Peace in our time. Earlier this summer, J.J. Abrams and Justin Lin told a group of Trekkies that war was over, and that war was the one between the corporate lawyers of Paramount/CBS and the makers of the Star Trek fan film Axanar. The lawsuit attempting to bar the filmmakers behind Axanar from completing their film has been a sticking point for fans, many of whom – including this one – have spent long hours in yellow and blue sweaters and exploring the backyard as if it were a strange new world, all while capturing the whole thing with a camcorder. So while CBS thinks they have their eye on the big picture, they’re actually losing all the little people that make a fanbase.
The story should be familiar to Trek nerds and non-Trek nerds alike. Back in 2010, filmmakers Christian Gossett and Alec Peters raised over $100,000 to make Prelude to Axanar, a proof-of-concept short that served as a prequel to the main film, which is about the “Four Years War” between the Klingons and Federation at a time prior to the original Star Trek series. Further crowd funding efforts brought the total amount of money raised for Axanar to over a million dollars through various campaigns, which is where things started to turn for our intrepid fan film makers. For typically, when people think of the budget for a fan film, they think $40 work of cardboard, store-bought costumes, and the cost of a pizza catered wrap party. Axanar, by comparison, came to play.
With a million dollars, the support of high-profile Trek royalty like George Takei, and a cast of recognizable actors (including Gary Graham, who was actually reprising his role from Star Trek: Enterprise), Axanar became too big to be allowed to succeed in the eyes of CBS. When your sets are crappy, your actors amateur and your visual effects consist of a model of the Enterprise on a stick flying around a nerf ball, they could let it slide, but then professional filmmakers and critics started to praise Prelude for everything, from its script, to its acting, to its special effects. What good is a billion dollar franchise, if the fans can do it better for millions less?
Of course, this is not a problem unique to Star Trek. Saban Entertainment lowered the boom on Joseph Khan when he released his Power Rangers fan film in winter 2015, pulling the clip from YouTube and Vimeo and only restoring it once disclosures were posted, along with the short film, that declared that the dark and disturbing version of the Fox kids series was a product of the filmmakers and not the copyright holder. Of course, it could be argued that Saban’s concerns were about content and not quality; no one’s going to confuse the grim and gritty Rangers Kahn envisioned with next spring’s four-quadrant friendly franchise jump starter. But a high quality Star Trek fan film starring people that have previously appeared in Star Trek? There’s more of a fine line there.
In spite of that though, CBS might have learned something from the Power Rangers affair. More people will want to see something when you forcibly take it away than if you leave it alone. Saban had no choice really but to make a deal with Khan and his producers because the removal of the Power Rangers short caused such a racket. The second thing they could have learned is that the moment you take something like this to a courtroom, you renege any chance of settling the matter expediently. In hindsight, were we too naive to think that Abrams and Lin could rush in and say, “No, it’s cool, it’s cool,” and all the lawyers would shrug and go home with briefs and motions already in front of a judge? Probably.
The problem with Axanar seems to come down to a couple of things, and Carlos Pedraza outlined them pretty good on a wiki dedicated to the lawsuit called Axamonitor. Basically, it comes down to a matter of degrees: when you and your friends make a Star Trek short at your house, you’re cool, but if you rent out a studio, pay yourself a salary and hire a cast of accomplished and award-winning actors, you’ve clearly got bigger things on your mind than having fun with a world you’ve enjoyed on film or TV for years. In other words, you can’t use the intellectual property of someone else to make yourself look good to producers, casting directors, or other filmmakers.
The trouble with that legal argument is that others have already gone down that road with success. Kevin Rubio made the COPS-inspired Star Wars short Troops and he’s worked on official Star Wars comics and The Clone Wars animated series. Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb have been praised by everyone, including Steven Spielberg himself, for their shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and they’ve been featured in a documentary made about their efforts and sold the rights to their life story to the studio that made Raiders. Even James Cawley, who received acclaim for co-creating the webseries Star Trek: New Voyages, was able to parlay that success to allow him to buy the rights to Buck Rogers and make an official webseries based on that property. So to say that there has to be no financial benefit to making a fan film, even on a small scale, is just wrong.
So that brings us back to scale, and you’ve got to think that this is going to be more and more of a problem as crowd funding becomes more common and it becomes easier to produce professional-looking films using pro-sumer cameras and equipment. This must have been the thinking of CBS when earlier this year they announced 10 rules for anyone looking to make a fan film. Unsurprisingly, the rules seemed designed to stop another Axanar with demands like not using “Star Trek” in the title, having a time limit of 15 minutes, including an onscreen disclaimer, be non-commercial, and be an entirely amateur affair with no one associated with any Star Trek in any capacity helping you out. You also can’t use reproductions, recreations or clips, which means the short film based on the original series that Eric Gee, Kevin Swim and myself made in 8th grade would have made CBS litigious had YouTube existed at the time and we had put it on there.
I think we understand the studios’ concern. If Gossett and Peters can make their own Star Trek and if it can be so good that fans embrace it like it were the real thing, what would there be left for CBS? Intellectual property rights are important, and they should be recognized, but who’s benefited more from those rights than corporate entities like CBS? Does Steve Ditko make money from Spider-Man movies? And even though their names appear in the credits, how many times have the families of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel had to take Warner Bros. to court over Superman royalties? Studios love to stand up for their copyrights, but they don’t do a lot for those that wrote the copy.
Of course, the only people that are going to defend studios are lawyers, which isn’t to say that CBS has no right to defend itself, but there had to be a better way. Not everyone is going to be able to go out and raise over a million dollars to make their own Star Trek movie, not everyone has that time or dedication, and just because the makers of Axanar have shown it’s possible, it doesn’t mean that 30, million-dollar productions will rise tomorrow next to Axanar.
The problem is essentially a PR one. Here’s a group of people with a love and admiration for the ideals and principles of Star Trek, they’ve created something in that universe that speaks to that admiration, they’ve generated interest in the minds of like-minded people, and the corporate overlords are trying to squash them like an annoying insect. If Universal or Warner Bros were trying to make a Star Trek film, okay, but the average media consumer, if they hear about Axanar at all, are not going to assume this the follow-up to the Abrams and Lin films. To put it another way, how many people that saw Captain America: Civil War on opening weekend have ever gone to Comic Con, or even thought about going?
There’s a way that CBS could have done this much more delicately that would have allowed the to save face legally while not coming down on Axanar like a ton of bricks. They could have worked with the filmmakers to say that while they couldn’t officially sanction the production, they recognize the incredible circumstances with over a million dollars raised by fans for a fan film. There was a way they could have worn the scowly face of old man corporate and tisk away any future projects as ambitious as Axanar, you know, like a nagging mother that wants you to do your chores. Immediately going to the legal option makes you look like that jerk that threatens to sue you when you accidentally bump into him and make him spill his coffee on his shirt, and no one wants to be that guy.
The bottom line is that the minute you start to attack fans is the minute you start to lose fans. Star Trek has always had a proud tradition of fan instigated action. It was fan Bjo Trimble that rallied fans to get Star Trek a third season in 1968, it was Star Trek fans that organized and popularize conventions as we know them in the 1970s, and it was the passion and excitement of the fans that brought Trek back to prominence in ‘79 with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and again in ‘87 with Star Trek: The Next Generation. On and on, the fans have made this franchise, and if CBS isn’t careful, they can unmake it too.