By Sahil Patel
On August 22, the Television Academy announced that “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice,” would receive the juried Creative Arts Emmy for Original Interactive Program. For what we now refer to as the online video industry, it was a landmark moment. For the creators of the show, it might have been an even bigger occasion, validating their decision to do — as any creative individual aspires to do — something different.
“It started with Hank [Green],” says Bernie Su, executive producer and head writer of “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.” Su, an aspiring screenwriter, met with Green in March of 2011 after Green had the idea of adapting a show in a way that was native to YouTube and social media. “When you think of most web series today, they are really a chopped up TV show or movie — which is fine,” says Su. “But when Hank brought up the idea of adapting [‘Pride & Prejudice’] as a YouTube series, I immediately knew he meant it as an interactive, vlog-based show.”
“I think storytelling is universal. We use the structures that we have to tell the stories,” says Hank Green. “Today, there aren’t many people communicating stories in the way people actually communicate right now — we see the world through the lens of social media, and to tell a story through that lens made perfect sense.”
Armed with that inspiration, the two set out to determine exactly how they would adapt “Pride & Prejudice” for the world of online video. It wasn’t going to simply be a series of videos in the traditional sense. In addition to the in-character vlogs, the Green and Su developed the idea of creating social media profiles for characters to interact with each other and the audience. And it wasn’t just Facebook and Twitter, “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” crew was active on platforms like Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and LOOKBOOK. Overall, the two created 35 different social accounts.
It was an ambitious project. Thankfully, Green and Su had a couple of things going for them. One, in terms of budget, selecting a property such as “Pride & Prejudice” — which is in the public domain, has a built-in multi-generational audience, doesn’t require expensive action set-pieces, and has a happy ending — made the project financially feasible. And two, Green, one-half of The Vlogbrothers duo, had a sizable audience he and Su could market the show to.
So the two secretly began planning “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” and didn’t involve others who would later become associated with it.
“I was already representing Bernie,” says David Tochterman, head of digital media at Innovative Artists. “He told me about the project, but basically said you don’t need to know about it, because it’s an experiment and it may turn into nothing. If it becomes something, I will let you know.”
“I didn’t really tell him about the show because I didn’t even know what it was, and I didn’t think he would be able to understand it until it actually started,” adds Su.
In December 2011, Green and Su cast the show. Several months later, in April 2012, the two debuted the show on YouTube, with the plan of distributing two videos a week on the site.
Deal with DECA
Initially, the show was funded by Green out of his own pocket. “We decided that if we did three months of content, we would know if this show was going to work or not,” says Su. “We created a lean budget that would still allow us to pay everybody, but be flexible enough where if we wanted to continue, we could.”
“For a long time, it was a very linear progression,” says Green. The show went from roughly 70,000 views for each of the first few episodes (largely helped by Green’s online following) to topping 100,000 views during the first few months.
The audience continued to grow, which allowed the creators to continue funding the show. “We did 12 weeks of self-funded content,” says Su. “Then we were fortunate to have a YouTube AdSense account that was strong enough to continue funding months four, five, and six.”
The growth in audience also raised the attention of numerous parties interested in acquiring or financing the show.
“Everyone came out of the wood-work offering these guys deals,” says Tochterman. “The initial response was from companies that wanted to sell ads and do rev-share deals.” Eventually, the creators decided that the best partner for the show was DECA, a digital media company that operates numerous women-focused YouTube channels, including the MCN Kin Community.
“Bernie had called me after the first four episodes were posted,” says Michael Wayne, CEO of DECA. “I remember thinking to myself before the call that the series probably wasn’t a good fit for us. We had never done anything scripted like this before. Then after the call, and after reviewing the episodes, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow. This is incredible. I think these guys have figured out something game-changing.’” After that, Wayne says DECA was committed to the series and hasn’t looked back since.
“DECA came in and said we will fund the rest of the series,” says Green. In exchange, DECA acquired partial ownership of “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” as well as the ability to package the show in any upfront deals it negotiated with advertisers. With both DECA and “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” seemingly geared toward women, it felt like the perfect patch.
What’s more, the deal allowed Green to not only recoup his original investment, but also helped pay the talent better (always an important cause for Green and Su) and focus more on the actual content. Describing the deal, Wayne says by providing financing, ad sales, production resource, and other support, DECA took “most of the headaches away, so that folks like Bernie and Hank can do what they really want to do: be creative.”
“That money was also against future revenue,” adds Green. Once the show made back DECA’s investment, the creators were able to earn more money, which once again went back to paying the cast and crew.
The Creation of Pemberley Digital
DECA’s investment also signaled the beginning of Pemberley Digital, a new production studio based on a company that was owned by the Darcy character in “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.” Unlike other production studios, the plan was for Pemberley to focus exclusively on the format it was pioneering with “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.”
“Hank and Bernie had a successful web series that they couldn’t do a second season of,” says Tochterman. “So the plan became to take what the guys had done with the show, and create a format business that would allow them to do the same thing with other books.”
It all appears to have come together very fast, as Tochterman says the creators were looking for content/network partners that would be interested in doing something similar, instead of only doing rev-share deals. Here, again, DECA was an eager match.
“DECA looked at [what we were doing with the show] as a multi-property format,” says Su.
“Bernie, Hank, and I agreed we could adapt many more books using the same format,” adds Wayne. Very quickly, DECA signed on to do another adaptation with Pemberley, while also keeping the door open to option a third book.