CBS Licensing’s JOHN VAN CITTERS discusses the new fan film GUIDELINES in a 75-minute podcast!

EngageToday, JOHN VAN CITTERS, Senior Vice President, Licensing at CBS Consumer Products Inc., gave a lengthy podcast interview to the ENGAGE official Star Trek podcast to host Jordan Hoffman.  During that interview, “JVC” spoke at length about the new fan film guidelines that were just issued jointly by CBS and Paramount. 

Considering the uproar these new guidelines have incited, along with petitions, calls for letter-writing and tribble-inundation campaigns, threats of boycotts, and of course, my own SMALL ACCESS campaign on Facebook, JVC is to be applauded for “stepping in front of the firing squad,” so to speak, and trying to explain and justify these new guidelines reasonably, calmly, and–dare I say it?–logically.  And I have to hand it to my former boss (yep, I used to be a Star Trek consultant for Paramount’s licensing department back when it was still Viacom Consumer Products, and JVC was one of my supervisors), he did a very commendable job of explaining what CBS and Paramount were thinking.

And some of it actually makes sense to me personally (although many other fans are still crying “FOUL!”).  I get where the studio is coming from and why they’re actually feeling very positive about these new guidelines.  Granted, I still think they overreached on several of the new rules (JVC hastened to point out that these were “guidelines” and not intended to be “laws”), but I understand why the think they’ve done a good thing.

It seems the foundation of all of the guidelines is a belief that fan films were becoming too big, too quickly…and that some were being left in the dust.  The “little” guys who didn’t have the Hollywood contacts or the 6 and 7-figure budgets couldn’t possibly compete against the Axanars, Renegades, and Continues of the fan film world.  (Of course, whoever said anything about competing?  There’s room for both BMWs and Toyotas on the highway, right?)

However, for better or worse, that is the studios’ goal: to level the playing field so all fan films operate within the same sized house.  They can decorate that house any way they’d like, but they can’t have a mansion (that’s my analogy, not JVC’s…but he’s welcome to use it).  My personal opinion, though, is that it’s not really a house but a small 1-bedroom efficiency apartment with low ceilings and no windows.

That said, I encourage everyone to listen to the podcast in its entirety if you have the time.  But if you don’t, here’s some of the most salient points.

  • The studios consider a lawsuit to be a “last resort” and not something they want to engage in with any fan if they can avoid it.
  • Existing fan films that do not comply with the new guidelines will NOT be forced to be taken down.  This is a go-forward initiative.
  • There is no “pre-approval” process. CBS/Paramount will not be reviewing these fan films before they go up and saying “yea” or “nay.”  They won’t be answering specific questions of “Can I do this or this?”  If a production is confident they’ve followed the guidelines, they can post it.  And if there’s something not kosher, the studio(s) will let the fan filmmakers know.  (One would hope such a communication would be in the form of a phone call or e-mail and not the serving of a lawsuit.)
  • The 15-minute limit (or 30 minutes for a two-parter) allows more fan films to be made and completed, says JVC.
  • JVC confirmed that, over the years and even very recently, fan film productions have reached out to the studio, and CBS has endeavored to work constructively with them.  He commented on the decision by Renegades to turn their series from a Star Trek fan film into original, non-derivative content, and he praised them and wished them well.
  • These guidelines do NOT apply to Star Trek AUDIO series.  That’s a huge relief to many audio producers.  The guidelines only apply to audio-visual projects (films), although this includes animations and fan films computer generated from games like Star Trek Online.
  • The 15-minute limit isn’t a case of “It’s 15 minutes and 12 seconds, so you’re toast.”  But the further a production goes over the 15-minute limit, the more likely they might get a phone call or e-mail that could ruin their whole day.
  • The $50,000 applies only to a crowd-funding campaign.  If a producer has a rich uncle or wants to fund-raise directly on their website or have a bake sale or whatever, those donations are acceptable.  But in a crowd-funding campaign, a $50,000 limit (I would assume AFTER Kickstarter/Indiegogo processing fees?) is the maximum for 15 minutes of a production…and a part 2 would be a separate $50,000.
  • JVC believes that the recent crowd-funding campaigns were more about getting the cool perks than funding a fan film.  Here, I think, he’s got it very wrong.  The perks were cool and part of the fun, but I didn’t really need to pay $75 for three patches and a poster.  I put that money into wanting to fund Axanar.  I put that money into Farragut, into Renegades, into Star Trek Continues.  The perks were very much an afterthought for me.
  • JVC also pointed out that Star Wars specifically outlaws crowd-funding campaigns, even though they have no other limits on fan films for that genre.  So CBS and Paramount are unique in allowing crowd-funding but only up to a point (and are also adding many other restrictions that Star Wars isn’t–which is the better deal, I wonder?).
  • The guideline about using licensed costumes and props was a source of major misconceptions, said JVC.  Basically, fan productions are allowed to make/create/sew their own props and costumes themselves.  Or they can buy licensed products.  But they can’t buy imitations and knock-offs from bootleggers.  It’s okay to pay someone to make you a custom tricorder, but if they’re making money selling those tricorders to a slew of other fans without a license, then that’s a no-no.
  • JVC did not seem to feel that a 15-minute time limit was too constrictive.  The Strange New Worlds short stories published by Pocket Books are brief, as are some of the stories in the comics.  It can be done; it just takes discipline and focus on the part of the writer.  (On the other hand, it does place a limit that prevents any other kind of storytelling that might require a longer format.  In other words, JVC–if you’re reading this–it’s not that it can’t be done, it’s that you’re now staying that’s the only way it’s allowed to be done, and all other formats of cinematic storytelling are hereby cut-off as options or opportunities for fans to explore.)
  • The guideline about limiting the subjects that can be explored to only “family friendly” content has also been misunderstood a little.  (How could it not be???)  But the purpose here was in protecting the integrity of the characters themselves.  Having a scene where Wesley Crusher uses his one-with-the-universe powers to rip someone’s heart out of their chest or having Captain Kirk or Sisko preparing to whip a young child–even it it makes for a really good story–simply isn’t acceptable.  But if a fan film has a way to address a social issue–even if it’s drugs or alcohol or violence–without it being at the expense of an established character’s character or at the expense of Star Trek itself, that’s acceptable…to a point.  I have a feeling that “Pulp Fiction–A Star Trek Fan Production” or “Last Tango on Betazed” or “Debbie Does Dax” won’t fly with CBS.  While JVC didn’t give those examples specifically, he did say this is a case-by-case kind of judgment that will need to be made.  Star Trek itself did dark episodes like “In the Pale Moonlight.”  But that episode went through a review process of standards and practices.  Fan films won’t go through that kind of review, so this is simply an attempt by the studio to protect itself and Star Trek from having fans depict things that are not appropriate for it or are not good for it.
  • The guideline requiring the fan films to get the rights to third-party content deals mainly with the music fan films use.  CBS doesn’t control the rights to the music from Star Trek, so they can’t grant those rights.  However, by allowing a fan film to be made that uses music or other outside copyrighted material without permission, CBS potentially becomes complicit in encouraging copyright infringement (how ironic would THAT be!).  So this guideline covers their tushes, and I think it’s a fair requirement.
  • JVC was not sure what was going to happen with fan projects that have already hired and/or cast people who are now not eligible under the new guidelines (professionals and former CBS/Paramount employees).  It’s possible, however, that this particular guideline violates the California Business and Professions Code: Section 16600, but I don’t think CBS is aware of this…or else doesn’t see it as an issue.
  • The Axanar lawsuit is a separate issue from the guidelines.  The litigation is still under settlement discussions, but JVC couldn’t talk about that.

JVC finished up by saying that the studios don’t want to micro-manage fan films.  They just want to flesh out what “non-professional fan film” means in a way that’s fair and equitable for all involved.

Of course, not everyone will agree what “fair and equitable” means, and this is a huge change from what’s been happening for the last several years (even decades) of the studios’ “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy.  Fan shave gotten used to hour-long fan film episodes and 90-minute and longer feature-length movies, but that’s what the studios do.  Fans need to work within their own allotted format if they want to have the studio permit their film to exist without being challenged.

JVC said that, five years ago, he’d never have believed that guidelines of any kind actually permitting fan films to exist would ever be a reality.  But here they are!  It’s going to be an adjustment for the fans, and it’s kind of scary for the studios, as well.  It’s unknown territory.

But it opens up some intriguing possibilities.  One of the most interesting was JVC’s suggestion that now fan films in compliance with the guidelines could be shown at official events and conventions, have table displays, and even fund-raise there!

And of course, said JVC, there’s always going to be shades of gray.  These guidelines are new, and maybe they’ll need some adjustment down the line depending on what happens with them.  JVC said:

“All of this is definitely a conversation.  We hope very much that this helps settle things with Star Trek fan films, that it provides some clarity for everybody, and that we can see what is working and what’s not working.  And we can follow up accordingly with that.”

We’ll see what happens.  Life just got very interesting…

John Van Citters


4 thoughts on “CBS Licensing’s JOHN VAN CITTERS discusses the new fan film GUIDELINES in a 75-minute podcast!”

  1. That’s cool. I can find somewhere else to spend my money, and another fandom to which to give my attention. I’m sorry, but the non-sequential stories and time limit are simply fan killers. Bye Trek, I’ve been there with you for fifty years, but not anymore.

  2. Welp! I’m satisfied!….. NOT!!@
    Seriously though, it’s not a complete loss, and the key word “guidelines” means just that, and not laws, means it won’t be long before those limits are pushed. But, right now, everyone is in the shock & awe phase. This whole continuing saga all stems from stopping Axanar. It’s obvious. It will be interesting to see how they get around this monumental mess.

    Now, a quote from the author,
    “My personal opinion, though, is that it’s not really a house but a small 1-bedroom efficiency apartment with low ceilings and no windows.” In other words, a dungeon cell ! With some privileges.

    I came to find / discover fan films only months ago. Via Axanar. And now feel fortunate to have seen such great works as Horizon, thanks to the work of this sites author, and have tons more, I’ve not had time to view yet. So, glad that those will not be forced out, or mutilated, but definitely leaves you wanting more, if you know what I mean.

    All that said, I think, only reinforces our efforts to get the “guidelines” modified, and perhaps, persuade them (the enemy) to at least, let projects finish what they are already in the process of working on, to satisfy the investors. That, I think, would show some flexibility and good will, considering the 50yr anniversary of Star Trek.

  3. Luke: “What’s wrong?

    Obi Wan: “I felt a terrible disturbance in the force, as though a million voices cried out in terror and we’re suddenly silenced. I feel something terrible has happened.”

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