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Should ‘fan films’ be illegal?…

Posted on August 1st, 2017
Posted on August 1st, 2017

by Coop Cooper

Fan films – or films based on popular established film and TV franchise properties – have been around a lot longer than the internet. For example, in the early 80’s a group of teenage friends in Biloxi, Mississippi took a videocamera and painstakingly made a shot-for-shot remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in their backyards and basements. Years later, their film was rediscovered by film festival programmers and the boys (now men) have become a worldwide sensation, even garnering praise from “Raiders” director Steven Spielberg himself.

Now in the age of instantaneous internet video, fan films have become a hobby, a passion and a source of opportunity for many budding filmmakers around the world. The primary rule for making a fan film is that it must be strictly non-profit. Likewise, audiences cannot be charged to view fan films outside of sanctioned festivals/contests.

What do fan filmmakers get out of this? For some it is a chance to win a contest or to get fans and sponsors from YouTube votes. For filmmakers it can be a calling card to show what they can do in order to potentially get jobs in Hollywood productions. All of them have one thing in common: To create a passionate homage to either a long-extinct property or one that is at the height of its popularity.

However, not everyone appreciates fan films. CBS, which owns the rights to “Star Trek”, has lead a very public campaign to discourage or downright eliminate “Trek” films made by fans and other entities not owned or affiliated with CBS. The problem seems to arise from the high-end fan film productions which use professional-level special effects and recognizable actors, some of which have acted in previous “Trek” films and TV-series. A feature film called “Axanar” became the focus of CBS’s legal battle, claiming it violated too many fair use laws. Supposedly, CBS settled with the “Axanar” filmmakers, but it quickly imposed a list of new, draconian guidelines for “Trek” fan films to follow in order to avoid legal issues, which many have argued as excessive and damaging to other fan film productions.

Of course, sci-fi and horror franchises inspire the most popular fan films, especially “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”. The popularity of those two properties as fan film fodder happened partly due to long stretches without producing any official content. “Trek” went years without a movie and even longer without a TV series spinoffs. Now that it has a long-gestating official TV series titled “Star Trek: Discovery” about to premiere, fans will get their official “Trek” fix for better or worse, but if it is a flop, “Axanar” filmmakers and others may feel vindicated that they made an effort to keep good “Trek” content flowing.

George Lucas took a different approach to “Star Wars” fan films before he sold the franchise to Disney. Not only did he embrace the fan films, he held contests to find the best ones to reward them and make sure they got exposure. Disney has continued the official “Star Wars Fan Film Awards but it is unclear whether they have taken any legal action against any high-end fan films as CBS has. No fan film will outshine the grandiose spectacle that is “Star Wars” and Lucas knew it. However, after dropping the ball repeatedly, CBS obviously felt threatened by some “Trek” fan films because they stole the studio’s thunder. Some critics speculate that CBS scrambling to produce “Star Trek: Discovery” is a direct result of the fear that one of these scrappy little fan films might embarrass them by releasing a better product.

As a matter of fact, the first film I ever worked on was a “Star Trek” fan film back in sixth grade. If you are interested in seeing the best of the “Star Trek” fan films, check out “Star Trek Continues” a faithful and extremely well-made continuation of the original 1960’s “Trek” series with above-average acting and special effects. “Prelude to Axanar” is a cool faux documentary about one of the most decisive battles in the “Star Trek” canon, and it is the film the put “Trek” fan films on CBS’s legal radar. “Star Trek: Renegades” is fun with top-notch special effects and full of recognizable sci-fi and “Trek” actors, but the writing is lacking. As for “Star Wars” fan films, there is a glut of lightsaber battle demonstrations and comedy sketches, but “Tie Fighter Remastered” is big standout for its exciting Japanese-style animation space battles and “Darth Maul: Apprentice” is exceptional due to its dark tone, technical achievements and lightsaber action scenes.

Now that anyone with a mobile phone or a computer can make and edit film, there is no stopping the fan film phenomenon. Powerful Hollywood entities like CBS may continue to threaten some filmmakers, but it won’t deter all of them. Of course, CBS does have a right – and an obligation – to protect their intellectual property from those profiting off of “Trek”, but attacking fans for keeping their franchise alive when there is a void in new content may have been a poor strategy. Perhaps they should take a cue from Spielberg and Lucas and try the carrot as opposed to the stick.

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