If you have any plans on making a Star Trek themed fan film be very very careful.
Even after seven television series and thirteen movies, Star Trek’s existence is always precarious. The failure of a show like Star Trek: Enterprise, saved once from cancellation after its second season, kept Star Trek off television for a generation. Now, with Discovery airing behind the CBS All Access paywall, it’s the Star Trek movie series that has the uncertain future.
Mainstream sci-fi, the kind that can compete with Guardians of the Galaxy or The Expanse, is expensive. Variety pegs Star Trek: Discovery’s budget at more than $8 million per episode. Even with a reliable audience and a cultural ubiquity that approaches folklore, Star Trek can’t always find a market. But what if economics no longer mattered? What if, instead, Star Trek was free?
In 2014, Axanar Productions released Prelude to Axanar, a 20-minute, faux-Federation documentary on a war with the Klingon Empire, produced as proof-of-concept for a feature-length fan film. A few months after the blockbuster crowdfunding campaign, Axanar became the target of a copyright lawsuit from Paramount.
“They could have done that to any of us,” Tommy Kraft, director of feature-length fan film Star Trek: Horizon, told Player.One in 2016. “We all ‘violated copyright.’ Every little fan film that has 10 viewers technically violates copyright.”
This litigiousness is hardly unique to Trek.
“Historically, the way Star Trek and Disney and so on, the way that they work is they pretend they don’t see the stuff they like, so then they don’t have to worry about trademark dilution, and then they destroy anything that upsets them in some tiny way,” science fiction author (Walkaway, Little Brother, Pirate Cinema) and technology activist Cory Doctorow told Newsweek. “This is not a great way to influence a culture.”
Axanar Productions settled in 2017 after the PR firestorm encroached upon pre-release hype for Star Trek Beyond. J.J. Abrams and director Justin Lin gave comment, forcing a consequential response from CBS and Paramount: official guidelines for future fan films.
These guidelines state: “CBS and Paramount Pictures are big believers in reasonable fan fiction and fan creativity, and, in particular, want amateur fan filmmakers to showcase their passion for Star Trek.” But dig a little deeper and the rules strongly suggest otherwise. Limiting fan films to 15 minutes, codifying loopholes around terms like “offensive” and “reasonable,” insisting on officially licensed merchandise and banning appearances from former Star Trek cast members, the official “Guidelines for Avoiding Objections” illustrate how copyright holders foster public enthusiasm and creativity only to the extent of their advantage.
The onerous guidelines are already widely contravened, including by ongoing fan productions. Fan Film Factor counted sixty fan films in the eight months after the guidelines were released. The predicted chilling effect never came. But the existence of the guidelines inspires a simple question: what makes CBS and Paramount Pictures the best arbiters of a creative response to Star Trek?