There seems to be little motivation from CBS Corp. and Paramount Pictures to settle its copyright infringement lawsuit against an “independent” Star Trek fan-film production, but the director in charge of that production thinks he has a win-win settlement.
“Let us make the movie,” Robert Meyer Burnett, the director of “Star Trek: Axanar,” said “We will give it to you when we’re done, and you can have it for free. And if you like it, you can put it on your streaming service.”
Burnett was a guest last week on the podcast “Blind Panels,” a somewhat weekly show produced by Comics Empower, a comic book store for the blind and visually impaired. The director behind the 1998 independent film “Free Enterprise,” was featured in two episodes that started March 25, and continued to March 31.
It was the last half-hour or so that Burnett finally made his way to the elephant in the room, “Axanar,” which has raised more than $1.3 million before being slapped with the lawsuit by CBS and Paramount last December. At the time, Burnett said his crew was just weeks away from filming his “epic,” which he was somehow ready to complete shooting in less than 10 days.
The worst-case outcome for Axanar Productions and its leader, Alec Peters — both named in the lawsuit — would be paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars, and “Axanar” never being made, Burnett said. Instead, he feels CBS and Paramount could score some kind of public relations coup by working with Axanar, and reaping the financial rewards.
“The spin would be that this is the very first fan-film acquired by the studio,” Burnett said. “It’s a franchise that always has been made strong by its fans. It is a movie that was financed by its fans made by professional fans, in a very professional manner.”
Getting the lawsuit in the first place, Burnett said, was a surprise. The Axanar production had just closed up shop for the holidays, and right before New Year’s Eve, he read about the lawsuit in the trade publication, The Hollywood Reporter.
“Paramount has not said anything to us, and CBS has not said anything to us” before the lawsuit was filed, Burnett said. “They are very aware of what we’re doing, and our donor base. We are giving them daily updates. We are not secretive about what we’re doing at all, and no one has said anything.”
Except it wasn’t all quiet from the studios that own Star Trek.
Last August, another trade publication The Wrap published a story by reporter Beatrice Verhoeven that asked specifically in its headline how a “$1.1 million Star Trek fan movie has escaped studio shutdown (so far).” The story published soon after Creation Entertainment’s official Star Trek convention in Las Vegas wrapped where Peters claimed he meet with CBS, but that the company “didn’t offer any specific guidelines concerning what his crew can and cannot do.” In fact, according to Peters, “the network simply told him that they can’t make money off the project.”
Also included in that story was a rare public comment from CBS on a fan-film: “CBS has not authorized, sanctioned or licensed this project in any way, and this has been communicated to those involved. We continue to object to professional commercial ventures trading off our property rights, and are considering further options to protect these rights.”
In two separate motions to dismiss, Axanar attorney Erin Ranahan has claimed CBS and Paramount have launched their lawsuit prematurely because at this point, anyone outside of the Axanar team is simply making assumptions on what Axanar is.
Burnett, however, seemed quite comfortable sharing with the podcast what Axanar is, and where the story was drawn from. Talking about other popular fan-films like “Star Trek: New Voyages” and “Star Trek Continues,” Burnett said fans know “you’re not watching real Star Trek because the actors are not the actors who originally portrayed” characters like Kirk, Spock and McCoy.
“We are going to do something totally different,” Burnett said. “We’re going to explore a previously unexplored era of the Star Trek universe and create new characters from whole cloth and extrapolate what the universe might be like using all the different sources, whether it’s (‘Star Trek: Enterprise’), J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, Star Trek novels or Star Trek games. Any place we could draw what we thought were interesting pieces of source material from various era of canon, and mixing them all together into this new concoction that no one had ever seen before.”
The key to all of it, however, was not to make money, Burnett said. The intention of the Axanar crew was to never charge anyone to see it, and release it for free on the Internet. However, people who claim that paying salaries to people — including $38,000 to Peters, as well as money to Burnett himself — is somehow “making money” just don’t understand how it all works.
“They don’t know what we’re making,” Burnett said of various crew Axanar intended (or already had) paid. “They don’t know what we are doing with this movie when it’s done. They are just coming to do makeup.”
Professionals work on films, no matter what will end up with it, and do it to make a living — something they expect, even if the film itself can never generate a profit.
Yet, that still doesn’t explain salaries to Burnett and Peters.
“There has been a lot of controversy,” Burnett said, adding that Peters is “not doing anything else for work,” so being a producer on Axanar is his job, justifying his salary.
“And $38,000 is not a lot of money,” Burnett said. “Alec is administering all those funds, he has to take care of it. He’s basically doing the job of 10 people dealing with that money.”
Burnett also praised the vote of confidence Axanar received from “Star Trek: Beyond” director Justin Lin last month on Twitter, where Lin said Star Trek belonged to the fans, and appeared to throw his support behind Axanar. He also said that it must mean there are problems with “Beyond.”
“For the director of the new Star Trek movie to come out and say that Paramount’s wrong, that’s a huge deal,” he said. “It leads me to believe that his relationship with Paramount could not be very good. If it was good, he would never want to jeopardize his position with Paramount.”
To hear the full podcast, visit Blind Panels.
h/t Jody Wheeler