Thursday, June 23, 2016

CBS & Paramount Finally Release Their Fan-Film Guidelines

by SandWyrm

I have no idea where the Axanar settlement talks are going right now, but CBS and Paramount have collectively released a new set of fan-film guidelines. Many of them are reasonable, some are a bit irksome, and a few are downright awful.

So I'll just go ahead and list them here, while I snowmobile my comments in. If you want to look at the original page of rules without my comments, follow this link.

Anyway, on with the snowmobiling...

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. Therefore, CBS and Paramount Pictures will not object to, or take legal action against, Star Trek fan productions that are non-professional and amateur and meet the following guidelines.
 Ok, sounds good so far. Clear rules are good for everyone.
Guidelines for Avoiding Objections: 
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.
OK, first, it's hard to tell a story of any real depth in 15 (or 30) minutes. It can be done though.

But then they're basically saying that you can't make another film after that. At all. Do they really mean to say that, or is this rule just poorly worded?

If you take the most pessimistic reading of this, it basically kills ALL of the established fan series, and makes it difficult to justify building decent sets at all – as you'd only be able to use them once.

Maybe there would be some ways to get around this, such as companies forming to build generic not-quite-Trek sets that could then be rented out to fan productions, which would then only have to add the emblems and little details that would actually make it a "Star Trek" set for the length of the production. Then the decals come off and it's generic Sci-Fi set A once again.

But then we're back into the legal grey areas that Axanar wandered galloped into, and which CBS/P could then change the rules for mid-production.
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.
This, on the other hand, seems perfectly reasonable.
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.
Again, this seems reasonable. Some of the fan-productions were using old unpublished TOS/Phase 2 Trek scripts, and this would put a stop to that.
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.
This is a bit restrictive, but maybe not as bad as some people are saying. They're not allowing you to use bought costumes that aren't licensed, which makes certain Trek periods harder to do. But I don't see anything that says you can't make your own costumes and props, or that you can't use donated/lent items that you don't pay anything for.

I can see ways around this, like separate productions forming cooperatives that make and store their costumes/props so that any of the member productions can use them non-commercially.

Or somebody makes a bunch of freeware 3D printer files of common props/emblems/etc., and all anyone has to do is print them up. Things will be moving that way eventually anyhow.

Hell, I'm sure I could find a Star Trek 2/3 Movie-Style Phaser on Thingverse right now...
Oh look! I did! And it only took 20 seconds!
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.
And here is the big FU to Axanar for going too far.

But it's also a middle finger to Trek vets who have appeared in, or helped with the production of, quite a few fan flicks other than Axanar. George Takei and Walter Koenig have both reprised their roles in fan-films to great acclaim, and quite a few scripts have been written by former Trek writers.

And then there's the simple fact that 80% of all the fan-film space effects have essentially been created by a single guy, who used to work on DS9/Voyager. Banning him from working on fan productions pretty much torpedoes everyone's special effects plans, and likely blacklists him from working in effects at all.

I could understand productions being forbidden to pay former Trek workers for their services, but forbidding their participation at all really drives a wedge between those workers and the fan productions. Destroying a set of healthy love-of-Trek based pro-fan relationships, and setting a stinky precedent for what actors, writers, and production people are allowed to do on their own time long after their formal relationships with CBS/Paramount have ended.

Really, all that could have just been added to all new CBS/P contracts instead.

It's not like Axanar hasn't lost professional actors and crew to what they saw as line-crossing by Peters anyhow. And what do they care if Patrick Stewart or Scott Bakula decide to devote a few afternoons to appearing in a fan film for the sake of a storyline about something they care deeply about? It's only the current Trek actors that they shouldn't want participating in what could be seen as competing products.

So in short: Dick Move

This is also where I start shaking my head at all the fan-production in-fighting that happened when Peters tried to form some kind of consensus amongst the fan-film producers on what kind of rules they would like to see established by CBS/P.

Yeah, Peters might well be a jerk, but Hollywood is full of jerks, and nobody else was stepping up to fill a leadership role that the fan-production community needed in order to secure its interests. Now you all have this. Yeah, maybe it's Peters' fault for kicking the hornet's nest, but you all still lost because you couldn't unite to protect your interests.

If you don't like the guy that's trying to stand up for you, then stand up yourselves. It didn't have to be Peters. It could have been James Cawley, who AFAIK still has good relations with CBS/P, or anyone else who headed up a production. Instead, you all acted like a bunch of high-schoolers and started flaming each other on Twitter/Facebook and other media, while CBS/P then felt free to release a very restrictive set of rules with no push back or compromises. Yay. You're all a bunch of idiot Starks.
6) The fan production must be non-commercial:
  • 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.
Given that Kickstarter charges at least 8% for its service, this really means that fan-productions will be limited to a single episode budget of no more than $46,000.

This is the real gut-punch to the fan-production community, as it will push the quality of fan films back down to the levels seen in the first episodes of Cawley's New Voyages. Which was fine at the time, but the better fan series' are running around $600K for a 45 minute episode currently, and the production values have gotten much better.

I think a more reasonable level would have been $220K per "episode" (200K after crowdfunding fees). Especially if you take the most restrictive reading of rule #1, and assume that one two-part half-hour story is all you're allowed to do ever.

We'd still be talking peanuts compared to a TV or movie budget though.
  • The fan production must only be exhibited or distributed on a no-charge basis and/or shared via streaming services without generating revenue.
And this is quite reasonable.

Although, if I were CBS, I would be looking for a way to encourage fan-made content for their upcoming streaming service. Maybe with some modest kickbacks or higher budget/time allowances if they want to pick a series up.
  • The fan production cannot be distributed in a physical format such as DVD or Blu-ray.
  • 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 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.
  • The fan production cannot derive revenue by selling or licensing fan-created production sets, props or costumes.
This is obviously targeted right at Axanar, but again, it seems reasonable.
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.
Ya know, I can think of quite a few times when Trek has used disparaging or offensive (to some) stories/themes/images in the name of social commentary.

Like this "obscenity" that caused quite a row back in the more racist 60's.

Or Q making a point to Picard in the very first episode of TNG about how humans used to control their soldiers with drugs (very appropriate considering the later drugging of pilots in Gulf War One).

Or Data portraying Sherlock Holmes...

I mean, I see CBS/P's position here. They don't want to have to worry about some group getting mad about something someone put in a fan film, and then be expected to "make it right" during an outcry.

But this rule cuts off at the legs what it means to make a "Star Trek" production in the first place. Trek was always about pushing boundaries and forcing us to reconsider what we assumed to be true about societal norms.

In the 60's, it challenged our notions of race, attitudes towards youth, sex, and everything else that people took for granted at the time.

In present and future, it could well be the vehicle for challenging our notions of "Democracy", or free trade, or nation-building. It could, like Game of Thrones, challenge our more naive notions of heroism and leadership. Or the insanity of allowing elites to break society up into little single-interest groups that fight each other over ideology and language, instead of pursuing policies that benefit everyone equally in the real world we all live in.

Or even just criticize Trump and Hillary by making them aliens on another planet.

Put simply, Trek... Real Trek... is about rocking the boat. A safe Trek that offends nobody isn't Trek. Because good Trek stories, whether you agree with their parables or not, are always about questioning that which we take for granted.

Take everything offensive out of Trek and you just have a mellower version of Star Wars where you're never asked to think about hard questions. Big, flashy, and ultimately forgettable. Hell, even Abrams' new Star Wars with Emo-Ren is more deep and thought-provoking than the last four Trek movies combined.

This, more than anything else in this list, is what I take offense to as someone who wants to see more fan films. And no, you can't blame Peters for this act of cowardice on CBS/P's part. They could have stuck to normal industry standards and FCC laws as for what is allowed to be shown/said on TV, without requiring that nobody ever be offended by it.
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.” 
9) Creators of fan productions must not seek to register their works, nor any elements of the works, under copyright or trademark law. 
10) Fan productions cannot create or imply any association or endorsement by CBS or Paramount Pictures.
 This is all very reasonable.
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.
And here's the final clincher. CBS/P can change the rules at any time, and for any reason.

What the fan productions should immediately demand (if they can choose a leader) is a licensing system with a formal contract and administrative fee. So that the rules they must follow cannot be changed in the middle of their productions.

Otherwise, given the constraints of these rules, nearly every production will seek to "stretch" them in some way. Giving rise to the very kind of uncertainty about being sued that these rules are supposed to help avoid.

Pragmatically, CBS/P should not see this as a cost center, but as a potential revenue stream. How many fan-Trek productions that begin ever finish? I'm betting it's less than 10%. But if every wannabe Trek filmmaker is required to pay an administrative fee *before* beginning production, then the revenue could fully support the staff required to police the terms of the licenses.

(end of rant)


  1. Thank you indeed for that excellent breakdown. I've been keeping up with this since your initial reports on the trial of Axanar, and I appreciate you taking the time to offer such a detailed and succinct explanation of how it will impact films past and present. I can only hope that this will be of help to future fan film creators despite the obvious issues.

    1. I think it will help if it's the starting point for negotiations and compromises that can give the fan productions more financial and storytelling freedom, as well as more certainty that the rules won't be arbitrarily changed on them.

      But I don't see that happening unless the various fan-producers can unite and use their fanbases as a bargaining chip.

      If these rules don't change at all, then you'll see little more than cotton-candy space-battles, and quick joke parodies that wouldn't need CBS/P's permission to exist in the first place. We should hope for better than that.

  2. Must not show 'harmful' or 'threatening' material?! Wow, so no Klingons then, no drama, no adventures and no battles or conflict. May as well not bother.

  3. Hello SandWyrm! I've been away from your blog from too long! There is an effort underfoot by fans of fan productions to effect change in the guidelines called Project SMALL ACCESS. Here's a link to our Facebook group:

    Take a look when you have a moment, I'd like to know what you think.


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