The STAR TREK Fanfilm Guidelines Saved Fanfilms

How the rules protect the little guy.

It was only a matter of time. Axanar was the straw that broke the camel's back, but that camel's back had been getting loaded up with straws for some time. Axanar is a 'fanfilm' set in the Star Trek universe, but it resembles no fanfilm you've ever heard of before. It raised $500,000 on IndieGogo, it boasted that it was 'fully professional' and it features contributions by people who have professionally worked on Trek behind the scenes. On top of all that it's envisioned as a full length feature film, not a short. 

There was a lawsuit against the people making Axanar, and there's been some back and forth about how that would go (at one point JJ Abrams announced the lawsuit was being dropped... but nobody told Paramount's lawyers, and it wasn't dropped), and then last week CBS and Paramount - the people who own Star Trek  - released their guidelines for all future fan productions. You can read about that here

People freaked out, claiming that the guidelines were too restrictive and would kill full lenth fan movies and fan TV series. Yes, that is exactly the point. And I don't think it's a bad thing. 

There's a difference between some fans getting together and making a thing that both excercises their filmmaking abilities and pays homage to something they love and people making a professional grade product. The new guidelines help delineate that difference, and in doing so they protect the little guys who want to make fanfilms. 

Over the years CBS has been really lenient with fanwork, allowing it to flourish as long as it was non-commercial - ie, nobody was making any money off of it. That seems fair to me, and I can't really imagine a strong argument against it (beyond arguments against copyright, and those tend to be about creativity, not about your right to make money off someone else's work). They've certainly been more lenient than other rights holders; Warner Bros has been tough on Harry Potter fans in the past. 

But as Axanar shows there's been a convergence of things that change the fanfilm landscape. Thanks to prosumer technology it's easier than ever to make professional grade fanfilms. Thanks to crowdfunding it's possible to raise unheard of budgets for these productions. And because a generation of geeks have become adults and gotten industry experience it's very easy to get high quality talent behind and in front of the camera. All of a sudden the very concept of a fanfilm is obliterated as the line between professional and amateur is completely erased. When there are Trek fan productions starring original Trek actors in the roles they played on Trek - see Star Trek: Renegades starring Tim Russ as Tuvok, his Star Trek Voyager character - the line is simply gone. These are no longer fan productions. 

But rather than just nuke it all, CBS and Paramount made decisions that I believe protect the real, every day fans - ie, not the people who are able to raise a half million dollars and hire Trek actors - while still protecting their own interests. And these rules present an outline for all other popular properties that want to encourage fan engagement without leaving the door open to professionals making cash off their property. The basic creativity of fans can be allowed to flourish while the people who own the property feel like they're not getting screwed.

Because the reality is that without rules like these the only other options are for the property owner to just throw up their hands and let anyone make and sell stuff based on their IP (coming this fall: Disney's fanfilm of Batman!) or be truly draconian and allow nothing at all, to cruise YouTube all day sending takedown notices for any small, goofy fanwork. Without these rules any enforcement seems unfair and arbitrary, which is definitely not the vibe CBS and Paramount want to project. They want to give people the boundaries that will allow them to play in their universe. And I don't think it's crazy to say that fans shouldn't be making multi-season TV series featuring characters someone else owns.

These rules are the path to a future of harmony between fanfic and fanfilm creators and the people who own the properties they love. I think that these rules are fandom's own Khitomer Accords, and that they're paving the way for peace, happiness and plenty of fanwork from regular fans. 

For more on CBS' thought process behind the new fanfilm rules, listen to the latest episode of Star Trek Engage, the official Star Trek podcast. It's a very good episode, and it's available everywhere you get your podcasts.

Don't forget to pre-order our special 50th anniversary of Star Trek issue of BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH. magazine! Six bucks cheap!