Season 2 of Forget The Box launches tomorrow, and because our guest @StephInTeevee was heavily influenced by @berniesu’s Lizzie Bennet Diaries, we thought it would be fun to look back! So here’s a transcript of episode 1, still just as relevant now as when we first recorded it. Minor editing due to character limits.
Bri: So I’m here with Bernie Su. Emmy award winning creator of such web series as the Lizzie Bennet diaries and Emma Approved. Bernie, how are you doing today?
Bernie: I’m doing great.
Bri: Thanks so much for being our first guest on this podcast Bernie. What were you doing before you created Lizzie Bennet diaries and spawned a billion web series after you.
Bernie: Well before Lizzie I was also still creating web series. I moved to Hollywood to be a TV writer. That was the original goal and so I was kind of trying to break into TV pretty much the same way that any TV writers try to which was writing specs and pilots and trying to get an agent and to get a writer’s assistant gig, and the rise of of web series and online video kind of created this alternative path. I think before Lizzie Bennet Diaries I was always in this kind of 50/50 area where I was half in, half out, but once Lizzie Bennet Diaries and other projects digital products around that same time hit for me… from that point forward I was pretty much committed full time to being a web series digital creator.
Bri: What got you into web series?
Bernie: Honestly I really don’t remember. I always cite Dorm Life as one of my favorite web series of all time, but that was still also like after I got into web series that I started to Dorm Life which I thought was also a before-its-time show. It was done by a bunch of students out of UCLA, these writers. And a lot of those guys went on to have really good careers. A couple of them went on to write… I think are currently running for Arrested Development. And by the way, I would say that Dorm Life as a show is very Arrested Development-like in tone and humor and style. And well done.
Bri: All right, good to know! Can you talk about that from the creator perspective, like what has changed in the five years since Lizzie Bennet Diaries? What is like the biggest hurdle that a college student or a recent graduate has right now in getting their web series seen? Let’s not even talk about ‘picked up,’ Just ‘seen.’ Like what in your mind- what does that look like these days?
Bernie: It looks like a lot of luck. Let’s actually not make it so grim. So for mass market you have to tap into a specific audience that has a drive for what you want. Whether that be sci-fi, LGBT, romance, drama… Whatever. You have to find a very niche market for those things and then tap that market. If you don’t a niche market then it’s really just kind of luck. It’s about virality and shareability. That you executed so well that it hits this nerve and then those people share it to their audiences and share to their audience and share to their audience. And so that’s pretty tough. The other way you can add to this now is that what I think is a bit of a new era now which is your own marketing spend. Today the online marketing is dominated by a duopoly: mainly Google and Facebook. You can target certain audiences with, of course, some money.
Bernie: Now, assuming that you have this money… But it’s not that expensive. It’s certainly cheaper to target to a specific audience on Facebook than it is to put an ad on NBC. Considerably.
Bri: I mean fair enough. So actually I want to ask you a question about that show. People say that you need to find a niche audience to target with your content. But I think that an immediate reaction to that, especially from people who haven’t done it before, is that ‘well isn’t that like narrowing my options? Shouldn’t I be going for the widest audience possible?’
Bernie: Sure. You can. It’s a free country you can do whatever you want. What I think you’re what I think you’re kind of speaking to… Let’s take a step back on this. To an individual creator they really need to think about what their goal of this, of the work, is. Like, singular. A single goal. You’re creating web series. Why? What’s the mission of the series? And what you can’t do, what people do, is say they want everything. They want the kitchen sink. They want to sell the television, they want to get a million views , they want to make money. They want to…
Bri: Be adored by fans.
Bernie: Adored by fans. They want the kitchen sink. I don’t know any show that’s done all four by the way. Like Lizzie Bennet Diaries didn’t sell to TV. The Guild never sold to TV. And those shows are just fine. So if the goal is to sell to TV, you actually don’t need the mass audience. You can just get the right audience. You just need to get it to the eyes of the executives at the networks. If you want the mass audience, then you need the mass audience. The problem with trying to go for mass mass audience, as you said, is that you’re computing it’s everything else that’s going for the mass audience. So everything that’s on ABC and everything that’s on Netflix. And you don’t have the marketing spends and you don’t have the budgets or the quality or the production budget. But I mean you’re just trying to basically win an unwinnable game. Sure, you have the outliers. If you want to try to lottery ticket the outliers, then by all means go for it. But I would say to anybody listening to this podcast who is this kind of first time creator who’s doing it for the first time, you’ve got to figure out what your single goal is. What do you want this to result in? Let’s give some examples of this. Number one: I want to sell for television. OK. That’s a strategy. You can strategize to: “I want to sell the television.” That might mean something like you go for the festival route. There are many other festivals out there that will be attended by these executives. And that doesn’t mean you to put it on YouTube. You can keep it hidden behind a wall on Vimeo and they’ll go watch it and it’ll get picked up. That’s one goal. I mean the example of this… This was a pilot, it wasn’t a web series. But I know that you and I have talked about this show Truth Slash Fiction, you know. And I don’t think that show is public at all. That pilot. But like everybody in the industry talked about it. The amount of buzz when that thing was circling the industry after it won I think NY TV Fest. The amount of buzz that that project had from executives in my circles was crazy. And yet most people who would listen this podcasts have never seen it.
Bri: Right. But what’s important about that example is that that was their goal. It was clearly the goal to shop it around, not necessarily to get a huge audience.
Bernie: Exactly. Exactly. But if you’re kind of really getting into this for the first time I think the first goal -my personal opinion- your first goal is to show off you’re good at something. And/or to get better at something. So the audience isn’t that important. Sure, you want people to watch it, want people to give you feedback, and so forth. But your goal is, like, “I want to show I’m a great writer.” Or I’m a great actor, I’m a great director, or maybe all three. Like the piece should only be designed for that showcase. If it gets a million views, if it sells to TV, amazing! Great! Gravy. But you should be designing the show to show off that you are an awesome creative voice; great actor, great director, great writer, whatever it is you want to be and that’s the goal. So to give you a personal example of this. This is how I started. People love to think, love to say, “oh Bernie just woke up one day, met Hank Green, created Lizzie Bennet Diaries and that won an Emmy!”
Bri: [laughing] and that’s not how it happened?
Bernie: That’s not how it happened! So the first web series that I funded myself was a show called Compulsions. You can find on [Stareable], you can watch it. It’s a very high production value dramatic thriller web series. At the time, 2009-2010, at the time there were very few dramatic thriller web series out there, especially at that production value. I still think, biasedly, that it holds up. You can judge yourself and say it doesn’t. That’s OK. But that piece, if you watch it, you go. “Oh this guy, whoever created the show, knows how to tell a story.” I mean I say that because this is what literally agents said to me after they saw the show. Whether they believe that or not, but that’s what they said to me. So that’s the show that actually broke me into the industry. It got a good amount of views. But it’s not a million view per episode show by any means. It’s not 100,000 views-per-episode show. So it didn’t have the mass audience but it had the right audience. It got me in front of the agents and the executives that led me to my first web series script deal. And that led me to Hank Green. Doing that show out of my own money, not making any money out of that show that, you know, didn’t sell TV. Didn’t do millions of views. Just got me noticed. It proved that I’m a good storyteller. It was that series and that’s the one that broke me out.
Bri: Very interesting. Do you think that there is hope for someone who might not have access to the best equipment but is an incredible writer and makes something with a really solid script?
Bernie: Absolutely. Especially now. So I mean that series Compulsions, if you see the production quality, it’s super high. And sure it stands out for its high production quality. I don’t think it needed to be THAT high production quality.
Bri: You don’t think the glitz kind of gives people an ‘in’ to then pay attention to the story?
Bernie: Oh it does, it does. I just don’t know if you actually need to spend the extra money to do that because high production quality is expensive. It is. I mean that show cost me out of my pocket basically the amount to buy a new moderate car. Like not a crazy car. And I don’t think everybody listening to this podcast can just throw down, you know, low five figures of their own money into something. I decided that I had this money saved up. You have to kind of have that kind of bit of crazy in you, and it worked out! I mean my whole career I can kind of trace it back to that one show. So that’s worth it. But I think now with modern equipment, you know the phones we have, these capabilities… You don’t need these super production value things. Like, the idea that you have to spend five thousand dollars on a camera before you can shoot a video of anything, that’s ridiculous. You have a camera pocket that’s basically 80 percent of what the super cameras can do. Now that 20 percent gap is a huge gap if you’re doing something like Avenger’s. When you’re doing something like a series that’s set in your own house, perhaps, or in the park or in an office, you don’t necessarily need these things. I mean even look at The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. That’s a great example. The original 24 episodes was shot with… Let’s go around the room with the gear. The camera used was a Canon T2i. That’s an 800 dollar body that we borrowed from the DP who had his own. Had his own lenses. So we didn’t need to buy anything. The lighting was, I believe, four clamp lights that we bought from Home Depot. That were just kind of these work clap lights that we used. And our DP was very skilled. So he’s able to use clamp lights and diffuse them and filter them and so forth to make them look good. The sound was recorded on a Zoom H1, a $150 recording device that we bought. Connected to a Rode mic, which is another $150 mic that we bought. And that was your sound, lighting, and camera. That was it. If you have an iPhone or a smartphone, that camera is pretty awesome. Not gonna lie, it’s a pretty awesome camera and you can do pretty amazing things on it. You just need to kind of clamp it or stationary it and then you’re good. So you can get away with a lot less than than what you need. And it’s kind of like… I implore you all, and this the way I’m driving my team, is to actually use less. Can you use less to get the show done? You don’t need crazy gear.
Bri: One of the great things and the really unique things about Lizzie and Emma and Sanditon and all of that is that they really took advantage of the fact that these are web series. These aren’t TV on the web, these are web series. They’re something unique in and of themselves because of the interactivity with the audience. The different ways that you use different websites to tell the story, the way that the storytelling doesn’t have to take place on one platform. Do you think that that’s something that people should strive for?
Bernie: I would say if you’re going for the executives I don’t think you need to do it. I mean you can and it shows off that you’re a very versatile storyteller to do the transmedia. But if that’s your goal, to sell to television, you don’t need the transmedia.
Bri: Do you think that audiences still like transmedia?
Bernie: I think the audiences of course do. Especially targeting young audiences. Anybody under the age of 25 and millennial, Gen Z, like these people who are used to being on their phones, they’re used to being on Facebook all day. I think you go crazy! Like I think if you can, you really try to lean into that. If you’re trying to go kind of, again, mass market or audience growth level, it sure is a lot is a lot cheaper to write a tweet than it is to shoot a video. Just saying, and you can go do story development and character development through these things. So absolutely from a storytelling perspective, when we talk about web series, you know, there’s two words there. There’s series and there’s web. The web does a lot more than just play video. I mean the irony is that of all the things the web does, the most expensive thing it does is play video. Writing, photos, social media, text, music even. All WAY cheaper to make than video. So if you’re trying to do like a multi-platform story like Lizzie Bennet Diaries, like Emma Approved, we totally leaned into those things and I encourage you to do that. But again, with the goal of trying to get a mass audience, trying to get an audience you trust. Trying to sell to TV you don’t need it. I’ll give an example of this. So a couple years ago, at my former company, we did this show called Socio, with Astronauts Wanted. It was sold to MTV. It was pitched as- this is all in the trades, you can look it up. It was pitched as a kind of a transmedia teenage psychological thriller where the main character uses social media to hunt serial killers. Like totally crazy. And when we pitched to TV, like half the TV networks wanted to know about the transmedia. The transmedia was important to them. The story is important but they actually did want to know. The other half didn’t care. Couldn’t care less. Couldn’t care less! They just want to know the story. Tell us about the TV show. We don’t care about the interactive. We just want the TV show. So 50/50.
Bri: That’s a higher percentage than I thought it would be. So let’s talk about that audience then, because I think that audience building is something that everyone is always asking about… b ut they’re asking so late in the process. They’re asking after they’ve made their show, after they’ve already put it on YouTube and it’s not getting the views that they want. So I think you are already kind of spoke to this that you should definitely be thinking about your audience as you’re developing your idea. So how do you do that? How do you define an audience? Like what does that process look like?
Bernie: Defining an audience can go a lot of different ways. So let’s talk about the whole thing, where you just said, about they launched the show. Episode 1 and there’s no audience there. Well they didn’t spend any time building the audience. So where’s the hype build? Where’s the Facebook page that’s like talking about the show that they’re doing, building the audience saying ‘hey we’re going to do a series about this. So if you like this, follow this Facebook page and we’ll build it!’ And you should be doing that ideally months in advance. Like buying some Facebook views. I mean get some likes to get that page up, get that number up. Launching day one to a zero audience… I mean that’s hard. That’s hard.
Bri: It is. But so many people do it.
Bernie: There are certainly a lot of ways you can build to an audience. You can start a Twitter feed, you can start a podcast. ‘Oh what are we doing? We’re doing a podcast!’ I’m kidding. But we are doing a podcast.
Bri: Yeah and it all will lead up to me and Bernie’s web series. Check back fall 2018.
Bernie: [laughing] Just you wait, audience. Just you wait. There are ways to start audiences early: teasing, marketing, and so forth. How many movies or traditional pieces of media have just launched with no marketing build? Zero?
Bri: Well there was that one Beyonce album.
Bernie: Oh ok there’s that. But she’s been building her audience for years and years. For 20 years.
Bri: Yeah exactly.
Bernie: You can’t even say that about that Cloverfield movie from Netflix because they did. They did spend 3 million dollars basically announcing it at the Super Bowl. And Netflix has 100 million subscribers, so like even that doesn’t count. They still had immense resources to pull that one off. So you’re saying that even though the Netflixes and the ABC’s, they’re going with like millions of dollars in ad spend and months of hype and teasing.
Bri: Press round.
Bri: What about before you film it, though? Because I think a lot of people when they’re first starting they just have the script and maybe a cast but they haven’t really filmed anything yet. Do you think that’s still a case for building your audience? Do you think you can build an audience before you have any video content to show?
Bernie: Yeah! It’s all in strategy, though. It’s all in your strategy. Let’s just play with it. So let’s say you have a story about… Let’s go crazy here. All right. So two roommates. One’s a vampire.
Bri: Sold. This is Bernie and I’s show.
Bernie: Yeah. Two roommates and one’s a vampire. I’m saying this because these are kind of cliches in the web series world where you have a story about two roommates and a story about a vampire. So we’re just merging them together. What you can do is that you could start writing that series, but let’s say you define the characters. The vampire is… let’s make her a woman. I’m going to steal some stuff from other things… She’s a welder and she’s like an exotic dancer. It’s Flashdance. Got it. So that’s your character. And then what you do is you can say all right, that sounds like a pretty interesting character. Let’s start seeding that character on Twitter so you have tweets that are going about this exotic dancer-welder-vampire chick. And so these tweets then can be anything. Can be character things, they could be just her point of view of life. Why am I exotic dancer and welder? Because I can work at night! I’m a vampire. I don’t work during the day. I mean things like this. And again I’m just shooting from the hip on this stuff. So that’s going on for months before you even shoot a frame or after you shot a frame and you’re editing. You can build that way. That’s not expensive. It takes a lot of thinking and strategy, yes. But it’s not expensive. That can be done by one person.
Bri: Also curating similar content. So if you know you have a vampire in your series, why not start retweeting content from popular vampire things?
Bernie: Why not?
Bri: You know… Twilight GIF’s or Anne Rice. Things like that. Start curating content that people are already looking for. So they follow you because oh you’re the vampire account. If I want to find cool vampire stuff I go here or if I want to find cool dancing videos I go to this Twitter account and then slowly that Twitter account starts promoting something that’s still in that theme but is your show and already you had this audience who’s primed for the kind of content you’re putting out because you’ve curated content that already exists.
Bernie: 100%! What do you need me for? You can do this podcast yourself! That’s exactly what I mean. I mean, it’s web. You’re supposed to be scrappy, you’re supposed to be innovative, you’re supposed to be disruptive. Don’t do the traditional- like, you don’t need to do traditional spending. You don’t need to do that. But you do need to do something because you can’t do nothing.
Bri: What are things that people shouldn’t do? What are ideas that you’re just, off the cuff, “no you shouldn’t do that. There’s too many of that.” Like is there anything that you would advise somebody against doing?
Bernie: Yeah I’ll list off some, what I call trope-y pitches in web series. Two actors who live in apartment together. Shenanigans. Three actors living together, shenanigans.
Bri: But what about FOUR actors in an apartment, shenanigans?
Bernie: I mean anything. Apartment shenanigans. It’s hard. I mean you can try to find your unique voice in that area. But you see people do it because that’s easy. Oh I live in an apartment. I know a couple of cool friends. Let’s do something together. So you see that a lot of people make that one. And another one I’ve seen a lot lately is dating. Something about modern dating. Oh it’s about Tinder but in real life. It’s about modern dating tropes. What’s it like to date like this? “Dating with X” is very trope-y as well. Now I’m not saying that you can’t be successful in that area. I’m just saying that there’s a lot of them. If you want to go that route. Godspeed. I wish you the best. And if you do that, because I’ve been on the other side of this, where people have said like “hey I want to do a dating series and it’s gonna be about dating and Tinder life.” And I’m going “OK there’s like 10 of those. So what’s unique about yours?”.
Bri: And you can’t come up with something, then maybe you should think about something else.
Bri: You know it’s funny, Ajay and I talk about this a lot. Ajay, our fearless leader at Stareable. He and I talk about this where… I don’t think that people should stop making these shows, but they have to understand that if you’re going to make that show with the knowledge that there are 15 others out there that are already doing that? You have to make your show the best one. Because otherwise it’s just yet another one. If you’re gonna make an acting roommates web series, it’s got to be the best acting roommates web series on the internet.
Bernie: Yeah absolutely. Absolutely. And there’s got to be like a hook to it. So for example, this guy I met, Josh Margolin, did this web series for Freeform and it was about… I think I want to say it’s two roommates that are living together. And you go “oh it’s another roommate story- a guy and girl.” But the hook on it was like I think that the girl is like an android and so you’re like OK that’s a little different. And then you actually watch it. And it’s pretty funny! So okay. And it’s kind of one of those things where, and I might be a bit controversial to kind of my audience here, but like… We talk about Lizzie Bennet Diaries and we talked about a lot of the opening the floodgates of the book adaptation genre. The literary genre, right?
Bri: Yeah. Specifically narrative vlog literary adaptations.
Bernie: Narrative vlog literary adaptations. There are tons of them, and for good reason! They’re not hard to get started. They’re public domain stories so we know the story holds up, stood the test of time. Public domain, go nuts.
Bri: And there’s an existing audience for it.
Bernie: Existing audience, yeah. You can do it for very cheap. So I respect anybody who wants to play in that genre. I do not feel slighted, I do not feel they stole my idea by any means. When I see those series, though, the one critique I keep making when I see you most of them. Not all of them, but a lot of them. Is that they’re not trying to be the best version. They’re just trying to be A version of it, and that’s okay. That’s a choice. But if you’re trying to really stand out you need to go for being the best version of it. I think. Let’s take Lizzie Bennet as an example. Going into that series, people were like oh you’re doing the vlog adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. You think about the world before the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, that can actually sound kind of cheesy. Our mindset going to the series was literally to make the best version of it. So I was saying to my team, to Hank and everything, and this is not me being defiant, this is just me being me. I’m going to make the best version of Pride and Prejudice I can possibly can with these resources and these limitations. I’m going to go all in. 100%. Leave it on the field, any analogy you want to do. We’re going to do the best version that we could have made of Pride and Prejudice on YouTube as a vlog series. It’s Lizzie Bennet Diaries. That’s the best we could do. Can you do better? Go for it. Do you do something else? Do you do something different? Go for it. But we left it on the field. That’s what we did. And we have a legacy because of it. You know, won the Emmy. People have written theses on it. It’s like… Do people do that when it’s not the best version? I don’t think so. So even though it was a cheap series that had dollars in lighting spend and dollars in sound gear and an 800 dollar camera. We did the best version. And so when you’re doing your series, listeners, I encourage you to make the best version. This is your art. This is your creative. Why do a mediocre vision? You’re limited. Fine, fine. Make the best version of that and good things can happen. That’s how I think you break yourself out. You control your own destiny.
Bri: I absolutely agree. So I did get a couple of questions that came in from the audience. First question is… we have two people asking when are you going to adapt Persuasion, Bernie Su?
Bri: Are you going to adapt any more series? Is that something that you’re interested in doing?
Bernie: Yes and no. Okay so let me give you a real answer here. But also not spoil something. So I adapted The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. It was a challenge, it was incredibly challenging. We did it. Going to Emma, I specifically tried to do something different with Emma. At least in kind of the transmedia. Challenge. Did it. So there was a challenge there. There was like inspiration to it. Why we haven’t done a Persuasion or a Sense and Sensibilities or whatever, Northhanger Abbey…
Bri: Insert Austen novel here.
Bernie: I find it very hard to form a team that will jump on. But yet get that team funded. So I’m not saying forming the team is hard. I’m saying getting the whole package.
Bri: Why is that? Especially with the success that you’ve had?
Bernie: Because I don’t have that that challenge drive with those specific pieces. Not saying I don’t like the material. I just don’t know the way in. What’s the challenge angle? I don’t feel as as motivated. And you could go Bernie, get your ass off the couch and get motivated. Sure! I’ll give you an example of this. When you look at you look at Lord Of The Rings the movies, the first three movies, and you look at the Hobbit movies, both directed by Peter Jackson. All right. In Lord Of The Rings the series you kind of sense if you watch them the care he has with every frame, every moment.
Bri: Yeah it’s incredible.
Bernie: It’s incredible! Like every frame feels like he cares. And then the Hobbit… I feel like he just to tried to just do crazy stuff. The care is gone. So what I don’t want is for me to just do it because I have to do it. I kind of want to give it to someone to give it to a new voice. Honestly. To like, help. Help them. Creators love to be challenged. That’s why we got into it. We didn’t get into it to make money. We’d like money but we didn’t get into it to make money. We got into it to be challenged.
Bri: That’s gonna to be another question- somebody asked why did you take such a long break between web series?
Bernie: I mean I went through a bit of a renaissance, I suppose. So the three year run of Lizzie, Emma, and then Vanity Fair for Canvas. I mean it was awesome. I got to basically create and direct three public facing shows that all had some type of Emmy consideration. And then we started Canvas and so then what happened is… Why the break? Was because I went just went to traditional. I tried it. Traditional TV, traditional development. And look, any new creator would pretty much jump on a TV deal right now. Just jump and I encourage you, if it makes you happy, go for it. But TV development is a slow process. You are not in control of it. Executives and their bosses and network notes and the like. Like all of these things. After being in it for a couple of years… Not anymore. I don’t want to be in it anymore. So now I’m back hopefully by midsummer. You’re going to see several things come out that are in that kind of disruptive area that most of the people who are fans of my work will know. We’ll kind of see the spirit of that disruption again. And they’re not traditional. The last thing I want to do right now is to sell a web series to TV. Actually not interested in that. I’m interested in making shows.
Bri: That’s awesome. No I think that’s really cool and I think that’s a great sort of ethos to go out on. So Bernie Su, my final question to you is… Why do you think web series as a form is still relevant? Why do you think it’s worth making a web series?
Bernie: You control your own destiny. You have your own creative avenue of something that may not be mass market. Just because you made something doesn’t mean ABC wants it. Or anyone wants it.
Bri: Even if it’s amazing.
Bernie: Even if it’s amazing. but someone might, in the sense that that someone is the audience! Let the audience decide. Let them be your arbiter. Let them be the ones that decide if this show deserves a life or not. Don’t let it be some network executive. That’s what the web can give you, because you love it, not because you want to sell it or because you want to get to TV. You can do because you love it. Go for it. Go for it. Make it happen.
Bri: Go for it and make it happen. Well and on that note, Bernie, thank you so much for being here.