Awaiting New Orders from Starfleet Command (i.e. CBS and Paramount)

This is the 21st entry in a surprisingly long series of posts about Star Trek’s future and its fandom called Crisis of Infinite Star Treks.

In April, Marc Perton over at Newsweek wrote a really good article about the Axanar lawsuit which, as much as anything, led me down the rabbit hole because that’s where I first learned of discord within the Star Trek fan and fan film community.  Then things got depressing. Suffice to say, I originally thought the lawsuit filed by CBS and Paramount against a Star Trek fan film production last December was an unhappy David vs. Goliath story involving corporations crushing fan fervor. Instead, I found the corporations are not exactly the bad guys in this matter (though they are still good at crushing).

Well, in any case, Mr. Perton back to comment on all the fun we’ve had in the past week with JJ Abrams’ announcement of the lawsuit “going away.” Specifically, he delves into the double-edged sword that is official fan film guidelines.

If you just want an excellent overview of what’s going on with, including the pros and cons of having fan film guidelines, I highly recommend you read that article. As I’ll get into, I think having some form of guidelines is a good idea and a long time coming, regardless of how people might feel about Axanar.

And strong feelings about Axanar abound, as a draft of Axanar’s proposed fan film guidelines has surfaced on the Interwebs this past week, prompting much analysis and hand-wringing. The G and T Show’s Shanna Gilkeson does a nice job of trying to sum up some more fannish concerns. If you are intrigued by learning what the those proposed guidelines are and you want to know more about the rigorous (and some might say rancorous) debate down in the fannish depths of the Briar Patch/Rabbit Hole, read on.

(If you’re not ready for that kind of real-life intrigue, go back and watch a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode that deals with intrigue. I suggest “Necessary Evil” as an excellent aperitif.)

So, again, the link above is to Axamonitor’s reporting of a draft of fan film guidelines. This information comes in part from a blog entry about creating the guidelines and engaging the fellow fan film producers. If you’re reading these posts now, it may not be obvious, but at one point, the fan productions involved were kept anonymous by Axamonitor. Then when furor about the leaked guidelines arose, and over the course of the weekend, the participants (or non-participants, see the Axanar published list) were discussed.

As you might imagine, multiple discussions have exploded over at the CBS/Paramount vs Axanar Facebook forum. Not only that, but many Star Trek fan productions have responded that they are absolutely not on board with Axanar or its guidelines. I was going to try and list all the tally of the responses from the fan film producers, but since I started writing this post, Axamonitor has published a list.

Remember: many many people really, really dislike Alec Peters or at least his actions.  These actions include Peters having bad things to say about other fan productions (as reported in the first Newsweek article). For Peters to be the face of the Star Trek fan community, especially the Star Trek fan film community regarding fan film guidelines, triggers their outrage meters. As I mentioned in my earlier, depressing post, I understand why several individuals feel the way they do about Alec Peters and Axanar — and in many cases, the feeling appears mutual. Know that if you explore these parts of the rabbit hole, it gets quite personal with invective thrown from both camps. While I don’t consider myself neutral, I also don’t feel the need to join forces flinging invective. In fact, I think I may feel closest to what the producers of Starship Melbourne said:

“I’ve never gone on record to bash anyone, I’ve nothing against Mr Peters, nor his production. But it seems as if every time there is some calming of the storm, something associated with him kicks the hornets nest. It’s hard to tell what’s the truth because nothing adds up. He does not speak for any of us in Melbourne.”

Now, that’s just one production. But the fact remains that over a dozen fan film productions –including the majority that Alec Peters reached out to in order to comment on the proposed guidelines– have not only officially distanced themselves from Alec Peters and the proposed guidelines, but also have firmly sided with the intellectual property (IP) owners: CBS and Paramount. That has led to the following image being used as many a person’s profile picture:

The Eye of CBS and P for Paramount. IP. It's a joke, ya Vulcan!

The Eye of CBS and P for Paramount. Eye, P. IP.         It’s a joke, ya Vulcan!

So, anyway, some people are angry just at fan film guidelines being flung about, because they’re meant to be drafts discussed in relative private as detailed here.

I understand the idea of wanting to have consensus and wanting to present the Napoleonic juggernaut that is the CBS/Paramount legal team with some form of formidable coalition, but really, that wasn’t going to happen given the aforementioned discord in the fan film community. And this was evidently a discussion to the fan film community on Facebook, not exactly known as a bastion of privacy. I understand wanting to point out that draft guidelines are draft, but when you’re introducing guidelines to be discussed by a community of members who don’t work for you on a forum that defaults towards openness, I can’t see how that’s “telling tales out of school.” Also, I squeezed the Charmin while I was typing this, so perhaps I am not to be trusted.

But seriously, when the overwhelming majority of the fan productions you reached out to publicly state that they want no part of you or your guidelines, the main problem is not that the draft guidelines were leaked.

Rounding out the weekend was a post from Mike Bawden, the PR director for Axanar. In it he muses about how the Star Trek fan film community is sadly toxic, that CBS and Paramount can no longer ignore the “sandbox” of fan film productions, and that there should be something more than guidelines with accountability being a key principle.

Naturally, critics of Axanar point to Axanar being one of the reasons the community is toxic, that Axanar has made the sandbox more of a litter box, and that the unofficial guidelines were perfect until Axanar came along.

But here’s a twist: I don’t entirely agree. In fact, I agree with a lot of what Mike Bawden had to say in his post.

Dude, you went there?

Dude, you went there?

Yes I did, Cap. And have a Snickers. You haven’t been yourself recently.

I like the idea of CBS/Paramount providing “more than guidelines” because I want this to be a way in which they actively engage with fans versus passively allowing people to express their fandom.

I like the idea of licenses, though that’s a whole huge discussion about how they are to be properly non-commercial and not an administrative burden.

And I absolutely think there needs to be discussion within the fan and fan film (and fan of fan film) community about what the guidelines might be. Yes, Star Trek fan film producers may have the loudest voices on this score for good reason: they and their productions are directly on the line. But they are supported by thousands of other fans, so why ignore good ideas from people who want to see good fan productions? (This speaks also to Mike Bawden’s mention of “super-fans” and why Mike Bawden can raise good ideas along with everyone else).

As I previously mentioned, I am not a fan film producer, but I have produced and continue to produce and cast indie films and web series — and in my experience, I much prefer to deal with official guidelines than unofficial “understandings.”

In fact, not having any official guidelines is one of the reasons I haven’t done fan films. I salute all those people who have gone ahead and made Star Trek fan films in such a risky environment — and it’s precisely because those fun fan films could be taken away that I want there to be official guidelines.

I want that because I’ve been faced with something similar as an indie film producer.

You young whipper-snappers may not remember the ancient days before 2005, but back in the day, the film actors’ union SAG (now merged and called SAG-AFTRA) did not have the low budget agreements they have now. They’ve also made great strides with the New Media agreement. Heck, they didn’t even have the snazzy website they have now where you can easily download all sorts of documents and get the ball rolling.

These agreements are not without their headaches — not in the least that they add paperwork. However, between the Short Film agreement and the New Media agreement you have two vehicles that allow you to work with professional, SAG-AFTRA actors –including actors who appeared in official Star Trek series– for free.

Yes, for free.

That’s because for the SAG-AFTRA short film agreement, the student film agreement, and the New Media agreement, compensation may be both negotiated and deferred. This deferred salary must still adhere to Federal and State minimum wage laws, and they are employees, not independent contractors, so that overtime kicks in after 8 hours, but that can all be deferred.

Yes, things get a bit more complex, but basically, if you are a non-commercial project, you can enter in this agreement in good faith, not expecting to ever make money and therefore not pay the cast — you just have a legal agreement to pay the cast if certain conditions are met (generally getting distribution where SAG-AFTRA commercial agreements usually apply).

This is not theoretical nor is it some loophole of which SAG-AFTRA is somehow unaware.

Every year, hundreds of short films are made with SAG-AFTRA actors for competitions like the 48 Hour Film Project. Technically, the actors are receiving “deferred pay,” but effectively they receive no pay. Ever.

Every year, hundreds of student films are made with SAG-AFTRA actors who do not expect nor will ever get money for their participation. Hopefully they get a great acting experience with an up-and-coming filmmaker and the student film gets into a bunch of festivals, but only in rare exceptions would it ever get into a situation where revenue is earned on the film. Hence, the actors receive no pay.

It is the order of things.

It is the order of things.

This is expected. This is accepted.

The reason SAG-AFTRA offers these contracts is because they function as essentially “research & development” films: films that simply aren’t going to get onto the distribution channels where big money is. (By the way, Actor’s Equity, the union for professional stage actors, has “codes” and “plans” which are similar). If you read the low budget and deferred pay agreements closely, you’ll see that they all roll back to the “basic” SAG-AFTRA agreements if revenue occurs. In other words, in the odd event that your student film suddenly gets a distribution deal with Netflix, your web series gets onto Hulu, or your indie feature is going to be featured on IFC, then the actors get paid what they’re usually due.

But effectively, you’re getting a talented actor “for free.”

Note that “for free” doesn’t mean that’s there’s no cost to you, the fan film producer. Besides treating them well on set, having decent food, and decent hours, you might need to spring for their transportation costs, putting them up in a decent hotel, and paying for other incidentals. Basically, you’re making sure that the only thing the professional actor has to give you is their time — and the implicit arrangement is that this is their time well spent on something they’ll find fun and/or rewarding.

And, of course, the professional actor has to agree to this arrangement. They don’t have to. This is their union simply giving them a formal, kosher way to perform in less-than-commercial projects.

Do I love the SAG-AFTRA agreements? Not particularly. Who wants to do more paperwork if they don’t have to? But I love that, if I follow a set of publicly available and official rules, I can always work with professional actors who want to work with me.

Frankly, it always boggles me when I encounter indie filmmakers who go to enormous lengths to avoid following the rules, but still want to use union actors. (especially in our area, where our local SAG-AFTRA office is quite friendly).

So while I know people have been very happy with the unofficial Star Trek guidelines, I also know all the uncertainty we filmmakers had before we had improved SAG-AFTRA guidelines and agreements.

And that’s why I say the current unofficial Star Trek fan film guidelines are not perfect. Because at any time, any of the these fan productions could go away due to CBS and Paramount having a bad day. Some fan films are suspending production as I type because of the current uncertainty.

And you can say it’s all Axanar’s fault, but that doesn’t matter: because we have every reason to believe that when CBS/Paramount says fan film guidelines are coming that guidelines are, in fact coming. For better or worse, the old way is going away. Don’t you want to talk about what would work for you or not?

(Incidentally, this appears to be a point on which Axanar and Axamonitor agree, at least in part: Mike Bawden wrote of the fan community discussing guidelines in his post and Carlos Pedraza wrote about guideline discussion in a post this past week).

You remember seeing “all rights reserved” next to some copyrights? Well here CBS and Paramount are offering the fans a way where all rights are not reserved all of the time. They don’t have to do this. Look at what the fan productions said above. So many mentioned how thankful they were to CBS and Paramount for being allowed to play in the sandbox. You don’t need to throw those thanks away when you’re talking about how you might want to play in the sandbox.

So talk. Please. Believe me: they may not be receptive to any guidelines you give them, but they’re likely to be more receptive before they issue guidelines than after. And since the worst case scenario is you never get to do another Star Trek fan film, is it really bad to discuss what your best case scenario to make a Star Trek fan film might be?

Please let me know about these fannish confabs in the comments or other channels (for those of you who know them). I will update this post about good forums where the conversation is going on. There doesn’t have to unity. There should be discussion. Keep it polite. Keep it positive. And as CBS and Paramount are corporations, but they’re staffed by humans. Some of them even want to engage with fans.

And that brings us back, briefly to Axanar, Alec Peters, and the draft guidelines kerfuffle. In the best possible scenario, it sounds like Alec Peters felt Axanar had a unique channel to speak to the humans at these corporations, and perhaps help focus some communication from theStar Trek fan film community. The community has decided otherwise. In fact, they’ve effectively said, “no.” You gotta Vulcan up and accept that.

And I need to accept, based on reading the fan production statements above that perhaps there won’t be that fannish conclave about guidelines. It could be that everyone has decided to wait. Wait for Starfleet Command to issue orders to its fleet of fan productions.

I can only hope when the order is given, it’s, “Warp speed.”

7 responses to “Awaiting New Orders from Starfleet Command (i.e. CBS and Paramount)

  1. Incisive post, Bjorn, and I’m happy Axamonitor was helpful where it could be to your effort.

    I did have a similar reaction to Mike Bawden’s post as you — the future is changing fan films. Not sure how or how much, but we know why. And people should be having a say. I’m not sure there’s a forum or forums yet for that to happen and be recorded, but that may be an important next step.

    • Yeah, I imagine there should be a place accessible to all and not deemed too partisan. Maybe someone needs to create that website/forum. I checked and, sadly, the domain “khitomer.com” is already taken.

      I don’t think StarTrek.com has a forums section, but perhaps they could be encouraged to have such a section or a blog post with moderated comments or something. Being in that location might help in terms of keeping people polite. It would probably enrage the Pakled Marines who feel Star Trek is theirs to make go as they see fit, but that’s no great loss for actual discussion.

  2. I’d considered setting up a Facebook group to be a forum of sorts as an extension of FanFilmFactor.com , but I fear it’ll be too hard to keep the group civil. There’s just too many fans on both sides of the Axanar fence looking to toss their grenades at each other.

    • Good point (and thank you for even considering it — that’s no small task). What about a series of surveys about guidelines that include text boxes for some questions? There would still be grenades, but they’d be in a contained within the survey results, so less chance of setting off troll fights within comment threads.

  3. Possibly. I’m also worried that, no sooner do I set up this forum than CBS/P come out with their new guidelines and the point becomes moot. I suspect the studios aren’t viewing this as a democracy. 🙂

    • Ha! True. And the studios are right to not view this as a democracy. I’m continually surprised by the comments by some fans who seem to feel that making fan films is a right, perhaps even protected by the first amendment (!) However, thinking of the fan films as a form of marketing and fan engagement, I can see how they wouldn’t be democratic, but wouldn’t be entirely authoritarian.

  4. Pingback: Crisis of Infinite Star Treks: The Guidelines Hit The Fan | Bjorn Munson

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