Gene Wilder, RIP

I meant to post this earlier, but life keeps on getting in the way. Or maybe it’s bills to pay, and I’m not as clever as Max Bialystock at how to pay them.

Now that the a principal dreamer of the dreams is gone, I'm going to need something stronger than fizzy-lifting drink.

Now that the a principal dreamer of the dreams is gone, I’m going to need something stronger than fizzy-lifting drink. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As has been reported in the Washington Post, AP, Variety, and elsewhere, Jerome Silberman aka Gene Wilder passed away last month, on Sunday, August 29th. He was 83.

2016 has proven to be lethal to the cultural icons many of my generation have grown up with — and Wilder was definitely someone we grew up with: perhaps first known as Willa Wonka and then, as we got older, as Leo Bloom, the Waco Kid, and naturally Doctor Frankenstein -er- Fronkensteen.

Gene Wilder has an additional resonance for many of us who are performers and storytellers because he was a phenomenally sensitive actor. I mean, he seemed to sense what his characters needed to be to serve the story — as mentioned in this wonderful video. He also was a very generous performer in the same vein as Jack Benny as this Vox article details.

Actors and comics from across the industry have mentioned his influence. Writer and all-around pop culture historian Mark Evanier has a great anecdote about Wilder — and Tom Straw has a great story of working with the man himself late in Wilder’s career.

Finally, I came across this article about he met his wife, who I hope is being supported by friends and family in this difficult time.

Now I’m off to munch a Wonka bar for a bit.

RIP, Carl Balson

I did the math a couple years ago and realized he was in his 80s, so I knew it might happen sooner rather than later, but I am very sad to learn Carl Balson, theater professor and all-around audio-visual wizard, passed away on September 8th at the age of 84. An obituary appeared in the Beloit Daily News, but we learned of it a couple days earlier on social media. Here are some of the words I shared on social media a week or so ago:

carl_balson_2007

Carl was a consummate craftsman, a trait I suspect he gained from being a magician. Long before my classmate Tom Kramer and I dubbed ourselves “tractors” or “technician-actors,” Carl was already showing anyone who cared to notice how you could be completely at home in a control room and on stage.

He took great love in the gear both at our radio station (WBCR) and TV station (BAT), and could get into engineering details as needed, but it was all in practical service to storytelling, something he was more than comfortable doing on stage as an actor. And I’m not kidding about the magic part either. A fact that he conveniently did not advertise was that he was a trained magician (or we college students were too obtuse), so on more than one occasion, when something was not working in the television studio, he would come in and tap the equipment while using sleight of hand to press the button that would solve the problem — a seemingly effortless action that implied we students needed to redouble our efforts in understanding how to use the gear.

Both the impishness and love of play he had were inspirational — and he would encourage us to take charge and make our own creations, whether it was producing a wacky skit-com/music video show or concocting morning radio routines. He even joined in on the fun in one episode of the aforementioned TV show, where he played the sinister “They” (who, like in the Far Side, was the “They” in “That’s what They say.”).

I got to study under Carl, work for Carl, and above all: learn from Carl. And I’m not the only Beloiter who’s thankful for that. He’ll always have a place in our hearts and memories. My thoughts and prayers go to his family.

Schedule Management: Exceptions to the 0-50-100 Method

I realized I hadn’t been posting much about producing and project management this year, so here’s a series of short posts going over some of the concepts I cover in the project management training I do.

Previously, I has talked about a method for managing your schedule: the 0-50-100 method of reporting and tracking completion percentage.

Again, for context, this is all about how to report completion percentage for a (presumably baselined) schedule. In other words, first you do your work breakdown and have all your tasks. Next, you use your personal experience, historical information, and knowledgeable people to figure out how long this is all going to take. In go all the durations for all the tasks. Painfully, you get sign-off and agreement that the tasks will take that long — and all of a sudden you’re off and running with the project.

Are you 0n track? How do you stay on track? If you’re using a tool like Microsoft Project, your tasks can be marked by percent complete. My recommendation is to use three –and only three– percentages:

  • 0% (Not Started)
  • 50% (In-Progress, whether it’s just started or almost complete)
  • 100% (Unequivocally complete)

I still believe this is one of the best ways to manage a schedule — especially for those of you using Microsoft Project. No project is ever so unique that it can’t benefit from any management (despite what some stakeholders may insist)… and the 0-50-100 method allows you to focus on pragmatically solving roadblocks rather than obsessing about reporting minutiae.

However, even though projects aren’t so insanely unique to preclude managing them, they also don’t all fit into one mold. The 0-50-100 method may not work for all tasks, so I wanted to share two other major ways to calculate ‘percent complete.’ Depending on your given project, you might use them a lot, a little, or not at all. In most cases when I use them, I use them in conjunction with 0-50-100 (in other words, my ‘percent complete’ reporting methods are task specific with 0-50-100 as the default).

Percent Complete by Unit
This method is where you mark the percent complete based on a number of units. For example, if you’re in the testing phase of a software development project and your testers need to complete 100 test scripts, that’s 100 units. If they’ve completed 15 test scripts of the 100, you’re 15% done. You have your overall duration of the task within which you estimated all 100 scripts will be completed, but for reporting purposes, you’re being more granular than 0-50-100.

The key variable to keep as unvaried as possible is the nature of your given units. As much as possible, you want your apples to correspond to apples, or at least similarly sized oranges (assuming size is the logical criterion for comparison). You don’t want to compare apples to watermelons in one task. If you do have a watermelon unit amidst a bunch of apple units, that’s where you’ll want to break down your schedule further. Have a separate watermelon task if you can (which will probably be tracked as 0-10-100) and you can have the remaining apples be tracked by unit.

Remember, there are no hard and fast rules. It’s all about the level of granularity by which you want to manage the project… balanced with how much bandwidth you have to manage the project.

I’ve often tracked the workflow of change requests or articles by unit — knowing full well that some requests are more complicated than others or some articles are longer than others. However, collectively, tracking their completion by unit averages out and is easier to manage.

For example, back when I did project management for a publishing company, it was not uncommon to have tasks pertaining to proofreaders, copy editors, and so on. Tracking tasks per page was a natural fit for this kind of work. However, between dense scientific articles and annual reports replete with flashy graphics, any given pages were not going to take the same amount of time.

This goes back to your work in estimating the duration of your tasks. You always want to ask yourself and your team how long a given task will take, as it may vary from project to project. Maybe you can save time proofreading the pages for this particular repot because it’s an annual report with lots of graphics. But then, so you need to increase the per-page duration of the design and layout tasks? And bear in mind, after you’ve done a few annual reports or scientific journals, you should get some good per-page estimates or other estimated durations.

Likewise, for articles in the magazine realm, all articles are not created equal. Maybe I have a separate “per unit” task for feature articles and one for columns. OR, I might go ahead and have a task for each column, knowing that different columnists have different foibles and are best managed by the 0-50-100 method (“Okay, Frank: have you even started yet?”).

Remember, you should be dividing up the tasks to best be able to monitor and manage those pesky humans responsible for the tasks. Reporting on completion should be the same way.

Level of Effort (i.e. Percent Complete by Time Elapsed)
For purely schedule management, this may not come up as much, but this can be very important in overall project management as it makes it easier to tie the schedule to cost.

(Please note, several project managers who could never perceive a world where you didn’t tie schedule to cost to do nice, crunchy Estimated Time to Completion and Actual Cost just had their heads explode. That’s okay. Manager head explosions are a known risk.)

Because it’s good for overall project management, I like this method for tasks in two main instances: for executive reporting and where cost control is paramount.

As an overlay or executive view of the overall schedule, looking at the percent complete by time elapsed is a good way to judge progress from the “50,000 foot view.” In my experience, executives are most concerned about a project’s end date and what the project’s objective is more so than minutiae anyway. If you combine “percent complete by time elapsed” with the cost assigned to the task or overyou can get a good idea of what start-ups and contractors love to term “burn rate” (how fast you’re using up your funding).

For the financial managers among you, this can give you a diagnostic or monitoring tool. If a team has spent 60% of their budget, but only 30% of your schedule has elapsed, perhaps they ran into some complications they’re not reporting. Likewise, a team that has spent 20% of their budget, but 50% of their scheduled tasks are done, did they overestimate? Are they not reporting all their costs? When you are operating at the program or portfolio level, this can be very useful, because while you’re still concerned about making your schedule, you’re looking at a bigger picture (presumably, you have project managers for each project, working in the weeds).

For example, instead of knowing every task for requirements, design, build, testing, and deployment of several software projects, you, as a program manager, might know the start and end dates for those projects and have the percentage of budget assigned to each phase (e.g. 20% of budget for requirements, 40% for build, etc.). Now you can use the level-of-effort cross-matched with your financial reporting to see if any of your projects are under-burning or over-burning. In this way, you’re still using the project schedule as a way to learn if you’re going to make your date, but you have the cost tied to the schedule in such a way that it can be an early-warning tool of projects going off track. And at the program and portfolio level, you often need to deal with funding and supply issues more than an in-the-trenches project manager.

That cuts to the heart of this method. For me, tying the percent complete to the time elapsed works best at a phase or output level vs. a task level — because I’ll tie it to the cost and “burn rate.” Checking percentage this way at too low a level gets back into the silliness I described last time, where people quibble about 37% vs. 39%. Absent of whether you’ve spent 37% or 39% of your money and absent any other attempt at objective criteria, who cares? Nevertheless, this type of view is probably more useful to many managers and executives, so it’s worth figuring out how and where you’ll use it.

Overall, for project managers, I’d suggest looking into using the 0-50-100 percent complete method for your tasks except where doing percent complete by unit will allow for better management. Then, look at the overall project or program, and see how to apply percent complete by schedule elapsed tied to cost in order to give good reporting for the program and portfolio level.

Space Opera Tropes

Speculative fiction writer Charles Stross has written a blog post about space opera clichés which has been brought to my attention by one of the denizens of MOSF.

I haven’t read too much of Charles Stross, though I like his imaginative and subtly disturbing short story, “Rogue Farm.” It sounds like he enjoys being a bit harder with his sci-fi and space opera than some, which comes through in this list. For that reason, I can see how some writers might not be as concerned with some of entries on this list, but reading it in total, I think it’s a good reality-check/world-building check. Because frankly, if you ignore the majority of these points, your sci-fi world is going to seem incomplete and not well thought out. And any clever plots or characterizations will ring hollow as you haven’t successfully suspended disbelief.

This is very timely as I’m working on a short story involving a space elevator, something so geeky that, on one level, I must make the world-building believable — otherwise what’s the point? At the same time, the aspect of the story that’s really taken it out of mothballs has been the arc I’ve figured out for the main character. Ah, the joy of balance!

2016’s Summer Blockbuster Wasteland

Now that Labor Day has past, we’re officially out of Summer, those who are wont to assess how the film industry did during its summer blockbuster season don’t need to wait to write what many were already musing about in early August: this year has been terrible.

Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff details this in the site’s Winners/Losers style in a method that’s very focused on the facts of what did well and what didn’t (many articles analyzing Hollywood’s fortunes at the box office tend to have some prescriptive scolding sneak in). I take solace in the fact that lower budgeted features have proven to have some great returns-on-investment. For filmmakers making films designed to be acquired (versus commissioned by the studios), this is hopeful news.

On the other hand is Peter Suderman’s assessment of Hollywoods’s woes, also in Vox. Suderman is a bit more scolding as he feels Hollywood is being lazy and formulaic (a common gripe). However, he does go further with the premise that, with the ballooning of “blockbuster” budgets from $100 million into the $200-$300 million realm, studios are, by necessity, so risk averse that their cinematic concoctions lack the idiosyncratic vitality that made their legendary predecessors shine. The idea is that by trying to please everyone on the planet, these decidedly average films –despite star power and impressive production values– lack some must-see quality that prevents them from being anything other than blockbusters-in-waiting.

Of course, he hedges on his premise noting that several of these films such as the latest installments of Captain America and Star Trek did a good job critically. That makes the abysmal box office all the more maddening. Equally maddening, at least to me, is the continued hollowing out of the mid-range film (as I talked about back in July).

The one bright spot seems to be –and this is not an original observation– is that the creative energy and financial backing that used to be going into the mid-range films is now going into TV shows. That may well be true — and in the Suderman article above, he mentions that TV shows seems to be haven for idiosyncratic –and successful– innovation these days. Stranger Things is cited as an example of summer success.

I still think there’d be a place to have a subsidiary studio or “imprint” that tried to make films in the $10 – 30 million range. You’re trying to have all those films earn $80 to $200 million at the box office. It’s not the same as the $500 to $700 million (to fanciful notions of over $1 billion) that they want the $180 – $250 million blockbusters, but the goal would be to have an overall better ROI.

In addition to the ROI, the “mid-range” budgeted movie provides something else to the studio ecosystem: a project that is neither as expensive and high-stakes as their current beloved blockbuster model, nor as protracted time-wise as a season of TV.

Maybe this is immaterial and studios feel that TV series offer more return on investment or more of a chance at franchises and longevity (what they now obsess with given the blockbuster model). This “mid-range” films also don’t currently appear to have a place in the ever-lengthening “summer blockbuster season.” However, underlying the love of franchises and IP that can be mined for Internet centuries is an overall aversion to risk. Why else would we be seeing movie versions of Battleship (and presumably, one day, Risk)?

There’s a saying that making a movie is a marathon, but making a TV show is running until you drop dead. Lower budgeted movies give you a chance to test writers, directors, cast, and crew in something where the stakes aren’t do-or-die like a blockbuster and isn’t at a pace like a TV show. My premise is that this is a valuable place in a studio’s ecosystem: a place where one might cultivate the cast and crew graduating from the indie darlings and on to the blockbusters and TV shows of the future. They also might provide counter-programming to all the blockbusters.

I will be interested to see how the rest of the year shakes out box office wise. In terms of production slates, I imagine the release schedule for Summer 2017 is already written by and large, but I wouldn’t be surprise if even now, some adjustments are in the works.

Update, 2016-09-09: Todd VanDerWerff follows up in Vox about some of the films that have done well this summer — mainly some of the smaller ones.

The article delves into how there are multiple audiences for films, and posits that studios may well succeed by targeting other audiences than just the purported blockbuster audience.

I tend to agree — and it seems like there’s always some counter-programming during the ever lengthening summer blockbuster season, but unfortunately it seems that it’s not a concerted effort much of the time. Perhaps they think of calculated counter-programming like Cinderella Man, a perfectly enjoyable period drama by Ron Howard & co. that underperformed at the box office. I wonder if this wouldn’t be where the $10 – 30 million budget studio films might do well (Cinderella Man came in at a weight of $88 million). The other part of counter-programming would be making even otherwise normal films part of an event, as Fathom has done (them and how movie theaters might re-invent themselves as 21st century movie palaces would be something for another post).

 

Schedule Management: The 0-50-100 Method for Tasks

I realized I haven’t been posting much about producing and project management this year, so I’ve decided to do a series of short posts for a few weeks going over some of the concepts I cover in the project management training I do.

If you want to spend more time managing your schedule and less time staring at it, at one time or another, you’re going to hear about the 0-50-100 method for managing tasks.

In my case, I was first introduced to it by a program manager where we were working on an integrated project plan that ran over 1,700 lines. There was no way we’d spend every status meeting figuring out the exact percentage of each task – nor what we needed to monitor to make sure we’re on track.

This is where the program manager let me in on a time-saving, sanity-saving trick, especially when using a schedule management tool like Microsoft Project.

I should probably back up a bit and clarify that this schedule management tactic is for when you have created your project schedule. Hopefully, you have broken down the work into logical tasks — and you have used your acumen, other people’s acumen, and historical information to give those tasks reasonable durations.

Now, to make sure your project schedule is not merely decorative shelfware, you’re using the schedule as a living document, getting updates as to whether tasks are complete or not — and by what percentage.

When you think about asking for the percent complete of a given task, that’s where this method makes so much sense. That’s because most, if not all, tasks can be expressed as one of three states:

  • 0% – The task has not been started.
  • 50% – The task is in process. Maybe it started yesterday. Maybe it’s about to be finished tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. For reporting purposes, any “in-process” task is always 50%
  • 100% – The task has been completed (and the people who need to confirm it’s completed have said it’s completed).

There are exceptions, which I can talk about in another post, but consider this: how valuable is knowing completion percentage anyway?

Do you really need to spend a single precious meeting minute on whether something is 37% or 42%?

No.

Anyone who is obsessing about that either falsely believes those abstract numbers will help OR is trying to evade the real question you or any other project manager wants to know:

Can we make our schedule?

It’s rare that I’ve been at an organization where schedule is not, ultimately, king. The 0-50-100 method allows you to zero in on risks and impacts to your schedule.

Here’s how those three simple statuses above help you do that:

0%, the Task hasn’t started.
Is it past the start date?

No? Good. Is there any reason to expect why this task won’t start on time? If the start date is within two weeks, does the task owner know they’re expected to start soon?

Yes, it is past the start date? Okay, how do we get started? What date should it start now — and how does that affect the project being completed on time? (aka, the critical path).

50%, the Task is in-progress
Cool. Did it start on time or did it start late?

If it started late, is there anything we’re doing to make sure it still completes on time? Are those efforts working? Do you need any help to make sure it gets completed on time? At all?

If it started on time, is it going to be completed when we scheduled? How confident are you? Are there any risks popping up that would stop you? Do you need any help to make sure it gets completed?

100%, the Task has been completed
Wonderful. Does everyone agree (who needs to agree) that task has been completed? Are the subsequent tasks starting on time? Does anything need to be communicated?

Is this task like any other tasks still being worked in this project? Were there any risks or lessons learned we should communicate right now about how this task went down?

###

In other words, as a project manager, you’re using the 0-50-100 method to focus on solutions and support. The more time you spend debating and delineating exactly what the status of a task is during project status meetings, the less time you have to try and make sure things are on track or get back on track.

In other words, it saves time — and it focuses what management really wants to know: will the project be completed on time?

Real Vikings Don’t Wear Horns

Being proud of our Norwegian heritage and an above-average amateur historian, our dad made sure we knew from an early age that real Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets.

But why do so many people think so? An article in Vox gets to the root cause. Dang costume designers.

Growing up, we didn’t have a wealth of Viking drama, so it was inevitable that the family would seek out what they could. That inevitably led to that 1958 saga, The Vikings, directed by Richard Fleischer… before 1985’s Red Sonja was a gleam in his eye.

Thrill to its 50s Epic Majesty!

Thrill to its 50s Epic Majesty!

Let’s face it, it’s a Hollywood epic from a certain era when the historical accuracy was inconsistent. On the one hand, get a load of them longships! On the other hand, Tony Curtis.

Sorry Tony, we like you better in "Some Like it Hot"

Sorry Tony, we like you better in “Some Like it Hot”

Indeed, the care and attention paid to the longships made for this film was so meticulous, that the longships went on to star in another picture. Okay, the company was probably just trying to amortize their costs, but they’re still wondrous.

My dad always said these were the real stars of the picture.

My dad always said these were the real stars of the picture. Well, both pictures really.

Both films served to be launching points for many conversations with my dad about historical Vikings, who did much more than simply raid ill-prepared monasteries. We talked of the Danelaw, the Normans, and, Leif Erikson: far more popular in our house than that Columbus guy.

Now, of course, we can seriously scratch that Viking itch with the Vikings TV series. It’s incredibly entertaining, as Michael Hirst’s work tends to be, despite some niggling historical inaccuracies. I am sad my dad is no longer with us to see the show, because although he would surely be the one noting those inaccuracies, there’d be a lot in the show for him to enjoy.

For one thing, these Vikings don’t have time for horned helmets.

vikings_sejati

Automation and American Growth: Robert Gordon Edition

I’ve been reading and commenting a decent amount about automation this year, enough to make it seem inevitable. A popular topic with journalists and feature writers has been the impending automation of transportation which I noted back in May. Just recently, Vox ran another article about self-driving trucks and pending unemployment.

As the topic appears to be developing into a “future trend trope,” I was very intrigued to learn about the work of Robert Gordon, which Vox also did a piece on. Of course, I first learned about Robert Gordon when I got caught up listening to the Freakanomics podcast as they did an episode about American economic growth this Spring which prominently featured Robert Gordon. There’s also a transcript of a similar segment on Marketplace from 2012.

It certainly makes me consider what the economy might and can transform into.

Crisis of Infinite Star Treks: The Guidelines After the Gobsmack

This is the 25th entry in a surprisingly long series of posts about Star Trek’s future and its fandom called Crisis of Infinite Star Treks.

So, after June 23rd’s astounding reveal by CBS/Paramount about their fan film guidelines, I took in a lot of the reactions (reactions you can see back on that post, btw).

But even though it’s now decades later in Internet time, I wanted to comment on the guidelines, in part because, in one of my earlier posts, I mentioned that I, as an indie filmmaker who specifically likes working on sci-fi and fantasy projects, have shied away from doing fan films in part because of a lack of guidelines. I like the framework established by the SAG-AFTRA low budget agreements, for example, that allow me to legally work with professional union actors at low or deferred rates (if they’re willing). I would love for those SAG-AFTRA agreements to be even more flexible, but I’ll take what they have for now. Being able to work with willing union actors without risk –so long as I follow the union’s rules– is better than having all the blood, sweat, and tears inherent in any film production being at the whim of unofficial “understandings.”

So based on that experience, I absolutely wanted guidelines. Alec Peters of Axanar Productions has publicly stated he really wanted guidelines for Star Trek fan productions too. Anecdotally, he had asked CBS/Paramount for guidelines before the lawsuit hit and CBS/Paramount demurred.

Between my agreement with Peters on this point –someone many consider persona non trekka– and the fact that, as Axamonitor has noted, the current Star Trek fan film landscape has been rendered a desert of non-production, you might ask, “Are you happy now?” In fact, some of you might be thinking something along the lines of this:

ST_FanFilmGuidelines_Meme

Fair enough.

I’m not pleased nor happy, as it happens. However, after picking myself off the virtual floor upon my first reading of the guidelines, I went through them again. And I realized something.

They might be fair enough.

So I’ll list all of the guidelines verbatim and comment on them all to let you know how I came to that conclusion. (Note: if you want to skip my musings, you’re welcome to jump to the end to thoughts and reactions from other people including recovering lawyers).

The Guidelines

1) The fan production must be less than 15 minutes for a single self-contained story, or no more than 2 segments, episodes or parts, not to exceed 30 minutes total, with no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes.

It’s little wonder that so many Star Trek fans, specifically fans of Star Trek fan films were shocked on June 23rd. This first guideline fundamentally changes the landscape of current fan productions. In fact, one wonders how ongoing series can possibly boldly go now.

Coming as the very first guideline, it’s little wonder a lot of us metaphorically tripped and tumbled down the rest of the guideline stairs. How will Star Trek Continues continue? What new voyages can New Voyages have?

But stop and ask yourself some questions. Can you do a story about Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the original series characters? Yes. Can you do some alternate Trek history where Riker commands the Enterprise after Picard’s death on the Borg cube? Yes. Can you do a follow-up to any existing canon work or simply make up your own tale in any era of Trek or your own heretofore unknown era of Trek? Yes, yes, and yes.

We’re shocked because this disrupts what some have already called the “Golden Age of Star Trek fan films.” In fact, it might bring much of those ongoing missions to an end.

But you know what’s better than fan productions? Actual Star Trek productions! And we have a big screen version coming out tomorrow that reportedly doesn’t suck along with a TV series coming in January with many a Star Trek vet on the production team.

I suspect this is where Axanar and I differ. They think the new guidelines are draconian, whereas when someone says “Draconian,” I think this:

DraconianTwoShot

Yes, I know a lot of you, when you hear “Draconian,” probably think this:

princess_ardala

The galaxy is big enough for both of us… assuming The Doctor and Buck foil their respective Draconians’ plans.

Okay, we’re getting a bit off topic. Back to the guidelines.

This is the one that makes me distinctly displeased and glum. But if there’s enough quality official Trek, I think I’ll be okay. And I have a feeling I’ll be in good company when people count ticket sales of Star Trek Beyond as well as views on CBS All Access.

2) The title of the fan production or any parts cannot include the name “Star Trek.” However, the title must contain a subtitle with the phrase: “A STAR TREK FAN PRODUCTION” in plain typeface. The fan production cannot use the term “official” in either its title or subtitle or in any marketing, promotions or social media for the fan production.

Okay, this is a change from current fan productions, but quite understandable. CBS/Paramount wants these non-licensed productions to both clearly identify themselves as such and clearly delineate themselves from any official Trek.

I have no problem with this. Starship Reallycoolship: A Star Trek Fan Production works for me and I can’t imagine any of the existing fan productions kvetching about this. The only reason you would kvetch? You didn’t want to be considered a fan production, but both I and licensing departments for any IP the world over don’t know what to tell ya then.

3) The content in the fan production must be original, not reproductions, recreations or clips from any Star Trek production. If non-Star Trek third party content is used, all necessary permissions for any third party content should be obtained in writing.

So, they’re not looking for people to re-mix and package their IP and they don’t want people to, say, think they’re entitled to playing music in their Star Trek fan productions like Jerry Goldsmith’s epic Star Trek tracks that are not, in fact, owned by CBS/Paramount. Sensible.

Mind you, if you’re doing truly transformative work of parodies or commentary, Fair Use has your back. Comment on pop culture all you want, citizens.

4) If the fan production uses commercially-available Star Trek uniforms, accessories, toys and props, these items must be official merchandise and not bootleg items or imitations of such commercially available products.

Unless I’m mistaken, the main thrust of this is to make sure they’re doing right by the companies officially licensing Trek.

The operative phrase appears to be “If the fan production uses commercially-available Star Trek [stuff].” What if no really good commercially available tricorder exists for close-up shots? Can I not construct one myself?

Another example: The Star Trek movie uniforms from Wrath of Khan through Undiscovered Country are awesome, but the commercial versions are pretty pricey on places like Anovos (e.g. over $1,000 per costume). I seem to recall commercially available patterns for those costumes were available. What if an enterprising fan costumer found the right fabric and made a lot of the costumes? Does that violate this point?

From the Engage podcast, it sounds like the answer to this question is “no, it does not violate the guideline.” Enterprising fan prop creators or costumers may do their cool work… but they don’t want said enterprising prop or costume people to start a cottage industry renting said props and costumes to other productions.

I think there might be a further way to deal with any created fan costumes and props as I’ll delve into further down under Guideline # 6.

5) The fan production must be a real “fan” production, i.e., creators, actors and all other participants must be amateurs, cannot be compensated for their services, and cannot be currently or previously employed on any Star Trek series, films, production of DVDs or with any of CBS or Paramount Pictures’ licensees.

This guideline is another one that I know creates tremendous heartburn among the Star Trek fan film community (both creators and audiences). Combined with Guideline #1, this is the one that makes me most vexed (in an Austen way) or want to Kirk out (in a Star Trek way). Part of the fun of so many of the fan series has been the creative people behind and in front of the camera who’ve previously worked on Trek and other similarly fannish places.

Again, the appearance of original, new Trek may soothe this vexation. I reserve the right to do a flying leg kick at a later date, though.

6) The fan production must be non-commercial:

Absolutely no problem with that — and that was the premise of the unofficial guidelines, wasn’t it?

But wait, this one has a bunch of sub-guidelines, let’s look at those.

CBS and Paramount Pictures do not object to limited fundraising for the creation of a fan production, whether 1 or 2 segments and consistent with these guidelines, so long as the total amount does not exceed $50,000, including all platform fees, and when the $50,000 goal is reached, all fundraising must cease.

Oookay. Not so good at all for any of the continuing fan series, but they’ve theoretically been hamstrung or eliminated by Guideline # 1. The Engage podcast also clarified that private donations (e.g. rich uncles, etc.) are permissible.

The fan production must only be exhibited or distributed on a no-charge basis and/or shared via streaming services without generating revenue.

No problem with this whatsoever.

The fan production cannot be distributed in a physical format such as DVD or Blu-ray.

I’m used to dealing with SAG-AFTRA low budget agreements that make similar restrictions. No problem.

I understand how this is a blow to those who used the DVD/Blu-ray perk in their crowdfunding campaigns, but frankly, Guideline #1 has already meant you’re not in this for an ongoing series.

The fan production cannot be used to derive advertising revenue including, but not limited to, through for example, the use of pre or post-roll advertising, click-through advertising banners, that is associated with the fan production.

No problem with that.

No unlicensed Star Trek-related or fan production-related merchandise or services can be offered for sale or given away as premiums, perks or rewards or in connection with the fan production fundraising.

Again, a big blow for crowd-funders, but since Guideline # 1 means these aren’t ongoing series, that seems to have taken care of.

The fan production cannot derive revenue by selling or licensing fan-created production sets, props or costumes.

See Guideline #4 above. Again, this seems to be to protect actual companies that license Star Trek, but it could be a sticky wicket for even conscientious fan film creators.

I’m especially concerned with places such as Starbase Studios that are not looking to profit from set rentals, but are looking for donations from productions to cover the cost of their existence. And I think outfits like Starbase Studios could be cool as a resources where one can produce one’s one-off Star Trek fan adventures.

In the Engage podcast, CBS clarifies they’re fine with enterprising costumers and prop-makers building costumes and sets for their productions, but if productions are looking to buy costumes or props, they should be licensed goods.

Perhaps entities such as Starbase Studios could continue to operate as a non-profit, something official and ongoing that CBS/Paramount could grant a limited, non-commercial license that can provide resources for fan productions.  This group or groups could also be a place to donate sets, props, and costumes to after your fan production is done. I could see several fan productions paying it forward in this manner. That would reward the crafty fans and the thrifty fan producers.

7) The fan production must be family friendly and suitable for public presentation. Videos must not include profanity, nudity, obscenity, pornography, depictions of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or any harmful or illegal activity, or any material that is offensive, fraudulent, defamatory, libelous, disparaging, sexually explicit, threatening, hateful, or any other inappropriate content. The content of the fan production cannot violate any individual’s right of privacy.

Okay, this is another guideline that is completely understandable, but then potentially problematic for some fan productions. And fans may well point out that more adult behavior and illegal activity occurs in official Star Trek. So they’re basically saying it’s official Trek’s call to include this or not and fans shouldn’t try this at home.

This is a bit problematic as there seem to be more shades of gray (maybe not as bad as a second-season clipshow, but you know…). Sure you could still show Scotty’s love of scotch, right? Right? What about the most recent Star Trek Continues that touches on the subject of child abuse? Star Trek is often about philosophical and moral issues — and the famous interracial kiss from the original series was probably not deemed “family friendly” in some households at the time.

I would imagine the appropriately transformative work is still protected by fair use, but don’t be surprised if CBS/Paramount’s lawyers hail you on all frequencies.

8) The fan production must display the following disclaimer in the on-screen credits of the fan productions and on any marketing material including the fan production website or page hosting the fan production:

“Star Trek and all related marks, logos and characters are solely owned by CBS Studios Inc. This fan production is not endorsed by, sponsored by, nor affiliated with CBS, Paramount Pictures, or any other Star Trek franchise, and is a non-commercial fan-made film intended for recreational use.  No commercial exhibition or distribution is permitted. No alleged independent rights will be asserted against CBS or Paramount Pictures.”

No problem here.

9) Creators of fan productions must not seek to register their works, nor any elements of the works, under copyright or trademark law.

Oh, how some people on forums fumed about this one, but come on. CBS/Paramount is basically saying how you can make non-fair use derivative works in a way that they probably won’t come after you. You’re playing in their sandbox in their yard. Yes, you might come up with a cool new alien. Something that’s clever and represents your creativity, so naturally you want to protect that intellectual property.

You know what the solution to that is? Make your own damn science fiction show and put the brand new alien in that.

Also, do you know how many alien races there are in Star Trek? For crying out loud, use some of them. I, for one, would love to see more tales about the Vaadwaur for one.

10) Fan productions cannot create or imply any association or endorsement by CBS or Paramount Pictures.

See also Guideline # 7 above. CBS/Paramount wants to protect its IP brand. No surprise there. Yes, you could wish for CBS/Paramount to give you permission more akin to a license, but they’re not. You might as well wish for them to give you a pony with warp nacelles while you’re at it.

CBS and Paramount Pictures reserve the right to revise, revoke and/or withdraw these guidelines at any time in their own discretion. These guidelines are not a license and do not constitute approval or authorization of any fan productions or a waiver of any rights that CBS or Paramount Pictures may have with respect to fan fiction created outside of these guidelines.

Look closely at just about any terms and conditions on any website and you’ll see that they too want the terms entirely at their discretion. You could complain, or again, you could make your own dang science fiction show. No crime in being influenced by Star Trek.

Okay, so there are my thoughts. If we break out the Guideline 6 and include that little “Oh, we can change things at any time, nyah” bit, there’s 17 different points CBS/Paramount wants you to adhere to. I have reservations about two of them (1 and 5) and partial reservations about one (7) because of how it could be overzealously enforced.

That’s not bad. The bad part is how it shakes up the fan production status quo, so I don’t blame anyone working on an ongoing series still feeling gobsmacked.

The Wednesday after the guidelines were released, in episode 5 of a new official Star Trek podcast, John Van Citters, an executive with CBS answers a lot of questions about the guidelines (I’ve cited it above, but you might want to give it a listen now).

So, what about other takes on the guidelines? As you might imagine, recovering lawyer Janet Gershen-Siegel takes a look at them at the G&T show. I especially like how she hypothesizes about what specifically might be allowed or not. Teresa Jusino also reacts to the guidelines over at the Mary Sue with feelings and thoughts that make sense to me overall — as well as some ire and snark for Axanar Productions. I’m afraid that the pro and anti Axanar forces will be in a Movellan/Dalek standoff for some time — neither are willing to turn off their battle computers (and the Movellans are still unwilling to admit they’re a completely lame alien race — please make no Doctor Who fan films with the Movellans).

But back to Star Trek. I do feel for the ongoing fan producers. The vast majority appear to have issued statements thanking CBS/Paramount for the ability to play in the Star Trek sandbox for so long without guidelines until now. I hope if they’re not continuing, they find a satisfactory way to wrap up.

And I hope they get to enjoy being a Star Trek fan with the rest of us.


Note: I’ve enjoyed writing this mini-series, but frankly, I’m sick of the “crisis” and more looking forward to just enjoying Trek. I’m not saying this my last entry in the series, but I’m hoping any subsequent entries amount to more of a denouement.

World of Filmcraft -er- Film Distribution

An article by K. M. McFarland in Wired about Warcraft the other week got me thinking about how the global marketplace for films has been changing.

Simply put, Warcraft has done dismally in the U.S. box office. Just $46 million as of last Friday. Against its $160 million production budget, that’s awful — all the more so when you realize that $160 million doesn’t account for “prints and advertising,” an ever-growing expense that can often equal the production budget.

But guess what? The U.S. box office accounts for a little less than 11% of Warcraft’s take. It’s made over $422 million worldwide so far, so its sequel is probably there if the studio wants it.

We’ve known for some time that Hollywood has been looking overseas to make a good chunk of its money. I think I first realized this focus with the 2004 film Troy. Its performance in the U.S. was unremarkable, even disappointing. It didn’t make its production budget of $175 million. But combined with its international haul, it made nearly $500 million theatrically.

We’ve known too that Hollywood, in its quest to finance ever-growing blockbuster budgets, has been getting funds from overseas. We can rattle off a host of tentpole films with scenes in China from The Dark Knight onward. And as of this year, tentpole financier Legendary Entertainment is a subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate. While Hollywood is an undeniable center of gravity in the film world, it now launches its projects with an eye to escape the orbit of the United States.

With Warcraft, we’re now seeing how some of these films might not only have interest in the global market, but how these films might be of interest in the global market excluding the United States. As a cultural/entertainment hegemon, this is a rather shocking development. As someone who grew up with the films of John Ford and Akira Kurosawa (aka films from outside of current time and space), I don’t find this necessarily bad… but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I sometimes enjoy being part of the cultural/entertainment hegemony.

Hegemonic feelings aside, I am somewhat concerned though that this trend will exacerbate the overall trend towards eliminating “mid-budget films.” Nowadays, I suppose that means films in the $40 million to $70 million range. Spielberg’s Lincoln would fit this model ($65 million), as would his more recent Bridge of Spies ($40 million). But besides ‘Oscar contender’ films, a whole host of solid, grown-up films used to be released with regularity by the studios. I suppose much of that content and its budgets have been transposed to TV, but I’m sure some potential film projects have been lost in the process.

And that’s a shame. Because there’s a place for those mid range movies among the dirt-cheap indies and the blockbuster features. And there’s a place for the people who make them. It reminds me of publishers and the “mid range authors,” a variety of writer that seems to have been on the way out for over a decade (you can read more about the decrease of mid-list authors both here and here).

I guess we’ll see. We’re also experiencing a huge uptick in scripted series, so it could be film projects haven’t really been lost so much as transformed into mini-series. In any case, I’ll be interested to see what Warcraft’s final numbers are, if there will be a sequel, and if this means there will be a whole new crop of Hollywood franchises that aren’t looking to make it big in the U.S. if they can make it big elsewhere.