When the Audience Makes the Cameras Roll
Ensign Tongaroa (Daniel Logan), Captain James T. Kirk (Vic Mignogna) and Lieutenant Sulu (Grant Imahara). Photo: Matt Bucy
Sept. 7, 2015 4:22 p.m. ET
Batman battles the Joker in the middle of an amusement park to prevent a bomb on top of a Ferris wheel from nuking Gotham. To stop an interplanetary war, Capt. James T. Kirk must confront the ghosts and demons—in the form of beautiful women—from his own past. Deadpool wails away on bad guys (and, rather indiscriminately, a few good ones as well), mumbles semi-coherently to the audience, and obsesses over tacos.
All these may sound like plot lines from the latest billion-dollar Hollywood blockbuster. But, in actuality, these are all from what are known as “fan films”—independently produced movies using familiar characters from iconic science-fiction and superhero franchises.
To most of us who started reading comic books during the “Silver” age (the 1960s), the term “fan film” means cranking up the Super 8 camera and shooting your little brother parading around the driveway in blue long johns and a towel around his neck. In the digital era, however, fan films have grown to the point where the best of them are not only incredibly sophisticated, often employing professional talent, but worthy of competing with the official product. For a microscopic fraction of what the major studios spend, many of them are better than such epic disasters as “Green Lantern” (2011) and this summer’s mega-bomb “Fantastic Four.”
There’s only one rule governing so-called fan films: They’re not allowed to make a profit. (Although some of the production people and actors are occasionally paid at least a token fee.) These productions begin and end their lives on the Internet. The budgets are generally raised through a combination of online crowdfunding (e.g., Kickstarter), filmmakers and actors who put their money where their mouths are, and wealthy friends. And the web is where the movies are allowed to be shown, on YouTube and Vimeo, for free.
Fan films are an outgrowth of fan fiction, a phenomenon that reached an early peak with the original “Star Trek” series of 1966-69. Nearly everyone who followed the show had some ideas for further adventures for the crew of the USS Enterprise following the show’s abrupt cancellation—even as the discourse among comic-book fans ran along the lines of “could the Hulk beat Wonder Woman in a fair fight?”
“Star Trek,” particularly the original series, has always been the galactic epicenter of fan fiction and films. The flagship of the fan film fleet is easily “Star Trek Continues,” the brainchild of Vic Mignogna, who has been a dominant figure in producing, writing and occasionally directing the series (the fifth episode drops, as they say, at the end of this month), and who also stars as Captain Kirk.
The web series comes frighteningly close to replicating the original series, in the sets, make-up and hairstyles, costumes and music. (Andy Farber, a frequent member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, composed the latest two episodes, scoring for a 40-piece orchestra.) The art direction precisely captures the Day-Glo visuals of early color TV. Most remarkable is Mr. Mignogna; no actor playing, for instance, James Bond has imitated Sean Connery outright, but Mr. Mignogna comes so scarily close to the dynamic, staccato energy of William Shatner that we keep forgetting we’re looking at another actor. The show has been primarily funded through two “Kirkstarter” campaigns that have raised a total of $250,000 for the five 50-minute episodes produced so far. Compare that with the $190,000 budget (roughly $1.4 million in today’s dollars) for a single episode in 1966, or the $1.7 million that Paramount spent on episodes of the most recent Trek show, “Enterprise,” a dozen years ago.
The other franchise that has most caught the imagination of fan-film producers is the extended Batman family; there are entries on Nightwing (the grown-up incarnation of Robin), Batgirl and even the Joker. The most impressive entry so far is “City of Scars,” a $27,000, 30-minute film that could easily be a template for a low-budget Batman TV series, containing highly believable fights, chases and action sequences, as well as copious philosophizing and moralizing (”Gotham City is sick of Batman’s conscience,” Officer Montoya snarls, “and so am I!”). There’s also an irresistibly hateful incarnation of the Joker who talks like a psychotic kiddie-show host. Other Dark Knight/Caped Crusader spinoffs (”Batgirl: Spoiled,” “Batman: Death Wish”) seem like ambitious outgrowths of what, in Comic Con parlance, is referred to as “cosplay.” (The term describes fans who enjoy playing dress-up on a highly elaborate level, as represented by the many 20-something women decked out as the Catwoman or Harley Quinn.)
There are also numerous fan films built around the Marvel character Deadpool, a mumbling mutant and the most meta of super-antiheroes, in a state of constant dialogue with his creators, much like Daffy Duck in “Duck Amuck,” never quite sure who he’s battling or why. When Marvel releases the first official Deadpool feature next year, it remains to be seen if a big-budget studio production can compete with such earnestly entertaining amateur efforts as “Deadpool: A Typical Tuesday.”
Also, 2016 will see two major Star Trek releases, Paramount’s official “Star Trek Beyond” and the eagerly anticipated “Axanar,” a highly ambitious fan feature (budgeted at half a million dollars) that has the potential to create an entirely new Trek sub-franchise.
The best of these fan films prove that it’s possible to be highly original even when working with well-known characters. They are, in fact, going where many have gone before, but no less boldly.
Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.