In Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, a group of people set out to build their own town on the English seaside. Welcome to Sanditon is a modern, multiplatorm adaptation of the novel from the team behind the wildly popular Pride and Prejudice–based videoblog series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. In the new series, Gigi Darcy moves to Sanditon, CA, which has been chosen as the test community for Pemberley Digital’s new “life-revealing” app, Domino. Jay Bushman was the transmedia producer and a writer for the Lizzie Bennet Diaries and is co-showrunner and co-creator of Welcome to Sanditon (with Margaret Dunlap, also the Co-Executive Producer of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries). LJ asked him a few questions about the new multiplatform endeavor.
LJ: How did Welcome to Sanditon come together?
Jay Bushman: We had made a deal for a second, year-long series after Lizzie Bennet Diaries was done, and we knew we needed time to devote to the planning of that but we didn’t want to take this amazing audience that we’d built and, you know, tell them to go away. They were all there, they were all looking, they all wanted more content. So the question arose, how can we satisfy that audience with something that was on a slightly smaller scale that we could get out relatively soon that could bridge that gap between the end of Lizzie Bennet Diaries and the beginning of the next show?
A bunch of us started thinking of ideas and my pitch was “hey, there’s this unfinished Austen nobody really knows, so we could do that as a series because it’s all set in one specific location; we can populate the town with all of these other people and we can let the audience play those characters and allow that kind of integration and interaction to carry along the larger weight of the story.” I think the way I pitched it originally was like if Jane Austen wrote Gilmore Girls. It’s the Jane Austen version of Stars Hollow where anyone who wants to can be a part of that town. Before Lizzie Bennet even ended, we were able to see that the end of the show had stuff for Gigi that would lead into Sanditon.
LJ: How have the fans reacted?
JB: It’s gotten so much bigger, so much faster than we ever expected. Even before we put the first episode up there were like 300 in-character twitter accounts. The bulk of [the twitter accounts] are fan-created. We sort of threw the doors open in the beginning and were teasing this all along and we hadn’t given them a lot of detail. We just basically said this show is going to be about this town and we’re going to tell stories in this town but you are going to get to be member of the town too. We didn’t really elaborate on what that meant.
But then on [May 10] we unveiled one of our in-universe websites, which was the town Tumblr, which said Share Your Sanditon With Us and We’ll Publish It, and that kind of opened the floodgates. People decided that was their cue, so people started making up who they were in the town and making twitter accounts and Tumblr accounts and websites and this is all what we wanted them to do, but they did it before we ever actually gave them the details. We kept saying hang on, we’re going to show you more Monday, that’s when we planned to unveil this stuff. So that was [May 13] and we were able to take the wraps off our big thing, which is the Domino platform for people to make videos and then start addressing some of their questions.
LJ: So, is Domino a real thing?
JB: Sort of. It’s this fictional app in the series. We have not actually built the app – that would be incredible, well beyond our skills. What we have done is built a portal that sort of functions as if the Domino app was a real thing that anybody who wanted to be a member of the town had access to. And so the idea is that if you had the Domino app on your phone or your tablet or your laptop and you used it to record videos of yourself, this would be the location that the Domino app would send that material to, that the engineers and the developers would be monitoring to see the contributions and see what people were doing. This is sort of a real site to allow you to have that experience.
LJ: So, you’re using existing tools and products to mimic what the app would do?
JB: Yes, we’ve partnered with a company called Theatrics and this kind of platform is what they do – to allow audience members to create characters in a shared story world. This is the big beta launch of their product. When Sanditon started to happen and we were thinking about how could we make interaction for the audience that was more than just a twitter account, the Domino app and blog-style videos were such a big part of our format, how could we make it easy for people to do that on their own? We could have said, “shoot your own videos and upload them to YouTube,” but this, I think, is a much more elegant solution.
LJ: It blurs the lines between fact and fiction and creator and consumer in a very interesting way. This article about Gigi at SXSW was reported as if she was a real person.
JB: Yes, and it was reported by a real site. We’re at a point where real sites will do an interview with our fictional character. It’s fun, it’s a lot fun. It’s one of those things that from the outside can be a little confusing and it’s really easy to go off on the wrong tangent on what that means. There’s always been a lot of discussion in the transmedia community and before that the alternate reality game community about hoaxing and the ethics of hoaxing and whether we want that or not. But the key here is that everybody is aware. Nobody’s trying to fool anybody that Gigi is a real person, so that I think is the thing that makes it fun for everyone, that everybody gets to be in on the joke.
LJ: Speaking of transmedia, that’s a word that gets thrown around a lot and seems to mean different things to different people. How do you define it?
JB: There’s a joke in the transmedia community that if you put two transmedia creators in a room, pretty soon you’ll have three definitions of transmedia. And about once or twice a year we go through this spasm of debate over what does it mean, how do we define it, has it outlived its usefulness, nobody knows what it means. In a nutshell it’s telling a story using multiple channels, multiple media, multiple types of content. Multimedia is a very old idea, this is not really anything all that different. It’s just multimedia plus the internet.
From the audience perspective—and this is one of the things that we built the Lizzie Bennet Diaries to do—it’s the idea that I’m watching a YouTube video, then I am looking at a Twitter feed, then I am looking at a website, then I am looking at something else in another place, and all of these individual elements combine to tell a single story. One of the amazing things about the Lizzie Bennet Diaries for me after having been in this world for a while is that this is the first project I’ve worked on where we didn’t have to explain why it worked. The audience is perfectly willing to consume a story that’s partly on their television and partly on their phone and partly in a book and partly a live event. The audience has figured that out because that’s how people live now. The Internet changed so much about how we all relate to each other that you have a relationship with a friend or a family member that’s fractured over phone calls and your email and their Facebook posts and all sorts of other different places. That to me is transmedia, using those elements to tell a fictional story.
I don’t expect transmedia as a term to be around all that long. I think it’s a transitional term. I think the audience is going to come up with something that’s going to replace it. I think it’s probably akin to something like the mutascope from early cinema days. At some point, people turned that into movies, which is a shorthand that everyone understands.
LJ: Other than Shakespeare, Jane Austen has probably been adapted more often, more widely, and in more ways than any other author. Why do you think she’s so popular?
JB: She’s a fantastic writer. It’s really easy to lose sight of that by plumbing all the criticism and why she’s important and what she supposedly is saying, but at the beginning of that, she’s just a fantastic writer. She was writing something 200 years ago that still feels really vital and contemporary today. And it’s really easy to relate to. That’s part of it. I think also it’s that Pride and Prejudice has sort of become the template for the modern romantic comedy. I think you can draw a line from Much Ado About Nothing to Pride and Prejudice to any romantic comedy that you’ve seen in the last 30 years. So even if you don’t know Pride and Prejudice, even if you’ve never read it or any of Austen’s other works, which all kind of work on similar themes and structures, even if you don’t know them, you know them. The rhythms are so much a part of our modern kind of storytelling aesthetic that everyone knows it even if they don’t know that they do.
LJ: Is there anything about this project you’d like a lot of librarians to know?
JB: One of the most amazing things that has happened over the course of these projects is the number of people that we’ve met in the audience who already love Jane Austen and love these books. There’s this really easy-to-ascribe-to idea out there that nobody reads anymore, nobody wants to see any of this stuff, especially that young people don’t care, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. We have met so many people who love this story and love these books and are passionate about it. We’ve also met a ton of people who’ve said they never in a million years would have picked up Pride and Prejudice until they saw our show and that drew them to Austen and they found things they could really relate to.
Especially to an audience of librarians, I would say that a lot of classics seem really intimidating because they seem like they’re work. When I’m talking to producers or at pitch meetings, I like to say that you see a boring old book that nobody cares about, I see a blockbuster entertainment with a 200-year track record. These were the blockbuster entertainments of their day. It may take a little work to get to what makes it that way, but it’s there. Helping people find it is one of the most useful and amazing things that anyone can do. It’s about stripping away all of these artificial things that would keep people away from a classic story and finding a way to translate it to them that makes complete sense.