From the first moment you arrive at the Lizzie Bennet website, you know you aren't just there to watch a typical Web series. The website states:
"Welcome to the home of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries an online modernized adaptation of
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Developed by Hank Green and Bernie Su
You have two choices.
1. Enter the world of Lizzie Bennet by going to her
Tumblr or YouTube
2. Stay on this site and find out more about the show and/or catch up on the story so far.
Catch up on the story from the beginning"
It’s not often that classic literature is adapted into a Web series (or anything in digital for that matter). But that’s exactly what Bernie Su and Hank Green set out to do with their innovative video blog based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It has been blowing up on YouTube, with more than 2 million views in its first six weeks, and has received numerous press articles, developing a large and loyal online audience. It was also one of the biggest hits at Vidcon this year, where actress Ashley Clements was recognized as one of YouTube’s hottest rising stars.
The Web series stays true to the Jane Austen novel’s main characters and to the story as a whole, but it does lean into the world of digital, and while the "foundational” narrative strain is exposed through episodic video, there is a proscenium of story dispersed to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and other social platforms. This approach, while not entirely new, does set a new standard in terms of execution. Creators Bernie Su and Hank Green are doggedly determined to tell a great story, and leveraging digital platforms is a tremendous asset in extending the backstory, side-story, and another other ancillary stories that surround the world of Lizzie Bennet.
Su says of his new media endeavor, "Why digital? I guess because of the accessibility. Everyone talks about connectivity to your audience. That may be a canned answer but it’s true ... I like to tell stories. I didn’t come here to say it needs to be television, or it needs to be a film ... that doesn’t matter to me. I like to tell a good story, regardless of platform, but we connect to our audience pretty regularly on Facebook, Twitter, because we can. In this current marketplace it’s very freeing. I don’t have the interest to go onto a TV writing staff, not to say because I don’t want the money, but because the creative freedom here [in digital] is awesome.”
The effect of this freedom is pretty obvious. Lizzie’s YouTube channel boasts more than 93,000 subscribers and more than 7 million views. Her Facebook has more than 15,000 likes, Lizzie’s Tumblr has 17,805 followers and on Twitter, @theLizzieBennet has 15,000 followers. In total, they have more than 7.4 million views and get about 1.4 million views a month - without a single media buy to drive traffic. And on top of that, this Web series is actually paying its talent — not a fortune, but at least their model is sustainable and helping the cast and crew to make a living instead of hoping that sweat equity will pay off with a roll of the dice and a lot of production hours.
Point of View
Social media distribution is nothing new for content in the digital space, but smart storytelling that leverages these digital platforms is, as Su says, "smart.”
"The world is our stage and social media allows us to reach our audience. Pinterest was a big part of one of our campaigns. When we had two characters following each on Twitter, that was a big deal in our universe. I’m not going to say it’s the future. I will say that it’s different. It’s new. It excites the audience and it excites us.”
That excitement has translated into a core storyline that is exposed through the ongoing video blog. Each segment is short, just like a video blog would be in real life. Then the Lizzie team complements that content through various social methods, allowing the audience to see the story from multiple perspectives.
"I have this thing where I like to see points of view. In shows like 24, you are limited by what the editor shows you. For us, the audience can choose who they want to follow.”
This multi-perspective approach has its challenges, though. The writing team is constantly considering what is too "meta,” and what rules apply. Lines of where the "world” of Lizzie Bennet ends can quickly become unclear, and the staff must push the limits while still maintaining character and story integrity. Lucky for them, they have Jane Austen’s story as a template to work with all along the way.
Kate Rorick, one of the staff writers, is very familiar with complex storylines. Having served as a staff writer for Law & Order: Criminal Intent and as a story editor for Terra Nova, she knows how to manage story points and where to break certain moments. She also draws from her background as a romance novelist (under the pseudonym Kate Noble).
"To tell this story that has so many universal themes in modern day, you absolutely have to tell it using social media and transmedia to properly make these characters come alive. And that’s not something that traditional TV is currently set up to do as well as they could.”
When it comes to sustaining disbelief using all these "transmedia” toolsets, there is a constant conversation with the writers. It is part of the DNA of the show, because in their version of Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie is creating a video blog as part of the storyline. Everyone knows that she has follows and posts in the social space all the time. They are very aware that the fourth wall is entirely broken, and when they are breaking story, they are thinking a great deal about how they can leverage various tools for exposition. Rorick suggests, "We can break that beat with a ‘tweet,’ and we can post something on Tumblr that can set something into motion.”
Su explains, "When we are writing, almost every prop has to be considered as a potential transmedia piece.”
In one story, Lydia, Lizzie’s sister, posts a resumé online. Su has the prop department create a physical resumé as a prop. Lydia the character has social media at her disposal, and if she wanted to, could, for example, post it on LinkedIn.
"It’s a really silly resumé,” Su says, "but these are the things we consider.”
It has to be right for the characters though. The small, close-knit team carefully considers the ramifications of posts and tweets within the boundaries of the world of Lizzie Bennet and do not take leveraging social media lightly. If something doesn’t feel right or isn’t something a character would do, perhaps because it is too private to share, they keep it so.
Su cautions, "It’s a balance you have to find between being cool and posting something, and whether or not you should.”
A Little Too Meta
So is there the possibility that LBD could go too far down a digital path? The producers believe that there are several considerations that keep a balance with their experience. One big one is resources. Because they can’t make a Facebook page for every character, nor tweet every storyline beat, resources and budget become a natural limiter. When the story can expanse the entire Internet with many different social platforms, the curation of story material becomes a concern. It takes people and time to do it. They stick to the essentials and perhaps a "nice to have” once in a while. But otherwise, it’s all about driving core story.
Su notes, "When we launched, Pinterest hadn’t even hit its stride and leveraging it became kind of like an afterthought. Then it became the hot thing so we absolutely included Pinterest. But at the same time, one of the characters is a fan of Spotify, and we don’t have that. If we spend time to create these destinations, the fans would love it, but it comes down to "can” and "should.” I don’t know if an ancillary character’s list on Spotlify gives you anything. The Pinterest campaign, that gave us a ton. It is whether the return is worth the resources.”
When it comes to returns on investment, Hank Green believes in the quality and quality of fans. "We give the fans an opportunity to go deeper. Not all of them will, but the ones that do will become higher quality fans, people who are more invested in what you are doing, and that has value just beyond your two eyeball impressions. It has value in terms of merchandise, it has value in activating those people for various things like a new Kickstarter effort, and that won’t go well if we don’t have high-level, evangelistic fans of the show. If they become fans of the characters, then they become fans of the actors and of the creators and the writers and that gets deeper than a one-show experience. It becomes an investment.”
Su agrees and suggests, "We all want to make the show the best that it can be, but there is a life beyond the show. Investing in fans, keeps them involved.”
It’s paying off for them. They continue to see new fans come in droves. And many brand-new viewers (the series has been live since April) are binge viewing, watching two or three hours of content in one sitting.
Su says, "Episode one is about 50 videos ago, and it still plays as well as it ever did. In fact, it’s stronger now because there’s so much content that follows it ... Our daily view counts are where there were at the start, and growing.”
Su and Green want the show to be watched a year from now, five years from now. All the humor and all the heart of their show should come from their writing and characters, not current pop culture references. Instead of riding the wave of what’s trending, they want to set a trend by making content as good as they can.
Ashley Clements (who plays Lizzie) suggests, "The show is built that way and not only do we hear from viewers how they started and watched all the episodes from beginning to end, but now want to binge view when they re-watch all the episodes.”
Transmedia, Not Required
Su has a very strong opinion about transmedia, one he isn’t shy about explaining, "My view is that transmedia enhances but is not required.” He explains that should a social platform disappear, fall out of favor or be replaced by something else, his content would remain intact with the exception of a few pieces of ancillary content — all of which he indicates are archived as best possible on the main website.
Su continues, "A lot of my colleagues disagree with this. If you watch the episodes and never follow Lizzie on Twitter or on Pinterest and all that stuff, you will still get it all. You will have a great viewing experience, you can lean back, let the playlist run for 31/2 hours, and you will have a good time. Those that want to dive in can consume the ancillary content and it will help make the characters feel alive, but it is not required.”
Green and Su know that the major investment is in the episodes themselves. There, they are guaranteed a strong return on investment and aren’t shackled to emerging platforms that could disappear in the blink of an eye. And this, it would seem, is the thread running through their secret sauce: evident and consistent quality of story.
It sounds so simple, but with technology always beckoning producers to focus on the tech, the latest gadget, the most current platform, story can sometimes get lost. The producers of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries keep that in mind at every turn. For their fans, it’s working. The quality, the immediacy, and the interaction — all of it is paying off, not just for the show, but also for the entire production crew and cast who aspire for careers beyond Lizzie Bennet and have hopes that this show is their springboard. As Clements notes, "It’s incredibly rewarding to have this immediate interaction with fans. Because the show drives them to Twitter and drives them to Tumblr. As of this morning, I had more than 5,600 Twitter followers, and when the show started I had zero. Those are all fans, and those are hopefully fans who will follow me for the rest of my career.”
"It’s exciting to be part of an adaptation of a novel that I love,” says Rorick. "I’m just as eager as our die-hard fans to see how things are being adapted to the digital world. We are not just doing a modern version of Pride and Prejudice; we are doing a Web version of it that is very conscious that it is on the Web. It’s a little meta that the show is part of "the show.” The discovery of the vlog [video log] by other characters within the story is an event that is unique to our version of the story.”
Michael Wayne, CEO of DECA, who is partnering with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, shares his enthusiasm for how well things are going, but makes it clear that he is in this for the long haul with the show creators. "Our relationship isn’t just with Lizzie Bennet,” says Wayne, "It’s a long-term deal. We got together with Bernie and Hank to build a long-term business here. Hollywood, in general, has always been about having the biggest possible business, from the audience to the actor to the producer ... I think it’s a hard thing for people that grew up with just movies and television to understand that this platform, this content and producer and writers and actors, are the exact opposite. The premium [experience] is in the connectedness and the one-on-one relationship. The Internet and YouTube have completely disrupted that entire way of producing and making content and storytelling.”
Su sits comfortably in his chair and looks at the crew in the room and pauses for a beat. "I like trailblazing, and I like doing things that people don’t normally do.”