During a 7-hour weekend drive this holiday, REO Speedwagon’s song “Roll With The Changes” came on the radio and it struck a particular chord with me – having watched the entire “fan film guidelines controversy” unfold over my phone during the weekend. Unfortunately, due to limited access to data and my laptop, I wasn’t able to weigh in on the conversation until now.
I first became aware of a potential issue on Friday, when Newsweek’s Marc Perton called me (while I was helping move my son out of his dorm) to ask for some clarification on Axanar Production’s position on crowdfunding. He told me that someone had posted a set of guidelines online (attributed to AXANAR Executive Producer Alec Peters) that suggested crowdfunding not be allowed and that seemed to contradict what Alec had told him earlier in the week that Axanar Productions would object to having guidelines that forbid the practice.
My response was that while we found a ban on crowdfunding objectionable, we also thought it was inevitable and that’s why it was in the first draft of guidelines but not in subsequent versions of the guidelines – due to concerns raised by other producers.
As I looked into things I realized that one of Axanar Productions major detractors, Carlos Pedraza, had published the first draft of guidelines circulated between some Star Trek fan film producers that Alec had contacted. Eventually names were released and the circus of finger-pointing began. A number of producers distanced themselves from any of the various drafts of guidelines circulating on social media and many of them had less than kind words to say about Axanar Productions and Alec Peters.
I won’t go into why I think this was the wrong thing for these producers to do. I’ll save that for a later post. Instead, I’d like to point out the effect of Carlos’ “scoop” of publishing drafts of guidelines in an attempt to embarrass Alec and Axanar Productions.
I’ve seen a number of comments from people who claim what Carlos did is going to doom fan films, altogether. Frankly, I think that’s an exaggeration. There are other people who have filled their holiday weekend sleuthing through the evidence to discover the leak. I think that may be a waste of time.
What’s done is done. And I think we owe Carlos a big “thank you” for pushing this conversation out into the open where it can’t be ignored by fan film makers, CBS or (especially) fans.
And now I’m speaking as a fan, not as the PR Director for Axanar Productions: The world of Star Trek Fan Filmdom is a toxic community of self-proclaimed “super-fans” who need to take a step back and embrace the change that is inevitable with technological change and increased interest in new stories (and forms of story-telling) for a venerable franchise that has survived through the combined efforts of CBS, Paramount and 40+ years’ of fan art, fiction and film/video productions.
So what’s the best way to ensure the continued success of Star Trek – a franchise built on the backs of great storytellers, innovative filmmakers and fans alike?
Well, it’s clear that ignoring the fans and allowing them to “play in the sandbox” won’t work for CBS anymore. The sandbox has become too large and can be distributed instantly via services like YouTube. Add access to technologies that can make killer visual effects and interest from professional actors and writers, and suddenly that “sandbox” starts to look more and more like a Hollywood backlot.
Worse still, when there is no one paying attention to the children playing in the sandbox, someone has to make the rules – and that usually falls to the biggest kids. Sometimes those kids can be bullies. And bullies don’t like it when the kids they pick on punch back.
And that’s what we’re seeing today. An out-and-out brawl in the schoolyard. Spilling out of the sandbox and across the playground. It’s nasty, ugly and it needs to stop or we’re all going to get detentions.
Carlos Pedraza’s premature posting of a draft of the guidelines for fan films provides us with an opportunity to stop, take a breath, calm down and talk productively. Maybe CBS won’t notice. I think they will.
See, my sources tell me that CBS has been working on guidelines and solicited information from two fan film productions. I wasn’t told who they were, but Axanar Productions certainly wasn’t one of them and judging from reactions to Carlos’s posting from Star Trek: New Voyages and Star Trek: Continues, I don’t think it’s hard to imagine who’s “in” with CBS.
Some people might be comfortable with that, but I’m not.
I don’t think the vast majority of fan film makers (let alone fans in general) should be on the outside looking in. The more we can talk about this, the greater the chance that someone will hear us.
I offered some suggestions to Alec when I saw a draft of the guidelines and to my knowledge, they’ve never been shared. So indulge me on Memorial Day (and with apologies to Alec … heheh), here are four key points about any guidelines for fan films that I think are worth further discussion …
- Guidelines aren’t enough. We need more than that.
Making a fan film isn’t illegal. It’s just risky. Having guidelines from CBS implies a kind of “safe harbor” where fans can tell their stories without the risk of having what happened to Axanar Productions happen to them.But guidelines alone don’t cut it. What’s needed is some kind of fan film license agreement that requires producers to follow the guidelines in exchange for a promise not to sue for copyright infringement.I’m not the first guy to suggest this.
In fact, shortly after CBS/Paramount dropped their suit on Axanar Productions, David Gerrold and Marc Zicree both wrote blog posts urging CBS to adopt such a policy. It’s a good idea and creates a “defined space” for the mythical sandbox in which fan film producers are supposed to operate. More importantly, such a license can be an objective measure of the “legitimacy” of a project for those who are interested in supporting it financially or working on it as cast or crew.
- Eliminating crowdfunding is a bad idea, but not for the reason you might suspect.
Getting rid of crowdfunding as a potential source of production funds for a fan film could definitely put a kink in a producer’s plan. And such a ban probably seems like an easy fix for CBS – by cutting access to lots of money, productions need to scale back in both number and quality, reducing the potential for confusion and dilution in the marketplace.There’s a problem with this line of thinking, from my perspective. Crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are secure middlemen for the transfer of funds from donor to producer. Banning their involvement would probably encourage producers to look for fundraising alternatives. If a ban were broader to include other crowdfunding sites (and methodologies) like Patreon, GoFundMe, etc., the pressure on producers to find other, less reliable (and possibly less secure) ways of “passing the hat” will mount.What might be a better idea is finding a way to standardize and regulate what qualifies as “acceptable crowdfunding practices” under the license. Remember, the hammer here is the threat of lawsuit and the protection is the license. Violate the terms/guidelines of the license and a producer could feel the wrath of Loeb & Loeb and, trust me, nobody wants to feel that.
Creating guidelines for this activity (and sharing those with Kickstarter, Indiegogo and any other “approved” crowdfunding service) could help protect donors/backers on projects and put many of the potential product licensing/trademark violation issues for donor perks to bed.
- Time limits don’t have to be a deal breaker.
I know that when Alec and I discussed the 50-minute time limit in his initial draft of guidelines, he was thinking specifically of how much time episodes of Star Trek: Continues and Star Trek: New Voyages need to play out. With the last AXANAR crowdfunding campaign (on Indiegogo), we had set a goal of hitting around $600k in order to produce the first half of the feature, which timed out to around 50 minutes.But I’ve seen everything from “no time limit” to 5 minutes thrown around online the past few days. The 5-minute time limit comes up time and again when people start talking about the guidelines for Star Wars fan films. Just to be fair, the 5-minute time limit on Star Wars films is for their fan film contest and isn’t so much an attempt to restrict creative expression as it is an acknowledgement of the fact the judges receive and have to view thousands of entries every year. More than 5 minutes per production would just make the whole process too unwieldy.So, what’s the right time limit?
To be honest, I’ve seen intriguing content produced in 3 minute segments, 15-minute segments and longer versions. Think it can’t be done? Check out the Battlestar Gallactica prequel series “Blood & Chrome” – released as 15 minute episodes and then think again.
If you know what the guidelines are going in, I don’t really think it matters.
- Accountability is key.
The most important thing missing from any version of guidelines I’ve seen is some kind of accountability on the part of the producer for making sure the project they’ve taken on is completed on time and in budget. Donors’ ability to hold producers accountable is almost nil. Other producers aren’t likely to hold producers accountable – just gossip about them.The one with the hammer – again – is the issuer of the license. CBS.In my opinion, the guidelines should include a requirement for producers to provide an independently-produced income and expense statement at the end of the production that shows how much money was raised and where it was spent. Failure to meet production or release dates should put the license in jeopardy (or subsequent licenses if discrepancies don’t arise until after the final production is completed).
How likely is it that any of these suggestions will be considered (let alone adopted) by CBS? Not very, I suppose. Not if the only place these suggestions appear is on this lonely little Memorial Day blog post.
But this is why it’s important we’re not on the outside looking in while CBS develops their guidelines (with or without the help of the other fan film producers I mentioned earlier). The more people discuss and debate the guidelines (these or any others), the more noise about them there is. Eventually, someone will hear it and pay attention – if only to dismiss it as noise.
On the other hand, if someone just pays enough attention …