Why choose just one? Don’t we hate all of the guidelines? Don’t we want everything to go back to what it was when the only rules were “Don’t charge to see your fan film” and “Don’t make any profit”?
Well, actually, no…at least I don’t feel that way anymore. Actually, I never wanted to get rid of all of the guidelines, and I only ever thought that maybe four of them were truly problematic for fan films. As I discussed in Part 2, the guidelines didn’t kill Star Trek fan films. In fact, since the guidelines were announced last June, more than SIXTY Trek fan films have been released…some of which did not follow the new guidelines but many did.
And then in Part 3, I discussed how the guidelines weren’t a completely bad deal for fan producers. By providing a safe harbor, much of the guesswork, uncertainty, and outright fear could be avoided by fans wanting to ensure they would not answer the door one day to a person holding a subpoena. Of course, the guidelines are still very restrictive, but they are far from impossible to follow.
However, I still believe there is room left to improve the guidelines to make them less constraining for fans while still protecting the interests of the studios. But the reality is that the more changes we fans try to get made to their guidelines, the less likely the studios will be to cooperate. So last week and this week, I’m looking at all the guidelines in an attempt to choose just one to focus on—one little compromise. If we can adjust just a single guideline, it’s still a win for fans…and we go from there.
But which one?
Last week, we quickly eliminated nearly half of the guidelines because they weren’t really problematic. Then we began looking at the second group of guidelines, a category I called…
“What They Don’t Know…” Guidelines
These were guidelines that might sound bad, but most can be overcome or circumnavigated with a bit of discretion and flying beneath the radar. Granted, I don’t recommend purposefully trying to “beat” the guidelines, but it is an honor system. And CBS and Paramount aren’t spending all that much time meticulously analyzing every new fan film. Which brings us to…
#4 – No bootlegged costumes or props. This one made people really mad at first until John Van Citters explained in a podcast interview that you can still make your own costumes and props, just don’t buy them from bootleggers. If you need to buy a costume, at least get it from an actual licensee. And that’s a reasonable request. Now, let’s play a game of “what if?” Let’s say you really, REALLY need to buy a costume from a bootlegger because no licensees make a decent TNG-era admiral’s uniform or you just need one more TOS red shirt and can’t wait for Anovos. And so you buy from a bootlegger and don’t tell anyone! After all, there’s nothing that says you need to say publicly where you got your uniforms. CBS isn’t going to scrutinize you that closely. Sure, everyone at CBS would prefer you made your own uniforms or bought them from licensees…and so would I. But this is an honor system. If you have no honor and sneak in a costume or two from a bootlegger (and don’t tell anyone), you probably won’t get caught. Again, I’m not saying you SHOULD, only that you COULD.
#5a – No paying anyone to work on your fan production. Again, let’s play “what if?” What if you do pay a CGI guy (or gal) to do your visual FX or you pay a music composer or an editor. Isn’t that your business and no one else’s? CBS can’t force you to share your financials unless they sue you first. And they can’t sue you if you don’t first admit to violating the guidelines. Again, I’m not saying you SHOULD do this…only that you COULD.
#6.1 – No crowd-funding over $50K for each 15-minute film. To be honest, only five Trek fan films/series ever made it over the $50K milestone anyway: New Voyages (over), Renegades (no longer Trek), Axanar (sued and settled), Star Trek Continues (ending), and Captain Pike (missing in action). Oh, and Pacific 201 is just over $50K right now. So it’s not really an issue anymore unless you think you can go where few fan films have gone before. And if you do think you can raise that much, you’re still allowed to…just not with a crowd-funding website like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. You can, however, raise money privately…and again, you don’t need to frickin’ share your final total with anyone! But even if you do, John Van Citters of CBS used the “rich Uncle Alfred” analogy to say that it’s okay if a private donor wants to write you a big check…just not through a crowd0funding site.
#6.3 No distributing the fan film on DVD/blu-ray. Hey, if you need to put the film onto a DVD to enter a contest, I doubt CBS will sue you for just that…if they even find out. And if you quietly burn a few copies for the cast and crew, again, don’t advertise it. The problem is when you make a deluxe Blu-ray set with custom packaging and offer it as a perk or contest prize or something “snazzy” like that. So don’t do that.
#6.5 Only licensed Star Trek merchandise can be given away as perks. Okay, so no more custom-designed patches or branded T-shirts with your logo. But this doesn’t mean you can’t offer ANY perks. They just have to be licensed Star Trek merchandise. So buy a bunch of Star Trek novels or comic books in bulk and have your cast members autograph them. Scoop up a few boxes of action figures or starship miniatures or even PEZ dispensers. Donors in general don’t really care what they get. Heck, PBS offers the same darn tote bag as the American Cancer Society and Greenpeace (and as I just discovered…AARP!).
So including Gudieline #5, which has two parts, that leaves us with just a few more guidelines that need to be put on our list of…
“There’s No Way Around ‘Em” Guidelines
These are the three (well, as you’ll see, it’s actually four) guidelines where there’s just no workaround possible. You can’t hide it, and each of these guidelines absolutely impacts the creative flexibility of your fan film(s). For these last three (I mean four), let’s begin with the highest number first and then work backwards–for no other reason that I want to save the worst for last…
#7 – Only family-friendly content. Man, did this one piss a lot of people off! It sounded like, unless you were making a Disney princess movie (and maybe not even then), almost everything was “off-limits” for your Trek fan film. But this guideline isn’t as bad as all that. Like #3b (you must get written permission to use any non-Trek third party copyrighted materials), this guideline was mainly intended to cover CBS’s butt. Yeah, the lawyers kinda over-wrote the whole list of things you can’t do, but this is really just their way of giving themselves an excuse to tell you to take your film down if angry mothers or irate fundamentalists start writing letters telling CBS how offended they are. In practice though, this one is mostly harmless.
#5b – No one who ever worked on Star Trek can be involved in your production. Yep, this is a controversial one. In California, any contract (and the guidelines can potentially be considered an implied contract) “…by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind is to that extent void.” (California Business and Professions Code Section 16600) But leaving that fact aside for a moment, there is an easy work-around for a production wanting to use Trek veterans behind the camera: use a fake name in the credits. Doug Drexler went by the name of “Max Rem” when he did work on early episodes of Star Trek: New Voyages while still working for Paramount doing VFX for Star Trek: Enterprise. Of course, that’s not entirely fair to the person if they want their real name to appear in the credits, but it is there as a workaround.
On the other hand, if you want George Takei to play Admiral Sulu or Garrett Wang to play Captain Harry Kim or even some original character, it’s hard to hide a familiar Trek face when they’re in front of the camera. However, the studios really, REALLY don’t want their actors reprising roles on or being involved with fan films in general because, to be honest, it can make those fan films look too good. It’s hard to fight that mindset, and I think if we fans try to tackle this guideline, we’ll come up short.
Ultimately, I think this is a battle that will need to be fought by the Screen Actors Guild at the union-versus-studio level. If a fan production really wants a Trek veteran actor to appear, and that actor is SAG, then they will likely need to go ahead with the production and then wait until the studio contacts the production. Once that happens, SAG can get involved…and it could be Axanar all over again but this time with a MUCH more powerful opponent going up against the studio(s).
#1a – 15-minute limit for length and a maximum of only two 15-minute parts. Now, before the fire starts coming out of your eyes, ears, and nose (which could actually be painful), let’s look at the studios’ main concern. They don’t want fan films out there that can be mistaken for actual Star Trek that the studios might produce. Yes, I know how wonderful and amazing longer fan films can be and how you can’t tell a good story in just 15 minutes. I’ve heard it all. That isn’t going to change the studio execs’ minds on this. If they’re offering a safe harbor, they want that harbor filled with sailboats and fishing fishing trawlers and dingies…not battleships and destroyers. And remember, it’s not that you definitely will get sued for making a longer fan film. It’s simply that if you keep it under 15 minutes for a maximum of 2 parts , you definitely won’t get sued.
And the reason for a limit of 15 minutes is that the studios don’t make 15-minute Star Trek, so there’s no chance for confusion in the marketplace. And—there’s no way to sugarcoat this—you can’t get yourself into too much trouble in just 15 minutes. You can’t make anything too awesome or screw up their brand too much (don’t say they’ve screwed it up enough themselves!) in just 15 minutes. And even 30 minutes is pretty safe…for them. And yes, they’ve got a self-interest in this. As I said in Part 3, CBS owns Star Trek. Sure, this guideline might piss you off or seem insulting that they don’t want fan films competing with their own product, but that’s still their prerogative as the copyright owners.
And that leaves the worst for last, and it’s the second part of Guideline #1. In addition to keeping your fan film to 2-parts of 15 minutes each maximum, there’s also…
#1b – “…With no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes.” This one is either adding insult to injury or vice versa. Either way, it seemed to many fans (including me!) to be the final nail in the coffin of fan films. That turns out not to have been the case…mostly. Potemkin Pictures got around this guideline by changing the name of their fan series—Starship Tristan and Starship Deimos—and re-titling the productions with each new film released…this despite this series featuring the same cast, crew, and starship settings. So far, the studios haven’t seemed to have noticed or cared. But how long can fan series fly under the radar if the very first guideline says “no series” and they’re making a series?
Okay, time to be fair to the studios for a moment…because they do have a valid reason for the “no series” rule. Remember that they don’t want a 90 or 120-minute feature film, or even a full-hour or 45-minute episode. But if the studios allowed for continuing series, then a production could just take a 2-hour movie and chop it into eight pieces, releasing their full-length feature 15 minutes at a time. It’s a reasonable concern.
On the fan side, the problem is one of creative frustration and organizational practicality. Assembling a cast and crew and building sets takes time, effort, commitment, and lots of resources. Once those sets are built and those actors (professional or amateur) are invested in their characters, it’s demoralizing to say, “Okay, it’s been a half hour, folks. Shutting it all down now.” The studios suggest assembling the same cast and production crew and sets and just playing new characters in a new story setting. Change the USS Hood to the USS Kongo or something. But really, for the fans dedicating their time and passion to the production, it’s just not the same.
I might have a potential compromise to Guideline #1b where the studio can both limit the episode length but also allow for series without having productions just slice up a longer feature into multiple 15-minute segments. I call it the “TAS-compromise.” The animated series had stand-alone, half-hour (actually 24-minute) episodes that told single stories with one commercial break in the middle. And yet, there was still an animated SERIES. Why not set the same rule? You can have your fan series, but main story lines have to wrap up in, at most, two 15-minute segments.
Fan series could still keep their casts, sets, starships, and even series names. The only thing not allowed would be to continue a main story beyond 30 minutes. Sure, there could still be slow character development over longer arcs, but if you’re fighting a Borg cube or searching for an ancient artifact, you’ve got 30 minutes to beat the Borg and find your hidden treasure.
Could it work? Would the studios ever go for it as a compromise? There’s no way to know unless we try.
But first, I want to get an idea of what you think. I am posting a SURVEY for the next week on the Project: SMALL ACCESS Facebook page. There I will be listing all of the “problematic” guidelines. (Facebook limits options to a maximum of 10, so I can’t include all 15+ guidelines.) Each member of the group can only vote for ONE guideline to focus our efforts upon. If the most votes go to #1b, then we’ll proceed from there with Plan “B” (which I still have to figure out). If another guideline gets more votes, then we’ll work that into Plan “B.”
Right now, though, I invite you to make your voice heard and choose the guideline you would most like to see changed by CLICKING HERE TO VOTE.