In Part 1, I began chatting with RAY TESI, the owner of NEUTRAL ZONE STUDIOS in Kingsland, GA, home of a complete collection of TOS sets that are used by countless fan films and series. Ray recently completed a 30-day Indiegogo campaign that took in a remarkable $19,617 from 218 donors. But it still fell well short of its $36,000 goal.
It’s possible that some of that shortfall was due to a series of scandalous rumors and attacks on social media which seemingly came out of nowhere days after the crowd-funding campaign was launched. It’ not entirely clear what set these people off or what their game plan was, other than what is colloquially known as MANUFACTURED OUTRAGE. But for nearly a month, it seemed their goal was to sabotage this Indiegogo campaign, and through depriving Neutral Zone Studios of much-needed fan donations, to potentially force the closure of this incredible fan film resource, possibly forever.
Normally, I’d include links to the comments themselves or even just a screen cap or two, but these posts were so ridiculous that I’d rather not give them any coverage at all. Instead, I’m going to let Ray speak about what can only be called baseless and unfounded attacks by total strangers agains him and his studio as we conclude our two-part interview…
JONATHAN – So now I’d like to shift gears and discuss the wild accusations and outrageous rumors that were thrown at you during this recent Inidiegogo campaign. Would you like to respond to any of these crazy attacks which you’ve had to endure for the past month?
RAY – I definitely would, Jonathan, and thank you for the opportunity. And I think the words “outrageous” and “crazy” that you used was spot on…and probably even an understatement!
But the interesting thing to me is how certain people seem to know SO much about me without ever having once spoken to me or even messaging me or…anything. But apparently they know everything about me, right? They know things about me that even I don’t know about me!
JONATHAN – Like what?
RAY – Okay, I’ll pick one (’cause there’s so many): they say with confidence that VIC MIGNOGNA still owns the studio. Now, I can show you the paperwork and the canceled check that I signed when I purchased the studio from Vic back in 2018.
JONATHAN – So how do you think this particular rumor started?
RAY -Well, people look at things from a distance, come to their own conclusions, and then run with it, and I think that’s terrible. Now, I understand what it looks like from the outside: Vic, whatever controversies there might be, is presumedly the face of the studio. And that’s my choice. Why is that my choice? Part of it is purely a business decision. Obviously, Vic helped to expand the sets when STAR TREK CONTINUES launched, and then it became his baby. He was the face of Star Trek Continues, and that’s one of the most popular of all the fan series. So Vic himself remains very popular, and he’s the draw.
People want to come to see the studio, but many of the people, if not a good majority, want to come and meet Vic. Whether it’s because he was the producer or that he played Kirk or he’s an anime voice actor or maybe he’s just handsome…I don’t know. But people wanna come and see him.
Now, I’ve had people who’ve been connected to the studio tell me, “Hey, you don’t need Vic. He’s too controversial. You should drop him.” And my answer was, “Okay, if you can guarantee me the 60% of income that I’ll lose by dropping Vic, and you can make sure that I get it, then I’ll think about it.” And of course, then they go by the wayside.
JONATHAN – Fair enough. Are there any other rumors floating around out there that you’d like to address?
RAY – Oh, lots. So here’s another one. As I read it, they claim that I shut down the studio, not because of the summer heat, but because I received a cease and desist letter from CBS. One of them even said that he was certain that we’d held fan appreciation weekends and had shoots at the studio during the summer months in the past. What amazes me most about this rumor is that it’s so easily disproven! If anyone looks back on our Facebook page through the history of the studio starting in 2018, they’ll see that we’ve always shut down in the summer. Always.
But the craziest thing about what’s being said by these people is…it’s not CBS! They keep saying, “CBS shut them down.” “CBS sent them a cease and desist.” CBS is gone. I’m talking to Paramount these days! And you know what? Paramount is letting me play in their sandbox, which is great!
JONATHAN – So whom do you talk with at Paramount…and how often? And what do you discuss?
RAY – Well, I’ve had two conversations with Paramount so far this year. And those are the first conversations that I’ve had with them since pre-pandemic when they were still CBS. And generally, they only call me when I’ve overlooked something and they’re concerned about their IP. But it’s never been an angry call or a cease and desist letter. My contact has always been extremely courteous and amicable. In fact, in the two conversations we’ve had this year, he started out by saying that he was a fan of Star Trek and had seen some of the fan films that we had released. And that made me feel real good. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel! And in our second conversation, which lasted about a half hour, we spent the last ten minutes talking about STRANGE NEW WORLDS and PRODIGY !
JONATHAN – Is it JOHN VANCITTERS you’re talking to?
RAY – No. I had some back-and-forth e-mails with John in 2016 when I was making my first Star Trek fan film. But all my calls now are with someone in the Paramount legal department, and John works in licensing.
JONATHAN – So what did Paramount call you about this year?
RAY – Well, their most recent call happened during the Indiegogo, and it was totally my mistake, my oversight. I had put up the sizzle reel for NICHELLE NICHOLS’ documentary “Breaking Barriers” about her history as a black actress on Star Trek. And that film was shot at Neutral Zone Studios. So I put it up for a few days. I was planning to replace it with another video anyway because that’s what I did during the entire campaign—swap out videos every 4 or 5 days. But I got a call from Paramount legal with concerns that the video used clips from The Original Series.
Now SKY CONWAY, who produced the documentary, got permission to use the footage, but I obviously didn’t. So Paramount didn’t want it up on our crowd-funding campaign. And I totally understood their concern, so I immediately took it down and swapped it with another video, which I’d been planning to do in another couple of days anyway. But as I said, they were very nice when they called me about it.
JONATHAN – I seem to remember another rumor that claimed that you were forced to take down that video because you never got permission from Nichelle’s family to use her image to try to raise money.
RAY – Yeah, another one of those rumors where they saw something, assumed they knew what happened, and then they start ranting about it as though it were confirmed fact. Here’s the actual facts. Nichelle was a friend of mine. I’m a friend with her son. I’m a friend with her sister and their family. I’m a friend of her manager, Sky Conway. And I contacted Sky, who owns the IP for Nichelle’s documentary, and he gave me permission to use it. And Nichelle’s family had no problem with me using the video either.
But getting back to Paramount, before this year, I hadn’t heard from them since early 2020. And I know they’re keeping an eye on what we do. Back then, they saw one of our advertisements and asked us not to include certain key words and not to use certain images. And I have remained as true to that request as anything I have ever done, Jonathan. I’m always conscious of their wishes whenever I do any advertising. And so three and a half years without a call from them means I’m probably doing fine. And honestly, whenever they’ve contacted me, it was always something really minor and easily fixed.
JONATHAN – What kind of a toll (or troll?) are all of these attacks and accusations having on you personally, Ray?
RAY – It’s just…frustrating. And to be honest, at some point, I just stopped looking. I couldn’t stomach it. Instead, as some people might know, I posted to Facebook an open letter from me and the studio. I wasn’t trying to trash anyone—anybody who knows me since I started on social media in 2014 knows that I don’t trash anyone—but I just couldn’t stay silent any longer. I wasn’t even trying to set the record straight so much as just say that this stuff was all nonsense, and why don’t these people just move along?
The thing I’ve learned personally about social media is to thank the people who thank you and ignore everyone else. And I’ve really tried to do that. But I honestly don’t know what the end game is for these people except to ridicule. My feeling is that some of them—or at least one of them—is just angry. At something. I’m not sure what he’s angry at, exactly, but he seems to be taking it out on not just Star Trek and the Star Trek fan film community, but he seems to be taking it out more seriously on those who have some modicum of success. And I can’t explain that. I just don’t think like that.
So I just don’t know what else to say about all this. Like I said, I just stopped looking at these rumors because they were ridiculous.
JONATHAN – Do you think that all of these irate and outlandish social media posts negatively impacted the amount of donations that came into your Indiegogo campaign?
RAY – I feel that there’s no way that it couldn’t. I say that because a number of people who appreciate the studio and what the studio represents contacted me. And each one of them had a different screen shot of something that was said about me or the studio. And they each felt that they should bring it to my attention. And if those people saw it, who knows how many other people may have seen one or more of those postings? People who didn’t know any better or who didn’t know me or who didn’t know the studio or the history of the studio…who knows how many of those people were swayed not to contribute? I have no idea, but there’s no way that it couldn’t have affected contributions.
JONATHAN – That is truly unfortunate, and I’m so sorry you had to go through all of that. But I’d like to end this interview on a more positive note, so let me ask you—since you obviously aren’t being shut down by Paramount—what kinds of exciting things do you have coming up at Neutral Zone Studios once the summer is over? And who’s coming in to film what?
RAY – Well, there’s quite a few things going on. Fan Appreciation starts up again September 23 and 24, and we have dates planned out through May. So people can go to the website and check the calendar, which currently has reservations for the months of September through December available.
We’re also going to start getting into the convention circuit again—which we stopped doing during COVID. And we’re taking the bridge set pieces out to UltraCon, Ancient City, and Bartow Con. So for the next three months, we’ll be at conventions.
JONATHAN – Wait, doesn’t that risk damaging the sets…taking them to conventions and letting people interact with them?
RAY – Ah, good question! Back in 2019, I took the sets to a convention and accidentally put a giant gash into the helm. And so I said , “I’m never doing that again!”
And so we created a banner photograph of the bridge that can be hung as a background for photos. And we built a lightweight island that everything sits on. Thanks to GARY DAVIS of DREADNOUGHT DOMINION, we now have a brand new captain’s chair. So we’ll be bringing our backup captain’s chair to the events. And finally, we’re having a portable helm console built. In fact, it’ll be ready next week. It’s gonna be lightweight, portable, and it’s gonna look just great…I’ve seen pictures of it. And so no damage to the sets back in the studio.
JONATHAN – Whew!
RAY – So there’s gonna be free photo ops for people, and we’re just gonna hand out information about the studio and say, “Come visit us.”
JONATHAN – Can you bring a computer and let them sign up on Patreon right there at the con?
RAY – Well, we are going to bring along a computer with a monitor and show some of the fan films that we’ve done. So if there’s Internet or we can get a hot-spot, then sure, someone could sign up as a Patreon donor at the con.
JONATHAN – So anything else exciting coming up?
RAY – Oh, yes. We’re actually working with the city of Kingsland and other local businesses, and we’re going to have a convention in mid-April of next year. Right now, it’s simply called Kingsland Fanfest, and they asked me to put together a Star Trek-themed part of that event. And frankly, there’s nothing better, and I’ve already contacted a number of people, and we’re having a Star Trek Continues reunion.
JONATHAN – Oh, that sounds awesome!
RAY – Yeah, we’re really looking forward to that, and we hope that it starts off bigger and better things.
JONATHAN – And what about upcoming fan film releases?
RAY – We have a new one coming out in the next month or two called THE LOST STARSHIP, which is probably one of the finest pieces of work I’ve ever seen.
JONATHAN – Wow, way to manage expectations, Ray!
RAY – We’re really proud of it. Let’s see, what else? Dreadnought Dominion is coming back soon to film here. Then we have a school that’s filmed four training videos here, and they’re coming back at the end of this year. We’re gonna be doing some filming for TALES FROM THE NEUTRAL ZONE probably in January. I still need to work out logistics with JOSHUA IRWIN, who will be collaborating with us on a regular basis going forward.
JONATHAN – Well, it sure sounds like things are going really well at Neutral Zone Studios, Ray, and I’m so happy for you and everyone on your team. And for anyone who’d like to help you out with donations now that the Indiegogo is completed, they can still sign up for Patreon and donate a little each month, right?
RAY – Yep, even just a dollar a month can make such a big difference for us.
JONATHAN – Well, then let’s end this interview with a Patreon link…