Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines and the Changing Face of Fan Films

So last week the news broke that the fallout from the legal action over the Axanar fan film project was a new set of official guidelines for any such future production of its kind. The result was about what one would expect- fandom went a little nuts for a day or so. The question I’ve not seen getting asked in many places is the obvious one. What did fandom expect?

Look, I have friends and acquaintances that have been in or helped make various fan films for Star Trek, Doctor Who, various superhero properties, video game properties, etc. I understand the desire to play around with a property that you have a deep, passionate attachment to. I’m not knocking it or anyone who does it, so don’t take any of this in a chiding way. I’m just not sure what fandom- and by fandom I mean more than just the creators of Trek fan films -thought was going to happen with the things that have been going on in the last ten-plus years.

A lot of people have been bringing up the long tradition of fanfic while discussing this. Some of them talked about how a lot of professional comic artists cut their teeth doing fanfic comics and how a lot writers wrote fanfic stories before becoming pros. This is all true, but it’s largely irrelevant. Even if we were to try to lump some of these things in with what we’ve seen lately, they’re not really the same.

Years ago if a fan were to do some fanfic- just writing or as a fully illustrated comic -for a fanzine using popular characters from a major company, we’re talking in most cases a readership in the low hundreds. Even now, even in the age of everyone being able to have a blog or website, someone doing fanfic might get far more hits off of keywords than actual readers. Groups for fanfic may have created a larger readership as everyone interested in a certain material’s fanfic could get together and share, creating a larger readership. However, in reality this was still largely small potatoes.

But even small potatoes were getting clamped down on back in the day. Peter David addressed the issue when the news broke. In his piece he recounts the time he edited a Star Trek fanzine back in the 1970s. The direct decree from Paramount lawyers? He was absolutely not allowed to print any fanfic whatsoever. It was deemed to be copyright infringement. You should see what he said about the time they came into a convention.

Now, have we had fan film filmmakers for years? Yeah, but, again, some things were very different back in the day. If a bunch of fans got together to make a super 8 fan film based on Star Wars, their viewership might never break a few hundred over years. Even if they went to some of the early, small conventions, they were something of a fun curiosity for most. Of course, even when fan films were more like a fun curiosity they were getting eyed by the powers that be.

As conventions grew and film professionals started seeing these things, they were getting on the radars of studio lawyers. Even back in the day when many fan films looked little better than high school film projects the powers that be at more than one studio came close to shutting such ventures down. It’s largely been a few fan friendly creators in high places who kept the hammer from being dropped, but even then it wasn’t without some very precise strings attached.

It was also, again, another time entirely. The last ten(ish) years have changed the game tremendously.

We’ve added new things to the equation that the fanfic writers and fan film makers of old could only imagine in their wildest pipedreams. YouTube has given everyone the ability to distribute a film to a potential viewership of millions. Social media has grown in a way that very few people likely saw coming back in the days of MySpace. The era of Facebook and Twitter gave fan creators the ability to promote free of charge to thousands if not millions. A fan film that’s starting to build a following isn’t just going to get promoted regionally, it now has the potential to be promoted to people all over the country if not all over the world.

Fan films are no longer these quaint but cool little things that some guys in Maryland made in their backyards and were seen by some regionally, a few nationally, but largely only spoken about by most in the fandom featured in the film. They have websites, YouTube pages, social media pages, and they’re promoted in social media pages devoted to their fandom of choice as well as on convention pages and others. A group of guys and gals doing a fan film in North Carolina can be as big of a hit with fans in Seattle as they are with fans at the local con. After that they start going to other cons.

Thing is, they don’t just go to other cons as convention goers. They’re promoted guests. That puts them in a position where they’re more likely to get noticed. Obviously that’s a good thing when you want more fans seeing your work, but the catch is that you can’t control who does or does not take notice. The problem with that is that it puts you on a bigger section of the radar belonging to the powers that be.

Then there is that one other big thing we’ve recently seen thrown into the new mix. That would be the rise of crowd funding services. These have really changed the equation.

One of the things that allowed some fan films to keep going and even turning into a popular series was they weren’t making money with a studio’s copyrighted IP. People were doing films as unpaid amateurs. They weren’t getting paid and there was no noticeable hint of profit.

A lot of people are still not making any money on these things. They’re labors of love. Again, I know some of these people, and they’re sometimes giving up either necessities to finish a film or giving up filming time because they can’t skip the necessities that week. But the nasty bit with the way things work these days is that appearance can be as bad as reality.

A lot of groups in fandom have been blurring the line between hobbyist and pro for some time now. A part of it was technology’s doing. The filmmaking tools that are available to just about anyone these days means that anyone who wants to can make a film. New tools and materials have made it easier for prop makers and cosplayers to design sets, props, costumes, and whatever else is needed for their hobby. Computer programs on the market allow you to edit easily enough, and making FX on your laptop these days can result in rendered scenes that would have amazed even some pros 20 years ago. Seriously, I’ve seen fan films made in 2014 that have better rendered CGI space scenes than some TV productions from the late 1990s, and done for a fraction of the cost by less digital animators per scene. The upshot is that everyone has the ability to look far more polished, far more professional.

That generally means more fans will put eyeballs on a fan product. This makes some fans “celebrities” in fandom. This gets them invited to conventions and promoted as guests. This puts everyone a little more on the radar.

Fans being given any level of celebrity cachet at conventions was likely already raising eyebrows on the wrong people at various companies. For the most part, celebrities go to conventions to make money. A lot of fan celebs were following the rules, but, again, appearances can sometimes matter more than facts. Now, add in to that the newer fundraising factor.

Cosplayers have their own websites and stores. They’re selling prints of themselves dressed as characters owned by major companies. Some of them have set up Patreon accounts where supporters are offered better and better perks for higher levels of support. Some of these perks include exclusive prints and access to photo sets that range from basic character themed shoots to “sexy boudoir” character shoots. Some of these people are making $4,000 or more per month through their Patreon sites. That’s not cash just covering the cost of the hobby.

Fan filmmakers turned to fundraising sites. Some of them were able to raise thousands of dollars for their projects. The Axanar fan film project blew everyone’s mind. It raised over $1 million for the film. The website and social media for the film promoted it as major project with completed studios to house the sets. It also boasted a cast and crew with professional ties to the actual Star Trek television shows.

As I said above, fan filmmakers and others in fandom have sometimes been blurring the line between fandom hobbyist and pro for decades now. A number of them have been using the new technologies and advancements available to them to blur that line more than ever before. Projects raising thousands to millions of dollars on top of that? Anyone paying attention had to see that this was going to be the straw that broke at least a few camels’ backs. So, again, what did fandom expect?

You may well be a fan filmmaker (or a cosplayer for that matter) following all the rules and obeying all the previous guidelines. You may be doing all of the above- playing with existing IPs, doing conventions as a featured guest, running a website, and using something like Patreon –and not making a dime of profit above your expenses. But not everyone else is keeping it within the lines, and, even if they’re the minority of fandom celebs, they’re making a lot of noise and becoming extremely visible. All anyone else has to do is look like they’re in the same ballpark because the sad reality of dealing with corporate mentalities is that appearances can have more weight than actual facts. Once fandom started to really begin taking on the appearance of a more efficient moneymaking machine, we had to know that the suits, lawyers, and bean counters were going to start getting itchy over it. When someone finally went all out like the Axanar fundraiser did, there was no way it wasn’t going to go badly for fandom to one degree or another.

So here we are in the wake of that. CBS and Paramount Pictures decided that their back was broken by that final straw, and after seeming to briefly threaten shutting down everything that fans all over were doing they’ve put out there list of guidelines. A lot of people aren’t happy about them. Some of them feel that the guidelines are too strict, largely making some future projects not worth it.  Others feel they’ve been written in a manner so as to specifically target and scuttle some preexisting Star Trek fan projects. That was the bad news for fandom. Now, here’s the worse news.

This is only going to get worse and more tightly controlled as technology makes it easier for almost anyone to make professional looking productions. It's going to get nastier as IP lawyers look at fundraising platforms and convention circuits and see what looks like even the faintest whiff of the appearance of making personal profit off of the creations owned by the companies they work for even if you're making no money at all. Some of the fans aren’t helping matters either.

Some fans are talking like their attitude is “Screw CBS”. They’re talking about the new technology platforms and how this is like the music industry not adapting to the creation of things like Napster and the ability of creators to directly distribute to fans. Some of them are proclaiming it their right to keep doing what they want to do. Hopefully they won’t. Beyond missing the obvious- tracking and shutting down fan projects with their own websites is significantly easier than tracking down people illegally downloading files -the obvious reaction to things like that by studios will be to just shut more things down.

So what’s to be done now? Well, following the new rules pretty strictly is a smart move for many. They look like a pain in the butt right now, but they may also loosen up a bit down the road. It’s going to depend on who is in power where and whether or not we have another incident with another Axanar fan film type of project. But beyond that; why not go original?

I understand people wanting to do things in the universe of an IP they really love. I get that some people may even have a greater passion for telling stories set in those existing creations than they have for telling any other story of any other kind. But maybe it’s time to look at it in another way.

Nothing is created in a vacuum. Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and various other popular subjects for fan films were built in part from inspiration taken from other sources. Instead of telling a new Trek, Star Wars, or Who story, why not create a new universe to tell totally new stories in that still harken back to the thing that inspired you?

Star Trek has to be the easiest of the lot to do this with, but even the one I’ve seen cited as the hardest to do riffs on, Doctor Who, can be done and have had riffs on it done before. Enoch the Traveler was very much a Doctor Who Universe inspired fanfic that’s slowly been building its way to bigger things- possibly even an upcoming TV project. Back in the day Colin Baker portrayed a very Doctor Who like character as The Stranger in a series of videos. The biggest hurdle is the world building part, but most of the fan film creators are already doing that. A lot of them are creating stories with new characters, new ships, new technologies, and new aliens already.

Will it be harder? Yeah. But the sad reality for some is that some fan filmmakers may now have to face the idea of doing their best one and done in someone else’s sandbox and then figuring out how to tell new stories in a world inspired by what they’re so passionate about instead of in the existing worlds we all already know. But look at the great upsides here. No one can come along and take everything you’ve done away from you on a whim. No one can come along and in a fit of snit cut your production off at the knees when it’s 80% done. You can also start seeing additional rewards for your hard work. You can sell discs, props, merchandise, and what have you related to your work. You can get a following and fund-raise to your heart’s content without having a studio lawyer cutting you off at an arbitrary limit.

Even if you’re not doing Trek fan films but instead doing other existing IPs out there, now might be a good time to start branching out, to start creating your own property inspired by the creation you’re so passionate about. Why? Because the sad fact is that CBS’s move here may only be a sign of what’s to come from other corporate owners of the various creations that are out there. Fan films devoted to just about any popular genre IP could easily be the next to get the rug completely yanked out from under them over a legal dispute similar to Axanar or maybe just on the whim of a new corporate chief.

And, honestly, as a fan of some of the creative folk who have done these projects I have to say I’d love to see the original works they could come up with based on where their creative muses might take them. 

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange. 

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