The past few weeks have been an interesting time for the volunteer PR guy with what is arguably Trek fandom’s most “visible” fan film production. Whether its receiving indirect support from the director of the latest Star Trek motion picture or a direct slapdown from TNG’s Wesley Crusher, I think it’s safe to say there’s no shortage of opinions on whether or not Axanar Productions has gone a step too far.
In my line of work, I’m used to dealing with differences of opinion. Over 30+ years of working with business owners, politicians, organizations and the media, I’ve learned that in most cases, opposing points of view have their foundation in basic misunderstandings of fact and misinterpretations of intent. The situation Axanar Productions finds itself in today is no different.
And one of the chief areas of misunderstanding and misinterpretation relates to the subject of “rules” for fan films from CBS.
So let’s start with a quick review of where the various parties stand on this issue, what we know to be the truth and the necessity of finding some middle ground for the good of the franchise and its fans.
For starters, it’s helpful to know that Axanar Production’s Alec Peters has had a long-standing relationship with CBS and CBS licensing, in particular. He knows the people involved and has, over the past six years, developed an understanding of how the company handles its licenses for Star Trek. Since 2010, Alec has been involved with a variety of fan film productions and has discussed fan films at length with the heads of three different CBS divisions.
By October of 2012, Patty Wright, a Producer on Star Trek: New Voyages, had published a list of “Rules of Engagement” on TrekBBS that she claimed came from “Mallory, the head of CBS legal.”
Those “Rules of Engagement” were generally accepted by fan film productions, but were not, in fact, actual rules from CBS but rather notes/guidelines shared by Patty. Among them was a guideline that read:
“- you cannot ask or take donations or contributions to generally fund your production, fan film, or studio connected to it … there is no way to prove you are not making a profit from such donations. (other than a very long accounting process to CBS)”
By March of 2014, Alec’s meetings with CBS had included discussions about Prelude to Axanar. Plans to fund and promote Prelude to Axanar included a Kickstarter campaign – not really unheard of for Star Trek fan films, but clearly a violation of the “rule” shown above. In fact, a quick check of the Kickstarter website and one finds Star Trek projects seeking backers going back to 2010.
As an example, Star Trek: Renegades had raised almost $ 400,000 from both a Kickstarter and an Indiegogo campaign before Prelude to Axanar ever launched. If these “guidelines” were in fact accurate, CBS would have taken action against Star Trek: New Voyages and Star Trek: Renegades before Axanar ever hit Kickstarter.
Prelude to Axanar met its crowdfunding goals in March of 2014 and the 20-minute film made its premiere at San Diego Comic-Con International in July. It was posted to YouTube shortly after that and has gone on to win nearly 50 awards at various film festivals and currently has over two million views on Youtube. Crowdfunding campaigns for the Axanar feature film were held in 2014 and 2015 and raised a significant amount of money for the production of the film and the conversion of a warehouse into a soundstage.
In July of 2015 Alec reached out to Liz Kalodner, the head of CBS Licensing to set up a meeting since Axanar had raised more money than any other Star Trek fan film. Alec wound up meeting with John Van Citters, the head of Star Trek licensing and Bill Burke, the head of CBS Consumer Products at the Las Vegas Star Trek convention. Bill was clear that CBS would not tell any Star Trek fan film what they could do, nor what they could not do, because it was CBS’s opinion that doing so might create rights in fan films moving forward. This has been repeated time and time again by CBS.
Then the lawsuit hit at the end of 2015.
Since then, there have been a number of people – ranging from Rod Roddenberry to Wil Wheaton to several producers of other fan films (including Patty Wright) who claim Alec and Axanar Productions broke the “rules” for fan films and that’s why the lawsuit was filed. There are two big problems with this argument:
- We don’t know why the lawsuit was filed until Paramount and CBS decide to tell us what their motivation was; and
- There are no “rules” for Star Trek fan films.
That’s right. There are no actual “rules” for Star Trek fan films. There are notes Patty Wright shared via TrekBBS that people accepted as guidelines (she even called them that herself), but when asked to provide the actual correspondence from which those guidelines were drawn, Patty demurred. She explained that she had signed an NDA and, as a result, she couldn’t make those documents available.
Sorry, but I didn’t buy it then and I’m not buying it now.
Why would it be okay to publish a summary of those rules, but not the actual rules themselves? And if there were actual rules, but CBS didn’t want them shared with those people interested in fan films, what good are the rules? Secret rules on how to stay on CBS’s good side seem to me to have very little value.
The more questions I asked, the more evasive she became. But while in the absence of any evidence, I doubt the existence of any written “rules” from CBS, I don’t question Patty’s genuine interest in trying to provide some guidelines that would help fan film producers steer clear of potential problems with CBS – I just question her excuses for not admitting she didn’t have actual rules from CBS.
But my point here isn’t to call out Patty. She was well-intentioned back in October of 2012 and just got caught trying to perpetuate the status quo. But it’s time for the status quo to change.
You see, if there are no actual “rules” from CBS that can be broken (an assertion supported by Alec’s experience in dealing directly with CBS licensing), then the foundation of arguments made by Rod Roddenberry, Wil Wheaton and other producers are factually undermined. Axanar Productions couldn’t “follow the rules” because there were no rules to actually follow.
And that’s got to change.
Fan films are an extension of the relationship between franchises and their fans. The love the latter feels for the former breeds a familiarity that may, or may not, be appropriate. And when a fan – or group of fans – pick up a camera to craft their own “love letter” to the franchise, they really need to know where the boundaries are or they’re bound to step over them at some point in time.
So, where do we go from here? Hopefully, the lawsuit between CBS, Paramount and Axanar Productions will create an opportunity for a conversation about this very matter. Whether it’s the outcome or just a by-product, some formalized rules for fan film productions would provide some welcomed law and order to the “wild west” landscape that exists today.