The Battle for the Future of Fan Films

A blockbuster battle: Fan filmmakers go up against Hollywood lawyers.

The bridge of the starship USS Exeter is being broken down, piece by piece, inside a warehouse on the south side of Oklahoma City. Starbase Studios, a hub of fan film production maintained on a shoestring budget by four lifelong Star Trek fans, has until the end of the month to clear out and find a new home. The warehouse’s owner, who never charged the studio rent during its half-decade occupancy, now has a paying tenant lined up, which means all the lovingly crafted sets — some rescued from old Trek fan productions — must be removed by the end of the month.

There’s a lot of work to be done. Over the last five years, Starbase has accumulated an impressive array of reproductions, which also includes a two-bed sickbay, complete transporter room, full briefing room, and a planned corridor with crew quarters. Countless shows, films, and even school science projects have shot in these careful facsimiles, and the bridge set has served as a central location for the USS Valiant, USS Constitution, USS Ajax, USS Grissom, and USS Hood over the last half-decade.

“I get the sense that we’re recreating history and adding to what the original series did,” Dan Reynolds, one of the studios four co-operators, tells Inverse. “We’re continuing that vein of storytelling, trying to come up with ideas that we could have written back in the ‘60s for [Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry, and keep it as close to canon as we can. And that is shown in the lighting and the camera work and the hair styles and the acting.”

The crew at Starbase are no longer content with cosplay and, empowered by affordable and user-friendly production technologies, are eager to turn a franchise into source material for their own work. And they are far from alone. The fan film has never been better, or in more of a precarious position before.

Without exception, Hollywood studios mandate that fans, who are invited to spend as much as they want on their fan films, not profit off their work. This tension has led to copyright claims, YouTube policing, and, most significantly, the lawsuit between Paramount, CBS, and the producer of a Star Trek fan film called Axanar. It’s a dispute that could have big ramifications for an emerging genre that requires informal collaboration between corporations and individuals, a difficult trick to manage in the blockbuster age.

One of the shows that shoots at Starbase

Starbase Studios/Facebook

Axanar director Robert Meyer Burnett is a lifelong Star Trek fan who spent years building a productive working relationship with the stewards of the seminal sci-fi franchise. He wrote and produced several behind-the-scenes documentaries about two of the series’ TV installments, and also directed the 1998 meta-comedy Free Enterprise, which featured original series star William Shatner playing himself. But Paramount/CBS fired a photon torpedo into that cooperative spirit when Burnett crowdfunded Axanar to the tune of $1.2 million based on a script that used various trademarked Trek elements, including characters and the Klingon language, suing executive producer Alec Peters. The court saga — which began early this year and will go to trial in January should there be no settlement — has divided a devoted fan base and created a debate about the limits of creative freedom and intellectual property law.

“We were a month away from shooting. We were out with a professional Hollywood agent casting the way we would cast a movie in Hollywood,” Burnett tellsells Inverse. “When you’ve raised that much money, you have an obligation to spend it in a professional manner. That doesn’t mean the movie is going to make a profit. You can make something in a professional manner that’s still a fan film. We were going to give it away for free.”

Burnett’s team invented over 50 new original characters, and they dominate the script. But they also wanted to reference previously existing characters, and use a few elements from old Trek shows and films, including the Klingon language. To show off his vision for the crowdfunding campaign, Burnett shot a scene with a number of Vulcans. After it helped raise another $500,000, he found his production in trouble; Peters’ personal finances have also sparked controversy, as Paramount and CBS allege that he’s profited from donations.

“They wouldn’t tell us what we could do and wouldn’t tell us what we couldn’t do, but we did make an effort to try and make it less egregious,” Burnett says. “All Star Trek movies are all about the starship Enterprise, and for 40 years we were getting the same kind of movie. Axanar dealt with politics and war in a very different way, like you’ve never seen in the Star Trek universe.”

CBS and Paramount have said that, with such a relatively high budget, Axanar might confuse fans incapable of sussing out what is and isn’t a real Star Trek production. Some observers say the financial assumptions under which Paramount and CBS are operating are flawed, given modern technical requirements. Paramount, which declined comment on the suit when contacted by Inverse, spent $185 million on this summer’s Star Trek Beyond.

“Technology has changed: We had to use rocks made out of foam and sets made of wood, and now it’s CGI,” Ruth Carter, a lifelong Star Trek fan who has participated in fan films and followed the Axanar case, tells Inverse. “But if you’re not someone who has those skills or a group of creators who will happily do it for free because it’s a hobby, you have to outsource it, and it’s more expensive. I think it’s a perspective worth exploring within the overall picture of what is permissible fan-created art.”

Adi Shankar, who has produced both Hollywood blockbusters (The Grey and Dredd) and a series of popular fan films, sums up the larger fan dilemma like this: “It’s like being at the rich kid’s house and them having all the toys and telling you, ‘Hey, you can’t play with it any other way other than the way I tell you to play with it.’”

In recent years, major studios have become increasingly litigious, and even Shankar, an established producer, drew the ire of rights holders. His gritty Power Rangers short film, Power/Rangers, wowed the internet and instantly went viral. It was such a smash, in fact, that it was quickly hit with copyright claim takedowns from Haim Saban, the producer and distributor of the campy kids’ action-adventure show.

“On some level [the fan films] were just pure, unadulterated acts of rebellion on my end, because I was part of the Hollywood system and I still am, but was very disenfranchised by all of it,” Shankar says. “It was a way for me to express myself without middle-people being involved and without having to ask permission. Profit just kind of went out the window and it wasn’t even part of the equation, which made it easier, to tell you the truth.”

Shankar, given his role in the Hollywood system, had the benefit of professional actors — James Van Der Beek, among others, featured in his Power Rangers short — and access to crew that could create high production values. He also had solid legal representation, which helped hammer out a compromise when Saban’s attorneys came knocking. Power/Rangers, which had been bounced from YouTube and Vimeo, was eventually allowed back on the platforms, preceded by a long disclaimer in the introduction that made it very clear that the real Power Rangers had not moonlighted in the violent short.

That notice, which promised the film was “not in any way associated with or endorsed by” the rights holders, is now de rigeur for fan films. And a growing number of companies are starting to require much more from amateur creators who want to play with their toys.

Burnett suggests that Lucasfilm’s official Star Wars Fan Film Awards contest is a better model of how to deal with creative fans. That competition, which had over 500 entries this year, still has plenty of stipulations: entries be kept to ten minutes or less, only make use of officially licensed music and sound effects, and be free of any contributions from members of Hollywood trade unions. But those laws don’t apply universally for all Star Wars fan films, and as long as they don’t run a profit, Lucasfilm largely encourages amateur — and budding professional — creators to keep up the good work.

In fact, that has long been the Lucasfilm policy, stretching way back to the 1970s.

“Officially, we didn’t have any notice of someone looking a fanzine or fan fiction,” Craig Miller, the first Lucasfilm fan relations officer, told Inverse. Because if we saw it and knew about it, we were kind of required, in order to protect our copyright and trademark, at the very least send out a cease and desist letter. We weren’t really going to go and sue people publishing fanzines.”

They were forced to step in and squash fan-published Star Wars erotica, which was inspired by the first modern slash-fiction: Kirk and Spock getting at it in the quiet corners of the starship Enterprise. Star Trek fans have always had the most fertile, active imaginations — which has long caused a friction with those in charge.

“I don’t think William Shatner, even to this day, understands why people become such fervent fans of Star Trek,” Burnett suggests. “He’s wondering, ‘Why aren’t you going out and living your life?’ He rides horses and plays tennis and travels around the world, and he’s like, why don’t you people do those things? But if something doesn’t live in your imagination, if don’t you think a lot about things like what it’d be like to live on the starship Enterprise, you’ll never understand the impulse behind doing anything.”

At Starbase Studios, everyone does their part. Scott Johnson, for example, is a disabled former concert lighting professional, and his expertise offers fan films the rare luxury of not being cloaked in shadows or washed out with bright lights. The warehouse has served as a sort of regional hub for a fandom that runs generations, but it’s also been a money pit. The studio’s partners have gotten by by paying out of pocket and taking donations (productions pay for the electric bills they generate while filming, but that’s about it), and the formal elimination of profit potential has put them in a bit of a lurch. Without income to pay rent in Oklahoma City, the sets are all being moved to a TV studio that Reynolds has in Mountain Home, Arkansas.

Starbase is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to pay for the cost of transporting the large sets. The goal is to raise $3,500, though they will continue to have to pay for much of their productions out of pocket going forward.

The Axanar dispute has been in discovery since March, giving Burnett — who is not a named defendant, but has been deposed — plenty of time to listen to CBS/Paramount’s lawyers and search through emails, documents, and depositions. Again, Peters’ financials have come under fire, but for other fan filmmakers, there are other questions at stake.

“What we found out is that the lawsuit was triggered by the Vulcan scene I shot, because of the way it looked and its professionalism,” he said. “When you have that many characters that are your own, that’s what the lawsuit is really about. Is it fair use? How does that work?”

To wit: One issue that the two sides have been arguing over is who, if anyone, can own the rights to Klingon, a fictional language that has been studied and mastered for years by fans after debuting in 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Just how far the court decides that copyright law extends may have significant ramifications. For now, CBS and Paramount seem to be operating under the assumption that their rights have a long reach.

CBS and Paramount’s new long list of stipulations and guidelines now governs fan filmmakers who want to make Star Trek homage films. The first rule limits crowdfunding to $50,000, a decent sum for one-off films, but a greater challenge for those engaged long-term projects. This does not seem to be an unintended consequence.

Films and webisodes must run less than 30 minutes, and eschew all sequels, spin-offs, and follow-ups with the same characters, even if they’re original creations. The restriction on recurring characters and continuing storylines is meant to prevent any viewer from getting the impression that a fan film is an official new series — this is a franchise that reboots itself quite often, after all. Fan filmmakers are also required to utilize officially licensed props and costumes, which might suggest the exact opposite to any viewer who happens to stumble upon the video online (another rule: All physical media distribution is forbidden). This will make things difficult for long-running fan series, like the acclaimed Star Trek Continues, which has episodes that run north of 40 minutes.

“Personally, as a filmmaker I’d like to be able to make a full-length hour episode, so I think they’re quite restraining,” Reynolds said. “And to not have reccurring characters, that’s frustrating. I’m not concerned about Kirk or Spock, but if I develop a character, I want people to be able to see what that Captain is doing in the next episode.”

Burnett is blunt in his assessment of the CBS/Paramount rules, which also ban the use of the name Star Trek in any fan film titles.

“I think they’re very draconian, and designed to do one thing: Limit the ability to make a professional-looking fan film,” he says. “They want to keep fan films in a very amateur box. I think that’s silly, because making a movie at all is a hugely difficult creative act — and you need equipment, you need cameras, computers, actors. I think there’s a lack of understanding of why anyone would even make a fan film in the first place in Hollywood: If you can’t make any money, why would you do that? Why spend so much time and effort in the first place?”

Shankar notes several ironies in those kind of restrictions.

First, many of the revived franchises are now being directed by people who grew up watching the originals. “The [new] Star Wars movies, they’re all great,” he says. “They’re doing a good job with them, but ultimately how are they not fan films?” And, second, even the professional filmmakers hired to shepherd these properties are finding themselves encumbered by extremely conservative studios.

“You take that Deadpool test footage, which ultimately got the film green-lit: I was trying to leak that a year before Tim leaked it,” Shankar admits, referring to director Tim Miller. “I went to Tim’s office, he showed it to me, and I was like, ‘Okay, here’s what I want you to do, Tim: I want you to leave the office, I’m going to take the hard drive, and we’re not going to speak again for six months.’ The point being, that was a fan film, too.”

Fan films are perhaps at their most useful and accepted when there is an unspoken quid pro quo. For many burgeoning filmmakers, they offer an opportunity to command the attention of a large fan base that might not otherwise be interested in their creative work, and a platform for professional advancement.

Because they have experienced making music videos and working in post-production, the Star Wars fan film restrictions were not too much of a burden on Samtubia & Samgoma Edwards (though they did force some creative use of a narrower package of effects materials than they would have liked). Their film, TK-436: A Stormtrooper Story, won the grand prize, as chosen by George Lucas, and it helped the Edwards brothers get an agent. Now they’re pitching projects around Hollywood.

“We’re definitely big, big fans of Star Wars, but it was also a part of the strategy, knowing that there are so many Star Wars fan films out there,” they tells Inverse. “We said we’re not making any money on it, so let’s have actual fun making a film on something we love and grew up on, and at the same time get noticed for our work. It was like this project was our thesis, and we’re graduating to the real world of film.”

For those with a goal that is more fandom-focused, the Axanar suit looms large. Should Peters and the production win, it could blow a hole into all those rules being laid out by studios. Burnett doesn’t think that ever be able to fully realize his Axanar plans after this saga, but is hopeful that the donations they received will wind up going toward an even bigger cause.

“We wont be able to get them their money back, because we spent a lot of it,” he says, noting the significant pre-production work that gave way to legal bills. “It’s been almost a year since we were sued, and we are gonna go to court. We’re gonna fight for the rights of all fans. In a way, they donated to a precedent-setting legal battle.”

Shankar, who is developing a new mini-series called Gods and Secrets, understands both sides of the issue. “Money changing hands is when it gets complicated,” he says, noting that he did not charge people to watch his own fan films. But he also recognizes that there is money to be made from fan works by the astute IP-holder.

“If I’m walking around Comic-Con and someone is selling a t-shirt with my characters on it, I can be mad about it, but part of me can also look at the guy and think if he’s able to sell all of these t-shirts, that means there’s a demand for these,” he says. “That means I should kind of probably go out and make my own.”

The Axanar lawyers, in a recent court statement, suggested that fan films indeed ultimately help generate both intangible benefits and financial gains for the copyright holders. Burnett points to the history of Star Trek, which has been revived, rebooted, and spun-off over and over for the last 50 years, and says that its staying power, like that of other major franchises, is a result of grassroots love.

“The reason they’ve been around so long, and they continue to be popular, is all the generations of people who discover these things and come to love them,” he says. And why would you want to diminish that impulse, to celebrate that love? The fact that Star Trek has been around 50 years and began as a failed three-year TV show that was cancelled, that’s incredible.”

Studios often talk about engaging with fans in this era of social media and careful brand management. What’s at stake now is whether they’ll be able to keep it a largely one-way conversation.

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