basically made myself and all the writers say, “Okay, here's what you’ve got – it’s limited greatly. Now find a way to bring in the comedy, the drama, and the character [development] in a way that's different than we've seen before.” And we did a really good job.
So it’s sort of a case of necessity being the mother of invention, forcing the writers to get creative and figure out ways to make it work?
Yeah, exactly. One of my favorite quotes is from Orson Welles: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” What I'm describing here is kind of like a hyper example of that, where you're actually providing so many limits, the art can actually grow bigger.
Can give me an example of the way that this limited format has surprised you in what it can do?
Sure. I guess an example would be episode 78, which I wrote. When you're limited by the room and the camera you kind of go, all right, I need to get not only Lizzie in this room, which is the first thing – and sometimes that's actually tricky – but I need to get a second character in this room to provide the exposition and the plot points I need in this episode. Episode 78 is the part in the novel where Lizzie and Darcy run into each other kind of unexpectedly, they're both shocked… [So] it was kind of like, how does that occur in a room?
It’s also supposed to be a room where Darcy is unaware that Lizzie is there. So what I figured out is, I took another character, Darcy's sister, and basically said, “All right, I'm going to use her to get Darcy in this room…” It turned out to be one of our best episodes, and the fans seemed to love that kind of twist on the adaptation. There’s no adaptation where the sister's so active in pushing these two together, but she kind of had to be. We needed her to help and in turn we made Darcy's sister one of the most popular characters in the show.
Tell me how exactly you guys were writing these episodes?
We did a writer's room. The writing team got together once every month or two months, and then we broke out the next couple of months of episodes – each month is eight episodes, four weeks. After we broke those episodes out, we would divvy the month, and usually between four or five of us were in the room at any one time. People weren't fighting for episodes, it was pretty obvious who would take what because we got to the point where people were really comfortable with certain characters…
After I assembled all the episodes and did my showrunner tasks I would bring Ashley Clements in, the girl that plays Lizzie, and we would read the entire thing. I would give her kind of a look, What does this sound like to you? You're the character, tell me, talk it out with me. And we would talk out scenes. She was really good at getting through everything. Later in the series we had a really good rapport, and the writers had the voices down so it wasn't hard at all.
Right, and have you done a show in video blog format before?
No, I haven't. I did a show where it was a locked camera before, but it wasn't a video blog.
Right, so, at least initially when you started doing this, it had to feel different, right?
Yeah, definitely. And [co-developer] Hank [Green] was very helpful with this obviously, because Hank is a blogger. He's been blogging for five years so I had to pick his brain a lot, like, “Okay…tell me about blogging. Tell me about what you're thinking when you're doing it and what makes a good blogger a good blogger in your opinion.” He had a whole laundry list of things for me to consider, and it was like, Okay, I get it, I totally understand all this, this makes a lot of sense to me. Once we got going after a month or two, I would say I was pretty comfortable with it.
And how many episodes have you done?
We did 100 exactly. It actually it lasted a year. We only took one week off the entire time, and that was the week between Christmas and New Year's.
How long is each episode?
It ranged. In the beginning they were shorter, like two to five minutes, but then later on we made them longer… I think our longest episode was nine minutes long. It was really dramatic. It was kind of like what people ask a lot in [Web] video: “How long should episodes be?” And my answer always, and still is: “As short as possible but as long as it needs to be.”
As short as possible but as long as needs to be.
As long as it needs to be, which is very cryptic, but you understand what I'm saying.
Totally. So is that a surprisingly arduous production schedule? I mean the episodes are obviously pretty short, but you're really churning them out there.
Yeah, I mean we got to the point where it was like clockwork, like I would assume, a smooth running television show [is]. It got to be like, this is the notes week, this is the rehearsal week, this is the shooting day, this is the post day… So we had a pretty good cycle. I mean one of the great things about this format, because it's a locked camera, because it's a single camera and because the cast is very limited, we could shoot very quickly. Of course we had to reshoot some, and we had to change costumes and make up, but we only had one production day per month and that one production day we could shoot all the episodes.
The shortest day we did, the page count – this is normal, single-spaced like TV drama – was 46 pages in a day. The longest day we did 57 pages. This is, again, scripted, one single day [laughs]. That was our kind of our secret sauce, that's what made the whole system work. It made the whole show scalable. It made the whole show producible at this really low price point because we only needed one production day to get out the equivalent of a one-hour episode of television per month.
To that point how are you guys making money on this show?
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has actually four revenue streams right now. One are the ads that show on YouTube. Two, we have merchandise, our logo stuff, and it does pretty well, actually. We have some pretty cute merch for the fans so there's that. Number three, second window, which right now is just a DVD. You might have heard that we did a pretty historic Kickstarter to raise money for a DVD.
Right, and what was the final tally on that Kickstarter campaign?
$462,265, 462 something, so…
Good lord! What's the headcount to come to that figure?
It was about 7,000 backers. The key element to take note of with the Kickstarter campaign is that the primary purpose was to raise money to produce a DVD. We were out of production dollars and producing a DVD with 10 hours of video content was going to cost $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 to do. With the DVD market as it is today, we don't know how many we're going to sell and this is a pretty expensive DVD. So we kind of said, “Alright, let's just Kickstart it and basically let's just kind of brand the Kickstarter as a DVD presale. Let's just see how many we can sell, right?”
We figured if we sold 1,000 DVDs that would get us around 50, 60K and that would be worth it to pay for the production of the DVD. That's what we asked for, and then it started to go crazy… We presold 5,800 DVDs. This is for a Web series that's online and available today for free, presumably in perpetuity, forever. But it’s still monetized as a DVD package in kind of what we call an old format, at a $55 price point for an audience that's primarily under 25. They're not rich, most of ‘em, I don’t think.
Yeah, it's crazy. Fair to say you must have been pretty astounded.
I was very astounded. I mean to be fair, our audience, who was amazing, has astounded me time and time again with what they do. But yeah, this was definitely one of the ones where I was like, “This is insane!”
Do you have any kind of breakdown demographically of male to female?
Yes, I do. Our audience on YouTube is 90 percent female, of that it's actually, I think 70 percent – 68 or something – 25 and under.
So you owe the young ladies a big thank you.
Oh, definitely. When we meet the fans I'm just like, “Whatever you want me to do, this is amazing.” I mean looking at this as an artist, it's like you feed off that energy. I know I fed off it. When we were going in the middle of the series, and I could see the fan reaction, it was so passionate, it was so excited about everything, it was like, “Alright, I've got to make this thing the best possible, like no excuses. We have our limits, we have our low budget, fine – but this thing is going to be the greatest thing I can make and if we fail it's not because I didn't try and it's not because I got lazy, it's because these things happen.” So I know it's fed me, and I'm sure it's fed the actors and the other writers as well, it was kind of intoxicating to have all this positive energy from the fandom.