In spite of all the criticism, the new STAR TREK movie was a hit. It opened with a $20 million opening weekend, and has grossed over $100 million so far, making it the highest opening weekend for a STAR TREK film. I mean, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? But why is Alex KURTZMAN getting a $160 million deal just because he directed this movie? Why are others not getting as much for their work?
“”Star Trek” is an interesting. I know because I was a fan of it since I was a child. I was totally geeked out by it for years. But after so many years, I stopped watching it because I couldn’t get into it. My interest in it faded.
Irate outrage, humiliated astonishment, and smug “I toldja so!”s have been flying through Star Trek fandom like COVID at a super-spreader event during the last several days. All of this is because to ALEX KURTZMAN and his SECRET HIDEOUT production business signing a five-and-a-half-year, $160 million development contract with ViacomCBS.
Without a doubt, this is a monumental agreement…even for Hollywood. It’s similar to other recent nine-figure mega-deals, such as the ones signed by Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy with Netflix, and Jordan Peele with Amazon Studios. Kurtzman is now firmly established as not just an undisputed entertainment powerhouse (and, more specifically, at CBS), but also as the undisputed and uncontested “Trek Tsar” (get it?) for at least the next half-decade.
Some supporters were irritated.
After years of confident (and sometimes arrogant) predictions that Mr. Kurtzman was not only on his way out at CBS, but had actually been fired—multiple times!!!—for his “humiliating failures” with the Star Trek brand, the announcement of this mega-deal stunned most of these formerly confident fans. Many of them, like this guy, have gone into an excessively theatrical display of resigned outrage as a result of it…
Even after the transaction was revealed, some people couldn’t believe that VCBS really liked Alex Kurtzman. Amusingly, the day before the announcement, I was talking with one of these individuals, and we had this conversation (I will not reveal this person’s identity). My remarks are highlighted in blue…
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I didn’t have to wait a year after all. The next day, the major news broke on the Internet, and after some back-and-forth, my Facebook buddy finally wrote the following remark, which gave me a brief sense of smug pleasure…
My buddy couldn’t let go of his conviction that Kurtzman was poisonous and that this transaction couldn’t possibly be based in truth, so I say “momentary.” My buddy really gave a link to this site where unhappy, dismissed workers may anonymously complain about the businesses that recently laid them off in an attempt to persuade me to see the light. These enraged citizens seem to disapprove of the way Mr. Kurtzman and his cronies rule the show. As a result, I gave up attempting to reason with him, which led to this last conversation…
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The math was easy for this fan: Star Trek is costing VCBS money, and VCBS wants to earn money, therefore the person in charge of Star Trek should be dismissed.
He has no idea what I’m talking about.
However, I am hopeful that you will. Let’s just pretend I slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night and have as much credibility as the next person, putting aside any name-dropping of “I know so-and-so who used to be the number two guy at L.A.’s largest talent agency” or “I know the former general counsel of such-and-such TV network.” To put it another way, whether you believe me or not makes no difference to the forces that be.
And speaking of whom, let me start off by saying that the ants and the elephant have very different perspectives…and in this metaphor, we fans are the ants and VCBS is most definitely the elephant. So it doesn’t really matter how many “open letters” some fans angrily write (the suits don’t read any) or how loudly a small number boycott CBS All Access—now Paramount+. And in fact, it doesn’t matter much if the Star Trek franchise is completely floundering right now (which it kinda is and kinda isn’t). That’s because this is a chess game, and corporations like VCBS need to develop their most powerful pieces in order to stay competitive.
For those who are unfamiliar with the game of chess, each player’s most powerful pieces—the queen, rooks, and bishops—start off imprisoned. When the game starts, the pawn line prevents them from moving at all. So, in order for the “power pieces” to advance out towards the middle of the board and become a factor in a competitive game, pawns (and occasionally other pieces) must be moved out of the way.
The chess board in today’s world is the burgeoning Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) industry, which includes behemoths like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple+, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, and a slew of others. Streaming services have radically transformed the way most people in developed nations watch television in only a few years. Even if it’s a tiny one, everyone wants a footing in the SVOD space. However, the game is only getting begun!
Netflix and Amazon Prime have a significant head start on the competition. “Latecomers” like Disney+ and HBO attempted to catch up by combining existing content (thousands of children’s movies and/or Warner Bros films, as well as HBO series like Game of Thrones and Veep and countless others) with new releases from popular franchises like Star Wars, Marvel, DC Comics, and Pixar. Disney+ and HBO Max have jumped to the top of the “must have” list for literally tens of millions of TV watchers and subscribers as a result of this.
Assume you’re ViacomCBS right now. On the chessboard, what are your strongest pieces? You have the National Football League, NCAA basketball’s “March Madness,” and a few other sports licenses… and those are doing well. The Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, and American Music Awards are just a few of the big award events (not the Oscars, though). You also get access to all of CBS’s network TV programs from the past several decades, including The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, The Big Bang Theory, and CSI. And now, due to “reunification,” you have access to the extensive collection of Paramount Pictures movie pictures.
Except for the NFL, nothing on that list is a genuine “power piece” on the SVOD chess board. Nothing compares to Disney+ or Netflix when it comes to making Paramount+ a “must have.” In reality, VCBS only possesses one item that can be classified as a “power piece”: Star Trek.
Granted, Star Trek isn’t nearly as popular as Star Wars (sorry, Trekkies), but it’s a close second. Take a look at NBC’s new Peacock streaming service, for example. They’d do everything to have their own tentpole franchise like Star Trek. (Sorry, folks; remember how you canceled it in 1969?) NBCUniversal, on the other hand, owns Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. I wish you luck with it.
As a result, VCBS must play the hand they’ve been dealt (oops, incorrect game metaphor) and create Star Trek as their “power piece.” That’s exactly what they’re doing! Discovery, Picard, Lower Decks, Prodigy, and Strange New Worlds (plus a few more like Section 31 and a potential Worf comedy/drama) are among the new shows the studio is developing.
“What if they’re all bad?” What happens if they don’t earn any money at all? What if they completely destroy the franchise? Isn’t it going to irritate the shareholders and lead to the dismissal of someone like Alex Kurtzman?” you wonder.
Instead of thinking like an ant, think like an elephant.
New Star Trek shows do not need to have huge viewing figures to get off to a good start. CBS was unconcerned about it. They wouldn’t have objected if the new Trek series had been a smash success, but that was never the goal. In fact, as compared to network television, the first season of Discovery had a VERY low number of viewers. Streaming requests for Discovery programs in season one averaged only in the hundreds of thousands (and LOW hundreds of thousands) out of 2.5-to-4 million members, according to CBS statistics. And no, I’m not going to tell you how I know that. The number of people watching NFL games in the fall of 2017 was in the millions. Discovery was hardly a blip on the radar. CBS was unconcerned.
VCBS (like with other streaming services with potentially embarrassing user figures) is still being suspiciously vague in its reporting. VCBS bizarrely “groups” Showtime streaming service members with Paramount+ customers, without revealing real numbers for how many people are watching certain programs. This enables VCBS to brag about its statistics, such as when it claimed in May that worldwide subscriptions for the two services combined increased from 30 million to 36 million (surpassing Wall Street analysts’ predictions of “only” 4.8 million).
People who terminate their membership are also counted as “still subscribed” by VCBS. Huh? People like me (who terminated my membership in January) are considered “paused.” This is how their previous CEO said it. So CBS has listed me as a subscriber for the last eight months. Now, they’re not entirely incorrect regarding my eventual return. When the second season of Star Trek: Lower Decks premieres in two weeks, I’ll reinstate my membership. When it comes to reporting statistics, however, VCBS is well aware that the news is not as good as they make it seem.
It makes no difference. They’re positioning their queen (the Star Trek property). To both recruit customers and set some baseline expectations, they need to put up a strong library of varied Star Trek material. Even if a viewer dislikes one of the programs, there’s a chance he or she (or they!) may like another. Discovery is almost entirely action-packed and excessively dramatic. Picard is a more contemplative and slow-moving character. Lower Decks is a wacky adult-targeted animated comedy that is, paradoxically, one of the greatest Star Trek shows ever made (in my opinion). Prodigy will go after children. Strange New Worlds will also revert to traditional TOS episodic storytelling without the emotional weight of Discovery and Picard.
It’s similar to what Disney+ is doing with its Marvel series, where WandaVision was as unlike to Falcon and Winter Soldier as they were to Loki… However, they were all firmly rooted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and maybe a few other universes, too). Star Trek is the same way. When asked to compare what CBS is doing with Star Trek to what Disney is doing with Marvel, Alex Kurtzman told the New York Times, “…you have to create a certain basis in order to get there, and we’re still constructing our foundation.” Kurtzman understands. VCBS feels the same way.
Star Trek doesn’t need to “succeed” right now…at least not yet. Fans may either adore it or despise it. Because it’s a loss-leader, the property may lose a lot of money over the following several years. The studio’s top goal right now is to create infrastructure for producing the franchise…on two coasts, in fact, so that they don’t have to cannibalize their own employees when two or more shows are in production at the same time. They’re putting together a team. From writers to directors to producers to make-up and VFX artists to grips and gaffers, they need to know who’s out there. And they want these individuals to learn about Star Trek (not what fans believe it is, but what the studio thinks it is…remember, we’re the ants and they’re the elephant) and how it’s made.
That’s when Alex Kurtzman enters the picture.
If you read the whole New York Times story, one remark in particular illustrates why this mega-deal occurred. In an interview, CBS President and Chief Executive Officer George Cheeks stated this about Kurtzman. “He has the ability to create for broadcast. He can create content for both premium and wide streaming. He is well-versed in the industry. He has a lot of empathy. He’s a quick thinker. You need to know that this talent can execute numerous projects at the same time across various platforms before you make these investments.”
The phrase “He knows the business” is bolded. That is the most important thing to remember. Trekkies like to believe that any die-hard Trekkie could and would make a better Star Trek movie than Alex Kurtzman. Wrong… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect… incorrect Writing good storylines and excellent screenplays that don’t break canon and make the fans shout with pleasure isn’t the only thing that goes into making Star Trek for television or cinema. Sure, that’s all well and good for us ants, but the elephant needs studio space leased, sets constructed, performers cast, equipment in place, costumes made, make-up done, music written, and a million other small things… as well as keeping everything inside a reasonable production budget. They need someone they can trust and depend on to do all of these duties, as well as someone who has trustworthy individuals to whom he can entrust those tasks.
Jenny Lumet, Alex Kurtzman’s writing partner
JENNY LUMET, Kurtzman’s writing partner since 2015, told the New York Times, “He has an almost magical capacity to maintain different train tracks in his mind, this show, this show, and this show, and he can hop from one to the other.” He’s one of the few individuals who can maintain all of the trains operating at the same time.”
That’s really very uncommon in Hollywood, and it’s definitely a must for Star Trek right now, given the huge VCBS business model I just outlined. Remember how CBS was burnt in 2016 when BRYAN FULLER was fired as Discovery showrunner early in the first season’s production? Fuller was let go in part because he was delaying Discovery in order to complete work on the current season of American Gods, another show he produced. Fuller was incapable of juggling several tasks at once. Kurtzman, on the other hand, has been working on Discovery season two, Picard season one, and Lower Decks season one at the same time… While Picard seasons two and three are filming, and Discovery has just started post-production on season four, he is currently supervising post-production on Prodigy and Strange New Worlds.
And that, my friends, is why Alex Kurtzman just signed a multi-million dollar contract. He’s proved to be a formidable output powerhouse. In Hollywood, there aren’t many individuals like Alex Kurtzman, and VCBS is well aware of this. VCBS wants—needs—to retain Kurtzman on board because he has shown not only that he can effectively produce several Star Trek shows at the same time, but that he also wants to. He isn’t becoming tired, bored, or distracted. He doesn’t have a foot out the door (and a five-and-a-half-year contract extension ensures he doesn’t even try to reach for the doorknob!).
Sorry to break the news to any VCBS haters out there, but it doesn’t matter what you, the ant, thinks about the programs. Right now, the elephant is ecstatic.
That being said, I believe this is a positive development for Star Trek fandom in general, and fan films in particular. Join me for an amazing online Fan Film “Power Panel” on Saturday, August 7 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time as part of TreklantaTM on the Holodeck (click here for more information). I’ll be joined by a panel of fan filmmakers, including JOSHUA IRWIN, VANCE MAJOR, MARK NACCARATO, FRANK PARKER, JR., GREG TEFT, AARON VANDERKLEY, and GLEN LL. WOLFE, to debate whether VCBS’s current Star Trek adulation will make them less tolerant of fan films…or more.
I’m aware of my feelings. What are the opinions of the panelists? And what are your thoughts on the subject? To find out, come see me on Saturday night! Here’s the link to the live panel on Google Meet (you’ll need a Google/Gmail account to participate; one is free if you click here):
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