What does a fan film need with 1.7 million dollars?
Axanar was a fan project that held great promise. An expression of Star Trek fandom that could have been an example of a fan film done right. Instead, it turned into a prime example of fandom toxicity, bloating itself on a steady stream of fan donations. Recently, the story behind Axanar has become a part of a documentary that examines toxicity within fandoms. Titled Into the Wormhole: The Battle for Axanar, the doc focuses on the exploitation of Star Trek.
What is a Fan Film?
Let’s begin with the concept of a fan film. Essentially, a fan film is a film project set in an existing popular IP with an original story created by non-professionals. It’s a fun, shared activity by fans who want to show their love for their particular fandom by producing an original creation. While a fan film could be a project an aspiring filmmaker puts on their resume, it is not meant to be a way into the film industry.
Fan film creators are usually just fans themselves. Some have filmmaking aspirations but others have professional accreditations, like Vic Mignogna of the high-quality Star Trek Continues who enjoys a career as an anime voice actor. With a fan film, fans can create the chance to direct or produce outside the constraints of a commercial project. Mignogna has said on record that his fan film was just a “love letter to Star Trek.”
Star Trek Fan Films
While most fan films are small productions amongst friends, some fan films, like Axanar, can grow to enormous proportions and garner a great deal of attention in the process. This is especially true in Star Trek fandom, which is both massive and well-resourced.
One of the earliest examples of a large-scale Star Trek fan film was Star Trek: New Voyages (later renamed Star Trek: Phase II) which set the bar and saw its pilot production, “Come What May,” released in 2004. This production was created by James Cawley, an entertainer in his own rights (a successful Elvis impersonator) and saw involvement of various Trek alumni like Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, George Takei, and the late Grace Lee Whitney. There was a great deal of acclaim for the accuracy of the film’s sets and props . This was probably the first of high-grade fan productions that initiated the trend of raising the production bar. However, Cawley funded most of the production himself, and the appearances of alumni were voluntary. Much later, Cawley re-purposed his sets and studio in Ticonderoga, New York for the Star Trek Original Series Set Tour and became a licensed partner with CBS.
He recently posted, on Facebook, an admonition to his fellow Star Trek fans: “STOP sending money to these fan film, flim-flam men. They are just preying on you and exploiting your good nature and the Trek franchise for their own personal gain.” He went on to say that fan films should pay for themselves.
Other high-value production companies included Star Trek: Continues and Star Trek: Renegades, which raised the bar further and helped pave the way for Prelude to Axanar. These films used professional actors to create authenticity and were fan-funded via crowdfunding campaigns. However, oversight was not strictly regulated. High-level CBS employees usually were invited to screenings which seemed to imply tacit acceptance. Even Gene Roddenberry’s son, Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, cameoed on an episode of Star Trek Continues adding to its authenticity and resonance with fans.
Prelude to Axanar, imagined by Alec Peters, a self-declared devout fan of the franchise, started off much the same way. An approximate 20-minute production that solicited money from fans via a $10,000 crowdfunding campaign, it featured Trek alumni and sci-fi actors. Like many of the other productions, it promised perks like patches and t-shirts. Exceeding fundraising expectations, it raised over $100,000.
With those funds, a documentary-style story was created about a heroic former Starfleet Captain, Garth of Izar, a character from a TOS episode “Whom Gods Destroy,” about his legendary defeat of the Klingon Empire at a pivotal battle over a planet named Axanar. It featured performances from Tony Todd, J.G. Hertzler, Gary Graham, Kate Vernon and the late Richard Hatch of Battlestar Galactica fame. With no technical production skills of his own, Alec Peters’ contribution to the film was to play the role of Captain Garth.
Early Troubles on ‘Axanar’
When released at Comic Con in 2014, Prelude to Axanar was an undebatable success. It subsequently won a plethora of fan film awards and was loved by fans, particularly the ones who supported it. Buoyed by this success and the demand for the rest of the story, Peters began another crowdfunding campaign to raise money for an ambitious full-length film production. By 2015, this initiative would manage to raise nearly two million dollars via Indiegogo and Kickstarter, all under the oversight of Alec Peters. Later that year, CBS/Viacom launched a lawsuit, expressing a number of concerns including violations of copyright and intellectual property.
Peters admitted in an interview with 1701news in early 2016 that he took a salary, paid actors, crew and that he violated CBS copyright, sparking a schism in the fandom. On one side were those fans who saw the lawsuit as a sign of the demise of fan films for all. Still, others accused him of improprieties with the money. Many fans vehemently criticized his subsequent activities on various social media, noting that to this day Axanar has not been made, and demanded to know about the whereabouts of the fan dollars raised for the project.
During the time span of 2016 to the present, Peters engaged in a number of commercial activities, including the sales of Axanar merchandise (cups, patches, models of the ships seen in Prelude, etc.) to raise money for the production, the attempted establishment of a coffee shop and even a dog rescue operation. These were ostensibly for the purpose of raising funds for the production or simply association of good will. However, the actual film project saw little progress, with frequent changes of studio locations and the maintenance of a YouTube channel dedicated to updates and raising more funds from Axanar supporters.
The proposed Axanar project saw a chaotic flurry of directorial leadership. While one segment, known as the “The Vulcan Scene (starring Gary Graham, reprising his role of Ambassador Soval who fans will remember from Star Trek: Enterprise) was filmed, that was the extent of any actual filmmaking associated with the project. The directors all left, citing similar complaints of interference or incompatibility in their departures. These were not just fans but industry professionals who simply agreed to participate because it looked like fun and they wanted to learn how to make a film within existing Star Trek IP. They were fans who had the professional ability to make a high-quality fan film and Alec Peters wanted to learn from them and use their knowledge to get his story made.
For instance, the director of Prelude to Axanar, Christian Gossett, the only director who had completed a full Axanar production, left the production company when he was informed that the team he had put together for Prelude would not be the team for the feature. It seemed counter-intuitive given that the popular opinion in the fan community was that its success was all due to the work of Gossett and the team he put together.
“We were celebrating the night of the release at Comic-Con,” Gossett related. “We were in post-show glow and were at the celebration dinner. Then Alec told me that he wanted to get rid of Milton Santiago, he wanted to get rid of Scott Cobb in production. It was the understanding that we would go on to work on the feature with the same people. It’s the understanding when you’re working for nothing, on someone’s valentine. He showed complete opposite disregard for that. But he said, we’d be able to get more donations if we had someone like a John Iacovelli, who worked on Babylon 5.”
Gossett had to tell these professionals that Peters simply didn’t want to continue with the same structure that had made Prelude to Axanar a success. Industry professionals who were ready to essentially volunteer their time to see a project made were told that they would not be allowed to continue their work because a fan producer simply didn’t get it.
“He didn’t know how to do things and that was the understanding,” Gossett explained. “I would teach him… it was like a student that you informed. It was a ‘hands-on’ classroom.”
Fortunately, Gossett never experienced any legal repercussions from Peters. However, Peters intimated on social media that Prelude to Axanar was his creation, reducing the importance of Gossett’s work on the production.
“He feels he has to,” Gossett commented. “But here’s how it can work for him. He needs to redeem himself by mea culpa. He needs to acknowledge the wrongs he has done. He needs to acknowledge that he was thrilled to work with the professionals on Prelude. He needs to say thank you to Carter who drove to get the Klingon chair that Richard Hatch wanted, with his father in the truck. The sacrifices… this is the kind of stuff that happens in the industry but the love that is present in the industry? Toxic fans that want to be a part of it do it a disservice when they approach it from an uneducated and willingly ignorant place in order to save themselves a lot of energy. He needs to apologize. He took this idea, like what Cawley did, and then to put out this narrative that it was all to get this money.”
This was supposed to be a project that was a proof of concept. Peters thought that this was a project he could put forward to CBS as something that could become part of the Star Trek franchise. However, according to Gossett, this was far from the truth.
“The only reason I speak about him is to counter the falsehoods he shares,” said Gossett. “And the falsehoods I can prove – I have them on video, allowing me to say to people on video, in public, that supposedly CBS asked him that if you make something, we’ll be interested in seeing it – that was not true. When I spoke to CBS, afterward, at the behest of [the late] Dave Galanter, it was the case that was never true.”
The next director to take the Axanar reins was Robert Meyer Burnett around 2017. Star Trek fans remember Burnett fondly as the director and co-creator of the cult film, Free Enterprise, in which a jaded William Shatner serves as a muse and source of frustration to two grown-up Star Trek fans who are reminded that the actor was a piece of their childhood. After months of Burnett loyally standing by Peters, the two had a falling out, in which Burnett had to also legally defend himself from Peters’ claims that Burnett owed him money. Both Burnett and Gossett were both industry professionals and actually had legitimate Star Trek media connections. Burnett talked about how he got involved.
“I’d known Christian Gossett for about two decades,“ Burnett said. “His comic magnum opus, The Red Star is a fantastic comic work about an alternate Soviet Union. He worked as a designer for Lucasfilm – he created the double-bladed lightsaber – and I really admire and respect him. He came to me in 2014 and told me he was going to be involved in a Star Trek fan film project called Axanar and as a Star Trek fan, I already knew the reference. He told me about this guy called Alec Peters and I knew about Peters from his involvement in the props world. He had put on the Battlestar Galactica prop auction but I did not know him.”
The project was interesting to Burnett. The documentary style of the project, a’ la Band of Brothers was appealing on a storytelling basis but also to Burnett’s professional experience, having worked on documentaries. The influence of both the 1980’s FASA Star Trek role playing game and the board game, Star Fleet Battles was also hard to overlook. To all appearances, this looked like a cool project to work on.
“Christian asked me to edit the project. I had just finished working on the Star Trek TNG and Enterprise Blu-Rays and I was deep into Star Trek. Christian introduced me to Alec. His favourite Star Trek character was Captain Garth of Izar, who was Kirk idolized in the show and that was the basis for his idea. They were going to produce this like it was an A-List Hollywood project.”
The project was clearly not a fan film any more. Peters clearly wanted it to be something more, a Hollywood style film, “the best Star Trek he could make,” as he put it in a 2016 interview. Burnett was the second professional director he hired. With the success that Prelude had shown, it was difficult for Burnett to refuse.
Burnett said he worked for two and a half months straight before taking on the director’s reins, editing the project. He was gratified to get a great deal of latitude and freedom from Gossett. He created narration, developed new shots and worked on the physical media that were perks for the crowdfunding campaign Peters had organized for the production.
“I was very proud of the work we did on Prelude,” he stated.
Burnett also offered this up about a producer’s role:
“A good producer provides the idea, the material, the people, and then stands back and takes credit.”
However, Peters was not content to just play Garth on screen or stand back.
“Alec Peters didn’t want to do that. He wanted to be the guy that everyone would come to and be the centre of it all. He wouldn’t let Christian work with the same people who did Prelude to Axanar, because he wanted the spotlight. Those were the people that made Axanar, not Alec. That, in my estimation, was his fatal flaw.”
Gossett’s people were fired and replaced by others of Peters’ choosing. Gossett couldn’t deliver the same quality of filmmaking that he was able to do with Prelude and had to step down. Burnett added this:
“Alec didn’t know how to make Star Trek. He didn’t go to film school – he doesn’t know how to make a film. He talks like he’s the guy who wants to be a director, saying that ‘A-List people find other A-List people’, but he has no training, no understanding, or doesn’t even know movies. What films has he made?”
Burnett and Gossett both report a pattern of attention-seeking behaviour that showed the overwhelming desire to assert control over the fandom instead of simply being satisfied with the accomplishment of the work itself.
“The process is my reward,” Burnett said when asked why he got involved. “I like to make films. I like to work with talented, creative people who like to make films too. When I work on a project, I know it’s going to be good and I’m secure with my work. However, there’s a lot of people that want the accolades. They want to be the person in charge, the centre of attention because they don’t understand that at the end of the day, you’re only going to be the centre of attention for a few moments. Those people are bored by the process. A good producer would know how to keep that team together.”
Still, despite interference, Burnett thought it could be done.
“Prelude to Axanar is a great piece of work,” he asserted. “I felt I had an obligation to stick around and see the project through. I never thought I’d be in a position to direct a Star Trek film, even though it was a fan film, and the proof-of-concept piece known as “The Vulcan Scene,” we shot in 2015 a few months later. Prelude to Axanar showed me that I thought Alec knew what to do! Prelude and “The Vulcan Scene” raised hundreds of thousands of crowdfunding dollars that I thought were going to be used to make a fan film.”
Peters eventually sued Burnett for alleged theft of materials and alleged unpaid loans. Burnett described the suit as “specious” and the case was eventually dismissed, but at personal expense to Burnett.
“Alec thought he was more important than the team that made the film,” said Burnett. “The work should be the thing, not the people. What satisfies my ego is when the project is good. That’s all that matters.”
Enter Paul Jenkins and ‘Into the Wormhole’
The final director of the unfinished project was Paul Jenkins.
“When you’re talking about the love of a fandom and what we want it to be? The worst is the tragedy of the destruction of our fandoms by toxic people,” Jenkins said. “Like, the love that people have for Star Trek is now defiled by that when you think Star Trek, now you have to go… oh, Axanar.”
Jenkins, a thirty-year veteran in entertainment media is an Eisner Award winner, one of the highest honours one can win in the comics industry, and has worked on the most well-known titles in comics: Hellblazer, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk. He was also the creator of The Sentry. The first comic Paul wrote for Marvel was a story titled “Operation: Assimilation” for its Star Trek run. If there’s an expert in fandom, it’s this guy.
Jenkins related how he got involved with Axanar.
“I was introduced to Alec Peters by a guy in town who was trying to fund a production company and he said: go meet this guy who just came into town. I had just chaired an advisory committee for the governor of Georgia on digital interactive and filmmaking. I like to meet and mentor creators so I said, sure. He gave me a downtrodden story about how he created this Star Trek story.”
“Of course, he didn’t tell me that it was Christian Gossett and his team who really made everything. But the problem my producer and I quickly realized was that we weren’t going to be able to make this story with this guy who didn’t know anything, and kept getting in the way. So that became our real challenge.”
Jenkins’ story is very similar to Burnett’s and Gossett’s. He wanted to make the film, but Alec Peters got in the way of his own creation. He was a fan who wanted to create something better than a fan film and hired professionals to help him achieve that standard. Though Peters had the original story (albeit set within the universe of someone else’s intellectual property), he was a fan with a fan mentality. Somehow that wouldn’t allow him to just let the professionals do their jobs.
“I’m not a fan-guy,” Jenkins explained. “I mean, I came up in comics and all that, but while I love Crystal Palace – my own little piece of fandom – I understand why people come together. That’s the whole piece of fandom. You can talk to someone about Doctor Who or Star Trek, and when they know the same episode as you, they know you. When you get bad people in that, it hurts.”
In the end, it couldn’t be done. Like Gossett and Burnett, Jenkins left the project – fired, according to Peters’ social media – but was also hit with a lawsuit, ironically over intellectual property issues. Jenkins responded to Peters’ lawsuit in a way that most professionals would understand: he decided to make a film about it.
In 2020, while the world was under virtual house arrest during a pandemic, Jenkins was inspired to document the Axanar phenomenon and answer the question of why Alec Peters would want to manipulate a franchise that wasn’t his. Jenkins saw that the world had been exposed to a strain of narcissism for some time and it had managed to find its way into fandoms. He saw those things like Comicsgate or The Fandom Menace had cruelly torn their way into the world of joyful things that are supposed to distract us from the world around us. While it would have been simple to dismiss the phenomenon as simply ego and profit, there was a psychology present in the Axanar saga that became fascinating to him to observe.
“It’s a very interesting case study on what damage toxic fandom can do to a beloved franchise.” Paul shares. “Our documentary is about what we can do to prevent the exploitation. Q-Anon, right-wing hate groups, we can see the same happening in the fan communities.”
Fans of Star Trek all have a shared characteristic in that they can cite the moment when Star Trek became a real value in their lives. This love of Trek fandom came out in fan films, which were to be ultimate expressions of love for this franchise. It was supposed to be about fun, sharing a love together by making goofy mistakes or learning about film production. Not about making a project that could rival anything created by CBS/Paramount or for making money.
Fandoms have great potential to bring joy to our lives. They can be restorative, sources of comfort and can have special roles in our lives. They are powerful influences. There is a desire for a sense of ownership attached to a love of a fandom that is expressed when making a fan film. In the case of Axanar, this love was expressed in Prelude but got lost when the subsequent film was not realized. Patches and other paraphernalia are poor substitutes.
Much of the talent distanced themselves from the Axanar project, and the studio dedicated to the film has changed locations at least twice. Peters still maintains his YouTube channel with over a hundred thousand followers, all generating viewing or solicited revenue. It seems like the goal of Axanar is to continue talking about the project rather than completing it.
Currently, Axanar is declared as a non-profit agency, Jenkins’ legal issues have not been resolved and after six years, the film still has not been made.
We must include some additions when revisiting the original question: what does a fan film need with three Industry directors, multiple lawsuits, a YouTube channel, a failed coffee shop, or a dog rescue as well as nearly 2 million dollars?
In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Kirk asked what does God need with a starship? In this case, we have to return to the question: what does a fan film need with 1.7 million dollars? While there doesn’t seem to be an answer to these issues, what was clear in Star Trek V was that it wasn’t God who needed a starship.
In this case, Axanar isn’t a fan film any more and I think Captain Kirk would agree it didn’t need 1.7 million dollars.