Geekery: Axanar Returns

The crowdfunded fan film is being completed – come read about out all the details!

This is a guest guest column by Jonathan Lane.

 

Star Trek. Star Wars. Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. Marvel. DC. The one thing all of these franchises have in common (other than major blockbuster movies, runaway merchandising, video game tie-ins, Lego sets, comic books, etc.) is FANS…rabid, obsessed, passionate fans.

And where there are fans, there’s cosplay, fan art, fan fiction, and most recently, fan films. I’m not talking about fans putting on Halloween costumes and fumbling their way through home movies with poorly written scripts and painful acting. I am talking about fan films that look, sound, and feel almost like productions being released by the major studios.

Oh sure, these fan films aren’t perfect.  You can’t do for ten thousand or a hundred thousand dollars what you can do for a hundred million. But if you haven’t seen fan films lately, you’re in for a surprise.

One of the reasons for the vastly improving quality of fan-made productions is the recent drop in cost of high-quality camera and sound equipment, along with editing and 3D software.  Also, fan producers themselves are becoming more savvy.  Many have taken film production courses, made contacts with professionals to get advice, and pool resources to improve the quality of things like their costumes, make-up, visual effects, and music.  In some cases, actors who had appeared in original studio-released movies and TV series were reprising their roles in fan films, including Star Trek’s George Takei playing Sulu and Walter Koenig playing Chekov in fan productions Star Trek: New Voyages and Star Trek: Of Gods and Men.

And just as fan films were taking off in both quality and quantity, along came Kickstarter and other crowd-funding services.  Suddenly, these fans that were usually operating on a shoestring budget found themselves with access to potentially tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars!

How did the big Hollywood studios feel about this?  Well, it depended on the studio.  Lucasfilm embraced fan films so much that they included one of the earliest Star Wars fan films, Troops, on their Special Edition Blu-ray release.  They also had annual contests for the best Star Wars fan film.  On the other hand, when Justin Zagri launched a $40,000 Kickstarter to fund his amazing Harry Potter fan film, Severus Snape and the Marauders (a must see!), he received a call from Warner Brothers telling him to take down his Kickstarter page.  The studio would still allow him to make his fan film, but he could not generate donations through public crowd-funding or distribute perks.  Relieved not to be told to shut down completely, Zagri finished his passion project with private funding.

And then there was Axanar

This Star Trek fan production was the brainchild of uber-Trekkie (and Warhammer enthusiast) Alec Peters, a man who had build up a successful company called Propworx to collect and auction off screen-used props, costumes, and set pieces.  And one of his prized possessions was the costume worn by actor Steve Inhat playing the character of Garth of Izar in the 1969 Star Trek episode “Whom Gods Destroy.”  Garth was Kirk’s hero, a legendary Starfleet captain who was the role model for a whole generation of starship commanders.  His victory at the battle of Axanar was required reading at Starfleet Academy.  Yet as important as we know Garth was, we never again heard about him. So who was Garth, and why was he Kirk’s hero?

This question led to a years-long development of a fan film script that ended up getting input from none other than David Gerrold, the writer who created the tribbles in one of Star Trek’s most popular episodes from 1967.  Alec’ script would tell the story of Garth’s victory at the Battle of Axanar, which ended the Four Years War between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire twenty years before Captain Kirk’s historic five-year mission.  It would be a character-driven war story in the vein of classic films like Midway.

Before long, Alec’s project had taken on a life of its own.  Alec’s acting coach, the late Richard Hatch (of Battlestar Galactica fame) helped to bring on professional actors who had appeared in Star Trek and other sci-fi series…including Tony Todd, Gary Graham, J.G. Hertzler, and Kate Vernon.  Hatch himself took on the role of the Klingon Commander Kharn, and Gary Graham reprised his character of Vulcan Ambassador Soval from Star Trek: Enterprise.

Axanar caught fire among Star Trek fans.  An initial Kickstarter campaign in 2014 raised $101,000 to produce a 20-minute “proof of concept” film called Prelude to Axanar.  Presented as a fictional documentary recounting the months leading up to the Battle of Axanar, SyFy itself called Prelude to Axanar  “…better than anything Abrams is doing.”

Looking like it could have been produced at a cost of millions by a Hollywood studio, this hundred thousand dollar fan film helped to generate more than $1.2 million dollars in additional crowd-funded donations over the next year.  The goal: make the 90-minute sequel, a full-length dramatic feature film.

It was at this point that CBS and Paramount Studios began to take serious notice of this project.  And when Alec released a sample 3-minute “Vulcan scene” from the final feature in the summer of 2015, using elaborate VFX to create an entire cityscape behind two actors walking in front of a green screen, the studios’ concerns multiplied.  Alec also took a significant portion of that $1.2 million to create a professional-quality studio in Valencia California to hold elaborate sets and later be used not just to film a 90-minute Axanar movie but also be rented out to other fan productions.

At the end of 2015, CBS and Paramount jointly sued Alec Peters and Axanar Productions for copyright infringement, claiming damages in the tens of millions of dollars.

In fairness to Alec, Star Trek fan films had existed unchallenged by the studio rights holders for nearly five decades.  Recent Star Trek fan productions had created multi-year series with dozens of episodes featuring professional actors, writers, directors, editors, costumers, make-up people, composers, and VFX artists.  Some had gone so far as to create studios full of sets that meticulously replicated those that the original Star Trek had been filmed on back in the 1960s.  One fan film, Star Trek: Renegades, had a crowd-funded budget of $375,000, used multiple Star Trek veteran actors, and even hosted a red carpet premiere at the Crest Theater in Los Angeles in 2015 (complete with limousines and paparazzi).

For CBS and Paramount, however, the “space race” of one fan film trying to outdo another was getting out of hand, and an example had to be made.  Alec actually met with CBS executives on four separate occasions as he developed his project and was never given any guidance nor told to stop.  They only said that if he crossed a line, they would let him know.  But the studios never contacted Alec before the lawsuit was filed.  He never received a cease and desist letter.  Instead, the studios jumped straight to the multi-million dollar lawsuit.

The studios had likely expected to scare the living daylights out of Alec and send him scurrying.  But at the time of the filing of the lawsuit, his production had been only 30 days from the start of filming, with Robert Meyer Burnett (who had written and directed the Star Trek cult classic “Free Enterprise”) set to direct the first third of the full Axanar feature.  And had Alec simply surrendered, he was still looking at a judgment that would have bankrupted him and possibly even burdened his cast and crew members with similar penalties…

Unfortunately for the studios, they picked the wrong Trekkie to try to make the first example of.  Alec and his legal team pushed back hard, believing they had a solid “fair use” defense and an argument for non-willful infringement because of the studios’ history of allowing fans to make their films.

Over the course of the next 13 months, Alec and his legal team made CBS and Paramount fight for every inch, all the while running up the studios’ own legal bills (estimated by some as approaching a million dollars!) while suffering through some very bad press as they sued their own fans.  Even J.J. Abrams himself and Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin came out in support of Alec Peters and Axanar.

After a year of pre-trail tooth-and-nail confrontation with thousands of pages of documentation filed with the Ninth Circuit Federal Court, and just two weeks before the trial was set to begin, CBS and Paramount reached a settlement with Alec and Axanar Productions.

The result?  The Axanar fan film will finally get made, although in a shorter version.  Restricted to following new fan film guidelines released by CBS and Paramount during the trial (but still allowed to use the same professional actors), Alec is now limited to presenting Axanar as two 15-minute films with no sequels.  Alec and his team have decided to make their two episodes in a similar documentary format as Prelude.  “This is the best way to tell the most story,” says Alec.  “I think everyone was blown away by the documentary format and the whole idea of a series from the Federation Historical Society called ‘The Four Years War.’  We’ll tell the story of the actual battle, which has some great moments, some insane starship battles, and a surprise or two that people will love.”

We are raising funds for the movie studio that we built with the donations of 15,000 donors to make Axanar a reality.  And now we are launching an Indiegogo campaign to make it the first fan-funded movie studio, where we can make all sorts of great genre content with student, fan-film and independent film makers. I hope you will check out our project and donate to something really special.

  • Severius_Tolluck

    Of course Hatch sadly passed while waiting. I think also Abrams coming to their side helped caused a whole lot of leverage. The funniest part was when By defining Klingon as an official language that opened up a whole slew of what is public domain or not.

    • D. B.

      This is another reason why I don’t believe Abrams is “ruining Trek”. The fact that he went to the aid of people who were basically competitors speaks for him, and eloquently so.

      • ForgottenLore

        Indeed. JJ earned a lot of good will from me and a lot of people I know when we found out about that.

        Really bummed that this is getting its legs chopped out from under it like this, it was looking like the best start trek since DS9. At least something will come out.

  • Averam

    That article took an awfully long time to say, in essence, that it won’t be a film as per the headlines implication but rather two fifteen minutes shorts and that’s it.

    Bet all those crowdfunders really feel like they’re getting their money’s worth!

    • Ed DeLoach

      We do.

      • Demode

        I don’t.

        • David Moorhead

          I’m disappointed, but honestly I didn’t think we would see *anything* come out of this after all of the litigation,

    • Shawn

      And it won’t really be a film per se, but a documentary. I would have much preferred an actual film. Paramount is just worried that regular folks can and do a better job that an official movie studio with a large budget.

  • Red_Five_Standing_By

    These people ruined fan productions for everyone.

    • 80sDude

      Absolutely. I said from the beginning of the lawsuit, if I was one of the many other fan fiction productions, I’d be pissed at Peters for his arrogance.

      • James Beltz

        Alex stood up for true ST fans and I appreciate his hard work and dedication. Good job Alec!!!!

        • 80sDude

          Ah here we go. True Star Trek fans. You already lost credibility right out of the gate. Let’s look at a few things. Take Star Trek Renegades. A fan production notable for using former cast members. Then Peters comes along and forces the hand of CBS, and guess what. No more former cast members allowed. Axanar was supposed to be a feature length movie. Then Peters comes along and now we only get two 15 minute episodes. If he didn’t let his ego get in the way of better judgement, this mess never would have happened. The director for his Axanar short even warned him. Did he listen? Nope. Too full of himself. But hey, according to you, the fans won. Ok then. I’ll let you keep believing your delusions if it helps you sleep better at night.

          • Loken

            Let’s be clear, the director of Prelude to Axanar was much of the problem. He wanted a studio and refused to shoot on the sets of Star Trek New Voyages, which if Axanar had, a finished film would have been completed in 2015. The ego was the director, who quit after not doing any work on the movie and taking $ 5,000. Stop believing everything you read online.

          • James

            Yes yes yes we know you hate Christian and blame him and everyone else for your short comings and ego issues.

            But as the man in charge of the money and the documented owner of Axanar Productions and all subsidiaries linked to it..

            This is your fault for the love of Trek grow up and take ownership of your own mistakes stop placing the blame on others.

          • AxaMonitor

            Let’s be clear. The director of Prelude wanted Axanar shot in a professional studio, which is a very different thing from “build me one from scratch for half a million dollars” given L.A.’s surfeit of available soundstages that could have been rented for much, much less and much, much earlier than, well, never since Axanar has yet to be produced.

          • Demode

            Stop changing your story every 5 minutes.

          • Shawn

            The only thing Peters did wrong is not take Paramount/CBS to court.

          • 80sDude

            As if he had any grounds to do so. Lol

          • Shawn

            He merely wanted to make a fan film, so why couldn’t CBS and Paramount not let him like they did so many others? Because they were afraid it would do better or be as good as a studio production. So now it’s suddenly different. If you don’t worry about your IP for years and then suddenly decide you don’t like something, you’re not really worried about and shouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on.

          • 80sDude

            Spoken like someone who doesn’t understand the whole situation. Other productions didn’t use money raised for personal expenses like Peters did. He profited from someone else’s IP. You can’t do that without legal ramifications. How could CBS be afraid of Axanar when there wasn’t much footage shot? Your logic is weak. Peters was in the wrong here. Bottom line.

        • Your Worst Nightmare

          I’ve been a Star Trek fan for 30+ years. I’ve seen every film since Trek III in the theater and watched every TV series. I’ve read many books and comic on the subject. I’ve bought merchandise, attended conventions and yeah, maybe watched a few fan films.

          In my opinion, Prelude was pretty good. It was an interesting way to tell the story but all in all, the story told was nothing new or interesting. More than anything, it was just a preview for a story… that never came. And I’m not 100% sure it will. Because I’m not convinced the production team, based on the 3 minutes of footage that has been produced with $1.5 million in donor funds, is actually up to the challenge.

          And if that makes me not a “real” Star Trek fan, then first, who decides that? Second, maybe I don’t want to be one.

        • James

          Funny how like zero fan film productions feel that way, In fact almost all of them blame him for this mess and the restrictions they now face.

          Just saying.

        • Demode

          Yes… he sure stood up for them. Now all of the fan film makers are stuck with guidelines thanks to his Greed and Arrogance.

          • Shawn

            His Greed and Arrogance? More like a production studio’s arrogance and worry that someone else can do it better than them and with a lower budget, I might add.

  • Glen Hine

    I wouldn’t believe everything that is in this article about Alec Peters.

    I myself, had a bad experience from Alec where he got upset the a person reporting him on Kickstarter for spaming the comments section. Force refunding myself and 2 others with a email saying that he going to refund others, but if we go public, he won’t give anymore refunds and publicly blame us for no more refunds.

    He was a bit late, since one went public right away and 10 minutes before he emailed us. But it didn’t stop him from going out and trying to make a example of us 3 and not giving anyone else asking for refunds.

    The only thing is I live 16 hours into the future form LA time in Australia. He did all of this between 3 and 4 am my time, when I was asleep. I woke up a few hours later and found I was refunded of my donation, that I never asked for (I would call that extortion wouldn’t you?) to remove me from commenting on the KS campaign, blackmailed to keep my mouth shut about the refund and also defaming me of something I never did. Alec requested that any comments that harm him or defame him to be removed, mine are still there to be read.

    I would pursue legal action and did talk to a lawyer which he did say I have a case, but I have to do it in LA. I now keep a folder on my desk a copy in google docs and a comment or 2 to tell.

  • Sam Anders

    Be aware that their latest Indiegogo is just to pay rent for the studio. It is not funding Axanar…in fact, if you read the fine print, even if they get $200,000 dollars, they may still shut the studio down and move to a cheaper place. I’m guessing there will be ANOTHER fundraiser for that.

    • Loken

      Yeah, it specifically said it wasn’t funding Axanar, it was for a studio. And moving to a cheaper location is a smart idea.

      • Demode

        For anyone new here, Loken is Alec Peters. And yes, it is probably smart for you to move to a cheaper location. It will allow you to keep more of the fan donations for yourself to live off of. Enjoy the sushi, Mr. Clown Fish.

        • Loken

          Oh you are a freaking genius. of course this is me as everyone knows. Not hiding who I am like you.

          • Satan’sMinion

            If moving to a cheaper location is a smart idea then why didn’t you do that before you spent hundreds of thousands of dollars acquiring and refitting the Valencia location? Wouldn’t it have been smarter to start in a cheaper location?

          • Demode

            Is that so, Mr. Red Omega? Or is it Linnear? I can never keep up with your aliases.

            I’ve always wondered about the name “Loken”. Does it come from the actress Kristanna Loken, AKA the Terminatrix? I hear you are into dominatrixes, so it kind of makes sense. Are you still chaining up young girls that you meet on Fetlife in your play dungeon?

      • Sam Anders

        Oh Hai, Alec! I’m sure your potential donors would LOVE to see some screencaps of how you treat your *real* donors…ya know what I mean, bro? People who have donated money to you in the past only to be verbally abused by you and you cronies on facebook?

    • James

      Bet the donors are gonna love that….. what a total waste of over 1.4mil dollars.

      How do you sleep at night know u’ve fleeced so many people and continue to do so.

      Man your behaviour is totally unethical.

  • James

    Yawn

  • Demode

    Anyone donating to this thief is throwing their money away. The guy spent fan donations on tires for his car and health care. WTF? Fans didn’t donate money so Alec Peters could pay himself and his girlfriend a yearly salary. The guy is nothing but a con-artist. And worse… his close friends say that he isn’t even a Star Trek fan!! This was nothing but a con-job from a grifter who has never worked a hard day in his life.

  • Malvenue

    It took me three full minutes of scrolling to actually get to the news advertised in the headline.

  • Shawn

    Fantastic, sort-of. I really think they should have nailed CBS/Paramount to the wall. The counter sued for as much as they could get.