Bernie Su has already changed the way millions of people watch television and he’s done it without ever putting a show on a major network. He was one of the guiding forces behind the massively popular The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, serving as one of the creators, directors, writers, and executive producers. Now he has his own studio, Canvas Media Studios, and he’s continuing to redefine how we interact with media.
With two Primetime Emmy Awards to his name already, one for Lizzie Bennet and the other for Emma Approved, Su was set to move forward any direction he chose. He decided to go somewhere new. The production company behind those Emmy wins, Pemberely Digital, also released Welcome to Sanditon, The March Family Letters, and Frankenstein MD. In an interview at VidCon 2016, Su said he felt this was Pemberely Digital’s purpose, to take classic novels and turn them into contemporary online content. But he was ready to branch out. Last year, he partnered with David Tochterman to form Canvas Media Studios and they’ve hit the ground running.
Their first series, Vanity, followed a young woman searching for the truth behind her mother’s death. Produced alongside StyleHaul in partnership with Maybelline New York, Vanity was nominated for a 2016 Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Digital Daytime Drama Series.
Coming up next is Socio, which pairs a 19-year-old tech savant, Jordan (India Eisley), with a morally questionable detective as they chase down a gruesome killer. Produced with Astronauts Wanted, Socio may be a procedural, but it’s also heavily character focused. Jordan is extremely intelligent but also hiding an inner darkness. As Sherlock once put it, a “high functioning sociopath.” While Jordan and the detective hunt for the killer, we’re left to wonder, as Su puts it, “Do they want to catch them or do they want to be like them?”
It’s a question viewers will be able to explore further because of Su’s trademark transmedia format, which began with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and was solidified into a sustainable system during Emma Approved. Su knows his shows are not “choose your own adventure” but he believes in “choose your own experience” and wants to provide fans with plenty of options.
“We as artists, we want to tell the story we want to tell and create the show we want to create. That’s fine, that’s our right as the artist, right? But in order to complete the cycle of communication, of art to viewer, the viewer has to enjoy the experience. So it’s up to us as creators to understand how the viewer is going to experience this and if they have a good experience.”
For Su, that means doing more than producing episodes. It’s anything and everything. He views his series’ complementary social media content as equally as important as the shows themselves. It’s why he places such an emphasis on high quality content across all platforms. Deciding which to use is based on the characters of a particular show. Su believes in making the experience as authentic as possible. For example, Emma Woodhouse, as a fashion blogger, would definitely be active on Instagram and Pinterest.
He’s careful too about embracing new channels simply because they’re popular at the time. They still have to function as a part of the system. For Socio, he wants viewers to be able to track and re-trace clues. So a platform like Snapchat, which doesn’t have an archive, may not work. That’s not to say Socio won’t use Snapchat, but it’s something to take into consideration.
As a teen and a tech savant, Jordan is very present on social media. Viewers can see her “get into the mind of a sociopath,” as Su put it. While the specific platforms that will be used in conjunction with the episodes is still to be determined, viewers will be able to follow the narrative of the show as evidence and ideas are shared via social media as well as the show itself.
With the transmedia media integration and gripping plot, Socio sounds poised to be the next big immersive procedural. But is there pressure to garner an Emmy nomination or win with each new project?
“A little bit,” Su admitted, laughing. “I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t.”
It’s understandable. The win for Lizzie Bennet was the first time a digital series had ever won a Primetime Emmy. At the time, Su was rehearsing and shooting Emma Approved and the cast and crew were very aware what footsteps they were following in. Thankfully, Su has a pretty clear head and a very clear mission.
“We’re here to make legacy products and great stories,” he said without a trace of false humility. “If they win Emmys, great. If they don’t, okay.”
The goal for every project is to make a high quality production, the best version of that story. Someday that might even mean telling a story on a network rather than on YouTube.
From Su’s point of view, as TV is now it does not offer fans the same type of interaction or choose your own experience method. However, he believes it’s possible for television to adapt and provide an experience similar to what he does with his own shows.
“The traditional networks are trying to innovate. At some point, they have to.”
But Su isn’t after a showrunner position, at least not the way the role is defined now. He doesn’t want to be brought in to oversee a show that’s already running (though he would never turn down the conversation). Rather, he would want to do what he’s doing now, create a transmedia production, but do it on a network scale.
He has no plans to make any such leap though. There is plenty to hold his focus right now. In addition to Socio, Canvas Media Studios recently teamed with New Leaf Literary & Media to create digital shows based on four YA novels. It’ll be new and familiar grounds for the creator and one fans are looking forward to.
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