Major CONTROVERSY for NEUTRAL ZONE STUDIOS in Kingsland, GA – the bad, ugly, and the good…

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…

Ray Tesi

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.

Joshua Irwin and Victoria Fox

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.

Vance Major and son

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!

Guests who will appear in person at the second Fan Appreciation Weekend at Neutral Zone Studios on May 24-26.

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…

https://www.patreon.com/neutralzonestudios

35 thoughts on “Major CONTROVERSY for NEUTRAL ZONE STUDIOS in Kingsland, GA – the bad, ugly, and the good…”

  1. Thank you for writing this and working to resolve this issue. I support the fees and want to see this set last. I will be filming on it next month and I have budgeted to pay the Right amount. I wish all fan sites luck and want these fan films to continue. I hope CBS will see this struggle and help in some way. I have my own fund raiser going and I can say that some are afraid to help out. I will film wether I get what I am asking or not, but I want non die hards to help like we had in the past.

  2. I don’t mean this to sound like a jerk, but how did Ray think he was going to cover the expenses and not charge for anything when he first acquired the sets?

    1. He was hoping for donations to help. If a fan production wanted to use the sets, maybe they’d throw in an extra $1,000 donation or something. Yeah, that’s a little too optimistic, but Ray’s just that kind of guy.

      However, no one else was stepping up to save those sets, so it was Ray or nothing. And Ray decided to be “the guy.” Now he needs OUR help. If you’re not donating yet, even $1 a month, please PLEASE consider doing so…and tell others, as well. These sets are just too special and important.

    1. Vic, not Vince. Vic sold the sets to Ray. Vic showed up at the first Fan Appreciation Weekend last October and is scheduled to appear again at next month’s Fan Appreciation Weekend 2. But aside from that, Vic isn’t involved on a day-to-day basis, no.

      1. Thanks Jonathan. I was actually going to come back and delete the question because I realized it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to let his crap keep me from supporting a good cause. I’m going to get in on the $10 level.

  3. How many Star Trek sets are there for folks to film at? Are they all TOS or like the Ares a variant of TOS? Does anyone have a TNG or later set?

    1. “How many Star Trek sets are there for folks to film at?”

      Currently, two and a half: Neutral Zone (open to anyone who can afford the $300/day rate and promises to follow the guidelines) and WARP 66 Studios in Arkansas (open to filming by invitation only). James Cawley’s sets are not available for shooting fan films unless someone is enrolled in their Star Trek Film School, which hasn’t officially begun yet. The “half” is the Ares bridge set, which is only a bridge and not canon (except in MY head!). It’s also “only” about 97% complete. 🙂

      “Are they all TOS or like the Ares a variant of TOS?”

      Pretty much.

      “Does anyone have a TNG or later set?”

      Yes and no. While some TNG-era sets have been built for one-time use (“Chance Encounter,” “Deception”, “Deception II”, “A Tale of Two Cities,” and the upcoming “The Holy Core,”), they are not permanent sets and wound up either partially in storage or simply in the dumpster. The sad truth is that standing sets cost money to keep, store, and maintain, and most fan films don’t have the financial resources to afford to do so.

      1. Thanks Jonathan. You have just given me a new goal in life. Someday I want to have a few acres of land to live on. When I pull that off I’m going to put up a couple large buildings to house at least two Star Trek bridge sets with room for Engineering, Transporters etc. It will be my property so I won’t have to pay rent. I would just charge enough for electricity and maintenance. I might even put in a bunk house for cast and crew.

        1. Hey, if I didn’t live in crowded, expensive Los Angeles where what you describe could cost me millions(!!!), I’d have the same goal. In fact, Glen Wolfe and Dan Reynolds are doing that very thing in Arkansas at WARP 66 Studios. Keep us posted on your progress!

    1. At first, there was a lot of anger and frustration and wanting everyone to know “their side” of the story. Ultimately, we all agreed that being “right” wasn’t as important as keeping the rent paid and making fans comfortable with helping to support these amazing sets as the precious fan resource that they are.

      Thanks for helping to keep the dream alive, Thomas.

  4. Another solution might be to get licensing from CBS.
    As I understand it, Cawley’s license essentially makes his sets a museum piece through which he gives tours and and can hold his mini-cons.
    So why cannot Ray get a license allowing him to charge a fee for actually using his sets for what they were meant? Shoot fanfilms.
    CBS has completely changed the look of Trek plus via the Guidelines, prohibited the use of “Star Trek” in a fanfilm title, prohibited the use of practically any character ever seen in any previous Trek episode, and have also proven very willing to swing the Copyright hammer (something they pretty much neglected for decades) so it is not like there is any real chance of copyright infringement anymore.
    Surely some kind of agreement could be worked out.

    1. There’s two flies in your suggested ointment, James. The first is that James Cawley also purchased a license to create (and charge for) the Star Trek Film Academy. Although it hasn’t officially kicked off its first classes yet, James still has that license, and it’s exclusive, meaning that James and ONLY James is licensed to use his sets for fan films (and therefore to charge for the privilege).

      And that leads to the second fly, which is that CBS is not inclined to or willing to acknowledge any fan film. By licensing Ray to rent out his sets for fan films, CBS suddenly is forced to get more involved in reviewing scripts and approving content and doing inspections, etc. CBS can’t not get involved because anything coming out of a licensed facility has their implied approval. What if someone uses Rays sets to shoot a porno or do a bloodbath horror movie? CBS can’t allow that to have their “seal of approval.” So how is James allowed to get a license? Simple: his students will only be allowed to film one of two CBS-approved scripts. Nothing else is allowed out of James’ facility.

  5. As one of the cast that has decided to leave fan films due to thiS and the issues prior to this, it’s like this we all do these films because we love Trek and it’s difficult in today’s economy to justify spending up to $1500 to go and shoot. But we figure it out and know it’s going to hurt the pocket book and when things like unforeseen cost happen you just don’t have time to come up with the funds and that’s what happened and for me it happened twice non refundable plane tickets that’s like $400 X2 but I was lucky and I’m was and am able to use the plane fares. Yes I was to say the least pissed and I let it be known. Now having said this I did have people that attempted to help out and to those people I truly do appreciate the efforts and you know who you are. I do do however agree that a set fee/donations should be done to keep things right and looking good I went to the last Farragutfest in 2014 and feel in love with the sets and I hope that other productions can continue and keep the place running for the industry, as for me chances of getting back into it are very slim . I wish Ray Tesi all the best in moving forward and to the films that are yet to made just remember your there to have fun .

    1. I’m pleased that you’re not holding a grudge, Ronald. It was a series of unfortunate events, and Ray feels really awful that Melbourne is no longer going to be a fan film. It was, admittedly, an ill-advised decision to tell both fan productions so close to their filming dates that the cost to use the facility would be (significantly) higher than expected. But now I’ve finished writing the first draft of Ray’s new FAQ page, which will clearly explain all costs and rules and expectations. Once finalized and approved, it’ll be posted, and (hopefully) there won’t be any more unpleasant surprises for fan producers or for Ray and his team. Fingers crossed!

      1. Jonathan thanks for the reply. But I do actually hold a grudge if that’s what you want to call it, see I was originally supposed to be in the entire Melbourne series but due to health issues that have popped up this one was going to be my last one and the crew and others knew this. So to have that ripped out from underneath me has left me with a very bitter taste especially when it comes down to simply communication between parties. And yes to suddenly tell someone a week before the shoot was wrong on so many levels when most of the funds do come from crowd funding , these charges should have been waived for the two productions so close to the shoot date as they were new. I don’t know where Ray thought the funds would come from , it’s not like we are rich and could just go to the bank , LOL . Am I still upset ? You bet it’s bad enough that a childhood dream had to end due to health but this just added insult to the injury. I never wish ill will on anyone and I do understand his dilemma and I hope that the studio continues to move forward and doesn’t go under because they are great sets and I would hate to see them go the way Starbase did.

        1. My apologies for misunderstanding you, Ronald. I agree that things were not handled well, and it’s one of the reasons I stepped in to get Ray talking to Joshua, Victoria, and Vance together and ironing out new standardized pricing for all fan productions. As I mentioned in the blog, the people involved are, most often, not people experienced with running studio operations and funding rent and expenses and doing client relations. As such, there’s a lot of “making it up as we go” involved…which all to often leads to unforeseen and mishandled problems. This was one of those times, and Melbourne suffered fatally for it. I feel really bad about that, and so does Ray. Unfortunately, it’s too late to fix it now (I wish we could!), and the best we can do is make sure it doesn’t happen again in the future.

  6. No one ever mentions Potemkin Pictures’ Studio 3. :/ It’s a standing bridge, turbolift and transporter room set that has been in existence (albeit three locations) for nearly a decade, and that over 70 Star Trek fan films have shot on these sets.

    1. To be fair, Randy, no one really focused on the sets back when STC and NV were still in production. It was only after those series wrapped that their sets were discussed separately from the productions. I think the same is true for Potemkin Pictures. You guys do have some very impressive sets, but your parade of monthly fan film releases tends to overshadow your sets! 🙂

  7. Ray may be able to raise funds using indiegogo, and kickstarter and possibly gofundme since fans that shy away from recurring donations can opt to pay one time donations for maintenance of the studio.

    1. Ray’s rent is monthly. A one-time donation is gone as quickly as it appears, and then 30 days later, Ray is stuck having another crowd-funder.

      Look, if a fan is willing to give $25 to a Kickstarter, then why not give $2/month for a Patreon? It’s cheaper! 🙂

      1. Using crowdfunding in addition to Patreon would help especially if each crowdfunding campaign had a goal to raise enough to cover several months rent. Also Ray could use Paypal to accept direct donation since Patreon is not designed to allow one time donations.

        1. It’s hard to promote BOTH a Patreon AND a single-event crowd-fundning campaign at the same time. I’ve never heard of such a thing before. I suppose there’s no law against it, but from a PR standpoint, it might be tough to fend off the attacks on social media that you’re being “greedy.” I think many (loud) folks would likely say something like, “Pick one or the other–you don’t need both.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.