Anyone who talked to Tommy Kraft in February heard the same thing: He's finishing and releasing his fan-film, "Star Trek: Horizon," and then he's done with Trek fan-films.
Who could blame him? Kraft's valentine to "Star Trek: Enterprise" was an arduous undertaken he did for less than $50,000, and some three years of his own blood, sweat and tears to get the film out. But since releasing "Horizon" on YouTube at the end of February, the fan-film has topped 1 million views. And those who watched it wanted to see more.
"I always wanted to move into original features, and I was going to do that after 'Horizon,'" Kraft told 1701News. "I fully planned to do that, and I had stuff that I was ready to do. Then I was convinced to do the 'Horizon' sequel, and I decided to put the other stuff on the back burner and move forward with a 'Horizon 2.'"
The sequel had its own name, however, "Star Trek: Federation Rising." And unlike his first film, done with a small green screen in his parents' Michigan basement, Kraft wanted to take his work to Hollywood. He set a $250,000 budget, and was just days from launching a crowdfunding campaign to make it happen.
Yes, the economics of fan-films were troubling because of the copyright infringement lawsuit CBS Corp. and Paramount Pictures filed against another fan-film, "Star Trek: Axanar." And even some of the high-profile productions like "Star Trek Continues" were suddenly struggling to raise funds that came so easily in the past, citing "fatigue" because of the Axanar problems.
And then the message arrived. Bill Burke, senior vice president of marketing at CBS Consumer Products, was trying to reach him. It sounded urgent.
"I had actually just literally hung up the phone talking with Vic Mignogna from 'Star Trek Continues,' talking about Federation Rising,'" Kraft said. They had been chatting for more than an hour, and Kraft wanted Mignogna to cameo in "Federation Rising" as a starship captain, something the popular voice actor was interested in doing.
An alert had come from the "Horizon" contact page from Burke, a name Kraft didn't recognize. Feeling "Axanar's" producer (and lawsuit defendant) Alec Peters might know him, Kraft opened up Facebook messenger and typed a quick note to Peters.
"Alec called me, and he said Bill Burke is the senior VP of consumer products," Kraft said. "I said 'OK,' and we hung up." Before Peters hung up, however, he did throw in a request to Kraft to call him back as soon as he found out what Burke wanted.
Kraft and Burke connected in what the fan-film producer says was a "short conversation."
"It lasted a couple minutes, and in retrospect, I wished I would've asked more questions," Kraft said. "I didn't know what to say. He said, 'I am reaching out to you because our legal team asked me to, and they would strongly suggest that you do not go forward with plans to make the sequel, due to the ongoing legal troubles with the Axanar case.'"
Burke added that Kraft could be assured CBS was having "similar conversations with other productions."
"OK, I guess I will have to cancel my project," Kraft told Burke, and then the call was over.
Although every fan-film has a chance of being legally shut down by Star Trek's copyright holders, CBS and Paramount, actually having that happen can still induce shock. And it did for Kraft, who didn't even know how to react at first. A few hours later, after some of the numbness wore off, Kraft picked up the phone and called his "Federation Rising" co-writer, Ryan Webber. Then he dialed up Ryan T. Husk, himself a veteran of fan-films like "Continues," "Star Trek: Renegades," and even "Horizon."
During both of those conversations, Axanar's Peters was "blowing up" Kraft's phone, making multiple calls in an effort to reach Kraft, who decided not to answer. Instead, Kraft focused on what would eventually seal "Federation Rising's" fate, making additional calls to other filmmaking confidants, including visual effects artist Doug Drexler, and a second call to Mignogna.
"Eventually, a few hours later, I called Alec back," Kraft said. "I just told him that CBS told us to shut down, and we were going to do that."
Kraft posted the news that "Federation Rising" was over just after 10 p.m. local time on April 20. "While this is a sign of the current climate that we find ourselves in with Star Trek fan-films, I want to personally thank CBS for reaching out to me rather than including us in their ongoing lawsuit against Axanar."
Three days later, Kraft announced a new non-Star Trek project he also co-developed with Webber called "Project Discovery," with a crowdfunding campaign at the same $250,000 level as "Federation Rising" launching immediately. That project has since raised just under $11,000, a little more than 4 percent of its goal.
Since the copyright infringement lawsuit was mentioned, however, Peters felt compelled to release a statement giving his perspective on what happened with Kraft's project. But his version of events were different from how Kraft later described them to 1701News.
"I got a call today from Tommy Kraft [of] 'Star Trek: Horizon,'" Peters said in an April 20 blog post on the Axanar website. "This is ominous news for Star Trek fan-films. The fact that 'Horizon' got the first call is no surprise, however," adding that because Kraft's films were feature length (unlike the episodic approach of "Continues"), this somehow supports Peters' speculation that the target on specific fan-films have to do with the upcoming release of "Star Trek: Beyond."
Some fans who read Peters' statement expressed confusion on why Kraft would apparently make a call to Peters and "report in," as one fan told 1701News. Kraft himself told 1701News he wasn't overly worried about what Peters was saying, and instead wanted to focus on his own future.
When asked about the discrepancies in the accounts, Axanar released a statement to 1701News saying that while they were "disappointed" in what happened with "Federation Rising," "we were pleased to hear CBS' approach was direct and businesslike, and not a lawsuit requesting potentially millions of dollars in damages, pre-emptively announced through the industry trade press."
Axanar spokesman Mike Bawden wouldn't address Peters' claims, adding that because he doesn't know what 1701News is going to report, "it's impossible for us to comment on the differences between the two men's stories."
"Project Discovery" is a project he and Webber developed conceptually before "Federation Rising," Kraft said, and it's not a "stripped down" version of his Star Trek project at all.
"What happens to us sucks, but we're still storytellers, and we still love Star Trek and we still love sci-fi," Kraft said. "That was our recourse. We'll do something else, and we'll do our original project that we're also very excited about. It's still a space epic, and it still has the same kind of values that we love from Star Trek."
However, fundraising will definitely make or break "Project Discovery." Because crowdfunding is taking place on Kickstarter, if "Discovery" fails to reach its goal, Kraft will receive no funds.
The big question from Star Trek fans, however — especially the ones who enjoyed "Horizon" — is whether Kraft might consider resurrecting "Federation Rising" once the Axanar lawsuit is over, and many fan productions can pause for a sigh of relief.
"It's probably going to be at least a year before we have any real idea of what's going on with fan-films, and it's probably going to be more than a year, to be completely honest," Kraft said. "As a filmmaker wanting to move forward with my career, I have to keep moving, and I'm looking at what I am going to be doing in a year, two years, three years.
"You know, at that point, I will not have the time to dedicate doing a fan-film. But granted, I never say never. Circumstances always change."