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The Troll That Alec Peters Built

Guest columnist Sandy Greenberg talks about how Axanar case affects him

I think I was destined to love science-fiction.

I was born while the Apollo 9 mission was in Earth orbit testing the lunar module. I like to think my first moments of life were listening to the live broadcast of it. When I came home from the hospital, my mum would nurse me while watching the last few episodes of the original “Star Trek.”

It’s mainly because of her I love sci-fi. Growing up, the only books in the house were by Asimov, Bova, Herbert and many more.

One of my beliefs regarding science-fiction is that more is better, and I like nearly everything. From classics like “Forbidden Planet” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” through B movies like “Dark Star” and “They Live,” all the way to big budget films like Star Wars, and yes, even the new Star Trek. Sci-fi on television is great too with “Firefly,” “Babylon 5,” and “Star Trek: Voyager” among my favorites.

Modern technology and the Internet have brought us homemade productions with a wide range of quality. For me, as long as the story is good, I can live with cardboard sets and questionable acting. This is why I was so excited when I first heard about “Star Trek: Axanar.” As many of you are probably aware, this is a “fan-film” (or an “independent production,” depending on who you ask) created by Alec Peters.

I can’t remember where I first heard about “Prelude to Axanar.” I do know that the project looked very exciting.

An original story based on a little-known character from the original “Star Trek,” but with modern effects, just sounded fantastic. It was an interesting concept, a short documentary style film to show proof of concept, and then use that short production to raise money for a full-length feature.

I never heard of Alec before, but there were veteran actors, actresses and visual effects people I had heard of. I’ve donated to quite a few crowdfunding campaigns before, so I felt pretty confident about this, so I happily donated my money.

For this donation to “Axanar,” I got access to a few social media groups related to the production, and eventually to their newly constructed website, Ares Digital, where “Prelude” would be when completed. The Facebook groups were a great place for fans and donors to interact with each other and the cast and crew of the film.

Before long, “Prelude” was finished and released on the Web. Unless you’ve been sleeping under a communicator-shaped rock, you’ve probably seen it. And it was everything we were led to expect. It had strong performances, great effects, and alluded to a fantastic story.

It created a massive buzz, not just in the Trek community, but across much of the media universe. All in all, I had no complaints and thought this was a well-run campaign and project.

Fast forward to the next crowdfunding campaign, this time for the feature length “Star Trek: Axanar.” This started with a lot of excitement off the back of “Prelude.” Previous donors lined up to give again and spread the word on social media. Even George Takei got involved promoting the project to his million-plus followers on Facebook.

The campaign pitch was a bit different than “Prelude” however. Included in the proposed budget was, of course, money for set construction, but also money to pay a full year of rent on a soundstage space, plus even more to renovate it. While I thought it was a bit odd that this was their plan, I figured the slower pace of a small production and a skeleton crew made it necessary.

The campaign asked for $100,000 out of a proposed budget of up to $750,000. They received just under $640,000 in total. After crowdfunding fees of 10 percent, they had come away with a respectable $575,000. Not bad for a fan film.

Throughout 2014 and into 2015, things just ticked along at Axanar. We got regular updates about renting space, set construction, and even that production itself would soon start.

Up to now, everything seemed on track for a completion by the end of 2015. At the same time, the first signs of a worrying trend appeared. The people behind “Axanar” started talking about becoming a “movement” and about how passionate their fans were. Folks in Axanar’s social media pages gushed praise over every little thing Alec announced. If anyone expressed any concern or questions, they were shouted down and made out to be negative.

This behavior would only get worse.

Last July, we were treated to the first filmed scene of Axanar, the infamous “Vulcan scene” which now appears to have been removed from the Web. The joy was short-lived: the scene’s release coincided with the launch of their second crowdfunding campaign, this time on Indiegogo.

The Indiegogo drive should have also been a warning sign to me and other donors. In the first campaign, we were told the budget would be up to $750,000. But all of a sudden, there was a budget of nearly $1 million, not counting what was already raised.

On the Indiegogo page, Axanar said it spent everything from the first campaign on securing a facility, upgrading it, building sets, and doing pre-production.

Support was strong, but Axanar only raised about half its goal. In the Facebook groups, the fans were getting a bit more militant talking about “standing with Axanar,” and Alec even launched a website that called for supporters to “Save the Federation.”

Alec even went as far as pushing the idea he was the only one carrying on Gene Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek. People in these social media groups also weren’t impressed with the announcements from Paramount Pictures and CBS Corp., about the new Star Trek movie and television series, respectively.

But then December arrived, and it was a bad month for everyone involved. On Dec. 15, Alec told his supporters principal shooting was just 60 days away.

Wait, what? What had they been doing for the last six months?

The next day, we received Axanar’s annual financial report. This made for some very interesting reading, stirring up a proper storm on social media. There were juicy revelations about Alec’s salary, expenses, and the ton of money already dropped on facilities and infrastructure.

This prompted a ton of questions in the social media groups. Why was Alec taking a salary? The attitude from Axanar was “Why shouldn’t he?” He was paying himself with donor money, so couldn’t that be seen as material gain by the Star Trek rights holders?

The same questions were asked about Ares Studios. Sure, it was public they intended this commercial studio all along, but the hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost forced people to start asking why it was necessary.

Just two weeks later, the bombshell hit. CBS and Paramount suing Axanar and Alec personally for copyright infringement.

This was a proper “oh shit” moment for everyone. Concerned donors freaked out, asking why this wasn’t sorted beforehand. Alec said he had talked to CBS, but the two never “agreed” on anything specific.

The Axanar social media groups were mostly covering the lawsuit now. There were endless threads about the injustice of it all, how CBS and Paramount had no right, that it was all J.J. Abrams’ fault — his movie sucked, and so on.

Alec tried to keep a lid on the CBS and Paramount bashing, but wasn’t very successful. Anyone showing support for the studios, or at least some understanding for the plaintiffs, were shouted down.

On Feb. 21, some of my Facebook replies to another donor in the Axanar group were deleted. I asked why, expressing my concerns about the project’s transparency if people were being silenced when asking questions and going to alternate sources to fact check.

This started a long thread involving Alec, other admins, as well as a bunch of donors. I tried hard to keep it respectful and civil as I didn’t want the thread deleted. The basic response was if I didn’t like it, I could leave.

The day before Axanar’s pro bono attorney filed a motion to dismiss in court, I found I had been banned from most of Axanar’s social media groups, even though I was a donor. I really didn’t think donors deserved to be treated this way, even if they have a difference of opinion.

Since all that happened, I’ve spent a lot of time in a much different Facebook group, “CBS/Paramount v. Axanar.” (The group was created and is administrated in part by Michael Hinman, the editor-in-chief of 1701News) There are a bunch of funny and clever people in there as well as ex-donors.

I’ve learned a lot about Alec’s other business dealings in the prop world, about other fan-films, and about the law. I’ve also learned these people are not “haters” or “trolls” as Axanar would call them. They are journalists, bloggers, lawyers, producers of fan works, and many other things.

Most of all, though, they are Star Trek fans. They are worried about the precedent Alec Peters may be setting.

And for all Alec has managed to create, he’s left only with a small army of supporters. The rest is a group of so-called “trolls.”

So, hello. My name is Sandy. And I’m a troll.

Sandy Greenberg is an ex-American living in the United Kingdom for more than 15 years. He’s a dad, artist, carpenter, quilter, tester, cat herder, Wastelander and sci-fi geek.



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