From ‘Lizzie’ to ‘Frankenstein,’ Bernie Su Is Running the Show
Creator of the Year
Bernie Su, the creator of several web series based on classic novels (“The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” after Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” “Emma Approved” after Austen’s “Emma,” and “Frankestein, MD” — which he co-created — after Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”), was very busy in 2014. He oversaw two series for two different networks, and also found time to co-write a book, among other projects.
But what makes Su’s story remarkable — because, let’s face it, a lot of YouTube stars were busy this year — is that Su’s making a name for himself on YouTube and the entertainment business but in a way that’s very uncommon on the web, and especially in YouTube circles. Unlike most YouTubers who’ve gained success on the platform, Su has approached the medium as a showrunner, not as an on-camera brand in and of himself. “I wanted it to be about the story,” he says. “I didn’t want to be like, ‘This is Bernie Su’…This is just, say, ‘Pride and Prejudice.’”
Even though Su didn’t decide to promote himself as a vlogger on YouTube, he did take lessons from his vlogging counterparts, so much so that his series were totally inspired by and modeled on that particular web-native format. There were a couple central reasons why Su chose that route.
“Number one, vlogging is cheap. Number two, it’s direct-to-audience,” Su says. This allowed him to form connections with his audience members in the same way as vloggers do, by making personal ties because the video’s main subject is addressing the viewers in an intimate way.
Of course, these connections also entail social media. The idea of his shows having an interactive aspect through platforms like Twitter and Instagram began with “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and proved successful enough to perpetuate with “Emma Approved” and, now, “Frankestein, MD.” As he explains, “When I was developing ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,’ we wanted to make it authentic to a vlogger. A vlogger vlogs, but a vlogger also uses things like Instagram and Facebook to stay connected with fans.”
This continued with “Emma Approved,” which features a lead character who Su describes as a “a fashionista, vlogger, and lifestyle coach–so she’s a fashion vlogger.” From there, Su emulated other YouTube fashion vloggers to achieve authenticity for the titular character. The style was carried over, once again, to “Frankenstein, MD,” which is more like a “science show with vlog elements.”
PBS Digital Studios actually picked out Su as someone the network wanted to work with after seeing his previous shows.
“We started discussions about how to do something special to capitalize on PBS’ growth on YouTube, and had a unique opportunity to create the first scripted narrative franchise for PBS Digital Studios,” says David Tochterman, Su’s manager and a partner at Pemberley Digital. “Pemberley’s format model was a great fit for PBS’ YouTube brand,” he adds, and resulted in the show serving as the center-piece of PBS Digital Studios’ first and only Newfront to date.
For Su , it was also an opportunity to branch out from Austen and “show that we could do it.” It’s been a successful partnership so far, with the series accumulating 1.7 million views since launching earlier this fall.
But perhaps what’s more important to PBS is how the show affected the make-up of its audience. The audience for “Frankenstein, MD,” which stars a female “Victoria Frankenstein,” was 62% female, with the single largest demo group being females 18 to 24, who accounted for more than a third of the total audience, according to a PBS spokesperson. Historically, PBS digital shows have skewed male, but with “Frankenstein, MD,” PBS was able to make inroads into a new — and frankly important — demographic on YouTube.
Combining scripted content with vlogging also proved a smart move for Su because it gave the format unprecedented longevity. “We don’t do topical,” he said. “We do what I like to call ‘legacy content.’ If you didn’t watch ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ when it came out, you can watch it now, and it’s still good—it’s still ‘Pride and Prejudice.’”
Su’s going for even bigger than making just a good adaptation–after all, “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” did win a 2013 Emmy for original interactive program. He’s going for “the iconic version” of the classic tales he’s adapted to new media. “Our long-run goal is for the generation that grows up with YouTube to remember our story as their iconic version of these narratives. People who are in their 30s remember the Colin Firth ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as the iconic one…Well, we want people under 25 to remember ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ as their iconic ‘Pride and Prejudice.’”
It seems as if Su is well on his way to doing this. While “Lizzie Bennet” made its initial mark in 2013, the series and its creator are still hot. For instance, earlier this year, Starz Digital Media signed a deal to sell both that show as well as “Emma Approved” — packaged in longer format versions — on VOD platforms like Google Play and Amazon (“Frankenstein, MD” might join them there in the future, says Su).
“Bernie is a uniquely creative person,” says Michael Wayne, co-founder and CEO of Kin (formerly Deca), which was involved in both “LBD” and “Emma Approved.” “He has focused on understanding dynamics of digital media and social media and has created in some ways a new art form through the projects he’s produced.”
For instance, as a result of various brand integrations designed by Su for “Emma Approved,” the creator was invited by the global WPP and P&G teams to present at Cannes Lions. Su and Tochterman are in “discussions for new story-driven brand initiatives with both P&G and other consumer brands,” says Tochterman.
But that’s not all; “Lizzie”’s got (re-)adapted into a book this year. Among 2014 trends, YouTubers writing books is certainly a big one — everyone from Hannah Hart to Grace Helbig has done so this year. But here’s Su, who made a web series adaptation of a classic novel that was so successful, that people wanted to read a book version of that rather than just pick up the original tome. Oh, and he also created an audio-book of the book, which is narrated by the actress who played “Lizzie.”
Tackling the works of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley is nothing short of ambitious. Su has been creating and overseeing shows that are every bit as engaging as the work they’re inspired by. And in doing so, he’s trying to building franchises that won’t be overthrown by time.
That said, Su’s got his eyes on other, more traditional, forms of storytelling, too. In 2015, expect “more announcements including non-Pemberley projects as Bernie expands beyond the vlog format into longer-form video series,” says Tochterman. It’s the entertainment business after all; sometimes you have to look back to move forward.
For other best-of lists, as well as profiles of the creators, networks, and stories that dominated the online-video news cycle in 2014, check out the rest of our 2014 “VideoInk Entertainers of the Year” special issue.Tags: Bernie Su, Emma Approved, EOY 2014, facebook, Frankenstein MD, instagram, interactive, Jane Austen, mary shelley, PBS Digital Studios, Pemberley Digital, pride and prejudice, Special Issue, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, twitter, vlogging, Year End Issue, YouTube Creators