Recently I had the opportunity to interview my good friend Jay Bushman, the Transmedia Producer of a web series adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. With 5 different YouTube channels, two dozen in-story character twitter accounts, and story events happening on a dozen other social platforms, Lizzie Bennet is a phenomenon, with more viewers that some network shows.
I just had to know more about the show and about what transmedia really means and what we writers should know about it.
So Jay, I’ve known you for a number of years now! Do you remember those long, intense evenings at the Writer’s Boot Camp?!
Oh man do I. But mostly, I remember our Splinter Cell meetings on the off-weeks, when most of the REAL work got done.
That was really fun. We really created a powerful writing group from that. Do you use any of what you learned there in your writing today?
I do, but its not really as systematized as it used to be. I’ve internalized a lot of it, so it just feels rhythmically correct. It is useful a lot to look at drafts of scripts and figure out the elements that are missing.
What has been your personal trajectory as a writer?
All over the place. I’ve always kind of followed my own path, even if sometimes it felt like stumbling blindly through the woods. Coming out of WBC, I was on a pretty traditional trajectory of writing screenplays and TV specs and having meetings and the whole bit. But something kept pulling me away from that path. I have a background in theater and I used to produce and direct short films, and I never quite lost the drive for making a product. And so a few years ago, I was looking around at how artists of different media and types were using the Internet to create work on their own, without requiring permission or approval or greenlights from anybody else, and then taking that work directly to the audience. Musicians and short story writers and graphic artists were doing it. And so I started to think about how you could use the same methods, but to create a dramatic storytelling experience. And that’s when everything began to change for me.
Can you spell out for us what transmedia is? What platforms are?
There’s a famous Winston Churchill quote about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all of the others. Well, “transmedia” is the worst term that we’ve come up with to describe this stuff…except for all the others. There have been – and continue to be – long, drawn out, confusing battles over terminology and what to call this stuff, and I’m completely bored with the whole thing. So as much as I’m not a fan of the term “transmedia,” I’ve accepted it and am ready to move on. Other terms you might hear to describe similar work would be multiplatform, 360 degree storytelling, immersive entertainment, alternate reality games, or about 764 others. But we have a joke: put two transmedia creators in a room and pretty soon you’ll have three definitions of transmedia.
Here’s the short short version of the definition: transmedia is when you tell a story using multiple media, channels, platforms or conduits. In reality, this breaks down into two major types: Franchise Transmedia – which would include things like Star Wars or the Matrix, where you have multiple individual story elements spread across movie, comic books, video games, etc. Each individual piece can stand on its own – you can play a Star Wars video game and understand it without having seen any of the movies – but each piece exists in a shared storyworld that connect everything together.
The other major type is Integrated Transmedia, where you also tell a single story over multiple types of media, but in this version the individual pieces do not stand alone. A single story is broken into pieces and spread across multiple conduits to the audience. So a piece of the story might be a YouTube video and another piece may be on a website and another piece may be hidden in a magazine advertisement. It relies on the audience to put all the pieces together to assemble the story. While this may seem like a lot of work to go through when its just a lot easier to press play on a video and sit back in watch, in many ways this type of transmedia merely mimics the way we consume information in our daily life – though email and social media, the radio and TV, and any information channel we can find. Transmedia attempts to use this already existing behavior pattern and repurpose it for telling stories. This is the model we’ve used to build the Lizzie Bennet Diaries to work.
Tell us about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. What is the log line (ha) and how and where do viewers watch it?
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a modernized transmedia adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, told in the form of a video blog kept by 24 year-old grad student Lizzie Bennet. Lizzie’s vlog sets out to document the ups and downs of a young woman struggling to figure out where she fits in the world, along with her best friend Charlotte Lu and her two sisters, excessively nice Jane and wild child Lydia. And shortly after the videos begin, a young handsome medical student named Bing Lee moves to town. The show began in April of 2012 with two videos a week posted at Lizzie’s YouTube channel. The characters also had their own Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr accounts where they would talk to each other, and the fans.
As the story progressed and more characters were introduced, story elements began to play out in places other than the YouTube videos on Lizzie’s channel. Darcy, Bing and Caroline entered the story though their own Twitter conversations, weeks before they ever appeared on camera. Lydia decided to start shooting her own videos with the help of her cousin Mary. The world of the story spiraled out and got bigger and bigger, crossing dozens of social media sites and ultimately five separate channels on YouTube.
The entire story, including all the important social media elements, can be seen in chronological order.
The series ended a few weeks ago, after a complete year of storytelling in which the audience had the characters interacting in their social media spheres virtually every day. With over 150 episodes of video, we’re now actually the longest adaptation of P&P on record – with over 9 hours of video content (the 1995 BBC miniseries clocks in at 6).
And we’re not slowing down – we’re about to start production on a miniseries called “Welcome To Sanditon,” based on Jane Austen’s unfinished novel. This is a quasi-sequel that will continue the adventures of one of the characters from the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. And after that we’re getting ready to launch a second year-long book adaptation, the title of which will be announced sometime in the near future.
Most of us think of feature film and television (cable, network, et al) but what is transmedia and how big is it? Is transmedia entertainment the wave of the future or is it a niche? Do you see it growing or has it peaked out in other words?
I don’t think we’ve quite tapped into just how big this type of storytelling can become. For instance, the Lizzie Bennet audience on YouTube has garnered almost 40 million total views. We average around 300k views per episode, an audience many network TV shows would kill to have. There are still challenges to more widespread adoption of transmedia, but with audience numbers like this, I don’t think there’s any more room to debate if there’s a demand for this kind of storytelling.
I think there’s a recognition and an acceptance that digital and internet-enabled storytelling is the way of the future. A lot of what has passed for digital innovation in the past several years has really been attempting to force old artistic practices and old business models into the new forms and formats of the internet. What transmedia attempts to do is find the ways to use the tools in new, different ways that take advantage of those specific properties, and create stories to take advantage of it. In many ways, we’re in a similar place to the early days of cinema, when filmmakers would bring their cameras into theaters, film a stage play and call it a movie. Because stage plays were how they knew stories worked. It too them years to discover that cutting the film meant something, that moving the camera meant something, that changing the focal length of the lens created a different emotional response in the audience. And that these were all new tools in an artist’s toolbox, to tell stories in new and exciting ways. So we obviously think this is the wave of the future. It may not always look like this, and this may just be a step on the road, but this feels like the way forward.
And while in the past I’ve had to spend a lot of time trying to explain transmedia to people and why it’s interesting or worthy of trying out, the Lizzie Bennet audience has loved it and embraced it from day one. The single best part of the entire experience for me is that I have had numerous fans contact me to say that the show was their first exposure to transmedia and that it’s inspired them to pursue transmedia as a field of study or as a career.
So transmedia is only going to get bigger. We think its going to be the major media format of the 21st century. It may not be called “transmedia” by then (a fella can dream), but the label is less important than the mindset – that the audience is an active participant, that you can use anything that conveys information as a place to tell part of your story, and that as long as there’s a free internet, you don’t need anybody’s permission to tell the stories you want to tell.
Thank you so much for all of this great information, Jay, and for providing clarity in this transmedia space, which is where obviously a lot of opportunities lie for writers.
You’re so welcome!
Treat yourself to Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas