Bernie Su, the screenwriting and producing star behind the scenes of “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” is a fantastic person to talk to on the phone, because he sort of takes the question and gives you this mountain of free-form dialogue. Talking to Bernie Su is like talking to a jazz composition — you might get short little blips, or it may come as an opus in the form of a single, hyperkinetic run-on sentence.
This was my second time talking to Bernie on the phone — the first was way back when “Lizzie Bennet” was just a whisper on the lips of a ghost. Now, all these many months later and the “Lizzie Bennet” series is a bonafide phenom — a groundbreaking experiment in fan loyalty. With a humble Kickstarter DVD campaign that was turned massive by the fans to cap the series, Bernie and his creative team have blasted their names into the pop culture landscape. And now, they’re continuing their tradition of riveting web television by visiting the last of Jane Austen’s books — “Welcome to Sanditon,” an unfinished exploration of the tropes that mark an Austen wordscape.
“The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” is basically Austen’s masterwork “Pride & Prejudice” for the modern vlogging crowd, but it is Bernie, who won the “Best Comedy Writing” award at the recent Streamy Awards, that manipulates the massive novel into an accessible story. And so, as the first part of our “Lizzie Bennet Diaries” odyssey, we’re talking with the man who made it all possible.
Be sure to tune in tomorrow for part 2, when we talk the LBD world with members of the cast and crew.
Now you guys have had this fantastic success with your Kickstarter campaign, but what motivated you to kind of put out the DVDs of the show in the first place?
Bernie Su: The demand from the audience, which I didn’t realize exist at the level it exists! Obviously it’s one of the, at this point in time, historic Kickstarters of all time, and I mean, not the best one ever; in context it’s certainly up there with one of the great ones. And I think it was amazing, and I think if anything, it just empowers the audience and gives them a chance to really support this thing they’ve loved over the last year, if that makes sense.
It’s fair to say it kind of caught you by surprise too?
Yeah, exactly. And I think the idea of, if you’re NewMediaRockstars, like, you know that a lot of web series throw Kickstarters together to raise money to produce shows, and in a sense we are kind of doing that with this Kickstarter, but really this Kickstarter is there to produce the product, which is a DVD. We funded the show without ever asking for fan donations or anything like that, but to produce a DVD — especially with one of this much content — it’s going to take tens of thousands of dollars to do and we didn’t have any money left. So part of it, of course, is asking “pledges,” but the big earner in this has been actually to just buy the DVDs. They are just buying it, they’re just getting the advance for it, and I think it’s fantastic for the state of the industry — our industry — to see the support for what is essentially old media product, you know? I wrote this out on the IMDB page, but like if you had said to me last year or even two years ago that in 2013 a web series would presell 4 thousand DVDs [laughs] at $50 a set, I would have said you were full of it [laughs]. You are completely crazy — not going to happen. And we’ve done that, so I think it’s spectacular.
How does this success, to you, feel? How does it change the way the industry and YouTube deals with series and things like that?
I think it may be too early to tell, but there is so much uniqueness in “Lizzie Bennet Diaries” because it’s a series that you essentially cannot have a second season for, you know? Because the book ends. And I mean, I guess we could write our own continuation, but the book ends and we kind of want to preserve the greatness of it, and so I think it will be something that will be analyzed and broken down by educational organizations and industry organizations and studio organizations for years, and I think that’s amazing. It’s just really fun to be apart of — I can say that, but I really don’t know — I think we proved a lot of things, that we could do a lot of things that people said we couldn’t do or couldn’t be done. One being, obviously, selling DVDs, two, telling a scripted story for so long, you’re talking about — I was looking at this the other day — episode 93, for example, has 200 thousand views about, and in order to understand what is happening in episode 93, you need to watch the first 92, and that’s five-and-a-half hours of content. Because the show is so serialized, it’s not like it’s a one-off viral video or something like that, and I think that’s really great for the health of the format of the scripted web series format, so that excites me a lot to know that the audience will stick with us. They will stick with you for a year and watch 92 episodes at five minutes apiece and love it. I think it’s really cool.