Profound disappointment is what many Star Trek fans feel today. No, I’m not referring to the recently released trailer for the upcoming Star Trek: Beyond film, although many fans have voiced similar sentiment to that.
Axanar, the fan-fueled, independent Star Trek production that famously raised over $1 million on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, is being sued by Paramount and CBS, the owners of Star Trek’s film and television rights.
In classic, Grinch-fashion, the rights holders filed the lawsuit on Christmas Day. Not only are they seeking to shut down production of the film, but they seek damages for “direct, contributory and vicarious copyright infringement.”
At this point, some of you are thinking, “duh, they own the rights to Star Trek, so why wouldn’t they sue?” and some of you are thinking, “but the owners have allowed fans to produce independent Star Trek films since the 1970s.” Both groups are correct … with an asterisk.
*Star Trek fans have long produced independent films featuring the settings, characters, species, and themes established in the official films and television shows. Many of these films feature actors from the franchise reprising their roles, or appearing in new ones. Allegedly, the guidance to these filmmakers from CBS and Paramount, including to Axanar’s producer, Alex Peters, according to his statement after meeting with CBS in August 2015, has been that the films cannot make money. CBS and Paramount have also made clear that they do not endorse or sanction these productions, and reserve the right to protect their property. That said, they have not taken legal action against similar fan films in the past, setting a precedent that has been enjoyed by fan productions and their viewers … and allowed those involved to sleep at night.
For the record, Axanar’s producers have frequently stated that they are not profiting from this project, but are investing the money generated from crowdfunding directly in the production, which will be distributed for free.
What differentiates Axanar from other fan films is that it was the first to cross the million-dollar mark via crowdfunding, and has billed itself as a professional quality production. Other Star Trek, fan productions have generated hundreds of thousands of dollars, and similarly featured professional actors and crew, but have never garnered such a response from the rights holders, and have frequently fallen short of professional production quality. Star Trek: Renegades, a recent, fan production, unrelated to Axanar, raised nearly $400k via crowdfunding, featured Star Trek veterans, including Walter Koenig reprising his role as Pavel Chekov, and confusingly billed itself as a “pilot”, which is an industry term for the first episode intended to launch a series. Its first episode was released to mixed response from fans/critics. Side note: historically, all Star Trek fans are critics.
Many, vocal Star Trek fans, a group which is comprised of both advocates and detractors, suspected that this moment would come. The farther along Axanar has gone, and the more money it has raised, the more rumblings have … rumbled … that this may be the first production to be shut down for intellectual property infringement. Many advocates, including Axanar’s team, have confidently suggested that this, and other fan films, are good for the brand, as they keep fans engaged (see what I did there?), and generate awareness for Star Trek. That may have been true in the past, but, in light of the upcoming feature film, Star Trek: Beyond and the recently announced television series, exclusively available on the CBS All Access streaming platform, Paramount and CBS may be more concerned about brand dilution, confusion, and competition, particularly as the videos and stills released from the Axanar team demonstrate that they are delivering on the professional standards that they have promised all along.
The biggest civil war since the infamous Kirk vs. Picard conflict of 1987 has been raging since the JJ Abrams helmed reboot in 2009. The creators of the film constructed a plot device wherein the original shows and movies were left untouched in the “Prime Universe”, and a new reality, inhabited by recast incarnations of the original series’ characters, but many fans have refused to accept the new movies as “true-Trek”. This sentiment reached new volume when the trailer for Star Trek: Beyond was released … on December 15, 2015. Upon viewing the dirt bike-laden, action-heavy, Beastie Boys accompanied preview, many longtime fans took to social media to voice their … concerns. Angry, angry concerns. Among the comments, many fans expressed solace that Axanar was on the horizon, fulfilling their need for “true-Trek”, and highlighting the divide between fans, as well as between fan-films and the creative direction the franchise is taking. Is it a coincidence that this lawsuit was filed within weeks of the trailer’s reaction?
The Star Trek franchise has long relied on its passionate fans. Famously, the original series was revived from cancellation after a fan-fueled letter-writing campaign to NBC. That fanbase has continued to support the property from movie to movie, and series to series, purchasing billions of dollars in merchandise, and, yes, producing their own, independent films … love letters to their favorite, fictional universe. Will this action by Paramount and CBS change that relationship? And do Paramount and CBS care if it does?
The reboot movies have introduced Star Trek to a new generation of fans and generated the most money out of any films in its history, although 1982’s Wrath of Khan, long considered the best by many fans, is #1 if adjusted for inflation. Now that Paramount and CBS have a new swath of fans to profit from, logically(!), the old, die-hard fans are less important, and, since they’re infamously hard to appease, maybe Star Trek’s owners aren’t so sad to see them go.
What do you think? Will Star Trek continue to live long and prosper, despite its owners’ new stance toward fan films, or is this the latest misstep, signaling the end of the franchise’s enduring appeal?
Visit Axanar’s official website (until it gets taken down!)