The idea that Paramount Pictures might make a passing glance at a fan production of Star Trek is not unheard of. In fact, Paramount had more than just a casual relationship with the crew behind one of the grandfathers of all fan productions: “Star Trek: Hidden Frontier.”
“We know we came to the attention of Paramount’s legal department — probably not the kind of attention we wanted from the studio,” said Carlos Pedraza, one of the writers and producers behind both “Hidden Frontier” and one of the other larger productions, “Star Trek: New Voyages.”
Despite that attention, Paramount chose not to shut down production. Instead, the studio worked with the people behind the two Web series developing a “do and don’t” list of what fan productions can do, Pedraza said. It opened the door to a whole new market for Star Trek — created and performed by fans, and sometimes even veterans of the official shows and films themselves.
The projects are not allowed to make any money, so episodes are typically presented for free. But fan productions filled a void many Trek fans had, especially once “Star Trek: Enterprise” was pulled off the air in 2005.
Last week, however, one fan who was putting together his own Star Trek television series idea says he got a call that no one — not even Pedraza or anyone on his fan production crews — ever received. Michael Gummelt, a career video game story writer, was reportedly asked to pitch his “Star Trek: Uncharted” concept to Paramount.
“As far as I know, this is the first time a fan has been invited to pitch a Star Trek TV series,” Gummelt told TrekMovie. “This is, obviously, extremely exciting, and I’m doing my best to get support for it from industry professionals.”
THE SMELL TEST
The idea he put together may be years old, but the current name is quite new. Just a few weeks, actually. That’s because it was previously known as “Star Trek: Beyond,” with a related domain name that just so happen to be the current working title of “Star Trek 3.” Gummelt changed the name of his concept to “Uncharted,” and just a short time later, he was announcing his once-in-a-lifetime chance to pitch a Star Trek series.
But how were his use (and sudden change away) from using the “Beyond” title and this pitch coinciding?
“I think when the rumors of the naming coincidence came out, Paramount saw my website and the passion I had for Star Trek, and the idea of it returning to TV, and for my specific concept,” Gummelt told TrekMovie. “I think they felt I would gladly jump at an opportunity to come in and pitch it, which of course, I did.”
Some fans, however, feel Gummelt isn’t telling the whole story. For them, it’s hard to imagine the fan writer gives up “Beyond” to a major studio, and it has little to do with his chance to pitch a series when no other fan, according to Gummelt, has ever been granted such an audience before.
“I don’t think it passes the smell test,” said Jason P. Hunt, editor of SciFi4Me, who also once submitted an entry into the fan-centered “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” book anthology. “I think Paramount made a play for the domain name, and Gummelt gets to make a pitch. But I don’t think it’s anything more than a parent indulging a child eager to show off his art project. If a pitch was officially in the works, why this guy?”
In fact, if what happened played out the way Gummelt says it did — where Paramount stumbled on his series concept, read it, and then invited him in for a pitch — it could potentially have legal implications against the studio.
“Studios have a long-standing prohibition from reading anything that’s unsolicited, mainly because anything they come up with that’s similar would be fodder for a lawsuit,” said Hunt, who also works as a professional videographer and filmmaker. “Even though there aren’t any original ideas anymore, the studios have certain protections in place to keep the legal risk to a minimum.”
THE FULL STORY?
Then what happened in Gummelt’s case? 1701News reached out to both Paramount Pictures and CBS Corp., for comment, but both requests are pending return.
Gummelt initially agreed to answer questions emailed to him by 1701News, but then withdrew that agreement after receiving the questions. Among the issues addressed in those questions were how Paramount approached Gummelt to make the pitch, if the pitch was part of an overall negotiation for Paramount to obtain the “Beyond” domain name, and whether or not the idea to pitch actually originated from Gummelt, not Paramount, as part of that negotiation.
“I have a contact at Paramount who is arranging this pitch meeting, but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to mention the name or refer media sources to them for confirmation,” Gummelt told 1701News.
He later added: “All I’ve said is I’ve been invited to pitch, that’s all. And that is 100 percent accurate.”
Part of the reason Gummelt said he decided against answering questions was because he believed 1701News “went ahead and wrote up a story about this without my answers.
“I guess you decided you didn’t need them,” he added.
That “story” was actually an opinion piece released over the weekend questioning TrekMovie on how its reporter, Kayla Iacovino, vetted the story. Iacovino herself responded to the opinion piece in an email to 1701News, saying the assertion that TrekMovie didn’t vet the story was wrong.
“How do you know that?” Iacovino said. “You never contacted us to see who our sources were, or how we vetted the information, which I did do. There were a lot more details to this story that I, out of journalistic respect for my sources, chose not to publish.”
Iacovino added there are “details to this story that would make more clear what exactly is going on here. Unfortunately, I cannot share that info at this point, but a lot of people were able to speculate based off of my article, and some are getting it right.”
Iacovino would not elaborate what fans got what right. But even on the news page TrekMovie published this story, readers shared speculation almost immediately that the pitch offer was directly related to negotiations for Paramount to obtain the “Beyond” domain name.
“Why do I feel like this was a wheel-and-deal to get the rights to the ‘Beyond’ domains?” asked one commenter known as KennyB. “I hope they give him a real chance, and it’s a great pitch. Just don’t trust the studio.”
If the pitch was part of a negotiation for a domain name, and Iacovino knew that before it published Gummelt describing the interaction differently, it could create a new set of questions on the facts offered by the website.
“I’ve been working on the story for about a month,” Iacovino said. “I can’t reveal all the facts of the story.”
WHO OWNS WHAT?
Iacovino’s primary complaint about 1701News’ opinion piece was its claim that the story was not vetted, which Iacovino adamantly disagrees. She said she did vet the story, but did not include any details of those attempts to verify Gummelt’s claims in the overall piece, as a way to “protect” her sources.
Even Gummelt jumped to her defense. “I would encourage you to remember … that just because something is not in a news story, that does not mean the writer doesn’t know about it,” he said. “They may just be protecting their sources.”
And to Iacovino’s defense, Paramount has not been known as a studio that publicly comments on pitches. Whether to include information on attempts to verify a story with a source like Paramount or not, falls to the writer (and ultimately his or her editor). Even Iacovino admits that she is a “scientist, not a reporter” — Iacovino is a volcanologist, and has traveled the world exploring volcanos.
However, there remains a number of questions to Gummelt’s claims of being offered a pitch, many addressed by fans and readers commenting on the initial announcement. Beyond whether the “Beyond” domain name played a role, one other big head-scratcher also emerged: Why is Paramount listening to a Star Trek television pitch in the first place?
“Why wouldn’t it go through CBS Television?” SciFi4Me editor Hunt asks, referring to the division of CBS Corp. “Paramount doesn’t have anything to do with the TV shows, unless the television division is making the movies, which they aren’t.”
Since Viacom spun off CBS in 2006, the distribution rights for Star Trek have been split between Viacom’s Paramount Pictures for films, and CBS for anything else, including television shows. Neither company has been very forthcoming on just how exactly those rights work, leaving fans and observers to speculate.
However, industry publication The Wrap detailed the property split in a 2013 story that gave some explanation as to why director J.J. Abrams left the Star Trek franchise for Disney’s Star Wars instead.
“The rights to the original television series from the 1960s remained with CBS after it split off from Paramount’s corporate parent Viacom in 2006, while the studio retained the rights to the film series,” reporter Brent Lang wrote. “CBS also held onto the ability to create future Star Trek TV shows.”
Even Gummelt acknowledged to TrekMovie in his original announcement that he was essentially pitching to the wrong company.
“I’m not under any illusions about my chances (and I realize CBS has the rights to produce any new Star Trek TV series),” Gummelt said. “But it’s a chance of a lifetime, and I have nothing to lose.”
Gummelt further clarified that position this week when he appeared on a podcast featured on the Australian Star Trek site TrekZone.
“I don’t think (Paramount) necessarily have had a change of heart,” Gummelt said. “They are just open to hearing ideas. I don’t know it if means they are going to make anything, they could just be listening to ideas, and say ‘Thanks for coming in.’
“I’m guessing my best case scenario coming out of this is to get another pitch meeting, this time with CBS.”
MAYBE? MAYBE NOT?
What does this all mean? It’s hard to tell. While there are some questions on how Gummelt earned a pitch meeting or what it would result in, it seems to be universally accepted that he does indeed have at least a sit-down with some people at Paramount. The reports have circulated for nearly a week, and Paramount has not denied it, even when prompted directly for a comment.
Like tadpoles trying to survive, very few pitches ever make it to a full-blown production, and even Gummelt admits his idea could end up on the scrap heap as well. “Hidden Frontier” writer Pedraza now writes independent films away from Star Trek (including the film “Judas Kiss,” which for full disclosure, had a brief appearance by the reporter on this story), and is not willing to utter the word “never” on Gummelt’s chances.
“Obviously, I can’t speak for what goes down between Paramount, CBS or any particular fan,” Pedraza said. “But I do know the industry. Paramount and CBS are not monolithic organizations. They have people who do different things at all different kinds of levels. The left hand doesn’t always know what the right pinky is doing.
“So did someone in some kind of position at the studio or the network say something to some guy? Very possible. Does it indicate any real interest to pursue fan work as the basis for an entirely new enterprise? Especially given that heavy hitters like Bryan Fuller can’t get the time of day from CBS about Star Trek?
“Color me skeptical,” Pedraza added. “But hey, good luck!”
UPDATE (6-25-15, 11a): TrekMovie has acknowledged the questions surrounding the genesis of Michael Gummelt’s pitch, and asked for his comment on whether the pitch was related to Paramount Pictures reportedly acquiring the StarTrekBeyond.com domain he owned. Gummelt, according to the site, declined to comment.