Not everyone in fandom is a Trekkie, but if you participate in Western media fandom, there's no escaping the influence of Star Trek. Although Star Trek wasn't the first media property to have an active transformative works culture based around it (there are fair arguments to be made for Sherlock Holmes and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., among others), it's safe to call it one of the largest and longest-lasting. Star Trek fandom
was the source of much of the culture of Western media fandom, particularly the common terminology (including "slash
" and "Mary Sue
"). It was also one of the first Western media fandoms to be based largely in the writing and sharing of fanworks and one of the first to consist mostly of women. So it's no exaggeration to say that Western media fandom as we know it today would not most likely not exist without Star Trek, and Star Trek fandom would not have been able to flourish and grow if Gene Roddenberry and the original IP holders had come down hard with guidelines about what could and couldn't be written.
So it came as a bit of surprise, and a big disappointment, when CBS Studios and Paramount recently released a draconian list of "guidelines" for fan films
, with the implication that they can sue anyone who violates them. And the threat of lawsuits isn't theoretical -- in December of 2015, CBS and Paramount filed suit
against a planned feature-length fan film, Star Trek: Axanar, which is a crowdfunded followup to the short film "Prelude to Axanar
" (also crowdfunded -- they asked for $10k on Kickstarter and got $100k; the resulting film premiered to strong reviews at San Diego Comic Con in 2015). Although J.J. Abrams announced in May
that the lawsuit would be dropped (thanks largely to pressure from Star Trek: Beyond director and long-time Trek fan Justin Lin), as of this writing, the suit is still active, and the implication of the publication of guidelines is clear: the producers of Axanar, and anyone else thinking of getting involved with fan productions, had better toe the line, or the lawsuits will continue.( More details, some analysis, and a bit of ranting behind the cut. )
It's no coincidence, I think, that CBS/Paramount is getting jumpier about fan productions in the wake of fan dissatifaction with Star Trek: Into Darkness and the largely negative reaction
to the first trailer for Star Trek: Beyond. That trailer premiered in December 2015 -- as did the Axanar lawsuit. CBS is also actively ramping up production on a new TV series that will initially be aired only on paid subscription services
, and although fans are more optimistic about its prospects (showrunner Bryan Fuller is certainly saying all the right things
, it's understandable that CBS and Paramount might be nervous. Why would fans shell out their money to see official productions when there are fan productions that better fit their vision of what Star Trek ought to be? Of course, from my position in fandom, their perspective is exactly backwards. Fan films and fan fiction helped keep fans engaged with the canon for the long years between movies and TV series, and fandom kept Star Trek alive when it otherwise might have been a one-season TV series, lost to history. CBS and Paramount should be encouraging the fan creativity that effectively serves them as free advertising, not treating fans as the competition. Or, if they must see fan films as competition, they should take the incentive to produce better content. Heavy-handed tactics like lawsuits and prohibitive guidelines will only drive loyal fans away, while providing no value to attract new ones. Don't squash the fan films: let a hundred flowers bloom, and watch your audience grow.