Over the past few days, there has been a combination of irate indignation, embarrassed disbelief, and smug “I toldja so!”s going around Star Trek fandom faster than COVID at a super-spreader event! And all of this is because ViacomCBS just inked a five-and-a-half year, $160 million development deal with ALEX KURTZMAN and his SECRET HIDEOUT production company.
Make no mistake, this is a HUGE agreement…even for Hollywood. It’s comparable to other recent 9-figure mega-deals like the ones Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy just inked with Netflix and Jordan Peele closed with Amazon Studios. Kurtzman is now sitting quite pretty and comfortably as not only an unquestioned powerhouse in the entertainment industry (and at CBS specifically) but also as the unquestioned and unchallenged “Trek Tsar” (get it?) for at least the next half-decade.
Some fans were not amused.
After confident (and often arrogant) prognostications that Mr. Kurtzman was not only on the way out at CBS but had already been fired—multiple times!!!—over his “humiliating failures” with the Star Trek franchise, news of this mega-deal shocked most of these previously self-assured fans. It has sent many of them into an overly dramatic show of resigned indignation, like this fellow…
Some folks just couldn’t accept that VCBS actually loves Alex Kurtzman—even AFTER the deal was announced. Amusingly, I was chatting with one of these people the day before the announcement, and we had this exchange (I am not sharing this individual’s name). My comments are in blue…
Turns out I didn’t have to wait a year. The following day, the big news hit the Internet, and after a little back and forth, my Facebook friend eventually typed the following message, which I must say provided me with a momentary feeling of smug satisfaction…
I say “momentary” because my friend just couldn’t let go of his certainty that Kurtzman was toxic, and that this deal couldn’t possibly be grounded in reality. To try to get me to see the light, my friend actually provided a link to this site where disgruntled, fired employees can post anonymous complaints about the companies that just laid them off. Apparently, these bitter folks are none too fond of the way that Mr. Kurtzman and his lackeys are running things. That led to this final exchange, as I finally gave up trying to reason with him…
For this fan, the equation was simple: Star Trek is losing money for VCBS, VCBS wants to make money, so the person in charge of Star Trek should be fired.
He so doesn’t get it.
But I’m hoping that you will. Now, leaving aside any name-dropping of “I know so-and-so who used to be the number two guy at L.A.’s biggest talent agency” or “I know the former general counsel of such-and-such TV network,” let’s just assume I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night and have as much credibility as the next guy. In other words, believe me or don’t…makes no difference to the powers-that-be.
And speaking of whom, let me start off by saying that the ants and the elephant have very different perspectives…and in this metaphor, we fans are the ants and VCBS is most definitely the elephant. So it doesn’t really matter how many “open letters” some fans angrily write (the suits don’t read any) or how loudly a small number boycott CBS All Access—now Paramount+. And in fact, it doesn’t matter much if the Star Trek franchise is completely floundering right now (which it kinda is and kinda isn’t). That’s because this is a chess game, and corporations like VCBS need to develop their most powerful pieces in order to stay competitive.
For those of you who don’t play chess, each player’s most powerful pieces—the queen, rooks, and bishops—start out essentially trapped. The pawn line blocks them from moving at all when the game begins. So a player must move pawns (and sometimes other pieces) out of the way in order to open up a path for the “power pieces” to move out into the center of the board and become a factor in a competitive game.
In today’s world, the chess board is the emerging Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) market that includes such giants as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple+, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, and a long list of others. In less than a few years, streaming services have completely and forever changed the way that most people in industrialized countries watch television. Everyone wants to have a foothold in the SVOD arena, even if it’s a small one. But the game is only just getting started!
Netflix and Amazon Prime already had a huge head start getting in front of the pack. “Latecomers” like Disney+ and HBO tried to play catch-up by using a combination of existing content (thousands of kids movies and/or Warner Bros films and HBO series like Game of Thrones and Veep and countless others) and new releases from existing popular franchises like Star Wars, Marvel, DC Comics, and Pixar. That’s helped Disney+ and HBO Max jump on board the “must have” list for literally tens of millions of TV viewers/subscribers.
So imagine now that you’re ViacomCBS. What power pieces do you have on the chess board? Well, you’ve got the National Football League, NCAA “March Madness” basketball, and a few other sports licenses…and those are actually doing quite well. You’ve also got the major awards shows like the Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, and American Music Awards (not the Oscars, though). Plus you’ve got all of the CBS-produced network TV shows from the last few decades, from The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason to The Big Bang Theory and CSI. And now, thanks to “reunification,” you now have the rich history of the Paramount Pictures motion picture library.
Nothing in that list (other than the NFL) is a true “power piece” on the chess board of SVOD. Nothing makes Paramount+ a “must have” like Disney+ or Netflix. Realistically, VCBS has only one property that can be considered a “power piece”—Star Trek.
Now granted, Star Trek isn’t nearly as popular as Star Wars (sorry, fellow Trekkers, it’s just not). But look at NBC’s new Peacock streaming service. They would KILL to have a tentpole property like Star Trek to call their own. (Sorry, guys, you canceled it back in 1969, remember?) Instead, NBCUniversal has Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. Good luck with that.
So VCBS has to play the hand they’ve been dealt (oops, wrong game metaphor) and develop their “power piece” Star Trek. And that is just what they’re doing! The studio is pouring money into creating new content: Discovery, Picard, Lower Decks, Prodigy, and Strange New Worlds (plus a few others like Section 31 and a possible Worf comedy/drama).
“What if they all suck? What if they don’t make any money? What if they destroy the franchise? Isn’t that going to piss off the shareholders and get someone like Alex Kurtzman fired?” you ask.
Stop thinking like an ant, and start thinking like an elephant.
New Star Trek series don’t have to leap out of the starting gate with massive viewership numbers. CBS never even cared about that. I mean, they certainly wouldn’t have complained if the new Trek series was a runaway hit, but that was never the expectation. And indeed, the first season of Discovery got VERY underwhelming numbers of views compared to network TV. Even though CBS never shared their data, streaming requests for Discovery episodes in season one averaged only in the hundreds of thousands (and LOW hundreds of thousands) out of 2.5-to-4 million subscribers. And no, don’t ask me how I know that. During that same autumn of 2017, views of NFL games numbered in the millions. Discovery was barely a blip. CBS didn’t care.
Even now, VCBS (like other streaming services with potentially embarrassing subscriber numbers) is being suspiciously non-specific in their reporting. VCBS inexplicably “groups” subscribers for its Showtime streaming service together with Paramount+ subscribers and never releases actual totals for how many people are viewing which shows. This allows VCBS to report glowing numbers like they did in May when they announced that global subscribers for the two services combined grew from 30 million to 36 million (a number that topped Wall Street analysts’ prediction of a growth of “only” 4.8 million).
VCBS also counts people who cancel their subscription as “still subscribed.” Huh? Yep, they consider folks like me (who canceled my subscription back in January) as “paused.” Here’s how their former CEO explained it. So for the last 8 months, CBS has counted me as a subscriber. Now, they’re not wrong about me eventually coming back. I’ll reactivate my subscription when Star Trek: Lower Decks launches its second season in two weeks. But when it comes to reporting numbers, VCBS knows the news is not as good as they make it sound.
It doesn’t matter. They are moving their queen (the Star Trek property) into position. They need to build up a solid library of diverse Star Trek content to both attract subscribers and establish some baseline expectations. Even if a viewer doesn’t like one of the series, maybe he or she (or they!) will like one of the others. Discovery is nearly all action and overly dramatic. Picard is more slow-moving and cerebral. Lower Decks is a whacky adult-targeted comedic animation that, ironically, is one of the best Star Trek series ever (in my opinion). Prodigy will target the kids. And Strange New Worlds will return to classic TOS episodic-style stories without the emotional weight of Discovery and Picard.
It’s very much like what Disney+ is doing with their Marvel series, where WandaVision was as different from Falcon and Winter Soldier as they both were from Loki…but all were grounded solidly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and maybe a few other universes, too). Same for Star Trek. As Alex Kurtzman himself said to the New York Times when they compared what CBS is doing with Star Trek to what Disney is doing with Marvel: “…you have to build a certain foundation in order to get there and we’re still building our foundation.” Kurtzman gets it. And so does VCBS.
Star Trek doesn’t need to “succeed”…at least not right now. The fans can love it or hate it. The property can lose tons of money over the next few years because it’s a loss-leader. The most important priority right now for the studio is to build infrastructure for producing the franchise…on two different coasts, in fact, so they don’t have to cannibalize their own people when two or more series are in production simultaneously. They’re assembling resources. They need to know who is out there—from writers to directors to producers to make-up and VFX people to grips and gaffers. And they want these people to get familiar with what Star Trek is (no, not what the fans think it is, what the studio thinks it is…remember, we’re the ants and they’re the elephant) and how Star Trek is produced.
And that’s where Alex Kurtzman comes in.
If you read that full New York Times article, one quote from it explains completely why this mega-deal just happened. George Cheeks, the president and chief executive of CBS, said this about Kurtzman in an interview. “The guy can develop for broadcast. He can develop for premium streaming, broad streaming. He understands the business. He’s got tremendous empathy. He’s creatively nimble. When you make these investments, you need to know that this talent can actually deliver multiple projects at the same time across multiple platforms.”
Notice that I bolded “He understands the business.” That’s the key here. Trekkers like to think that any hard-core fan could and would do an infinitely better job than Alex Kurtzman in making decent Star Trek. Wrong… wrong… wrong… wrong… a thousand times wrong. Making Star Trek for television or film isn’t just about writing solid stories and decent scripts that don’t violate canon and make the fans scream with delight. Sure, that’s all nice for us ants, but the elephant needs the studio space rented, the sets built, the actors cast, the equipment in place, the costumes designed, the make-up applied, the music composed, plus a million other little things…and for everything to be kept within an acceptable production budget. They need someone they can trust and rely on to get all of that done, someone who himself has reliable people he can trust to get those tasks done.
Kurtzman’s writing partner since 2015, JENNY LUMET, also provided this informative quote about Kurtzman to the Times: “He has an almost supernatural ability to keep separate train tracks in his head, this show, this show and this show, and he can jump from one to the other. He is one of the few people who can keep all the trains running.”
That is actually quite rare in Hollywood, and certainly a foundational requirement for Star Trek right now as it fits into the large VCBS business model that I’ve just described. Remember that CBS got burned back in 2016 when BRYAN FULLER was booted as Discovery showrunner early in production of the show’s first season. Part of the reason Fuller was let go is that he was delaying Discovery in order to finish up work on the latest season of American Gods, another series he was producing. Fuller was not able to juggle multiple projects at the same time. Kurtzman, by contrast, has simultaneously had production going on Discovery season two, Picard season one, and Lower Decks season one…and is now overseeing -post production on Prodigy and Strange New Worlds while Picard seasons two and three are shooting and Discovery just entered post-production on season four.
And that, my friends, is why Alex Kurtzman just got this mega-deal. He’s proven himself to be a very capable production superstar. There are not many people like Alex Kurtzman in Hollywood, and VCBS knows this. VCBS wants—needs, actually—to keep Kurtzman around because not only has he proven that he can successfully deliver multiple Star Trek series simultaneously, but also that he wants to. He’s not burning out or getting bored or distracted. He doesn’t have one foot out the door (and now there’s a five-and-a-half-year contract extension making sure he doesn’t even reach for the door knob!).
Sorry to share the following reality with the the VCBS detractors out there, but it doesn’t matter what you, the ant, thinks of the shows. The elephant is VERY happy right now.
That said, I personally think this is a GOOD thing for Star Trek fandom in general and fan films in particular. And if you want to learn why, join me for an awesome online Fan Film “Power Panel” this Saturday, August 7, at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time as part of Treklanta™ on the Holodeck (click here for more information). I’ll have a group of fan filmmakers including JOSHUA IRWIN, VANCE MAJOR, MARK NACCARATO, FRANK PARKER, JR., GREG TEFT, AARON VANDERKLEY, and GLEN L. WOLFE, and we are going to discuss whether VCBS’s current rhapsody over Star Trek will make them less tolerant of fan films…or more.
I know what I think. What does the panel think? And what do YOU think? Seeya on Saturday night to find out! Here’s the Google Meet link to the live panel (you’ll need to have a Google/Gmail account to particulate; it’s free to get one if you click here):