An Army of Mary Sues

Star Wars fans have been excited recently by the news that a favorite villain from the franchise’s “extended universe” of spinoff fiction has been promoted into a new regular character in the “official” Star Wars animated TV series “Star Wars: Rebels.” Grand Admiral Thrawn was particularly liked because he is a subtle, sophisticated, cultured villain of the type that has provided British actors with regular work in Hollywood for a long time.

A lot of fans had been worried that the “extended universe” got the heave-ho when Disney bought Lucasfilm a few years back and established a committee to reshape the franchise’s story lines, partly to bring order to the chaos of years of licensed science-fiction novels and comic books and video games, and also to clear the field so they wouldn’t be hemmed in when they set out to create stories for a new roster of Star Wars films.

So it was with some relief that fans realized the new owners of the franchise were willing to look at this extended universe, not merely as a burden to be escaped, but also as a source to be mined for creative ideas.

The same issue has been coming to the forefront—with somewhat less happy results, so far—in a competing science-fiction franchise. In the Star Trek universe, the issue is not with licensed spinoffs but with amateur, unlicensed fan fiction, which includes a growing new genre of Star Trek fan films.

Star Trek is the original home of fan fiction as we know it, and it is becoming the biggest battleground for the future of fan fiction. The basic question is the extent to which copyright holders of popular franchises want to allow new technology to disrupt and reshape their current way of doing business.

For Star Trek, the trigger was the fund-raising success of Axanar, a feature-length fan film with relatively professional production quality. The film—which seeks to flesh out a brief reference in the original series to the heroics of a former starship captain at the Battle of Axanar—raised more than a million dollars on the crowdfunding sites Kickstarter and Indiegogo. It was a quantity of money big enough to get noticed by Paramount and draw a lawsuit seeking to stop the production.

In May, as part of a publicity tour for Paramount’s latest film, Star Trek Beyond, producer J.J. Abrams caused a great deal of excitement when he declared that Paramount would drop the suit. That would not mean Paramount is relinquishing its rights, but it would set a kind of precedent and expectation, giving a green light for fan fiction to jump from mere text to video, and even to feature-length, high-definition, profession-quality video.

And the fan film producers are ready for it. A series of technological innovations—the ability to stream high-definition video on the Internet, the increased availability of inexpensive, high-quality digital special effects, and the use of Internet crowdfunding to raise small contributions from a large number of die-hard fans—all of these are taking fan fiction to a new level and into new media.

Watch the Axanar crowdfunding pitch and a 20-minute documentary-style sampler to get an idea of the quality of the production in terms of visuals, acting, and scriptwriting.

If, as Glenn Reynolds put it, the Internet has unleashed an “army of Davids,” it is also unleashing an army of Mary Sues.

For those who don’t know, “Mary Sue” is a term that originally referred to a particularly bad kind of fan fiction. It originated with a 1974 parody of Star Trek fan fiction in which the heroine, Lieutenant Mary Sue, is a rather obvious stand-in for the author, who is seeking to live vicariously through her overly idealized alter ego. Since then, the term has come to be a stand-in for fan fiction as such.

It also indicates some of the mixed feelings fans of a franchise have toward its amateur fan fiction, and it gives you an idea why movie studios and publishers who own copyrights worth billions of dollars might not want to give fan fiction full rein.

Which leads us to the next step: surprise, surprise, a promise made by a Hollywood producer turns out not to be true. The Axanar lawsuit has not been dropped, and in late June Paramount ignored a set of guidelines proposed by makers of fan films and published its own set of guidelines that will put the medium in a pretty small box. To avoid a lawsuit from Paramount, a fan production must be no more than 15 minutes long; have a budget no bigger than $50,000; have no paid professional actors or crew and no one who has ever worked on an official Star Trek production; no merchandising, not even the little perks usually given out for crowdfunding efforts (and what is a crowdfunded project without a T-shirt?); and all costumes from the franchise must be official Paramount merchandise. This can only be viewed as an attempt to ensure that no fan films with decent production quality or and kind of ambitious scope can be produced.

There is no question Paramount is within its rights to do this. The Star Wars franchise has been just as restrictive, limiting fan films to ten- or fifteen-minute entries in an infrequently held contest. The interesting question is the wisdom of this course, and whether the copyright holders ought to be embracing the possibilities opened by new technology and encouraging this creative ferment among its fans.

First, let’s back up to look at the broadest history. Once upon a time, “fan fiction” was just called “literature.” In an era before there were enforceable copyrights that gave an author exclusive property to his creations, nearly everybody borrowed or stole from a common fund of myth, legend, and history. As I have observed before, there used to be two main fictional “universes”—not Star Wars vs. Star Trek or Marvel vs. DC, but the Classical universe borrowed from the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the Biblical universe borrowed from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

It was only with the advent of modern copyrights that we saw the development of totally new literary “universes,” each with its own distinctive languages, place names, characters, institutions, and visual designs, all of which can be copyrighted, trademarked, and made proprietary. Fan fiction as we know it today is a product of this system of copyrights, and specifically of a limitation in copyright protection: it only bans the commercial exploitation of a literary idea. You can copy whatever you like—scenes, locations, devices, names, characters—so long as it’s for private sharing with your friends and you don’t make any money on it.

Through the mid-20th century, this would have made it mostly irrelevant, because the cost of printing was too high for an ordinary person to publish fan fiction non-commercially on any noticeable scale. But then the cost of printing began to decrease. This is why Star Trek is so closely associated with the new medium. Star Trek fan fiction exploded in the early 1970s with the rise of inexpensive fan magazines distributed at conventions.

But the Internet is what made fan fiction really big. If you can’t make money off of it, then the only way to distribute it for a wide audience is to do it for free, which is precisely what people began doing on Internet forums. This started even before the World Wide Web. (I will confess to reading a few pieces of Star Trek fan fiction posted to Usenet forums in the 1980s and downloaded through a mainframe. Ah, the good old days.)

For a long time, this was limited to what the Internet could easily handle: text. This was largely tolerated because written fiction was never a major focus for Star Trek’s corporate owners. They licensed their own spinoff Star Trek novels, but it was essentially a television and film franchise, and that’s where the real money was.

Only more recently has technology made it possible for ambitious fans to shoot, edit, and distribute video. One of the steps along the way was the Star Wreck series, Star Trek parodies put out by a Finnish digital graphics expert. They don’t seem to have been particularly good—maybe they seem better if you’re Finnish—but they helped pioneered the creation of professional-looking digital effects on a small budget using widely available computers. (Some of the same producers followed up with a very arresting trailer for a science-fiction comedy about Nazis on the far side of the Moon. The effects are good, even if the story-telling didn’t quite catch on.)

These and other productions demonstrated that it was possible for people without big movie-studio money to produce creditable spaceship special effects. And to the extent that fan films need money to build sets and costumes and even to hire experienced crew, they have now demonstrated that they can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But the bigger this gets, the more it ventures into the grey area of becoming a commerical enterprise, and the more of a challenge it poses to the interests of the copyright owners.

On the one hand, fan fiction helps to stoke the interest and maintain the love and loyalty of the core fans of a franchise. This, in turn, gives the studios a measure of security, a readymade audience that offers some insurance against box-office flops. That’s the whole point of a franchise. You can recover from making a few poorly received films here and there—the old adage for Star Trek was that only the even-numbered films are good—because people will keep coming to see them out of devotion to the franchise as a whole.

On the other hand, to make a profit after laying out the massive budget of a special-effects-heavy feature film, the studios need to bring in a general audience that goes well beyond the committed fans. Their balancing act is to keep the base excited but not to make films that are tailored only to purists.

And let’s face it, a lot of fan fiction is pretty bad. That’s what the “Mary Sue” parody was about. So the copyright owners don’t want bad amateur knockoffs to sully their brand. They have an interesting in trying to keep fan fiction and fan films small and limited to an audience of hard-core fans.

Yet they risk being paralyzed by an excess of caution, focusing too much on the annoyances and potential downside of fan fiction and missing the value they can find in it. What if some of the fan films are actually good? What if they’re better than what the studio is churning out? What if they have a significant appeal to a wide enough audience that the studios are foolish not to try to take advantage of them?

As a Star Trek fan, I find the Axanar material more interesting than anything I’ve seen in a while from the official franchise. It’s not just that it seems more true to the spirit of Star Trek, which is important for purists like me. It’s that it looks like it has more fully drawn characters and a more thoughtful plot. The recent “official” J.J. Abrams films, by contrast, have tended to be big, bloated action flicks, heavy on fight scenes, splashy visuals, and extremely implausible physics—even by the standards of science fiction—and short on plot, characterization, logical consistency, and big ideas.

In other words: what if the fans understand the central appeal and value of the franchise better than its owners do? To fans of Star Trek (and of many other franchises), that proposition is not exactly speculative.

More to the point, from the perspective of the franchise owners, what if fan fiction can be mined for tangible commercial value? Consider the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, which originated as fan fiction tied to the Twilight series of vampire novels. For the moment, I’m not assessing the literary merits of Fifty Shades, which is probably just as well, but there is no doubt about its ability to sell to a very large audience. As her fan fiction began to gain fans of its own, E.L. James altered the names and back stories of the characters and made 50 Shades of Grey into its own independent literary property, which has subsequently brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

The Twilight novels were oriented to a young adult audience, so its publishers were probably right not to want to associate themselves with the adult eroticism of Fifty Shades, but it certainly demonstrated the potential for fan fiction to be promoted to a commercial entity of considerable value. Just as Disney realized the value of pulling Grand Admiral Thrawn back up from the licensed fiction of the Star Wars “extended universe,” and fans are hoping they will rescue a few more characters and plot ideas, so Paramount might want to consider allowing a wider scope for fan films and treating them, not as an intrusion on their main business, but as a farm team for talent and ideas. Or to use a more appropriate science-fiction metaphor, perhaps they should treat it as a laboratory for characters, plots, design ideas, and scriptwriting.

The technology that has fueled the rise of fan fiction and fan films has been part of a revolutionary decentralization, breaking up the model of the monolithic big corporation with regimented ranks of employees. There’s a very powerful economic logic to that. It is foolish to think that a single big corporation is going to be able to discover the best way of doing everything, propagating its decisions from the top down. That’s why some big corporations try to cultivate their own in-house laboratories and start-up incubators, or why they rush to purchase independent start-ups with promising ideas, in the hope that when somebody comes up with next big thing, it won’t make them irrelevant.

It might be equally foolish for a big, corporate-owned entertainment franchise to think that a single executive producer or a centralized story committee is going to come up with all of the best ideas within the setting of their literary universe. They might be better off regarding the realm of fan fiction and fan films as a kind of start-up incubator in which fans spend their own money and time to test experiments and see if they work. And if something takes off, Paramount can look forward to commercializing it—while its producers can look forward to a franchise loyalist’s ultimate Nirvana: the status of “promoted fanboy.”

It’s all part of the logic of taking advantage of technological decentralization and low barriers to entry, and taking advantage of the efforts of an army of Davids—or an army of Mary Sues.

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