Quickies: Star Wars, Fan Films, and IP Management

Quickies: Star Wars, Fan Films, and IP Management

Full Disclosure: Of COURSE I’m going to talk about Josh Trank’s Star Wars short.

Passionate fan bases manifest themselves in a lot of different ways. Sometimes those passions are fiery and intense, possessive of the object of their affection and protective to no end (See 1Ders, Beilibers, and The Bey Hive). Others are passionate and encyclopedic, like Potterheads, Tolkeinites and your nerdy cousin who lorded Game of Thrones spoilers over you for 5 seasons.

Somewhere in between are Star Wars fans, who can vary in intensity from the kind of people that own a shirt to full blown authentic costume replicators. The fans of Star Wars long held a strained relationship with the object of their affection, as documented in The People vs George Lucas, an exploration of all manner of Star Wars fans and cinephiles and their relationship with the franchise.

Since the advent of the film, Star Wars has been the subject of many fan films. Foreign knockoffs flooded international markets in the 80’s, as well as homages, spoofs and tributes throughout the years. With the advent of lower cost cameras and editing equipment in the 1990’s, fan films became a frequent submission to student film festivals, fan conventions and comic conventions.

Following the lukewarm reception of the prequel trilogy, and with new distribution platforms available in YouTube and other streaming services, fans took to the internet to expand the world they love, and create their own vision of it. Lucasfilm took note of these works, and became part of the conversation and the fan community at large by launching The Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards.

Star Wars fan films don’t adhere to a set genre. Sometimes, they act as extensions of the canonical universe. Other times, they imagine the tropes of other storytelling venues and apply them to the Star Wars encyclopedia of people, places and things. Live action, animated, dramatic, comedic, action oriented, silent - a Star Wars fan film comes in whatever form the director thinks will best convey his message and reach an audience.

An early internet and fan festival favorite, Kevin Rubio’s Troops is a blending of the mockumentary format, political commentary, and injunctions with the plot of A New Hope. Playing not just with the genre but the story as we know it is a fun conceit in fan films.

Another favorite is Joe Nussbaum’s George Lucas In Love, a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque retelling of the creative process, chock full of Star Wars easter eggs and parodying the Oscar winning Shakespeare in Love. Nussbaum used this work as a ‘calling card’ to future work, including an American Pie sequel.

Moving away from comedy, Star Wars fan films show the lengths that the democratization of filmmaking has come. A short like Shawn Bu’s Darth Maul: Apprentice shows the abilities of creators outside the studio system, and while it lacks the cohesiveness of a full story production, it’s impressive usage of real world locations, practical stunt work and integrated special effects show how available movie making tools are.

Much like how the original trilogy was limited by the number of real world locations it could use to create the world on screen, fan films make extensive use of the natural environment to show different planets and missions. Rebel Scum from the Blood Brother Cinema Co. production house tells a story that’s an offshoot of the Battle of Hoth, using the mountains of Colorado after a snowstorm.

As a native of the Arizona desert, I am really charmed by this piece from Navajo Joe Films, Sith Tradition. Combining the relationship of an apprentice and master with harsh beauty of the desert southwest, the lightsaber battle is even more impressive in the bright arid light.

Because I’ve said ‘It’s 2016, WHERE IS MY HOVERBOARD!?!?’, I appreciate when real world technologies are worked into a story to show off their capabilities. Using water powered jet propulsion to create Speeder Bikes, this ‘sweded’ version of the chase scene from Return Of The Jedi is fun to watch and looks like it would be even more fun to try for yourself.

The Star Wars Fan Film Awards competition was discontinued in 2012 with an uncertain future. The stall of the competition lines up with the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney and questions would arise to the future of an open fan film market free of copyright takedowns. During this period, the Star Trek fan film Axanar received a lot of attention for its Kickstarter raising over $100,000 for a feature film. The production received cease and desist notices, and the general question of what constitutes a fan film vs. copyright infringement became a question for many film centric fandoms and what the future of short films may be for other intellectual properties. Lucasfilm and Disney, for their part, seem to be warming to the idea of nurturing an enthusiastic and creative fan base; and have reopened The Star Wars Fan Film Awards as of 2016, and seem to be amenable to a community driven effort that doesn’t profit from the core intellectual property.

Finally, let’s talk about Hollywood persona non-grata Josh Trank. Trank was the original pick for the director of Rogue One, but left the project due to unspecified factors. Following the his vision of announcement of his departure from the project in 2015, Trank dropped his infamous tweet about a version of Fantastic Four that the audience would never see, implied because of studio interference. The next day, Fantastic Four was released to negative critical reaction and was a box office bomb. Trank has been mostly invisible in Hollywood since then, with a reported project with Tom Hardy in development  His departure and subsequent drama had been the first sign of turmoil with Rogue One following Disney’s ambitious announcement for a ‘Star Wars every year’, and with the other announcements of Tony Gilroy taking over rewrite and reshoot duties from Gareth Edwards, it’s lucky Trank avoided additional perceptions of being a difficult director.

For Trank, Rogue One was supposed to represent a creative homecoming. Trank first got attention for a short film that became a bit of a viral sensation, 2007’s Stabbing at Leia’s. It’s a short video, almost more a sketch than a film, and depicts a fairly racious party in a modern setting. A drunken, testosterone driven fight ensues, and the authorities have to be called. It’s surreal, violent and funny in a way that makes you remember the promise of Trank, and slightly wistful for what his version of Rogue One could have been.

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