Sunday, April 24, 2016

CBS To Star Trek Horizon: Let That Be Your Last Fan Film

You know, I really wanted to make my next post about something other than the happenings surrounding the CBS/Paramount lawsuit against Axanar (I have been musing lately on the similarities between Trekkies and Van Halen fans, for instance). However, there has been some unfortunate collateral damage to this lawsuit that I feel I must speak up about.

Just this past Febuary, an intrepid young filmmaker named Tommy Kraft released his Star Trek fan film, Star Trek: Horizon, on YouTube (the trailer is above, and here is a link to the full movie). Set in the Enterprise era of Trek lore, it tells the story about the crew of the NX-04 Discovery and their, well, discovery of an ancient weapon that the Romulans hope to use to destroy Earth. Tommy spent 4 years of his life making this movie, and managed to raise almost $23,000 to complete it. This is certainly what I would call a labor of love, not to mention one of the better fan films I have had the pleasure of viewing, and I applaud him for his efforts (as well as his parents for supporting him in the pursuit of his dreams).

Horizon has been quite a success, if YouTube views are any indication. As it stands right now, the movie has been viewed over 975,000 times in the 2 months it has been out. While initially reluctant to, Tommy was eventually persuaded by one of the actors to follow up Horizon with a sequel. On April 17th, the following post appeared on the Horizon Facebook page:

"BREAKING NEWS: Star Trek - Federation Rising, a sequel to Horizon, will begin crowdfunding on Saturday, April 23rd at 12:00am EST. The countdown begins"

Unfortunately, a mere three days after the announcement, the following was posted to the page:


Earlier today, executives from CBS reached out to me and advised me that their legal team strongly suggested that we do not move forward with plans to create a sequel to Horizon. While this is a sign of the current climate that we find ourselves in with Star Trek fan films, I want to personally thank CBS for reaching out to me, rather than including us in their ongoing lawsuit against Axanar.

It was conveyed that the reason CBS was reaching out to me was due to the legal troubles stemming from the Axanar case. Again, CBS did not have to reach out personally. The message I received felt more like they were giving me a heads up before we got too involved in another project, rather than a group of angry executives swinging a hammer.

On behalf of myself and Ryan Webber, my co-writer and co-producer on Federation Rising, we appreciate your initial support and are saddened that we cannot bring you what we believe was a fantastic feature film. However, rest assured that Ryan and I are committed to continuing our storytelling partnership with an original project. We also welcome other fan productions and fan film lovers to join us on this new venture."

Certainly, this has to be a body blow to Tommy and his writing partner Ryan Webber. However, in a classic case of making chicken salad out of chickens$%t, they have decided to move forward with this: 


From their Kickstarter page:

"Project Discovery is a feature length science fiction space epic that tells the story of a group of scientists and engineers uniting people all over the world in a common effort: taking humanity to space. The year is 2060, much of the world is caught up in unrest. Focused more on solving the problems we have on our home planet, people have given up on the notion of travel to the stars. Then, a multicultural group of scientists and engineers is able to captivate the world once again with a daunting plan: launching humanity's first faster-than-light spacecraft: The IV-202 Explorer."

This sounds like a neat idea! First off, it is a 21st century echo of what created the inspiration for the US space program (scientists and sci-fi writers used to have bull sessions post-WW2 about pushing for a "space race" with the USSR to keep the two superpowers from blowing each other to smithereens). Secondly, while I'm not saying that it has any actual connection to Star Trek, the timeframe it takes place in is around the same time of Zefram Cochrane's first test of his Warp Drive. Therefore, it seems to be like a First Contact-ish kind of story (without cyborgs from the future trying to ruin the party.....), and that is a movie I am seriously interested in watching. Being one who tries to put his money where his mouth is, I have donated to Tommy & Ryan's endeavors, and I hope all who read this do as well. Horizon showed what they are capable of as filmmakers and they deserve to have their efforts justly rewarded.

However, what they do not deserve is to be used as fodder for either side of the ongoing debate about the Axanar lawsuit. Tommy has steadfastly remained neutral on this matter, expressing only a wish that the matter be settled amicably. Tommy recently appeared on the podcast to discuss in detail the call he got from CBS, and the current scene regarding CBS' relationship to fan projects. It is vitally important to actually listen to the podcast, and hear all of Tommy's words and, more importantly, the tone of his speech when he says what he says, as those are the things that get lost in translation when someone excerpts those words and drops out context, as the Axamonitor website has done.

Here's a good example (from Axamonitor's article):

Kraft, however, rejected that notion. “I've tried from the beginning to maintain a neutral standpoint on this,” he said, “There have been a lot of productions that have raised a lot of money … and a lot of feature-length stuff, but it was something about the Axanar project in general, I believe, that caused [CBS] to have a change of opinion. … It's too coincidental that everything was hunky-dory until this one production and then all of a sudden things change.”

Now, reading that, one could get the idea that Tommy had a change of opinion regarding the Axanar lawsuit. At the very least, that's how I read it.

Now, here's the full text of what he said:

"I've tried from the beginning to maintain a neutral standpoint on this, and what the reasons might be. And all I can say, that I know for sure, is there have been a lot of productions that have raised a lot of money, and there have been productions that have raised little to no money, and there's been a lot of feature length stuff, and it was something about the Axanar project in general, I believe, that caused them [CBS] to have a change of opinion. Now, whatever that may be, people can speculate on. And there are some facts to the situation that some people know and others don't, but's too coincidental even if you don't have any facts that everything was hunky-dory until this one production and then all of a sudden things change."(emphasis added to show what was redacted)

That reads a little differently, doesn't it? Now, I can see taking out a few of the words here and there for brevity and conciseness, but Axamonitor's redaction pretty much removed all his moderation from that statement. 

Now, you may not think this is such a big deal. But today, someone posted a link to Axamonitor's article on a Star Trek page at Facebook, and it caused quite a fracas. While I'm certain the writer of Axamonitor's article thought he was just adding one more piece to his collection of "ammunition" to his case against Axanar, it had an unintended side effect. A number of people on the pro-Axanar side of things took the article at face value, and many were ready to drop their support of Tommy's project. I, however, took the extra step and listened to the podcast, and noted the discrepancy between what Axamonitor's article reported, what Tommy actually said, and the tone in which he said it. Finally, Tommy himself was brought in to the conversation and had this to say:

Tommy shouldn't have had to do this. No matter what your opinion on the Axanar lawsuit is, I think we can all agree that nixing Federation Rising is a terrible and unfortunate piece of collateral damage, that Project Discovery deserves nothing less than our full support, and that the Trek Geeks guys were correct in saying that Tommy has handled this whole situation with grace.

Note to commenters: As I have left my opinion on Axanar completely out of this particular post, I would appreciate that any comments made address the article topic and not the lawsuit.

Friday, April 8, 2016

CBS/Paramount vs. Axanar: The Fan-Film Web

Hello again, and welcome back to more of my thoughts on everybody's favorite fan film lawsuit!

Well, my last post garnered even more page views, and between my last two posts, they account for over have of the total page views I've had in the entire five years I've had this blog. Therefore, I think I'm gonna keep giving the people what they want.

First off, I want to give a shout-out to Reece Watkins for echoing my sentiments in his excellent blog post on Krypton Radio (and for having the presence of mind to use the more Trek-appropriate "Kobayashi Maru", as opposed to my rather pedestrian "Pyrrhic Victory").

Secondly, here are a couple of articles that I want to delve into a bit more. Tech Times interviewed Alec Peters and Robert Meyer Burnett of Axanar Productions, as well as Erin Ranahan of Winston & Strawn. Also, Axanar's PR Director, Mike Bawden, wrote an interesting post on Axanar's blog about the need for formal rules for fan productions.

I tend to agree with Mr. Bawden. While I don't subscribe to the populist notion that "Star Trek belongs to the fans" (at least in the legal sense), there is no denying that Star Trek has inspired abundant creativity in its fandom over the decades (if you're nice, I might recite a rather bawdy poem I wrote once called "The Final Frontier"). Modern technology has made expressing this creativity incredibly easy. Why, I could get some costumes, a green bedsheet, get some friends together, and shoot a fan film on my phone! The sheer proliferation of fan productions you can find on YouTube prove its ubiquity.

Ever since James Cawley made his first episode of New Voyages, Paramount (and now CBS) has basically looked the other way regarding fan films, as long as they gave away their product for free. On the one hand, that shows a measure of tolerance to behavior that fans would likely engage in regardless. On the other, this sort of "unspoken agreement" made, at least in part, the situation Axanar finds itself in today inevitable.

I've said before that Mr. Peters' stated goal for Axanar was to make a fan-film of a professional quality. That is quite a lofty goal, and the capital required to pull something like that off is beyond what any other fan production has raised to date. This lawsuit may very well have been brought about because Mr. Peters' ambitions for Axanar exceeded CBS/P's tolerance for the existence of fan productions. In other words, Icarus flew too close to the Sun.

But would this particular Icarus have flown so high if it knew the boundaries it had to stay in in the first place?

It's not like there's no precedence for rules and guidelines regarding fan projects. Lucasfilm holds an annual contest for Star Wars Fan Films, submissions to which are governed by rules having to do with, among other things, length and content. I'm not saying that these are particularly good rules, or that these rules should be the ones adopted by CBS/P in regards to Star Trek fan productions (five minutes is just long enough to get a Red Shirt killed....), but it does show that giving defined parameters for fans to use their intellectual property for creative expression can and does work.

I'm sure that there is some way to construct a set of formal rules, or perhaps some type of limited license, that any prospective fan production would have to formally agree to in order to proceed with the good graces of CBS/P. This may not be very remunerative for them in terms of actual money, but it would potentially buy them far more good publicity than bad.

It would also forestall the possible discovery that not all of what they claim to be covered by copyright in this lawsuit is actually so covered. As has been detailed elsewhere, there are indeed elements claimed in the amended complaint which are not covered by copyright (my personal favorite is when they claim the idea of "Science Fiction Action-Adventure" as a copyrightable element). Make no mistake, there is some peril for CBS/P here in that the courts may decide certain things that they thought they owned they don't, and that fan productions will have guidance on what they can and can't do that they no longer have complete control over.

And, ultimately, I believe that is what this lawsuit is all about. Not money, not fear of competition, but control. Here's the thing about control, though: Control is only good when it is consistent and predictable. Rules (when broadly known, easily understood, and applied constantly) bring about consistency and predictability. "We can't give you guidance because that may be construed as giving license", and "If you do something we don't like, you'll hear from our lawyers" does not.