The Star Trek fan-fiction tradition is almost as old as Star Trek itself: Since the premiere of The Original Series in 1966, fans have been making Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision their own in fan magazines, radio dramas, and an astounding number of independent television and movie productions. But after years of tolerating—although not actually sanctioning—fans playing Hollywood with their intellectual property, the owners of the Star Trek franchise recently released a set of new, restrictive guidelines for what fan filmmakers can get away with without being slapped with a cease-and-desist order—or worse, a lawsuit.
The announcement of the guidelines two weeks ago came as CBS and Paramount are embroiled in such a lawsuit with Axanar Productions producer Alec Peters, who last year raised more than $100,000 on Kickstarter to make his Trekkian mockumentary Prelude to Axanar. Peters used the short as a proof of concept for his next project, Axanar, which he touted as “the first fully professional independent Star Trek film.” That, it seems, is where he ran into trouble. Between Kickstarter and Indiegogo, Axanar raised more than 1 million dollars, and now CBS and Paramount are seeking damages for copyright infringement.
Axanar may be an exceptional example of fan-fiction ambition, but it’s not an anomaly: Star Trek fan films on the whole have grown increasingly sophisticated and expensive over the years, thanks in no small part to crowdfunding. After the last official Star Trek television series, Enterprise, fizzled out in 2005, Trekkie fan films entered a golden age, spurred on by a lack of new canonical material, unprecedented access to funds, and the ability to stream projects online for the world to see. Whereas in the 1970s you could make a pretty decent Trek short with just a Super 8 camera and some free time, over the past decade independent Star Trek films have begun to look more and more like the shows and movies they’re based on, achieving high production values, as in Horizon, an Enterprise-era movie that features some impressive computer-generated imagery. Some productions have even employed actors who have worked on the official franchise—the credits of Of Gods and Men, the 2008 feature film directed by Star Trek: Voyager’s Tim Russ, read more like a Trek reunion than a fan film, with Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols reprising their roles from The Original Series to lead a team that includes actors from just about every incarnation of Star Trek.
But while in the past films like Horizon and Of Gods and Men were allowed to go ahead without much interference from Star Trek’s owners, things have changed for the franchise. Paramount’s Star Trek Beyond, the third installment in its J.J. Abrams–led reboot, will hit theaters next week, while CBS is currently developing a new Trek series for the small screen, the first since Enterprise, set to debut in 2017. Axanar may not be the only production to push the limits of the meaning of “fan film,” but with its extraordinary budget and star-studded cast (which includes Trek veterans like Tony Todd and Gary Graham), it may have flown too close to the sun, putting itself in competition with the newly thriving official franchise. CBS and Paramount certainly seem to have considered it a credible threat—enough to take it to court, if need be, with a trial date set for January 2017 unless both parties can come to an agreement before then. In the meantime, dozens of other productions have been caught in the crossfire, and it looks like the very platform that enabled the Star Trek fan filmmaking tradition—crowdfunding—may now also have toppled it. The new guidelines for productions impose restrictions on length (films can be no longer than 15 minutes, or two segments no longer than 30 minutes) and professionalism (cast and crew must be amateurs and can have no prior affiliation with Star Trek). But the most devastating blow might just be the new rules regarding fundraising:
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.
CBS’s John Van Citters identified the ease of raising money on platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo as a major factor that led to the network identifying fan films as a problem. “With the explosion of crowdfunding, abuses have very definitely crept into the process,” he said on an episode of Engage, Star Trek’s official podcast. “The productions started spiraling larger and larger. There’s something of an arms race about how many Hollywood names could be attached, how many people who have previously worked on Trek, how many famous actors could you involve?” And when Jordan Hoffman, the podcast’s host, asked whether that arms race might put off filmmakers with fewer resources, Van Citters was quick to agree, framing the guidelines as a way to open up the tradition to amateurs, rather than shut it down.
Fascinatingly, Van Citters was also careful to specify that the fundraising limit specifically applies to how much can be raised in crowdfunding campaigns, not to a production’s total budget: “If you’ve got a rich Uncle Alfred who wants to throw $200,000 at you, we’re not looking at that.” (It’s worth noting that Vic Mignogna and Steven Dengler, the executive producers behind the TOS-inspired webs eries Star Trek Continues, poured more than $250,000 of their own money into the series, in addition to crowdfunding efforts.)
The issues at the heart of the Axanar case are complex—in addition to copyright infringement, CBS and Paramount are accusing the Axanar team of profiting from the production by paying themselves salaries, among other things. Abrams, who directed 2009’s Star Trek and 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, promised during a fan event back in May that the lawsuit would be going away at the behest of Justin Lin, the Beyond director who has sided, surprisingly, with Axanar over Paramount. But despite Abrams’ promise, the lawsuit rages on, and in the meantime, other Trekkie filmmakers have had to adapt. Federation Rising, the planned sequel to Horizon, pulled the plug before fundraising had even started, and Star Trek: Renegades, the follow-up to Of Gods and Men that raised more than $132,000 on Indiegogo, has dropped all elements of Star Trek from the production and is now just called Renegades. (Amusingly, this transition seems to have involved only slight tweaks, with the Federation becoming the Confederation, Russ’ character Tuvok becoming Kovok, and so on.) Other projects are stuck in limbo, waiting to hear from CBS whether they can boldly go forth with production—or whether this really does spell the end of the golden age of Star Trek fan films.
Axanar may very well have crossed a line, and CBS and Paramount are, of course, entitled to protect their properties. But in the process, they have suffocated, intentionally or otherwise, a robust and long-standing fan-fiction tradition, one that has produced remarkable labors of love like Star Trek Continues, which meticulously recreated the look and feel of the 1960s show, and an hourlong stop-motion film made by a German fan in tribute to Enterprise—a project almost eight years in the making. It’s a tradition that gave us web series like Star Trek: Hidden Frontier, which was exploring same-sex relationships in Star Trek well before the canon was ready to give us a mainstream, openly gay character. Heck, Of Gods and Men, for all its crazy (and thus, very Trek-appropriate) plot twists, produced some incredible performances—Nichelle Nichols in particular gets to show off her acting chops more than she ever had the opportunity to during the entire Original Series run. These films haven’t just been complements to official Star Trek productions—in many cases they’ve deepened their themes and carried forward their ideas. For that reason, they deserve more respect from CBS and Paramount—and certainly more than the 15-minute run times to which they are now limited.
Trekkies are a famously obsessive bunch, and there’s little doubt that they will continue to make movies and web series, either within the parameters of the new guidelines or in open defiance of them. But whether you blame Axanar for overstepping or CBS and Paramount for cracking down, the era of unbridled Star Trek fan creativity is coming to an end. I’m just sorry it couldn’t live longer and prosper.