A few nights ago when Robert Meyer Burnett messaged me out of the blue on social media, I wasn’t quite sure how to react.
I mean, here is the man who so entertained me back in the late 1990s with “Free Enterprise,” a fun film that starred William Shatner as an alternate version of himself, and celebrating Star Trek fandom with the likes of Rafer Wiegel and a pre-“Will & Grace” Eric McCormack.
Such a wonderful script written by Burnett and Mark A. Altman, and it was probably one of the first times I really felt like it was truly OK to be a Star Trek fan.
So speaking out against the lawsuit-plagued fan film project “Axanar” is troublesome for me, because I know Burnett is attached as director. And I know he’s very passionate about it, and probably desperately wants to make a Star Trek movie, even if it brings down the rest of his career. At times, I’m not sure if he just doesn’t want to hear what CBS Corp. and Paramount Pictures have to say about their alleged copyright infringement, or he actually thinks it’s just wrong.
I mean, here is a guy who is literally one step away from being personally named in the very lawsuit that has the entire Trek fan film community watching their backs. Yet, he seems startled and outright confused when some people, like me, take a side that is opposite of his.
That might have been what brought Burnett to my social media doorstep that night. It was just a day or so after John Kirk’s interview with Burnett’s production partner, Alec Peters, but he wanted to show me — and by extension, the rest of the Star Trek fan community — that “Axanar” is a product for the fans, by the fans.
Except it isn’t.
He felt if I did a one-on-one interview with him, and broadcast it live through some streaming service, all the questions everyone has over “Axanar” would be answered. And who knows, maybe even CBS and Paramount would find the errors of their way. After talking back and forth for more than 90 minutes — mostly me telling him why he shouldn’t do an interview with me — I left Burnett with a non-decision: I’d think about it.
It’s a lot to consider, to be honest. While I would love to talk Star Trek fandom with Burnett, we couldn’t ignore the Klingon targ in the room either. How would Burnett handle questions like, “Why do you need $1.1 million to make a fan film?”
His answer surprised me. And I thought we were done with surprises when it came to this production.
“We are trying to make a $150 million space epic for about 2 million bucks,” Burnett told me. Yeah, and 10 percent of that is going into renting studio space for an entire year for some unknown reason. I told him that sounded insane.
“But why?” Burnett asked. “Do you know how to make a movie? We have to make everything from scratch.”
Every Star Trek series is hugely expensive, he said. “Sets, costumes, props, all created from scratch.”
But is it really that expensive? Somehow over the last two years, I missed some of the online promotion for another fan production being put together by a young man just out of college in Michigan called “Star Trek: Horizon.” Someone sent me a link to a trailer, and I really didn’t want to watch it, but reluctantly I clicked it … and was completely blown away.
I asked the person who sent the link how much this film cost. They weren’t sure, except that this writer, director and producer, Tommy Kraft, had one fundraiser, it was for just $22,000. And he didn’t fall short — he was actually only looking for $10,000.
When I found out that this movie has not only been filmed and completed, it’s set for release in just a couple weeks, I knew I had to talk to this guy. On one hand, we have “Axanar,” which has more than $1 million on hand raised by Star Trek fans, a seasoned director like Robert Meyer Burnett attached, and the film is not even cast?
On the other hand, we have Tommy Kraft, who started his production around the same time, spent less than $50,000, filmed, completed and made it look spectacular. And he even had extra time to help “Axanar” with its earlier short, “Prelude to Axanar.”
Burnett tried to reason with me that there were only seven people working on “Axanar,” and that’s why it’s moving like molasses. But then you have “Horizon,” which is virtually a one-man show. And it’s done. It’s ready to be released. And I’d say it looks as good as any professional production out there.
And it cost less than $50,000. Slightly more than the salary Alec Peters paid himself from Trek fan donations for “Axanar,” a film that is far from finished, and not even cast.
Why would it cost $2 million to make a feature length Star Trek fan film? Isn’t the idea of doing a fan film that it’s a hobby? A labor of love?
James Cawley sank his own money to build the sets that dazzled fans and critics alike for his “Star Trek: New Voyages” series. Vic Mignogna reported that he has done “Star Trek: Continues” at a personal $25,000 loss — not profit, loss.
Yet, for some reason, “Axanar” needs to be professional. It needs to have everyone get a paycheck.
“Where does the equipment to make the film come from?” Burnett asked me. “The cameras? The costumes? The sets? The lights? The hard drives? The locations? Every single fan film costs money.”
Yes it does. But none of them cost $2 million. Or even $1 million. Or, in “Star Trek: Horizon’s” case, not even $50,000.
Kraft admitted to me that yes, while “Horizon” is a labor of love, he also hopes it will look good in his film portfolio. And it certainly does. “Horizon” looks like it cost $50 million, not $50,000. The same with other productions like “New Voyages” and “Continues” — they might look like they cost a lot, but in reality, they didn’t.
There’s nothing wrong with people like Kraft and even Alec Peters looking to have their work on a Star Trek fan project launch their careers. I mean, I’m still jealous of how well some solid filmmakers like J.T. Tepnapa and Carlos Pedraza made the leap from Star Trek fan films to their own commercial ventures.
But Kraft had a good point when he talked to me. Maybe “Axanar” just jumped the gun. Instead of doing Star Trek first and looking at where it might boost them commercially later, they decided to just do it all at once. Sadly for “Axanar” and the thousands of fans who donated their money to this project, that appears to be a big no-no. At least as far as CBS and Paramount are concerned.
So what does a fan film need with $2 million, Mr. Burnett? I’m sorry. But it doesn’t. And if you don’t believe me, just look at “Star Trek: Horizon,” look at “Star Trek: New Voyages” and look at “Star Trek: Continues.” They look great, and they didn’t have to compete with a major studio to do it.