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Interview with Jenni Powell: On Web Content, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Geek & Sundry, and More!

January 8, 2014

Jenni Powell InterviewOn October 19th, I had the privilege of interviewing Jenni Powell. She is the director of content and social media for VidCon, producer of Geek and Sundry Vlogs, and producer of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved. We were both in Seattle for GeekGirlCon, and I was able to speak with her about all the exciting projects she is involved in, and get her insight into the state of web content today. Because our Q&A lasted almost 40 minutes, it took me quite a while to transcribe the interview, and what with the holidays and work and life, I am only now posting this. The shame, oh the shame, I know. But I won’t let my embarrassment over tardiness stop me from sharing all her inspiring thoughts, so please read on for something special.

The term “producer” is rather vague and can mean so many things. What was your involvement on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries? And are you at all involved in Emma Approved?

Yes! Well, I am also the producer on Emma Approved.

Yay! Okay, good.

My involvement with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries started because I am good friends with both Hank Green and Bernie Sue. Hank had come to me with the concept of wanting to adapt a novel to the web space probably a couple years before it ended up becoming The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Originally, he had tossed around the idea of it being The Diary of Anne Frank. But for many different reasons that was just not going to be a possibility. One, because it was very important to him that it be modern, and how do you modernize that situation? And the second was that Anne Frank is not public domain. There is an organization that basically takes care of her likeness. And you basically have to have permission. Like, any remake of The Diary of Anne Frank, like when they wrote the play … it all goes to that organization and they approve it. We talked about Shakespeare, we talked about all these different writers who were public domain.

And separately from my relationship with Hank, Bernie and Frank met at a YouTube event. They happened to be at the same YouTube event and got to talking over drinks. And Hank brought this idea up to Bernie. “If you could modernize a novel, how would you do it?” Because my background is producing, the actual taking a project and making it happen. I’m not a writer. It’s not that what I do isn’t creative, it’s just basically, what I do is do is do the things so that the creators can be creative. So what Hank was really missing from the project was someone who could actually creatively take the idea and grow it. And that’s where Bernie came in. So once we had those pieces in place, the three of us went, “Okay, well what are we going to do?” And Hank’s wife actually suggested Pride and Prejudice, because it’s her favorite novel. 

It’s one of my favorites as well.

Yeah. So once that came in it, it was like “Boom!” And then things started moving really, really fast. Because once we knew that was what was going to be done, it was like, “We got to do this, we got to do this now! We gotta jump on it!” And so we cast the four main female roles: Lizzie, of course, Jane, Lydia, and Charlotte. So, we started there, and then we shot the first 8 episodes. And we just started releasing them to see if anybody would like it. And people liked it, so we kept doing it!

And that actually takes me to [my next question.] Now that you’re doing it for a second time, on Emma Improved, and you know already that there is this big audience that is interested in this and has been responsive (I mean, you guys got an Emmy, it was crazy!), does that change the way you do it? Because now you have all these expectations. You have good expectations, of like, an audience, but you also have expectations for it to live up to LBD as well.

That definitely … like, when you go from one project to another, especially when we made the choice to stay in the universe, there was a lot that we could take from Lizzie Bennet and learn for Emma. But also, we had to be really careful. We’re not trying to replicate The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Emma is a very different person than Lizzie is. So we had to take a totally different … like, creatively, Emma just does things differently than Lizzie would. Basically, trying to take what we learned from Lizzie, take the good, try to learn from the mistakes, but also treat Emma like her own person. Because this is really about Emma telling her story. So how would Emma tell this story?

Obviously, a lot of the nitty gritty production things, we learned a lot that we could improve upon. For one example, we shot one day a month for Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and we would shoot 8 episodes in a month. So we would shoot a month of content, be releasing that content, and then we’d shoot the next month and be releasing that content. So we had a very quick turnaround. Part of that was to keep the transmedia fresh, so the writers could respond to how the audience was reacting, because it was such an interactive show. And part of that was just, we were all doing this as a side project, and fitting it in with our other schedules. So, it made more sense to do one day a month. Everybody would just set that one day aside, and we’d jam out as much content as possible. For Emma, we really wanted some more breathing room. So, we’re still doing 8 episodes, but we’re doing it over 2 days instead of 1. So, just giving us a little more space to take a little bit more time with it.

And also, with Emma we’re shooting with 2 cameras, instead of 1. Lizzie Bennet was 1 locked camera. Emma is 2. They’re still locked, but anytime you’re shooting with more than one camera, it takes a little bit more time. Just little things like that. Because you know, Emma would do something like, “Here’s my desktop computer, but then I also set up a camera.” Because she would want to have the double angles to work off of. Whereas Lizzie was just turning on a camera and talking to it, because she wouldn’t put thought into it like that. So, it’s just adjusting depending on the story, and also, trying to make it easier on us as a production crew.

So, does that mean you have already done 8 episodes? You’ve got 8 episodes in the can?

They’re actually shooting today. They’re shooting today and tomorrow. We already had this planned, so myself, and one of the writers who is also on Emma, and the production designer are here …

Because you guys are doing the Lizzie Bennet panel tonight?

Yes.

Do you guys have to delay the shooting at all?

Oh no, they’re shooting right now! I got someone to fill in for me, my fiancé, who also works in production. He’s basically being my eyes and ears right now [indicating her phone], because he’s awesome.

I missed out. I didn’t hear about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries until it was already near the end. I marathoned over 100 episodes, and then joined in near the end with some of the transmedia stuff that was still going on. This time it’s gonnna be fun, I can follow along right from the beginning and see how it evolves.

And one thing with Lizzie Bennet Diaries—I’ve discussed this with a lot of my friends on Twitter—we were just so impressed by how the female characters were portrayed, and also with the diversity. It was just a thoroughly modern take. Was that something that was a mission statement, or did that just evolve that way because of the people who are involved? Were you guys really trying to do something different and new in terms of the modernization?

Well, we knew from the start, like I said. I mean, Hank’s whole version was to take a classic story and modernize it.  So … yes, we knew Lizzie was going to be modern. We never thought, “Do we want to set this in Regency times and have it be third person?” Like, that was never the plan. It was always, “This is Lizzie, this is Lizzie’s story, she’s telling it now,” which is why she’s a vlogger—and again, that’s something Hank is very familiar with and I’m familiar with. I’ve worked with a lot of vloggers over the years, and I still do with Geek and Sundry Vlogs, which is the other thing I work on. So yes, that was always the plan. And Bernie, in terms of writing, he knew that it would be challenging for him to get the female voices right, so he brought on a writing staff of very strong female writers, who were proven to have a very [strong background in writing female characters].

And not just modern, because I feel like I phrased the question badly, but it felt like a feminist perspective of Pride and Prejudice. But not in a preachy way. The way that the Lydia storyline was handled especially, we were just marveling at how that was the way the show decided to handle it. The relationships between the women on the show, and their relationships with the men in their lives, it just seemed like a very intentional choice was made, I mean, to make them be the active people with agency with in their lives. Was that something that was set as a mission statement for the show? Or was that just because of the people who were involved, that was just their worldview?

I would imagine it’s because of the people involved. I unfortunately, again, I was on the production side, so I wasn’t really in the writers’ meetings and those kinds of things, but just knowing those women and knowing Bernie, I would say it was because they wanted to portray it that way. Because they’re all very … those types of people.

We work with an amazing group of women. Like, I’m so excited for this panel today because we’re all together, and we can talk about that side of it. […] We all did this together. […] And that was something that Bernie and Hank, that was very important to them. That’s why right away they were like, “We want Jenni to produce this, because she’s a strong female, and that’s gonna bleed into everything we do.” I mean, we shot the majority of it in my house. So, I would say that yes, that was a very clear goal.

And in terms of the casting, because I also did the casting, we were very clear that with every role, it was all ethnicities. We made a conscious effort that we didn’t want just white across the board. With Lizzie, because Ashley was so perfect, and she was white, of course her sisters were also going to be … so that’s how that worked out. But Charlotte, we didn’t even look at … Charlotte was like, she’s going to be African-American or Asian—we knew that going into it. And all the other roles, like I said, it was who was right for the role, regardless of ethnicity.

It was sooooo good. I love it.

In terms of your work with Geek & Sundry: Geek & Sundry seems almost like an empire now. It seems like they just do everything. So, what’s your expertise within Geek & Sundry? Which aspects of it are you focusing on within that world?

My main focus is Geek & Sundry Vlogs, which is the vlogging channel attached to Geek & Sundry. I actually worked for Felicia years ago on The Guild; I worked on seasons 2 and 3. I then went on to produce my own stuff for a while. So, when this project came about, Felicia actually reached out to me, because at that time I was just finishing up Lizzie Bennet. And she was like, “I need someone just like you who could run this, and because of your background working with vloggers and working with that type of talent, do you have any recommendations?” And I was like, “Well, how ‘bout me?” And she was like “Oh, I was afraid to ask because I thought you were too busy and I didn’t want you to feel pressured. But if it can be you, that’d be great!”

Because basically her vision was … I guess you saying it’s an empire … as of right now, the network is very, it’s kind of focused on her and Will Wheaton and these personalities behind it. Which is how it should be. But she wanted it to be bigger than that. And that’s why she wanted to bring on these vloggers, who have strong personalities and strong visions, which is what makes a successful vlogger—somebody who’s very passionate about what they’re talking about. And specifically, she was looking for people in all areas of geekdom that were really passionate about what they were talking about. So, you know, we have comics, and video games, and beauty and makeup tutorials with a geeky twist. But then we have like, very interesting things like a war gamer, who talks about war gaming. And a guy who creates geeky cocktails!

Oh, that’s fun! I’ll have to watch that one.

So we have 18 geeky vloggers, who talk on all different areas of geekdom. And they’re from all over the world. I mean, that’s another thing that’s so beautiful about vlogging: you can do it from wherever. You don’t have to be in L.A. or New York. We have two vloggers from South Africa who do video game music covers. And our Australian vlogger who does mythology! So, we just wanted to, again, make Geek & Sundry not about just one thing; it’s about all the spectrum of geekiness, and how there’s really a place for anybody, as long as you’re passionate about it. That is your geek.

Amy Dallen, Geek & Sundry comics vlogger.

Amy Dallen, Geek & Sundry comics vlogger.

I feel like it very much vibes with the theme of this conference, in terms of inclusiveness and all that. And I read some of the chatter when you guys were first picking your vloggers. It was like a whole thing, right? You were doing a competition, and people could vote?

It was more “feedback.” Because it was important to us that our community that already was there had a say, and basically gave us some idea like, “I really like what Kiri has to say, I would really like to see her on the channel.” In the end, it was like part voting, but more it was about getting their feedback. We didn’t necessarily take every vlogger that got a lot of votes, because it wasn’t just about popularity. It was about why people wanted to see them. The votes were one indicator, but the comments were even more important to us. Because it was like, we want to hear why you want to see these people on the network.

Becca & Neil, Geek & Sundry vloggers.

Becca & Neil, Geek & Sundry vloggers on geeking out in the LGBT community.

So, for the most part the community kind of gelled with what we were looking at, which worked out really well. We wanted to make sure that the people we were taking were really passionate about it and would keep up with it. That’s why we went through the submissions, to kind of see where they were at. […] It was the content that mattered. Like, Dale, for instance, who’s our mythology vlogger, her first couple videos were, in terms of quality, she was just using a point-and-shoot and the sound wasn’t super great, but what she was saying was amazing. The content really mattered. Yeah, you could have a fancy camera, but you have to have something to say. As long as the content’s there, we can help you with everything else. We can get you a microphone, we can get you a nicer camera, but if your personality isn’t there, then there isn’t really a way to help.

Sachie, Geek & Sundry cosplay vlogger.

Sachie, Geek & Sundry cosplay vlogger.

With some other geeky network websites—it makes me think about Hello Giggles, and how they take contributors—are you guys going to do contributor guest vlog type things? Like, if somebody wanted to submit something to you? Or are you guys looking at it like, “This is our staff and this is our creative vision”?

Well, we have 18 vloggers that do content Monday, and then Wednesday through Friday. Tuesday is actually what we call the Guest Vlog Slot. So every other Tuesday we have two slots that are for guest vloggers, and that’s exactly for that type of thing. So we can try out other vloggers, bring maybe some vloggers with specialties that we aren’t currently focusing on.

We just did 2 vlogs that were Halloween themed. So, one was a sociologist who actually spoke on the psychological and sociological reasons why we like to scare ourselves. And that’s what that spot is. It’s really for trying out new things, trying out new people. Every once in a while, we get a really high-end vlogger who’s like, “Hey, I just want to do like a fun vlog on something totally different than what I normally talk about!” So, it’s just kind of a place to try things out and play, and we’d like to continue that.

And that kind of relates to your panel on Sunday, “Opportunities for Women on YouTube.”

What’s nice about that panel is we have people like Margaret Dunlap, who is one of the writers on Lizzie Bennet. So we’re not just talking about vlog opportunities on YouTube […] we’re also going to talk about scripted shows. There’s opportunities there. Look at Lizzie Bennet! It ended up winning an Emmy! And then people who do “Do It Yourself” tutorials, that’s a huge part of YouTube. It’s not just about vlogging and what Geek & Sundry’s doing. It’s about all the different opportunities that YouTube can bring. I mean health and beauty is huge on YouTube. There are so many opportunities. There are women who are making careers out of being on YouTube and it’s very empowering—they’re running their own businesses.

It seems like there’s this whole subculture within geek culture centered around making online videos. As someone who’s been involved in making these online videos for years now, how do you see the state of web content right now? And how has it changed? And where do you want things to go in the future?

I feel like web content is getting closer and closer to television and film, in terms of quality. When I first started doing YouTube videos, everyone was like, “Don’t do a video over 3 minutes, or no one will watch it and you’re just dead in the water!” But now, on Geek & Sundry, Tabletop does full half hour episodes and people love them.

Yeah, and I watch Vaginal Fantasy Book Club and that’s like an hour, or even longer, and I LOVE it. It just depends on if it holds your interest.

Exactly. And I think that’s one of the big things that’s pushing the medium forward. People are really breaking down the “Oh, it’s just viral videos, and it’s just pictures of cats!” And people are starting to see it as a valid place to go for quality content, and they get it for free. And so people are starting to be like, “What? I could like, not get cable, and watch all the stuff for free, and it’s all great content?!” I mean, obviously there’s still a lot of bad content out there too, because there’s still no barrier to entry, which is still an exciting thing.

And I think one of the other big thing’s that happened since I’ve started doing YouTube videos is that high quality equipment is much more accessible to anyone. Like, the DSLRs now, you can shoot such beautiful video and a lot of them are available at a consumer level. So, people are really able to take advantage of the technology, and it’s much more accessible. And I think that’s also bringing everything closer as well. So I think that’s probably the biggest things: that people don’t feel limited by the time constraints, and the quality that [people are] capable [of producing].

Do you feel a pressure to keep up with a lot of the web content out there? Do you have other favorite web series that you watch? 

Sure. I don’t feel like I have to keep up. I love to keep up. I mean, that’s how I got into this to begin with. I was actually working in reality television before I started doing web content. I was in this soul-sucking job of—and this was a producer level job in reality TV—my entire job was to sit at a desk, wait for tapes to come in from out in the field, because they would go shoot a bunch of footage and bring it in, I’d write down that the tapes came, and then I would carry the tapes to an editor. And that was pretty much my job. And so I had all this down time, so I started watching a lot of YouTube videos; and that’s how I found Lonelygirl 15, which ended up totally changing my life. And yeah, I just found that I was really passionate about this space. Partially because I could see the potential in it, and so I just kind of dived in head first, and I still haven’t stopped. I just love it.

I mean, working on VidCon it was kind of my job to know what was out there. And at Geek & Sundry it’s the same thing. If anybody wants to know like, what’s the latest video going around, they’ll be like, “Jenni, what’s hot right now? Who should we put in our stuff?”

So, in terms of some of my other favorites, Squaresville  is a really great show.

Doesn’t that have an actress from Lizzie Bennet Diaries in it? Mary Kate Wiles?

Yes. Squaresville is actually a project that a friend of mine, Matt Enlow, who’s the creator, had been working on for awhile. And he’d shot a couple test episodes, which had Mary Kate in them, which he had shown to me. So when Lizzie Bennet came up, I actually called her and said I wanted to bring her in. It’s funny because so many people are like, “Wow! It’s so great that Mary Kate Wiles got Squaresville because of Lizzie Bennet!” And I was like, “No, no, no, we got her because of Squaresville!” Because I saw her and I was like, “This girl’s brilliant!” And she’d done a couple of other web things too, so she was a recognizable face to me. And she was perfect for the role. So that worked out perfectly.

Yeah. It’s kind of a miracle to make Lydia Bennet the most likable character on the show, because normally, everyone hates Lydia.  Nobody likes Lydia. Lydia is the worst. But when you watch her character in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, she’s so dynamic, she’s so different.

In regard to web content, do you still feel like there’s anything missing in the platform, in terms of certain voices not being heard? Or, to rephrase the question, is there a chronic mistake that people are making? Is there something people should or shouldn’t be doing?

I don’t know if there’s anything missing, but because there is no barrier to entry, there is a lot of white noise. […] I think a lot of is quality control. Who is that voice who says, “This is the good stuff, and this is the stuff you can skip.” Because part of what makes YouTube so special is that anybody can become a star over night. But how do you … there’s no one putting any kind of quality control on anything. It’s just “Go for it!”

How do you make your content stand out? People ask me that all the time, “How did you make Lizzie Bennet Diaries a success?” A huge ton of it was luck. Because again, we were this little web show in a gigantic pool of web shows. We had a couple things going in our favor: we had the fact the Hank Green was already an established personality on YouTube, which helped; we had the fact that once people recognized it was Pride & Prejudice, they latched onto it. Those are the types of things that, going into it, we knew we had those resources at our disposal. But that still didn’t guarantee we would be a success.

Bernie Su, Ashley Clements, Alexandra Edwards, Jenni Powell, Margaret Danlap, and Jay Bushman at the 2013 Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Invision for Academy of Television Arts & Sciences/AP Images, via the LBD Facebook page.)

Bernie Su, Ashley Clements, Alexandra Edwards, Jenni Powell, Margaret Danlap, and Jay Bushman at the 2013 Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Invision for Academy of Television Arts & Sciences/AP Images, via The LBD Facebook page.)

It’s just that unknowing … and we don’t have anyone like a studio behind us, supporting us. I think that’s something a lot of people don’t understand either. Yes, we won an Emmy, but that still doesn’t automatically … if we were a television show and we won an Emmy, our budgets would now be huge, but that’s just not how it works in web so far. Obviously, I would like that to change. I’m still one of maybe a couple hundred people that can say they do online media full time. And probably 99 of those are vloggers, who are like a one-man show and doing all the work themselves. You see a few that have transcended that, like people like Hank Green, who now owns multiple companies, has a staff,  and has support. Phil DeFranco is another one. Like, I’d like to see more of that happening, these vloggers becoming an industry unto themselves, and like, being able to employ people. I mean, Phil DeFranco has a huge crew behind him now, and all those people are making good wages. That would be wonderful if it could grow into that. So that people are living comfortably and doing what they love.

Also, on the subject of funding, it’s a little bit controversial depending on who you ask. What are your feelings about Kickstarter and the way that has started to change the platform? Like, Veronica Mars made over 5 million dollars to make the movie, [and there has been a lot written about it.]

Well, when we were first doing Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I know there was a lot of talk about whether we would crowd fund at any point. If we had put up these original 8 episodes, and didn’t have anybody step up who wanted to support the show—like what ended up happening with DECA—if that hadn’t happened, there was discussion. “Well, do we crowd fund it?” And we did end up crowd funding for the DVDs. But again, that was a situation where enough fans said, “We want this thing and we’re willing to pay for it!” That we went, “Okay, we’ll put it up.” Our original goal was just enough to make the DVDs, basically …

But you guys made way more!

And again, we didn’t know. But once we saw … and we never felt bad about it because this is what they were saying they would like. We had said, “We could do that for this.” And they were generous beyond our wildest imaginings. So what it ended up letting us do is make the DVDs even better, and offer like, additional content and things like that.

So, with something like a Veronica Mars, I thought that that was excellent. Because it was showing the traditional media that the power of the fans is a real thing. And it’s a real, tangible thing. The thing about Kickstarters and IndieGoGos, is that it’s never just like, “Hey, I need a bunch of money! Please give me money!” The way it’s set up is there’s always perks, there’s always rewards. You’re going to get something physical out of it, you’re going to own a piece of the show in some way, and that’s what’s really powerful about it. It’s saying, instead of just us making this and showing it to you, you can actually be a part of it—if you want. And that’s the other thing. People get so frustrated, “Oh, why did everyone throw their money at that?!” Well, no one forced them to! They made a choice because this is something they loved and they wanted to see more of it, and the creators gave them that option.

I think the times I get frustrated with crowd funding is when a campaign is structured very badly, and it isn’t successful. Either because either the perks just were not structured correctly, or … a lot of people just get very frustrated because they’re like, “I don’t understand why no one gave me money for my short film, when Veronica Mars got $5 million.” It’s like, “Well, no one knows your short film!”

Unless you have a real fandom behind it … I mean, that’s when Kickstarters work really well. When it’s either the content already has a fandom behind it, or it’s the second season of something and you just know you can’t do it on your own. It has to come from a place. It can’t just come out of nowhere. You can’t just be like, “I’m a guy out of film school, and I want to make the film I’ve always dreamed of!” Unless you have enough friends and family that are willing to [help]. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about utilizing your superfans that want to support you and want a piece of that. So, again, I think the frustrations come out of people who don’t structure it right and there’s a lot of bitterness. Like, “Why didn’t I get $5 million???”

I think you really have to make the consumer want to give you that money. They need to feel good about it.

Yeah, they have to feel rewarded …

Yeah, you have to feel like this is something that I’m actively excited to support …

And you have to thank them over and over and over. Every day we’re like, Lizzie Bennet could not have been what it was without the fans. And Geek & Sundry isn’t what it is without the fans. And we’re aware of that every day.

Do you ever worry that you have too much accountability to the fans? So that it messes up your creative process?

No. Because we always made it clear—and this was especially important to Bernie—giving us constructive criticism and having thoughts is very different from … there was never something in the Kickstarter that said, “Give us $1,000 and you get to write a storyline!” It’s not about that. Because that’s not what the fans want. They’re there because they like our creative vision. So it would be counterproductive of us to just drop that and just do whatever they tell us to. So, it’s kind of like we need each other.

For more information about Jenni Powell, you can follow her on Twitter @JenniPowell or check out her official website. Thanks for reading!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 18, 2016 4:03 am

    Thanks for this interview. It helps us understand more about Jenni Powell

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