Independent filmmakers, like me, have a tough job.
Without the deep pockets of a studio, we’re forced to be creative when we compete with the “big boys.” Our key weapon, the singular advantage we have in creating a memorable work that will impress audiences and engage imaginations, is to put the most money (and there’s never enough of it) on the screen as we can. The smarter decisions we make, the more creative we get with utilizing limited resources, the better we differentiate our needs vs. our wants, the more money we’ll have to put invest in the meaningful tools that make our final product the best it can be.
Which is why what the fan film “Axanar” has done so far makes no sense to me.
I’ve produced three feature films, written two, and directed one. That’s more than most, but less than many. Right now? I’m in the process of raising money for two new projects, both at much higher budget numbers than I’ve ever tackled before. It’s exciting. It’s terrifying. It’s my life. I’m lucky I get to do it. That’s not a brag. That’s background. I know a bit about of what I speak.
When it comes to “Axanar,” which was sued last December by CBS Corp. and Paramount Pictures Corp. for copyright infringement, I’m endlessly amazed at just how crazy, and from this side of the black box, how poorly thought out it all seems.
Now as big a fan of Star Trek as I am, I professionally don’t see the value of donating my creativity to a sandbox someone else owns. Doesn’t seem like a good use of my time. Other fans disagree. For them, their love of all things Trek, their joy at exploring an unseen corner of the universe they live, the thrill they get at making it real, is motivation enough to make fan films and spend money making fan films.
I have to defer to that. Especially when that love has produced some pretty amazing little movies. Up until very recently, CBS has deferred to that passion too, allowing these fans to create non-professional works for their and others enjoyment.
Then things changed with “Axanar.” Orbiting clear past the fan realm and into the new territory of a professional indie production, “Axanar” has moved to utilize paid actors, paid crew, paid staff, paid post — paid everything — to make a film that, it sure seems, tries to rival anything CBS or Paramount makes. The legalities of this? Stuff for another discussion.
“Axanar” has set itself up as a professional indie film. I know a little something about professional indie film. I haven’t seen much in the execution of that professionalism at “Axanar” that impresses me. It’s puzzled me. It’s even concerned me. I haven’t been impressed.
Why? First thing, I can’t get past the fact that 18 months after the production raised more than $650,000, and eight months after they raised a further $575,000, nothing more than a two-minute scene from the overall film has been produced. Yes, in December of last year, CBS filed a lawsuit that put a crimp in plans. From looking around on the Web, though, “Axanar” was supposed to have been in production by October 2015 — over a year after the first money was raised — and well before CBS fired the first salvo in their war.
For a production with a reported $1 million to work with, to have only accomplished two minutes of content seems terribly unprofessional. Something wasn’t planned right.
I take that back. “Axanar” accomplished two things. A very well-made short scene from the movie, and the leasing of a warehouse and partial refurbishment of that space into a soundstage. To someone who doesn’t work in Hollywood, that latter bit may seem impressive. To me? That’s dumbfounding.
Why, in a town that has far more soundstages than it has Starbucks, do you spend $182,000 leasing a warehouse (for one year, with more owed the following two years), and then spend a further $100,000 to renovate the space? (I pulled those numbers from the published “Axanar” expenditures).
Ballpark soundstage rental in the Los Angeles area is $1,000 a day, plus or minus, with those pluses or minuses derived from the square feet required, number of shoot days, number of construction/strike days (a lesser rental cost), distance from Hollywood proper, time of year, if the production is an indie film vs. studio film, and how the film is paying for the space (cash, as usual, helps). Typically, production offices of some number come with soundstage rental. Plus, most soundstage have suitable electrical systems for film productions, green screen space available as part of the rental, or for an additional cost, the physical grids for overhead movie light installs, and various preferred vendors for all the equipment needed to actually shoot a film.
While not quite turnkey, there’s not a lot of work that needs to be done to move in and shoot.
Cost comparison then? If you assume that the “Axanar” script is 100 pages (standard script length), that a professional paid crew (what “Axanar” has stated it’ll use) allows one to shoot a fast-but-indie-typical five pages a day, renting a 5,000-square-foot soundstage — a pretty large space — for 30 shoot days is more than enough time. At $1,000 a day, that total would would be $30,000. At $1,500 a day, that $45,000. At $2,000 a day? You’re only talking $60,000 for the physical space to make your movie.
Add in another 10 build/strike days for set construction and tear down, and you have a range of $35,000 and $70,000 total. (Build and strike days are billed at about half the cost of a shoot day). More square feet. Less square feet. You are still in a cost range that’s a fraction of what’s been paid to rent space, let alone renovate it.
Those savings mean more money available to the shoot, money one hopes finds its way to the screen.
Dropping a third of a million-dollar budget on a soundstage? That’s not professional. That’s just silliness.
I say a million-dollar budget, but I couldn’t tell you what that budget is as I’m not part of the production. However, from this side of the black-box, the amount required to shoot the movie keeps going up. First it was a small $100,000 amount from the initial crowdfund. Then it was the first $600,000 raised. Then it became the additional $500,000 raised. Their published pleas for donations read to me as though they’re going to require yet another $1 million on top of the $1 million they already have (and the $300,000 they’ve used to outfit a warehouse). That just doesn’t read right.
What also doesn’t read right? Professional actors dropping out because their day rates wouldn’t be met. In Hollywood, when you are a professional production, actors have quotes, and you need to meet the quotes or negotiate them down. You factor that into your production. You do trade-offs. And the more your budget is, the more actors will ask for. As they say, that’s Hollywood.
When an actor leaves your production, like Tony Todd did last year? You don’t continue to raise money off their name. That’s a no-no. It can get you into big trouble with your investors.
Investors. I say that, but there are no investors in “Axanar.” I think that’s a problem. Most professional indie productions have investors. Sure, some of those have a crowdfunded component (mine have). The crowdfunded component in my experience is a fraction of the budget (in my cases, 2 or 3 percent), more there for promotional purposes and a bit of extra money.
The majority of the budget was covered by private equity. Investors. People who own a piece of the film. People who meet federal guidelines for being able to invest — namely, they can afford to. People you, the filmmaker, are responsible to for managing their money well.
With investors, it’s all spelled out in legal documents, outlining roles, responsibilities, even methods for dispute resolution, or what happens if the production falls apart.
Not so with crowdfunding.
“Axanar’s” funders are fans. They aren’t investors. They aren’t legally owed anything. They’re just people who want to be a part of Star Trek. They want to be part of making films. They’re passionate, but passion doesn’t lend itself to sober evaluations of risk versus return.
Passion doesn’t pause to wonder, “Are these guys doing this right? Should these guys even be doing this the way they’re doing it?” Passion makes for committed followers, though. Passion makes for a deep well of desire filmmakers can go back to again and again for more money as the scope of a project wades out past the safe shoals of the doable, the achievable, and the right, into the drowning depths beyond.
What’s going to happen next with “Axanar”? I can speculate, but again, that’s not what this opinion bit is for. Looking at this as a professional production, divorced rom Star Trek, and just like the ones I or peers have been involved with, I don’t think this has been managed well. I don’t think that it’s been planned well.
The movie wasn’t the important thing. If it was, it would’ve already been made. Everything else outside of actually making the movie was. That doesn’t work. That creates problems.
The creative folk at “Axanar” will go on to do other things (creative people just don’t stop). But the donors? The fans? When this all goes under, which it’s looking like it will, it’s the fans that are going to have to deal with the problems.
Those passionate people deserve better.
A former therapist and social worker, Jody Wheeler is a writer-producer based in Los Angeles. He’s chief executive and creative partner at Cthulhu Crush Productions, where its latest release, the horror-thriller “WTF!” is due out this summer. His film credits can be found on his IMDb page.