Over this past weekend, two fan films that were scheduled to shoot on the TOS sets at NEUTRAL ZONE STUDIOS in Kingsland, GA (formerly used by Star Trek Continues and Starship Farragut), made major announcements based on some unexpected new pricing policies implemented by the studio at the last minute. It wasn’t pretty.
Previously, Neutral Zone Studios, purchased last year by RAY TESI, had followed the lead of the now-defunct Starbase Studios in Oklahoma and (later) Arkansas of charging fans only for the cost of electricity and utilities but otherwise allowing the use the sets for free for any fan production to film on. Of course, nothing is really “free,” and the costs for rent and upkeep had to be paid by someone…and in this case, it’s been Ray Tesi.
Just this past month alone, Ray had to write $6,000 in checks for rent, utilities and his annual insurance on the facility and sets. In a typical year, Ray’s out-of-pocket costs—just to keep the sets from winding up in the dumpster—is about $42,000!
To try to help with expenses, Ray launched a Patreon campaign almost a year ago seeking small monthly donations from fans. While it’s doing modestly well—currently taking in about $800 a month from 64 backers—that still leaves Ray with nearly $33,000 in annual expenses. For a guy who is paying for this venture out of his retirement fund , this is a significant commitment. And frankly, I personally think more fans need to step forward and help Ray cover his costs…because if Ray runs out of money, these sets really will wind up in a dumpster.
But more on that in a moment. First, let me tell you about what happened this past weekend—both the bad, the ugly, and the good…
Feeling the financial squeeze and not seeing the Patreon grow as quickly as he’d hoped, Ray began looking at other ways to cover his expenses. The challenge for him is that, technically, Ray can’t monetize the studio without having a license from CBS. But that license has been previously granted to JAMES CAWLEY in Ticonderoga, NY for his Star Trek Original Series Set Tour. So all Ray can do, in addition to asking for fan donations, is to ask fan filmmakers to help cover expenses like electricity and utilities while they shoot.
But then Ray began wondering if “covering expenses” might also include expenses like insurance and rent. Maybe he could justify requiring fan productions to pay higher amounts to rent the sets…or perhaps set levels for “mandatory donations” (which is kinda an oxymoron).
This is where the “bad” started happening.
When these new rate policies were shared with the two fan productions who had shoots coming up this past weekend and next, things quickly went from “bad” to “ugly.” Both productions had already been on the schedule to film at the studio for months and had crowd-funded enough to cover the basic expenses they’d estimated for electricity and utilities. The new “rates” were potentially much much higher, and way more than these small-time fan filmmakers could afford to pay…especially when told only a week or two in advance!
Things got even uglier when it was suggested that, instead of paying up front, that they sign up for the Patreon and just pay the “installments” until they’d covered the full cost of filming…or even split the “required” donations up among various members of their cast and production crews! (One lawyer who read over this “suggestion” said that it could potentially be construed as a form of extortion, especially considering that these productions were told about these new policies so close to the start of filming—long after non-refundable plane tickets and other financial commitments were made by many people.
Oh, it was bad and ugly, folks. But keep reading because there’s GOOD that takes over the story soon….
One fan production, Melbourne, had to simply shut down. They had no other filming options, and the last-minute cancelation due to insufficient funding resulted in several members of the cast quitting the production in frustration.
Another production, the third AVALON UNIVERSE fan film “Demons,” posted this video announcement with show-runners VICTORIA FOX and JOSHUA IRWIN saying they would be extending their Indiegogo campaign by eight days (still time to donate, folks!) but they would be transferring their production to the WARP 66 Studios TOS sets in Arkansas (constructed by GLEN WOLFE and DAN REYNOLDS).
The controversy went public on social media this past Saturday literally while I was traveling back from Big Sky, Montana with my family. By the time I landed, I had multiple e-mails and instant messages from various people telling me all about the kerfuffle and asking to speak with me.
I’ll spare you from recounting my manic Saturday night on the phone with multiple people (some concerned, others pissed off, nobody happy) and fast-forward to Sunday. I set up a conference call with Ray Tesi, Victoria Fox, Josh Irwin, and (joining later) VANCE OWEN of the canceled Melbourne fan series and the upcoming Constar Chronicles. The call lasted for three hours, and a lot of things got resolved.
Here’s where the “good” part starts, people…
First of all, Ray was sincerely humble and apologetic to everyone. He didn’t mean to cause all of the problems that happened, and he took the blame for not being as directly involved as he should have been (the new policies were relayed to the fan filmmakers by two new people who had recently volunteered to help Ray as booking agents for the facility).
Ultimately, neither Ray (who has worked in business for 45 years) nor these new assistants were trained in customer service or proper business relations with clients. And let’s face it, the world of fan films isn’t made up of many high-level professionals. We’re mostly fan volunteers doing the best we can…and sometimes we don’t necessarily get everything right. But Ray was very aware of this and apologized from the heart for all of the trouble that was caused.
However, we still had a major challenge to overcome. These sets are bleeding Ray dry, and no one on the phone wanted Ray to go broke keeping this dream alive for fans. On the other hand, if Ray charges high fees to use the sets, almost no productions will be able to afford Neutral Zone Studios and he’ll still go broke. (And no, you can’t “require” a donation—by definition, a donation is a choice. If it’s required, it’s a fee…and CBS ain’t gonna like that one bit.)
So what can Ray to avoid going bankrupt?
Well, my feeling was and is that it’s time for the Fan Film Community to step up…REALLY step up. These sets are too important for fans to just sit back and assume someone else is going to pay for them. That’s what happened with Starbase Studios, and look how that turned out!
We ALL have to pitch in—even if it’s just $1 a month on Patreon. And I’m going to do my part to really promote this crowd-funding campaign here on Fan Film Factor and via social media. The campaign is at $800/month right now, and it only needs to get to $4,000 to cover expenses completely. Heck, even if it gets only 75% of the way there, Ray’s personal payouts would shrink to only $10K or $12K a year. That’s a LOT more doable than $33K-$42K each year!
We also brainstormed some other ways to help promote the Patreon campaign, and more on that in the months to come. Victoria and Josh offered to help with this in a variety of ways (more than just posting a link on Facebook). They hold no ill will toward Ray and sincerely want to do everything they can to keep him solvent and the sets housed and maintained for as long as possible. They even hope to be able to return to Neutral Zone Studios for future productions…although “Demons” is now locked in at the new WARP 66 STUDIOS location in Arkansas.
So now the question became: what expenses would be realistic to cover (and so not piss off CBS) and reasonable to charge when compared with other similar facilities in the entertainment industry? Fortunately, Victoria and Josh both work professionally in filmmaking, which is one of the reasons I wanted them on the call. Ray doesn’t come from a filmmaking background, so he’s not very familiar with what is and is not appropriate to charge, how to handle deposits, cancelations, refunds, etc. It’s just not in his business experience, and by his own admission, he had simply been flying by the seat of his pants trying to get everything right and stay above water.
But Josh and Victoria DO know the film business, and together, we worked for three hours ironing out a new fee schedule—a pretty reasonable one—and policies for Neutral Zone Studios going forward. Here’s the basic rates that were decided…
Altogether, it’ll be $300/day to film there (no hourly or half-day pricing…too complicated). This is not a “suggested” or “mandatory” donation; it’s a fee, pure and simple—and it covers two things…
- $100/day covers the electricity, utilities, insurance, and set upkeep/maintenance. There’s no profit built in there, that’s simply covering the daily costs Ray accrues when the sets get used (rather than sitting quietly in the dark).
- $200/day goes to pay for two facility caretakers present during filmmaking. ROYAL WEAVER and SAM ROOKS act to supervise set operations and electrical, respectively. They have to be there. They have the keys to let people in, and they make sure there isn’t an electrical fire and that no one breaks the turbolift doors on the bridge sliding them open and closed….that sort of thing. But Royal and Sam have jobs and families, and spending a day or two or three for 12+ hours takes them away from other commitments. So it’s only fair to compensate them for their time.
Now I know a few of you might be saying, “Hey, don’t the guidelines say you can’t pay anyone to work on your fan film?” Royal and Sam aren’t working on your fan film, they’re maintaining Ray’s sets. Think of them as if they were the guys making the pizza that you order to feed your actors and crew. You pay for the pizza. You pay for the facility caretakers.
The rest of what we discussed concerned procedural questions like whether how long in advance must the $200 deposit be paid to reserve the date (one month), whether the deposit should be non-refundable (yes, it should), when the remainder of payment should be due (1 week prior to shooting), whether there is a full refund for cancellation (yes, minus the deposit if canceled more than 48 hours in advance, any later and there is also a $100 cancelation fee), whether overages are refunded in full if you schedule four days and finish in three (yes), and other financial housekeeping details like that.
It was a very productive call! And it wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of invaluable industry insight from Victoria and Josh (I am so impressed with both of them!) and a very agreeable, receptive, open mind from Ray (I just love that guy!).
Ray is really is sorry for everything that went so wrong, and he sincerely wants to make things as simple and welcoming for fan filmmakers as he can. He just didn’t know how to do it and not go broke or take undue advantage of Royal Weaver and Sam Brooks, who care for those amazing sets like their own children. Anyway, now we’ve got a framework to move forward.
This coming week, I’ll be working with Ray to write up the new Frequently Asked Questions page for Neutral Zone Studios. It’ll be long, but it’ll be complete. There will (hopefully) no longer be any confusion or ambiguities. We’re also going to really focus on promoting that Patreon and encouraging donations. If you want to help brainstorm ideas for that endeavor, please post them in the comments section below!
And in the meantime, if you love fan films like I do and you haven’t signed up for the Neutral Zone Studios Patreon yet, go do that now. Even if it’s only $1 a month, if enough people do the same, it’ll make a difference. Even if you don’t ever film there or visit Kingsland inperson, these sets are too special, too important to fan films for us all not to pitch in and help. It takes a village, people! Let’s all do our part…