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Star Trek: The Next Production Frontier

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Forty-five years ago on this same day and day of the week (Thursday, September 8, 1966), the first episode of Star Trek aired on NBC. The episode was entitled, The Man Trap. So instead of penning a post about the Social Web, cybernetics, or Smartups, I’ve decided to celebrate this important date in entertainment and science history. I want to share with you where I believe the Star Trek franchise must now boldly go.

As every Trekkie knows, the first Star Trek series was a flop in the eyes of the network executives. The series was canceled into its third session. But it struck a chord with viewers. A letter-writing campaign by fans was responsible for the network re-airing the series and for its eventual syndication. Through syndication and fan-driven Star Trek conventions, the ideals of the series lived on, spawning four more successful series and a growing list of Hollywood movies.

Star Trek struck a chord with viewers for a number of reasons. Through its interracial, intercultural, mixed gender, and mixed species crew, it sent the message that humanity could strive toward a greater ideal, that we would eventually overcome our social, political, and economic conflicts.

The original series (TOS), and the subsequent series in the franchise, also sparked the imaginations of many young children and teenagers, helping them dream about science, technology, and the future. Today there are a number of prominent scientists who have stated that Star Trek was a primary reason they got interested in science and math.

But for the first time in almost two decades, there is not an actively-produced, airing Star Trek series. How can a new generation of viewers get inspired by the ideals and vision of the Trek universe? How should Gene Roddenberry’s vision live on?

To Boldly Go

Whereas there seems to be renewed interest in the Hollywood-side of the Trek franchise, a new Star Trek movie coming out every two or three years is not sufficient to keep fans satiated nor inspire new fans to get interested in math and science. There have been fan-created Trek series going for some time–one of them even attracting the participation of past TOS stars and screenwriters–but these productions cannot pump out the volume of annual episodes required to keep an audience engaged, to keep the vision of Roddenberry alive.

So what is the solution?

I believe that creating a single, new television-based Star Trek series is not in keeping with Gene Roddenberry’s vision. As a futurist, Roddenberry would have been enthralled with the power of today’s Web-based Internet.

Roddenberry would have reached out and embraced the Web, leveraging social media, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and cloud-based distribution. He surely would have recognized that with the new production toolkits and distribution channels, multiple teams of independent production companies could simultaneously leverage the power of the Web to expand and explore his vision.

Instead of a single, very-expensive-to-produce, television-based Star Trek series being aired at a time, imagine eight or ten cheaper-to-produce, independently-run Star Trek Web franchises running simultaneously. Imagine the richness and diversity of Roddenberry’s vision blossoming in the frontiers of Web-based media production.

The Next Production Frontier

CBS Studios–the current copyright holder of the television side of the Star Trek franchise–needs to accept the changing face of media production. It needs to honor and respect Gene Roddenberry’s creation and future-focused vision by putting in place a mechanism for the creation of independently-owned and -operated mini Star Trek Production Houses (STPH).

Note: What I’m proposing for the Star Trek franchise can equally apply to the Stargate franchise as well

The overall goal of the STPH program would be to enable small, for-profit production companies to make a living producing new Star Trek series for a world-wide fanbase. The fans would support each production via subscription fees and merchandise purchases. Only those STPH productions that were deemed worthwhile would garner sufficient fan support to continue production. Here’s how the STPH model would work:

  1. Getting Started: Each STPH would be pay an initial small licensing fee to CBS Studios for the rights to use the Star Trek name and body of work in a for-profit venture. An initial two-year license would cost a nominal amount—$10k. This would help the fledgling series get established without too much of their precious initial funding going to licensing. The small fee while affordable, is still large enough that only serious production teams would be willing to pay the initial fee.
  2. Licensing Fee Escalation: Starting with year three, licensing could switch to being annually renewable with an escalation of the fee to $25k. Year four would see the fee jump to $50k and year five would see the fee capped at a maximum $100k for that year and each subsequent years. By year three, either a series is doing well enough to afford a higher fee or it is ready to shut down. So, whereas the annual fees in years 4 and onward seem steep compared to the first three years, it is reasonable to assume that a successful series will have more than sufficient annual subscription revenue to easily afford these fees. The increased fees are also a thank you to CBS Studios for allowing young production companies to get up and running without a burdensome initial licensing fee.
  3. Production Requirements: Part of the licensing agreement would establish minimum production requirements that ensure sufficient quality of production output. However, the minimum production requirements should not be a deal killer; they cannot require too expensive of a production toolset; they cannot require that actors be screen actor guild members nor that gaffers, lighting technicians (etcetera) be union. The Web-based production paradigm is much closer to guerilla, shoebox, garage-level production than Hollywood-level cinematic overkill. Requiring big-budget television, or worse, Hollywoord-level production capabilities does not recognize nor appreciate the agility with which Web-based productions must operate.
  4. Production Quality: Whereas costs must be contained, and therefore old-school media production mindsets will not work in the fasted-paced world of Web productions, there are a few essentials to help ensure sufficient production quality. A list of minimum equipment quality, facilities, and production capabilities would be spelled out in the licensing agreement. This list would cover:

    * Cameras
    * Studio space
    * Sets, props, and costumes
    * Scripts
    * Post production quality, such as VFX capabilites
    * Website design and community requirements
    * Episode formatting for Web broadcast

  5. Organizational Structure: Each independent STPH must be a chartered for-profit corporate organization. In other words, it has to be a business and run like a business. It cannot be three guys in their garage making a fan flick.
  6. Monetization: Each STPH would utilize crowdfunding to fund their series production. This could be done through a combination of funding techniques, but selling annual subscriptions to a series would be the primary revenue source for each STPH.
  7. Profit Sharing: Profit sharing of 70/30 (STPH / CBS Studios). CBS Studios would receive a thirty-precent topline subscription revenue share and a thirty-precent net profit share (on all other revenue streams minus subscription revenue) such as sales of merchandise, DVDs, conferences, onset tours, premium Web member fees, etcetera.
  8. Need for Profit: Each STPH Webseries’ creative team and production company need to have sufficient motivation and profit opportunities. They need to have the ability to earn a respectable profit to fund future growth and improvements. A thirty-precent profit share with CBS Studios is more than generous and could add up to a respectable bonus revenue stream all for just agreeing to license the Star Trek brand and let others do the rest of the work.
  9. Creative Freedom: Whereas CBS Studios would approve each new licensee and the proposed Webseries’ place in the Star Trek Universe (STU), they would not have creative control over a Webseries’ production. The only control they would have is to refuse license renewal at the end of a licensing period or the ability to revoke a license midterm if other contractual obligations have not been met. The license agreement would have to safeguard the original creative team and STPH company so as to prevent license termination for the sole purpose of taking over a popular Webseries (see last bullet point). There would of course be a set of rules that each Webseries would have to follow regarding the expansion of the STU and also a set of production guidelines that should be followed. But Web-based new media projects cannot function under old school, overly ridged, greatly politicized production policies and practices. In the world of new media there is no room for the old school studio executives playing god. There is no room and allowance for script reviews and approval. Web-based cinema is a lean, quick paced production environment. The reason it exists is to get away from the excesses and gross inefficiencies of old school, traditional media. If CBS Studios wants to succeed in the new media Web world, it has to learn the new rules, it has to change its ways of doing business.
  10. Copyright: Each STPH webseries would have a joint copyright between CBS Studios and the STPH Webseries production company with all profits shared as agreed upon in the licensing agreement. The copyright and profit sharing would continue after series completion or termination.
  11. Communication, Participation, Marketing: Regular communication would occur between each licensed STPH and CBS Studios. This would be facilitated via a special CBS Studio STPH Envoy. CBS Studios would help market each licensed STPH via promotion on StarTrek.com and other outlets.
  12. Potential for Television Series: It may make sense for CBS Studios to directly nurture a select few STPH Webseries, providing them with additional funding, and maybe even turning them into full-fledged Star Trek TV series. This would require careful consideration of the impacts to the STPH company (owners, actors, production team, copyright issues, etcetera).

The Web, Star Trek’s Final Frontier?

Why should CBS Studios entertain this proposal? Besides that it is more than likely in keeping with Gene Roddenberry’s vision, it could provide a nice yearly revenue stream.

It’s realistic to project a possible annual income from all licensed STPH Webseries to approach $36m by the fourth year of this program. With ten active, licensed Star Trek webseries each paying $50k per licensing year, that is $500k in licensing fees in year four alone. Year five would double income from licensing to $1m.

The profit sharing arrangement offers the lion’s share of the opportunity. Assuming each STPH Webseries has at a minimum 500k annual subscribers each paying $20 per year for the privilege of seeing the series, that would make a total of $10 million per series times ten series divided by 30 percent. Therefore the shared revenue split would bring in $30m per annum.

Furthermore, I guesstimate that each successful fourth-season webseries would have a minimum additional net revenue stream of $2 million per annum through merchandising and other avenues. This means an additional $6 million per year to CBS Studios. That may not sound like much money to a mega-media company like CBS, but it would be $36 million dollars per year that CBS would not have otherwise.

The real payoff to CBS Studios may be in keeping Roddenberry’s vision alive and bringing it into the future. With possibly a dozen independent mini Star Trek Production Houses producing hundreds of hours of Web-based programming each year, the franchise will be reinvigorated. Future television-based series, merchandizing, and renewed syndication revenue from past television series could lead to a windfall profit for CBS Studios.

As we celebrate Star Trek’s 45th anniversary, let’s keep Gene Roddenberry’s vision alive and boldly go into a new production frontier.

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