The wrong people were in the room

Remember this scene?

I was having a discussion a couple of days ago with one of the many Trekkers who is furious about these new Star Trek fan film guidelines from CBS.  “It’s obvious that they just wanted to destroy all fan films forever!” he said with anger and disgust.

“I’m not sure that’s true,” I responded.  “I think they sincerely wanted to help fan films by making these guidelines.”

He was shocked…especially since I’ve gone so far as to set up the SMALL ACCESS protest.  He couldn’t believe I was being serious!  But I was.

My wife is an attorney, and I used to work closely for many years with the Star Trek licensing department (back when they were still Viacom Consumer Products).  Granted, I wasn’t in the conference room at CBS when these guidelines were written up, but I still think I know what happened and why it happened…and it was all because the wrong people were in the room.

Let me ‘splain…

I know from seeing my spouse in action that the first duty of an attorney is to protect their client at all costs.  And a lawyer doesn’t simply guard against the obvious; he or she must think of every little possible thing that can go wrong.  Many years ago, I had to sign a contract to work on a project for Disney–that document was as thick as a Dostoevsky novel!  Lawyers do their job when they’re thorough.

I know from working with the licensing folks that their first duty is to protect their licensees, who are essentially clients of CBS paying for the right to make a licensed Star Trek product.

Now, think back to that scorpion story.  In order for the scorpion (CBS and Paramount) and the fox (the fan filmmakers) to both make it across the river, the scorpion has to fight its nature and NOT sting the fox.

The wrong people were in the room.

I imagine that the lawyers and the licensing people had a large whiteboard and they put up everything they could think of that needed protecting about Star Trek intellectual property.  Their goal for the meeting(s) was straightforward: find a way for fan films to be made in a small way that would keep them from being perceived as any kind of “real” (studio-produced) Star Trek–hence, the 15-minute rule–and also to protect the licensees–hence making fan films use store-bought uniforms and props.  Almost every guideline was, I believe, a sincere attempt to find a way to make fan films acceptable to allow to exist while still performing the lawyers’ and licensers’ first duty: protection.

They were just doing their jobs.  It’s their “nature.”


Now, perhaps I shouldn’t have said “the wrong people were in the room” as much as “the right people didn’t show up” (maybe they were busy; maybe they weren’t invited).  And who are these “right people”?

The marketing the public relations department!

From that first letter-writing campaign back in 1968, Star Trek fans have been the poster child of an ultra-loyal, nearly-obsessed, activist base of support for a media franchise.  Other Hollywood studios would kill to have fans as loyal and involved as Trekkies and Trekkers!  We’ve endured, grown, strengthened, and supported this one franchise for fifty years!

In that time, other sci-fi series have built their own followings–Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, Stargate, Farscape, Firefly, etc.–but none except Star Wars has even come close to the size and unstoppable enthusiasm of Trek fans.

Trekkers have kept this franchise alive through multiple cancellations and have helped it thrive into a multi-billion dollar franchise.  And how did we do that?  We published fanzines.  We designed new  starships.  We created artwork.  We started fan clubs.  We wrote fan fiction.  We went to conventions.  We sewed our own costumes and put on our own pointed ears and bumpy foreheads and blue antennae.

And most recently, we made fan films.

Those fan films weren’t always blockbuster quality.  In fact, most were the fan equivalent of high school musicals where the kid singing “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” has his voice crack during the finale of the song (yeah, that was me).  But they had heart!  You could tell that these were labors of love.  And the best thing about them was that they were getting better and better and better.

Were these improving fan films ever going to be a threat to the studios producing the “real” Star Trek?  Of course not!  As good as the sets look for Star Trek Continues or New Voyages, no fan is going to watch an episode and then NOT go and see Star Trek Beyond or NOT tune into the new series.

Just the opposite, in fact!

Fan films build excitement and enthusiasm for the media property…especially during those down times when the studios aren’t spending millions marketing the next movie or the 50th anniversary or the new TV series.

It’s been three years since the last media blitz for Star Trek from the studios for Into Darkness.  And it was four years before that since the previous blitz.  And what kept Trekkers excited during those lean years when the marketing dollars weren’t being spent?  That’s right: fan films (among other things).

And the bigger and better that Star Trek fan films got, the more coverage they gained in the press.  There was a great article in the New York Times that came out shortly after the release of Star Trek: Of Gods and Men.  And once Prelude to Axanar was released, media coverage exploded (long before the lawsuit).

All that press coverage was FREE ADVERTISING for Star Trek…especially during the multi-year “hibernation” period between film releases.

And that’s why I say the right people weren’t in the room.  While the legal and licensing scorpions were doing their jobs trying to make sure fan films stayed as small as possible–no fund raising above $50,000, no use of anyone who ever worked on any Star Trek series or movie, no ongoing series–there was likely (I don’t know for certain) no one in the room saying, “Hey, wait a second, guys!”

There was no one saying how important it is in today’s world of a million online distractions a minute to have something that gets the attention of your fan base.  And moreover, something that does that and doesn’t cost your studio a penny.

With Star Trek fan films watered down to 15-minute, inexpensive, non-continuing vignettes, “bigger and better” is now completely off the table.  Sure, some fans will still make videos, and some will still watch them.  But the days of a million YouTube views in a week for Star Trek: Horizon and the days of coverage in Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal…those days are now gone.  The fox has been stung by the scorpion, and now they both lose.

And the sad thing is, it didn’t have to be this way!  A collective cheer and sigh of relief went up throughout Star Trek fandom after J.J. Abrams’ May 20th announcement that the lawsuit was “going away” and that “…the fans will be able to [continue] their productions.”  It’d been months (pre-lawsuit) since I’d seen fandom so…well…happy.

And now I can’t remember a time when I’ve seen Star Trek fandom so miserable…not even when Enterprise was canceled just as it was getting good!  Whether fans are blasting the new guidelines or blaming Alec Peters and Axanar or simply trying to tiptoe carefully through what is now a legal minefield so they can still try to find a quiet and humble way to continue making their once-proud fan series…the mood of fandom is undeniably sour and morose and defeated.

Happy 50th anniversary, Star Trek.

The timing couldn’t have been worse.  But the scorpions were true to their nature, and the fox has been poisoned so close to the opposite shore of the river.

Will Star Trek die because of this?  Will there be a mass “Trexit”?  It’s hard to say.  Maybe it’ll all blow over.  But Star Trek fandom will never be the same as it was going into December of 2015, when fans were all excited and looking forward to the amazing golden anniversary of Star Trek: the new movie, the new TV series, and yes, the new fan films, too.

And the saddest part is, I don’t think the scorpion even realizes what it just did.  And that’s the reason I’m trying to tell them…through Project: SMALL ACCESS. If you agree, please help spread the word.


45 thoughts on “The wrong people were in the room”

  1. Although Star Wars and Doctor Who are just as huge as Star Trek, if not bigger, I do agree with everything else you said. Star Trek has given science a huge leap forward. It has brought a lot of communities together. It gave hope for mankinds future. And when Gene encouraged the fans, it was a glorious time. But now… That said Fox.. Just made competition for themselves.

    The fans do not need that Fox.. That Fox needs the fans.

      1. Ahh, ok. Gotya. Fans = Fox. Thanks for the correction. I guess I read it backwards. lol

        I remember when Star Wars back in the day when it first came out. I have never seen fans as highly motivated as I did with them back in those days. I remember the very first Fan film for Star Wars as it was published on TV.. “Please don’t blow up planet basket ball” made me laugh so hard. I’m still laughing. Star Trek didn’t have fan films yet.

        I have had a love of Trek for decades, it has always had competition with Star Wars and Doctor Who. Doctor Who came up with the idea of the Vulcan Nerve Pinch in 1964. Gene must have seen that one Aztec episode and thought about using it in his show.

        So why am I bringing all this up ? Because BBC / Doctor Who and Lucas Films / Star Wars have never discouraged the fans from making films, with the exception of one thing.. Make no money. That is reasonable. And the fans follow it. But Gene also encouraged his fans. And for a couple decades that has been the case, until the “scorpion” came in and started to close down websites and fan films in general. Even some of my works have been closed by them. And I never asked or gathered not one penny. All my stuff was free. Yet I still got a letter saying to shut my “stuff” down over the past 10 years.

        So believe me when I say, I love your article. And the “Scorpion” needs the fans. Not the other way around.

        1. Lets say you raise $2 Million To produce a Doctor Who fan film The Cost of the sets costumes Special effects etc cost a grand total of $2 million. Then you are NOT making a profit Only when you make MORE than what you spent are you making profit. There are also other things to consider UNIONS. the SAG/AFTRA require producers of fan films to submit a waver that the production is not going to make a profit once it does then you have to pay them union wages. Same with the WGA & all other unions connected to film making.

          1. Anything left over, should either go toward another fan film, or to a charity. It’s that simple. This is a no brainer.

        2. +100 for the Hardware Wars reference.
          “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll kiss 3 bucks goodbye!” 🙂

  2. Another great blog on the situation. David Gerrold had a great Facebook post about it too. So sad.

    1. Thank you Jonathan (great name!). You’re welcome to reply with a direct link to David Gerrold’s FB post. I’m sure lots of folks would love to read it.

  3. This!

    I’ve said throughout this discussion that while they evidently have all legal rights to do this, from a marketing and business point of view, it’s an idiot decision as it generates a lot of ill will and alienates people who were loyal customers for decades, but more, prevents any synergies between marketing and fan films. Who in their right mind, with a new movie AND a new series in the works, wants to maximize negative word of mouth?

    1. As I said, there likely wasn’t a marketing person in the room to bring the lawyers and licensing guys out of their fugue state. They were sitting in an echo chamber.

      1. Yup. A lot of people tend to think that marketing is useless when in fact, they ensure that you still have a job the day after tomorrow…

  4. I remember the 25th Anniversary. I was a teen, spent three days at an event in Montreal where I not only got to see Star Trek I to V in theatres in a marathon But was also rewarded by being one of the first to see an extended preview of Start Trek VI The Undiscovered Country. To top it off, i got to meet Nichelle Nichols who proved to be as humble as she was beautiful. There was a sense that Star Trek belonged to us all, not just some suits looking to make a dime. Thus, I am saddened that the enthusiasm for Star Trek’s 50th anniversary has been marred by CBS and Paramounts behaviour. Maybe someone should remind them that if it was not for the fans, there would never have been anything beyond TOS. I also call upon the actors who helped make Star Trek what it is to come out and speak against CBS and Paramount decision. Whatever the case may be, even if they did; even if CBS and Paramount decided to change their minds, they nevertheless stole from us all the magic and wonder that Gene Roddenberry introduced to us to 50 years ago. They should be embracing fan films, especially ones like Axanar that raised the bar and forced them to remember what Star Trek was supposed to be. I am sorry for all fan productions. It would seem that corporations, like so many other aspects of society, would rather mediocrity to rule than to be challenged to grow and endeavour to be more.

  5. Remember all the trolls who used to attack TNG for being ”socialist”? I do. In addition to star trek I like Bill Maher. A couple weeks ago he did a segment on his show about socialism. In it he told us socialism is what keeps capitalism from eating everything. He told us about what unchecked, unrestrained capitalism has eaten already. It’s eaten our middle class, it’s eaten our news media, it’s eaten our environment, it’s eaten our prison system, it’s eaten our political system, it’s eaten our healthcare system, it’s eaten our food system, its eaten oiur manufacturing base, it’s eaten our unions. We’ll, now, I guess it’s eaten star trek too.

    Here’s the link to maher’s speech about capitalism eating everything, fairly mild languate for maher. I think star trek fans might want to see it now that out of control capitalism has done what the doomsday machine and the space amoeba could’nt: I.E. eaten the star ship enterprise.

  6. This is, truly, a dark time for Star Trek. Paramount just cut the collective throats of their fans with these shameful (and yes, idiotic) “guidelines”.

    While I may or may not finish my movie anyway, as these “guidelines” stand, I will never be able to release it to the public.

    Happy 50th Anniversary, indeed. Paramount accomplished in one day what they had tried to do 50 years ago…kill off Star Trek.

    That buzz you’re hearing is Gene Roddenberry rolling over in his grave.

  7. Just because you love something doesn’t mean you own it. The fans have served both Paramount and CBS faithfully all these years so they could convince those companies that investing the millions and millions of dollars required to make a movie or TV show would be profitable for them. (the production companies) However the ownership of those concepts, has, and always will, reside with the production companies, not the audience.

    Alec Peters, stated “The new ‘Star Trek’ movies by J.J. Abrams left fans feeling cold. There was little ‘Star Trek’ about them. They were basically modern action movies with characters that we didn’t recognize. And while good movies … ‘Star Trek’ fans just felt they weren’t the ‘Star Trek’ they had grown up with.” He has antagonized them from the beginning, and continues to do so.

    Alec Peters raised money using the Star Trek brand and has continually made excuses for the fact that with out the word “Star Trek” he would have raised nothing. Why doesn’t he create his own concept, raise money, produce it, and then see how the public receives it? Because he can’t. He knows that without the Star Trek brand, he would get nowhere. In the story of the fox and scorpion, he is the leech that has attached himself to the fox as he swims across the river. He has single handedly ruined Trek fan films for everyone and as someone that has worked on both Star Wars and Star Trek fan films, my hope is, seeing that other studios don’t follow suit and issue similar guidelines.

    And for the record, Duality, produced by Mark Maccomber and David Thomas was 5 minutes long and had something like 1.2 million views on youtube. Length is not required for views.

    For the fans outraged at what CBS and Paramount has done with these guidelines, stop claiming you did it for them. You’ve done it all, every single thing, for yourselves.

    1. At this point, the “blame Alec Peters” mantra is yesterday’s argument. It serves no purpose. We either convince CBS to revise the guidelines or we’re stuck with them. Even if you succeed in making every fan blame Axanar for this, you don’t solve the problem of these untenable fan guidelines. So go ahead and blame Alec Peters if you want to…I’ll be doing something meaningful in the meantime.

      1. Hi,
        Has anyone entertained the idea of letting all the current projects be completed as they are planned, then the guidelines go into effect? That way, at least all donor’s are satisfied. Then concurrently, negotiating changes to said guidelines. There are obviously ways that CBS and Paramount could benefit from these projects to boost attention to their own projects. I’ve seen many good suggestions already in several comments threads.

        1. Nothing was really discussed with fan films (that I know of) before these guidelines were released. Whether or not CBS is motivated to discuss them now depends a lot on how loudly fan voices cry out…hence the SMALL ACCESS campaign.

    2. “For the fans outraged at what CBS and Paramount has done with these guidelines, stop claiming you did it for them. You’ve done it all, every single thing, for yourselves.”

      That’s not only a gross misunderstanding of fandom, it’s a demonstration of grossly misunderstanding business as well.

    3. “It belongs to the production companies, always has and always will”.

      Excuse me, what? Have you forgotten that copyright was always intended to be finite and that all works were intended to pass into the public domain after a certain period? Last time I checked, Disney and their lawyers have managed to extend that period time after time but they have not yet managed to make it “infinity”. One day, unless the law changes dramatically, Star Trek and every other work of fiction will pass into the public domain as the law intends.

      That is because yes, there comes a point when a creative work belongs to the culture as a whole. After long enough time has passed, it belongs to everyone and especially to the fans and to anyone who wants to try putting their own spin on it. That’s how copyright was always meant to work, to strike a balance between the needs of the creator to control their own work and profit from it and the rights of the culture as a whole to build and grow based on the ideas that arise within the culture. You don’t get to destroy that balance just because some people who weren’t even involved in the original creation want to profit off of a legally enforced monopoly.

  8. I couldn’t agree more. Very well said…this hurt Star Trek and CBS gave all the fans and continue to do so with this and the new series coming to CBS all access instead of cable.

  9. I couldn’t agree more. Very well said…this hurt Star Trek and CBS gave all the fans “the cold shoulder” and continue to do so with this and the new series coming to CBS all access instead of cable.

  10. After this, I’ve simply decided to wash my hands of Trek. I was there begging my Dad to let me stay up late on Tuesday Nights to watch “Mr. Sparks” when I was a kid. I watched every rerun I could, bought the FASA game, and the models. I reveled in the movies and I suffered through what I considered to be the four horrible television series that followed. But I always still supported Trek, and satisfied my need for good Trek with Diane Duane, David Gerold, and Marshak and Culbreath.
    Now no more. The new Abrams film where they once again (sigh) destroy Enterprise can sit in the theaters and rot for all I’m concerned. Trek is dead.

  11. They’re still better than SW guidelines, which is what Alec was clamoring for from the beginning of this suit 6 months ago.

    Add to it, I believe CBS and Paramount were quite lenient given the arrogance and impunity Alec Peters and Axanar have displayed and continue to display throughout this lawsuit. Given the mess he dug up, CBS and Paramount had every right to just bring down the hammer and say, “No more fan films. Period.” I believe they have been quite patient. I believe they have been much more giving than the SW guidelines, most notably with the 2 15-minute mini-episodes length. It could have been 5-minutes.

    The bottom line is this – CBS and Paramount OWN Star Trek. That’s how it works and everyone, including Axanar, admitted hundreds of times before this suit dropped that they could shut it all down at any moment. Hell, Axanar had these words as disclaimers on their crowdfunding sites! CBS and Paramount have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, and Star Trek represents a large portion of that. CBS and Paramount have a legal responsibility to those companies that hold legal licenses to manufacture and sell Star Trek merchandise, which fan films and their merchandise they pedal (Yes, Axanar has a Donor Store filled with unlicensed Star Trek derivative merch). CBS and Paramount have a responsibility to the fans. A few may not like the new direction of Trek these past years (There’s a shock! When have the fans agreed on anything?). But a vast amount of folks do. Proof of this can only be witnessed by the new movie coming out soon and the new series launching next year.

    This is a great time to be a Trek fan. It is unfortunate that some who’ve enjoyed this “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the studio and fan productions must now change course because of, truly, one bad apple. But that is the way life is sometimes. Back in the 70s, before TMP was released, Paramount put the hammer down on fan fiction being sold at conventions. Times like these seem to ebb and flow. I encourage Trek fans to once again ride these waves. There are still plenty of Trek to be had for years to come!

    1. Just to be clear, the 5-minute rule for Star Wars fan films only applied to ones being entered in the annual competition (so the judges didn’t have to spend weeks watching through dozens and dozens of hour-long episodes).

      As for CBS owning Star Trek, that’s never been in question. But for fifty years, Star Trek fan films have existed and not been subjected to such harsh regulation and stifling. And Star Trek has lived long and prospered. Now the studios have clamped down, and the fan reaction is one of fury. So CAN CBS do it? Sure. SHOULD they have done it–especially weeks away from the premiere of their new blockbuster film? I don’t think so.

  12. Google counterfeits all content, especially Star Trek. They seem to getting a free ride in all of this, when it was Google (and YouTube in particular) that copied every single Star Trek episode for theft. Now fans utilize Google and YouTube to “broadcast” their original works, which are uploaded digital copies, instead of showcasing the films in theaters for free.

    May the world spit on Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and every single employee that works, and have worked, for them. Digital theft destroyed Star Trek. BUT, Viacom, unfortunately, are worse that Google for settling that lawsuit against YouTube who stole Star Trek before all of the fan films.

    Therefore it is Viacom and their overpaid nut-job CEO, Phillipe Dauman, that destroyed Star Trek. Thanks.

  13. So your trying to tell me that all the 6 figure salaries in the room, not one of them understood the fans!?
    Wow, CBS/Paramount are in worse shape then I thought. Time to “Trexit”

    1. It seems that way, doesn’t it? As I said, lawyers are kind of myopic. They’re like parents trying to baby-proof the house. Of course, if they go too far, the baby ends up bundled in pillows and bubble wrap and never gets to play at all.

  14. The parable you use is a good one but my contribution is an old recipe on how to cook an inedible bird. It’s how I felt after reading the “guidelines.”

    Take one coot. Pluck and clean the bird. Put a brick in the cavity. Season well with salt, pepper, and garlic. Place in a large casserole dish. Add 3 cups water to dish. Bake, covered, 12 hours. Add 1 bottle white wine. Return to oven for a further 12 hours. Add 4 chopped onions and one more bottle of white wine. Bake another 12 hours. Continue adding 1 bottle of white wine every 12 hours until the brick is soft. Then discard the coot and eat the brick.

  15. As an attorney (although not an IP attorney) I completely agree with this post. I honestly think they expected the fans to be happy about these rules.

  16. As an outsider that has always appreciated STAR TREK this is a troubling time.
    I can absolutely appreciate the need to take stand and make a statement on a property that IS owned and utilized by these companies. Fans don’t have to like everything that is put out under a franchise’s umbrella, and they won’t, but they do have to respect that their beloved property IS owned and that, like it or not, that core franchise is what matters to the suits.
    And it has to or fans lose just like the suits.
    BUT, saying that, you can also look at the way Stephen King has done things (unless he has changed his stance recently, and if he has, my apologies at not seeing that). King has his’Dollar Babies’ where you essentially purchase the rights to his short works for adaptation for $1. You can make short works into films (I believe short-ish films) and so long as you are not looking to ‘make money’ you are fine. The point is to not try to make a dime off of his work without first paying the same rights fee that everyone else does, but you CAN adapt something for the fun of it, art of it, and joy of it.
    But there are restrictions.
    And there have to be.
    But there has to be balance also.

    It doesn’t make sense to encourage people to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on something that is based on your franchise because they 1. may never get that investment back and 2. if they do then they may now be dictating what is done with the franchise you manage. Just like, you don’t let the neighbor kid build an expensive treehouse in your tree. There has to be some give and take. What should have happened is if a fan film is getting ‘too big’ then they franchise holder should contact them and talk to them and tell them – HERE is the line, if you go to it, we’re cool, if you go over it, we’ll have a problem. Then the filmmaker can figure if they can re-tool the film to make something original and eschew any issues.
    Now of course that’s being naive because companies don’t care that much.
    But they need to.
    They should.
    Trek has a loyal following but a hit and miss record on television and movies. The fan films DO stoke those fires and remind people of why they love the series. In that way, they should exist. Don’t let there be a series, of films or shows, because that too starts to push too close to legitimacy, but to shut down virtually everything is crazy. Especially now. Unless the makers of Axanar are that committed to all or nothing something should have been worked out. As it stands, a film that is causing THIS much stress to the franchise holders should have been addressed WAY before it got to this point.

    Fandom is part of the deal, and you can’t make money off of fan and fandom and not have them claim some ownership of that franchise. You have to nurture and encourage while also keeping things manageable. In the end, you do have to take care of your interests. It’s an utter shame that this all has to happen as fans SHOULD be celebrating. There had to be a better solution and it’s a shame that cooler heads did not prevail.
    I hope they will before it’s too late.

  17. FYI, John Van Critters at CBS just discussed fan films, the new rules, and fans themselves.

    The right guy (and I’m pretty sure girls) were in the room when the guidelines were drawn up.

    But listen for yourself:

  18. I have to disagree with one sentiment: I am very likely to watch an episode of a fan film and then not go and see the next big budget movie, or the new series. It isn’t because of the fan films, though, it’s because the movies and the studio behind them have lost the heart of what Star Trek is. I’ve been watching Star Trek since the original series first hit TV screens, in the 1960s. I’ve watched the cartoons that followed, the TV series, the movies……

    Then came the reboot. I dutifully went to see it and was disappointed. Even the original series, billed as “Wagon Train to the stars”, broke more ground and dealt with deeper concepts than did that movie. Then the second reboot movie came out and all that it did was throw “Wrath of Khan” and “search for Spock” into a blender, without actually adding anything to the mix. All flash, no substance. I wasn’t going to the next movie anyway, but I certainly watched the many fan series.

    So, here lies “Star Trek”, dead at fifty years young. We will mourn her. Any other by the name is but pale imposter.

  19. Perhaps it’s time to all fan producers stop with Star Trek and together begins a new kind of “open source” series from the scratch, with no individual copyrights, where everyone can make fan-fictions, fan-films, fan-comics, fan-wath else, with or without profits, but certainly without big studios and anoying lawers. Let the scorpion and the fox drown and start a new era where the fans do everything themselves. You can do that, and I guess all sci-fi fans will support. Think about.

    Eduardo Bolis (from Brasil)

  20. Really good points.. Thats what happens with big business..I suppose you could make fan films the way you want anyway and just not credit anyone… Screw Paramount. where did it come from? No One knows? Just appeared out of nowhere… That would be loads of fun to see how they dealt with it.

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