Q: So what is Axanar, anyway? Is it a prescription drug, or something? Wait, I think I read about this, it’s that “female Viagra” thing that–
A: No, no, no. Axanar was a pivotal battle in the history of the Federation, fought by Garth of Izar before his descent into madness. It was taught to every cadet at Starfleet Academy, and Kirk expressed his personal admiration for Garth’s strategems. Fans have long theorized that the enemy was the Klingons, which is the version that the FASA roleplaying game went with, but other canon scholars have pointed out that the Klingon war has always been described elsewhere as a “cold war”, which doesn’t quite fit. It was referenced in the Classic Series episode, “Whom Gods Destroy”. Doesn’t that help?
Q: No. No, it really does not.
A: Okay. Just take my word for it, it’s a Star Trek reference, and one that’s causing a pretty big scandal right now. See, a group of fans led by producer Alec Peters decided to make a fan film about it, with Richard Hatch and Tony Todd. The fan film would expand on the tiny references in the original episode to show an exciting, untold chapter in the history of the Federation long before Kirk captained his first ship.
Q: This is a scandal?
A: By nerd standards, it is.
Q: Okay, so these guys are making a movie about this Star Trek trivia question. Did they have Paramount’s permission?
A: According to an article published last August in ‘The Wrap’, “Peters said he and his team met with CBS last week but the network didn’t offer any specific guidelines concerning what his crew can and cannot do — the network simply told him that they can’t make money off the project.”
(Edited to add: An article in Wired, in July of 2014, clarified this to: “Paramount, which owns the franchise, has traditionally allowed these fan-made projects to move forward, as long as they agree not to sell anything—including tickets, merchandise, or copies of the finished film or series. With sales prohibited, funding had always been a limitation for movies like Axanar, but Kickstarter offered a new way to raise a sizable budget.”)
Q: Oh, so they’re cool with it.
A: No, they’re suing. They want an injunction and punitive damages for copyright infringement.
Q: Wow, what a dick move! And after Paramount said it was okay back in August, too!
A: Well, keep in mind that there’s a quote from Paramount in that same article that says, “CBS has not authorized, sanctioned or licensed this project in any way, and this has been communicated to those involved. We continue to object to professional commercial ventures trading off our property rights and are considering further options to protect these rights.” So Peters may have been reading some encouragement in that wasn’t there.
Q: Oh. But I mean, it was a fan film, right?
A: According to Axanar Productions it is. Their press release in response to being sued says, “Axanar is a fan film. Fan films – whether related to Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Power Rangers, Batman or any other franchise – are labors of love that keep fans engaged, entertained, and keep favorite characters alive in the hearts of fans. Like other current fan films, AXANAR entered production based on a very long history and relationship between fandom and studios. We’re not doing anything new here.
Like all fan films, AXANAR is a love letter to a beloved franchise. For nearly 50 years, Star Trek’s devotees have been creating new Star Trek stories to share with fellow fans. That’s all we’re trying to do here.”
Q: Then why are they being sued? Paramount allows lots of these things, don’t they?
A: Oh, yeah. “Star Trek Renegades”, “Star Trek: Of Gods and Men”, “Star Trek Continues”…basically, it seems like as long as nobody’s making any money, Paramount turns a blind eye to these fan films.
Q: But this one they wouldn’t? Why?
A: Well, there is the fact that, in an update on Axanar’s Indigogo campaign, they said, “EVERYTHING costs more when you are a professional production and not a fan film. All of this and more is explained, along with our budget of how we spent the money in the Axanar Annual Report.”
And in that latest annual budget report, they said, “First and foremost, it is important to remember that what started out as a glorified fan film is now a fully professional production. That means we do things like a studio would. And of course, that means things cost more. We don’t cut corners. We don’t ask people to work full time for no pay. And the results speak for themselves.”
“Please note that we are a professional production and thus RUN like a professional production. That means our full time employees get paid. Not much honestly, but everyone has bills to pay and if you work full time for Axanar, you get paid.
Also, no other fan film has production insurance like we do. We pay $ 12,000 a year for that. Again, a professional production.”
Also, in their Indiegogo FAQ, they had this little gem:
“Q: What is Axanar Productions?
Axanar is not just an independent Star Trek film; it is the beginning of a whole new way that fans can get the content they want, by funding it themselves. Why dump hundreds or thousands of dollars a year on 400 cable channels, when what you really want is a few good sci-fi shows? Hollywood is changing. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other providers are redefining content delivery, and Axanar Productions/Ares Studios hopes to be part of that movement.”
Which kind of contradicts the “fan film” statement.
And in their Kickstarter campaign, they said, “We have two potential locations we are negotiating for to serve as our sound stage in Valencia, CA, just north of LA. This will be the permanent home of Axanar Productions and allow us to do more than just Axanar, from other adventures in the Star Trek universe and beyond.”
So they were, in fact, securing a long-range lease on a studio space that they planned to use to make for-profit productions, using money donated to them for their “labor of love”. And also money that was ‘donated’ by fans who got, in exchange for their ‘donations’, Starfleet patches and model kits of Klingon warships (which are apparently still available for purchase). None of which was licensed from Paramount, and the boundary between “selling merchandise” and “accepting donations and providing ‘perks’ to people who donate” is mostly semantics.
(Edited to add: It’s so slap-you-in-the-face obvious that I didn’t see the forest for the trees, but Kickstarter backers are also getting copies of the film on DVD in exchange for their donations. Which is pretty much just selling copies of the DVD under another name, something absolutely verboten by Paramount.)
That might be why they’re being sued and other people aren’t. Or it may be that they have money (they raised a million bucks with their Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns) and other fan productions don’t.
Q: Wait, fans gave them a million bucks? Wow, that’s a gutsy move, knowing the huge risks involved.
Well, they kind of downplayed the risks in the Kickstarter campaign. Here’s what they said:
“Risks and challenges
There are always risks and challenges when making a film – actors dropping out, locations and/or sets not available, unforeseen costs, equipment trouble, etc. In addition, “Star Trek” is a licensed property of CBS and so they have the final say in any Star Trek venture. However, the Axanar team has dealt with CBS and knows the landscape that must be navigated. Every member of the Axanar team is a professional who has proven their skills on other projects and films.”
Q: Well, maybe they were optimistic. I mean, even if they had some technical violations, surely they’d built up some goodwill with Paramount that would allow them to work all this out, right?
Um, yeah, about that…the producer is on record as saying, “The new ‘Star Trek’ movies by J.J. Abrams left fans feeling cold. There was little ‘Star Trek’ about them. They were basically modern action movies with characters that we didn’t recognize. And while good movies … ‘Star Trek’ fans just felt they weren’t the ‘Star Trek’ they had grown up with.”
And the director said, “We’ve seen orbital dry-docks since 1979’s THE MOTION PICTURE, so, one should absolutely honor that. Seeing imagery which runs contrary to established TREK lore shatters the verisimilitude of the universe for the longtime fan base,” and “The very last thing I’m interested in is making a pew, pew, pew STAR TREK movie.” The goodwill well might be a little dry. Especially because in the ‘Wrap’ article from August, Peters said they weren’t worried about being sued because Paramount would be afraid to face fan backlash.
Q: Oh. Well, what happens now? I mean, how do they keep actors like Tony Todd in the face of this setback?
A: Tony Todd left the project back in September, citing creative differences.
Q: Then why his his face still up on the Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and company page as being attached to the product, on pages where they’re actively soliciting donations?
A: You’d have to ask Alec Peters about that. We’re a FAQ, not a mind-reader.
Q: So basically, Axanar was doing things that Paramount specifically forbade, raising money by selling bootleg merch to fund their own production company, flaunting their professional credentials until such time as they became inconvenient, and using an actor’s likeness to promote a project he wasn’t attached to? Wow, the fans must really be upset at Axanar Productions.
A: Ahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Oh, you sweet summer child, you. They’re threatening a boycott of the Trek movie and upcoming TV series if Paramount doesn’t back down, and saying that Paramount is only doing this because they’re afraid they’ll be embarrassed by how good Axanar is compared to the J.J. Abrams movies. Some of them are claiming that Paramount would lose a lawsuit anyway because it was fan enthusiasm that kept Trek going in the 70s so the property really belongs to them anyway. Oh, and at least one fan has suggested “doing a Kickstarter” to buy the rights to Star Trek completely.
Q: I’m not entirely sure how to respond to that.
A: Maybe heavy drinking?
Q: Good idea. So where does all this go from here? What happens next?
A: Eh, y’know. Everyone lawyers up, other fan productions clench their collective sphincters for a while, people sign petitions, then the next Trek movie comes out and makes $500 million. Ares Studios settles out of court, cashes in their completion bond, tells everyone, “Caveat Emptor, read the Risks and Challenges section, no refunds,” and makes a low-budget sci-fi movie with the rest of the Kickstarter money.
Q: Wow, that’s cynical.
A: Sci-fi utopias are still a few hundred years away.