When fans think Hollywood can’t do it right, they do it themselves.
In this generation of online media, fan films and fan series have been on the rise: independent filmmakers tackle stories from existing sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book properties, adapting the mythos into their own media. Fan films are by no means a new concept, with the earliest instance dating back to the 1920s (Anderson ‘Our Gang, based on the Our Gang Little Rascals films), but the turn of the millennium and the advent of internet viewing platforms has given fan films the worldwide visibility boost needed to grow these projects from minor hobbies to full-fledged productions, funded by producers and crowdfunding, and often staffed with industry professionals, cast and crew alike. Major Hollywood talent and producers even get in on the action, with Thomas Jayne and Ron Perlman starring in the 2012 fan film Punisher: Dirty Laundry (in which Jayne unofficially reprised his Hollywood role from 2008) and Adi Shankar (executive producer, Dredd, Lone Survivor) producing the unauthorized Power/Rangers fan film.
Now that companies like Disney and Marvel have moved into Georgia (with other major studios hot on their heels) and fan conventions are on the rise in the state, fans have galvanized, and films and series are always in production. Groups of Atlanta filmmakers and talent have banded together, creating short films and web series based off various science fiction and superhero stories. Some, like Eric Green, were brought into the filmmaking world due to their passion for such projects: “I was never the kind of person who wanted to be a filmmaker when I was young. I wanted to be an actor, but people weren’t making the kinds of things I wanted to be a part of, so I bought cameras and started filming with friends. I then got introduced to actors and crew already in the film industry, and those industry folks started helping me out in my films.”
Green, under his company Throwback Studioz, started with short original superhero-inspired films before tackling properties such as Tomb Raider, Marvel’s Blade, Spider-Man, and most notably the Uncanny X-Men series, which follows the comic and cartoon series of the Marvel mutant franchise. “I always wanted to make an X-Men movie when I was younger, or be in one. When I saw Atlanta didn’t really have a big fan film market, I decided to do it on my own. It was very ambitious since I was still learning [filmmaking], but as soon as I wanted to do it, another friend wanted to do it and then another friend, and soon we had a small group of people to do it. We took on the Phoenix Saga story and did six episodes. It was a bit of a challenge, since we were learning everything, but we lucked out a lot: people liked it and wanted more, so we made about six more seasons of it.” The series boasts a team of producers and writers who have adapted fan favorite storylines as well as penning original X-Men adventures.
Uncanny X-Men started filming in 2011 and has cast hundreds of roles, with other fan projects spinning out of it by those involved, including a Black Panther short and the highly popular Deadpool: A Typical Tuesday produced by Bean Dip Productions. “I’ll give Eric Green a ton of credit,” says Bean Dip co-founder and director Keith Brooks. “While on set we started thinking, ‘We could do something like this.’ We had done an original film, To Wong with Kung Fu, and we wanted to do something else to teach us more about the process of filmmaking. It occurred to us to do something that crossed the gap from our already-explored comedy angle with the horror angle we wanted to eventually explore, and the character of Deadpool seemed like a really logical choice.”
Fan films not only give fans a chance to create a story in a world they love: they give filmmakers an opportunity to hone their art with an existing character roster and backstory, focusing more on the technical elements rather than the world-building. Brooks and his production partner Trevor Garner, who also appeared in Uncanny X-Men with Brooks, did just that with Deadpool. “When you work with material that’s already licensed and has its own world, you have a built-in understanding of who these characters are. For example, after ten seasons of House, they can do crazy things with that character on the eleventh season because there’s already a shorthand of who he is. We knew who the audience for Deadpool was and who the character was, because he existed for years in the comics. Even the fan films we saw hadn’t done things that we knew we could do, and that was an exciting challenge.” Garner adds, “A lot of people who make fan films don’t explore as much as they could: you can take this character and do something with it that makes it your own.”
Since Deadpool, Brooks and Garner have worked on a number of fan projects, including (but not limited to) Batman: Retribution, Star Wars: Blackout, an in-development Mario fan film titled 1Up Yours, and the feature length fan film Star Trek: First Frontier. “Star Trek came about because a gentleman named Kenny Smith is the biggest Star Trek fan I’ve ever met in my life,” says Garner. “He wanted this to happen and he fronted it and directed it. He made it happen. But: he knew he wasn’t as experienced in filmmaking, so he brought us in along with Zeke Flatten as the producer. He brought the fan aspect: the passion, the drive, the vision, and then he pulled in working professionals—actors and crew—for the technical side. We had that background in film AND fan film. We knew how that terrain was mapped out; it was easier for us to navigate. We’d already experienced the negatives and pitfalls that come with fan films, so we could say ‘No, don’t do that, that’s how you get in trouble.’”
Thou Shalt Not Profit
With fan filmmaking comes miles of eggshell-walking: as the filmmakers do not own the properties they are shooting, the production sits effectively at the mercy of the rights-owners, be it the studios, the publishers, or the developers of the original content. Many a fan film has vanished from the face of the internet without any warning, usually due to either a perceived misrepresentation of the property by the owners (such as explicit content or content otherwise not approved by the owners), a false claim in ownership (i.e. not crediting the original creators/owners and properly noting that the production company of the fan film retains no rights), or an attempt to profit off of the fan film [Ed. Note: see end of article for the Do's and Don'ts of Fan Filmmaking, presented by Eric Green]. In some cases, the owners might pursue legal action against the fan productions, such as the ongoing lawsuit between CBS/Paramount and Star Trek fan company Axanar Productions.
Funding for fan films is typically the toughest element of production, as, by design, the end product cannot be sold. Unlike original products or big studio productions, fan filmmakers do not retain the rights to their works. To work around this, fan filmmakers have to get financially creative to bring their dreams into production. “Unless the person behind the project is pretty wealthy, you have to penny-and-dime it and Kickstart or IndieGoGo it until you can do it,” suggests Green. “You may have to guerrilla shoot some things if you can’t get a permit worked out, sometimes you can’t get the best supplies and you have to get creative to make a solid wardrobe or make-up effect, whereas a professional set has that all taken care of because it’s all paid for.”
Fan films are typically funded by the filmmakers themselves, who—unlike major producers—often do not have the money for high-end equipment, large sets, and other elements that come with larger productions. Jesse Scimeca of madeLEGITmedia produced his Marvel Knights: Spider-Man project on a shoestring budget. “We did a short Spider-Man fan film with a budget of $20 and the help of friends and family just to see what we could do. At the time of pre-production for the web-series, it sat at 100,000 views and the fans let us know in the comment section that they wanted more content. That was good enough for us to move forward with the Kickstarter and get together the funds.” The short film now sits at nearly 10 million views and is followed by a five-part episodic web series.
Crowdfunding can often offset the pesky cost of filmmaking for fan filmmakers, though it doesn’t work for everyone. Filmmakers like Scimeca benefited from it, while filmmakers like Green did in the early seasons of X-Men but not the later seasons. Garner and Brooks have never found success in it: “We are bad at asking for money from folks, it’s not who we are.”
That’s not to say that no compensation ever takes place: cast and crew are fed, travel expenses are sometimes paid, favors are exchanged, and in some instances people can be paid. By nature of the fan film structure and rules set, though, the production as a whole does not profit. Because of this, things may flow a little differently on an indie fan film set compared to a larger production.
“Everyone has to take on several jobs,” notes TJ Garland, creator of the fan film Batman: Retribution, co-starring Garner, co-written by Brooks, and co-directed by David di Pietro. “We all wear several hats and work in other departments because you don't have the money to pay people, and everyone who's working on it is doing it because it's a labor of love. And love doesn't pay the bills. So you make things as flexible as possible. You have a backup plan for your backup plan, and you learn how to turn a dollar into $10! You're also working with lower budget equipment, and things take a lot more time. I've seen people make movies with crazy money, using the most professional equipment money can buy, and flushed it right down the drain. I believe it's all about the people working behind it, the direction of it all, and the story. I had the best damn crew of people I could ask for working on this thing, and I can't thank them enough.”
A Heroic Passion
The low-to-no-budget element, however, can be overridden by the passion of those involved in the project, as in many cases the cast, crew, and producers are all fans of the property they are filming. “A lot of times friends of the actors (or the actors themselves) or the crew will chip in themselves,” Green says. They may go out and get a piece of wardrobe that’s needed, on their own, to help the set out. On our Spider-Man set, Sharife (Jones) played the character Blade, and he was able to pull together the entire cartoon Blade look on his own. They might volunteer for things like craft services. Everyone just chips in to make the project the best that it can be. The funding is low, but the desire for the project to succeed is high.”
Like any good set, a fan film set can be more than a job. “When you make a film, you make memories,” says Garland. “You build new relationships and families. It reminds me of being in the Marine Corps. When a group of people spends so much time spilling their blood, sweat, and tears, you build a bond and a fellowship like no other line of work. Everyone has a duty to perform, a task to fulfill, and it adds up to the completion of the overall mission. And when one person fails, the others will pick up after it to see it through. It's humanity at its best, and I love doing it whether I'm paid or not.”
That passion, along with a willingness to help and be involved, is the most valuable resource on a fan set, as Chris Burns of Avengers Assemble: The Series will attest: “On an indie film or low budget film set, you're working with a much more condensed time table to get your footage shot, and you don't have the luxury to throw money at solving creative or logistical problems. Most people have other full time jobs, usually in the industry, sometimes not. Filmmakers will call in favors, ask people to work on a low salary or for free because it's for a friend, borrowing equipment or renting what is needed for as few days possible. It really comes down to pre-production and planning carefully what you are trying to do and having a good team in place to execute it.”
Burns created Avengers Assemble along with Brian Godleski, based on a skit by Godleski involving the Avengers and a discussion on new health care legislation. The series has expanded into three seasons with the help of numerous friends and contributors: “The most incredible and humbling thing about this experience is that every single one of my friends and fellow artists who have graced the show with the generosity of their time and talents,” says Burns. “They have gifted me the opportunity to create something I am very proud of. I am forever in their debts and can never thank them enough.”
With so many roadblocks, a question burns: why even make a fan film if you can’t make any money or retain any of the rights? For the fan filmmakers, it’s all about the passion and personal growth. “This project took about two years of my life from conception to completion. It was a passion project through and through, and a crazy amount of work for everyone involved,” says Scimeca. “But it was a blast. I got to create a world for my favorite wall-crawler to live in and on top of that, I got to do it with my friends.” Burns agrees in regards to Avengers Assemble: “Filmmakers wait their entire lives to be able to tell stories with their favorite characters, and with the studio system so focused on profit, very few individuals get the chance to do so. That's why I have invested money, time, energy, and resources into Avengers Assemble; it's a look at these characters, with the voices I want to hear, the situations I want to see them deal with, and the way I want to present it to an audience with 100 % creative control. That's the tradeoff. You would never get that working with franchised characters in the studio system.” That passion has led to Avengers Assemble gaining the attention of Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee, who feature cameoed in some episodes.
Beyond the passion, fan films give filmmakers an opportunity to grow their talent, fan base, and reputation. Garner and Brooks spent $3700 on Deadpool with no monetary returns, but they gained other benefits. “We got a lot of subscribers for our channel, which boosts our other original films. We have something like 23 or 24 million views worldwide across different Internet platforms and in different languages, and we were contacted by Marvel to give them the rights to the film and the script [for adaptation to comic form and video game references]. They didn’t have to do that, but they did, and we gave it to them,” says Garner.
Green agrees on the potential for growth: “Depending on how you do the project, you can build a big audience of people who love your work. That can propel you to the next step of original films with a built-in audience, which means potential money and a fan base for the actors and production. You put yourself into a fan film that generates 50,000 views and you get 50,000 potential viewers for your other original projects if they like your style.”
“The big WHY for fan films for us is the accessibility of the pre-established universe and the fun it offers you with experimenting with it,” says Brooks, “and it’s a way to teach you more about filmmaking. We were presented with so many things that we didn’t know how to do, but it made us want to find out. As a filmmaker, you have to push and challenge yourself, and each fan film challenges us. There’s a lot of growth and understanding that the words ‘fan’ and ‘film’ are important equally. You have to understand the passion aspect—that it is a thing where you won’t make money—but you also have to bring a knowledge of film and how cinema works to really achieve your goal.”
Small Set, Big Bang
This passion—both for the content and the filmmaking—drives industry professionals to dedicate their time and money to these projects. On the projects in this article alone, SAG-AFTRA actors, members of IATSE, ICG, Teamsters, and other film unions, and other film workers dive into these Georgia-based fan projects. They use it as a way to grow their abilities and practice their craft outside of work, giving the talent pool of the state the chance to create for a product they might not otherwise be able to work on in the industry. And while the money may not be the same on a fan film set as it is on a big budget set, the environment and the people working it can bridge that gap.
Keeping the big set feeling on the fan film level is important to Bean Dip Productions. “We try to make our sets the same thing with less money,” says Brooks. “What defines a professional set is not where the movie is being distributed or the budget, it’s how the individuals treat you. A film set is a lot of ‘sit and wait.’ That’s going to happen. But it’s about how you are accommodated while that’s happening and how well a plan is laid out that makes the professionalism.”
Garner concurs: “The idea that a professional film set is ‘one that has money and an idea that tries to make money’ is wrong. A professional set is one where the people who are working are doing their job well because their skills can back it up. They don’t always LOVE what they’re doing, but they’re there for a reason and competent in their areas and treating each other with respect. You can work on big budget sets that are NOT professional. If everyone’s there to work and are professional about it, then your product will be good. It may not be the best, but it will be good.”
Chocolate Syrup and Vegetable Oil
On a less tangible scale, fan filmmaking brings the creators a sense of personal accomplishment and joy, in many forms.
For some, it’s reveling in the fun and sometimes surreal experiences with others one can only gain on a film set. Burns recalls a series of experiences: “Vince Pisani…I've abused this poor man more than any one person should be. He's played three different characters on the show. He’s played Namor, who just swam through the BP oil spill, so not only was he wearing woman's green fish scale boy shorts and shaved his legs, but we covered him in chocolate syrup and vegetable oil which he stayed in for five hours. He also played Purple Man, who’s purple head to toe, so we tried to cover his hands and face…which didn't work; he looked like a grape version of Veruca Salt for a couple of days. And not only did we have him dressed as Spider-Man hanging upside down for hours in a strip club, but we had him appear as Namor in the green trunks doing a strip tease in the same episode. He never complained, not once. He just smiled and made us all laugh with his great performances.”
For others, it’s what you can accomplish on a set. “For one episode of X-Men, we got to take over a whole
medical school,” recalls Green, “and all my friends were heroes fighting a ridiculous number of bad guys (50 of them). One of the actors that day came up to me and said ‘You’re helping my childhood come true, too.’ That’ll always stand out.”
For even more, it’s presenting the finished product, as with Scimeca’s premiere of the Marvel Knights: Spider-Man web-series at the Atlanta Midtown Art Cinema: “Everyone involved was there to support it, and so many others I didn't even know came to experience it on the big screen. I like to stand in the back whenever we show our work to people, and hearing the audience react to key moments of the film in the way we had hoped was a feeling I'll never forget.”
Beyond that, it’s a burning passion for the property adapted. Garland has been a fan of Batman since his childhood. “I'm one of the biggest Batman fans on the planet, and all my friends know it. I felt so let down by the Joel Schumacher films and the Christopher Nolan Batman still didn't make me feel like I was in that world. It was either silly nipple Batman [referencing George Clooney’s often ridiculed suit in Batman & Robin], or a Batman that was too grounded in the real world. I loved the Tim Burton films, and I love the comics because they engulf me into a different reality where Gotham is a place that could exist, but it's not like any city we've ever seen! And Batman is such a beyond limits character that even though he is a man, everyone that encounters him who doesn't know his secrets is forced to question if he is real, or just a myth. They question if he's a man or part metahuman. And they're frightened by him! Even the good guys are! I wanted to make a film that had that element in it. Batman doesn't have to be darker, and it's not like I wanted to do a darker Batman film. If you use the key elements that make Batman the feared vigilante he is, and show the audience that, it's dark enough already! I remember when I saw people jump in the viewing at Dragon Con when he punches through the wall and I loved that reaction! Because it's exactly how the villain reacts. That’s what I wanted to show audiences.”
And for some, it’s just the connection you get with other fans, as Brooks recounts: “We were on a shoot, and Trevor was walking around like normal…and someone recognized his voice from Deadpool. You never see his face, so they heard his voice and went, ‘Oh, you’re the Deadpool guy!’ Someone recognized my voice from me playing Beast on Uncanny X-Men recently: I’m blue and covered in fur, so you don’t really get to recognize me by face. It’s insane. Even with Star Trek: when people hear about the film we’re making, they get excited because we’re going practical with the sets to keep the nostalgia of the 1960s sets.”
Filmmaking is a passion, and fan filmmaking especially so. “I mean,” offers Garner, “who doesn’t want to dress up as their favorite character and pretend to be them on camera and put it on the internet for people to tell you you’re terrible at it?” Adds Brooks: “Who doesn't want to experiment with what your icons of childhood mean to you? It’s a love letter and a way you can develop.”
Green agrees: “I love X-Men, and if I didn’t have the passion I wouldn’t have kicked it off. There were a lot of hurdles and challenges that should have made me say, ‘This isn’t worth it, I tried, oh well,’ but I kept going because of how bad I wanted it. When you have a passion for something, you’ll do anything it takes to make that dream come true.”