CLARIFYING GUIDELINES CBS official John Van Citters answers questions on the Engage podcast to tamp down rising complaints about fan productions announced by CBS and Paramount and explains the “brave new frontier” offered to fans no longer burdened by the possibility of litigation.

CBS Official Explains Fan Film Guidelines

Main article: Official Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines
See also: The Aftermath for Fan Productions and Axanar Tries to Rally Fan Films to Its Proposed Guidelines

LESS A straitjacket, more of a belt.

That seemed to be the message from John Van Citters, vice president of product development for CBS Consumer Products regarding the studio’s fan production guidelines, the source of controversy and consternation since announced on June 23, 2016.

Van Citters acknowledged the guidelines are forcing a big change in how fan films are produced. “Change is hard for people, there’s no question,” he said. While network- or feature-length stories are no longer part of the landscape, fan productions gain the safety of making films without fear of litigation. By contrast, producing long-form stories is “what we [the studios] do,” he said.

He emphasized that CBS and Paramount tried to provide a framework to encourage fans’ creativity while reining in what had been developing into “arms race for talent and fundraising,” as well as growing commercialization among some larger fan productions.

Van Citters appeared on the hour-long program, Engage: The Official Star Trek Podcast, which was released June 28, to explain the studios’ intent behind the guidelines, why they’re guidelines instead of rules and to clarify some of the guidelines’ specific restrictions regarding run-times, audio dramas, props and costumes.

He also noted the guidelines clear the way for allowing fan films to screen at official Star Trek conventions, and perhaps for fan productions to promote themselves there.

CBS vice president John Van Citters

Line Between Professional and Non-Commercial Works

“We know these [fan films] come from a place of very deep love of Star Trek,” Van Citters told the podcast, but:

For many years we used a simple guideline, CBS and Paramount in cooperation on this, which is, a Star Trek fan film is a fan creation that is non-commercial. Well, we thought this was simple enough, and helped filmmakers understand the separation we need to keep between professional content and fan films. It’s become increasingly clear not everyone is clear where that line is.1)

Crowdfunding Abuses

“With the explosion of crowdfunding, we know abuses have very definitely crept into the process,” Van Citters said, creating an impetus for the guidelines, which include a ceiling for crowdfunding on platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo of $50,000.

Crowdfunding campaigns ended up becoming more about the physical items being offered in exchange for donations instead of “supporting a fan production for its own sake,” Van Citters said. The guidelines prohibit the offering of physical perks in exchange for backing crowdfunding efforts.

An Arms Race

AXANAR MEETING Van Citters was one of two CBS officials who met with Axanar producer Alec Peters in August 2015, followed by a public statement warning of possible legal action.

Van Citters observed that fan productions had spiraled into something “larger and larger,” that had become “something of an arms race about how many Hollywood names could be attached. … That’s not really in the spirit of fan fiction.”

The guidelines, by prohibiting that kind of competition for involving industry professionals, level the playing field for newer and smaller fan productions, he added.

Not the End of Fan Films

Van Citters disputed some characterizations of the guidelines as a means to end fan films. Instead, he said they mark the first time a major copyright holder has ever given any guidelines for unfettered use of a major piece of its intellectual property with just guidelines.

He noted that while the guidelines’ restrictions may seem counterintuitive, they are meant to protect fan films for the long term, and to “cure some abuses that have been out there, and to refocus this around the fan experience … and around creating more stories rather than this kind of arms race about talent and fundraising.”

Questions and Answers

Van Citters addressed questions submitted to the podcast producers about the 10 guidelines in the days following their release. More than two dozen fan productions announced suspension of their activities pending further clarification about the guidelines.

These are guidelines. They are intended to be something that gives structure, that gives people the limits under which they can operate in. … “Here’s what you can do to keep yourself as a non-commercial entity and respect the professional Star Trek that we are working on, and hopefully have a great deal of fun.”

The guidelines offer “a brave new frontier, an official, permitted outlet” for fans at conventions, including exhibits and fundraising there.CBS Vice President John Van Citters

  • NO TAKEDOWNS Van Citters said CBS would not seek to take down already produced fan films available for streaming or download that don’t conform to the guidelines, only productions created henceforward.
  • NO REVIEW CBS will not review scripts, casting or other creative choices, including finished films. “We’re not looking to micromanage your production,” Van Citters said. So long as the films posted abide by the guidelines, there should be no problem.
  • ENFORCEMENT The studios don’t plan any kind of formal policing effort, being willing to consider productions’ interpretations on a case-by-case basis. “We don’t like to paint with a broad brush,” Van Citters.
  • AUDIO DRAMAS are not addressed by this guidelines, he said. They apply only to video presentations, including animation and even slide shows.
  • $50K PER 15 MINS. This guideline applies only to money raised via crowdfunding, Van Citters said. The guidelines have no limit on funding raised from private sources. “Where we’ve seen problems creep in is with large, large crowdfunding campaigns,” and their physical perks, he said. Van Citters said the $50,000 crowdfunding limit is for each 15-minute episode allowed under the guidelines. Productions are allowed to create two-part episodes totaling 30 minutes, and “$50,000 is available [via crowdfunding] per 15 minutes,” he reiterated.
  • PROPS AND COSTUMES Van Citters said many people misconstrued the way the guidelines addressed props and costumes used by productions. Many initially believed the guidelines mandated props and costumes be purchased from CBS licensees. Van Citters said home-made props and costumes were OK. But if a film were to purchase props and costumes, then they must buy them from licensed sources, he said. “We’re not looking to get rid of the DYI (do it yourself) ethic of Star Trek.”
    THE DIVISION of CBS where John Van Citters works.
  • RUNNING TIME LIMITS Van Citters stood by the guidelines’ restriction of 15 minutes per episode, up to a maximum of a single, two-part story totaling 30 minutes in two parts. He said fan fiction has a long history of excellent short-form quality.
  • DRUG, ALCOHOL USE ETC. The guideline that seems to prohibit any kind of drug or alcohol use is only meant to prevent Star Trek from being associated with activities that damage Star Trek, Van Citters said, but it is not meant to stifle fans’ exploration of societal issues. “We’re not the hand of Q coming down and dictating what you can do in your story. We’re not looking into your business creatively,” he said.
  • MUSIC CBS and Paramount do not own the rights to Star Trek music, Van Citters said, and therefore cannot grant them to fan productions. If a film wants to use Jerry Goldsmith’s Klingon themes, for example, he said producers will need to secure those rights directly from the music publisher. Music is an important example of the guidelines’ restriction on including third-party content without having licensed it.

Relationship to Axanar

Van Citters said these guidelines were not connected to the ongoing settlement talks between the studios and Axanar, which is being sued for copyright infringement, including their alleged direct financial benefit from that infringement. Because of the ongoing litigation against Axanar, he was not able to elaborate.

Future Changes

He indicated the studios may revisit guidelines after seeing how they work in practice. “We’re not issuing these as fan film laws. They are fan films guidelines. … We’ll continue the dialog with fans.”

Van Citters, himself a Star Trek fan from childhood, said he considered the opportunities afforded by the guidelines “a brave new frontier … an official, permitted outlet” granting permission for fan films to be screened at official conventions, and for filmmakers’ to exhibit and fundraise there.

He said he was confident about the creativity fan producers could cultivate under these guidelines and that short-form stories could be very powerful.


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