If you spend any time on the internet (which if you’re reading this is a pretty good bet) you heard news that yesterday Joseph Kahn dropped POWER/RANGERS, a 14min fan film that offers a “grim and gritty” take on the beloved 90’s children’s franchise. Bloody, violent, complete with nudity and foul language, the film is…great! Really. If you’re into many of the VFX-driven sci-fi films that we feature on this site, then POWER/RANGERS will delight you to no end.
It certainly sent the collective internet into an uproar—with over 6 million views in the initial 24 hours, the film was trending worldwide on Twitter at its peak—unheard of for a short film.
Fan Films, which are unofficial works created by lovers of established entertainment properties, have long occupied a legally murky, but generally condoned space within fan culture, similar to fan fiction and fan art.
The success of POWER/RANGERS underscores the vast upside of the Fan Film genre for creators. This kind of viral reception is not rare for shorts of this type. Kevin Tancharoen, while certainly not the first, is in many ways the archetypal example of the benefits that can come from unofficially adapting the properties of others. His 2010 Mortal Kombat short proved so popular that he was commissioned to create an official web series for Machinima in 2012. Dan Trachtenberg started an all-out bidding war for his services after he launched his fan film based on the Portal video game series, and is currently in post-production on a feature for J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company.
As a creator, if garnering attention is your game, (and considering the level of interest from industry regarding the online space it is a very good game indeed) then the expertly executed fan film is a tremendous vehicle for attracting it. Fan Films, by drawing upon viewer’s familiarity with the extended universe of the show/game/film/comic, complement the weaknesses of proof-of-concept shorts in a couple of key ways.
First, they eliminate much of the need for backstory and exposition, two areas that these shorts are generally weak in. The most common complaint of vfx-driven shorts is how they are empty calories—they look cool, but narratively they are little more than action sequences that lack character building or larger world development. Fan Films introduce emotion into the form through pre-existing connections to the characters and plot developments. Secondly, fan films are extraordinarily effective in our clickbait online culture at getting noticed. If you execute a fan film at a high level, not only do you have entré to large fan communities surrounding that property, but you have the immediate buy-in of the geek web and increasingly geek-friendly mainstream press. It starts with your Slashfilms, but next thing you know the film is on TMZ. Everyone is very happy to pass your film around, hoping to attract clicks from, again, the large preexisting fanbases of those properties. In turn, they further the reach of the film to their other audiences.
POWER/RANGERS leveraged these key points expertly, and added a subversive dollop and sex and violence as further enticement. It was a perfectly sharable piece of work for our modern online culture, and in retrospect it is no surprise that it took off like a rocket.
And yet at this time yesterday it looked very much like Kahn’s rocket-ride might explode just as it was exiting orbit.
— Joseph Kahn (@JosephKahn) February 24, 2015
After receiving a Staff Pick in the morning, (Disclosure: SotW Editor, Jason Sondhi, is a Curator for Vimeo) the video platform removed POWER/RANGERS due to a copyright claim from SCG Power Rangers LLC, a subsidiary of Saban Entertainment which owns the rights. Housing the “NSFW” version of the film, Vimeo’s link, uploaded on Kahn’s personal account, was the version going viral at the time compared to the YouTube “SFW” version.
Vimeo took a lot of shit on social media for this move, but that furor betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the DMCA “Safe Harbor” provision by which user-generated content companies operate (a statement from Vimeo is here). Takedown requests for Vimeo and YouTube are automatic—there are no judgment calls, and a claim, unless it is clearly erroneous (filed by someone who themselves are not the rights holder or their agent) it results in an immediate takedown upon processing. Users are able to file a counterclaim, which is a petition for reinstatement, where they can argue things like “Fair Use” or protection under parody or satire precedents, but the rights-holder has 10 days in which to weigh the counterclaim. Only if they do not file a lawsuit against the uploader within those 10 days is the video reinstated.
The fact that the YouTube version did not have a DMCA claim filed against it is fortunate, as the vast majority of views and attention for the film arrived after the Vimeo takedown. The resulting negative sentiment from fans after the initial claim likely stayed Saban’s hand, but whatever the reason, the Vimeo takedown is representative of the precarious position of Fan Films.
Creators of these works often claim Fair Use, as Kahn himself is doing, but this has never been a bullet-proof argument. This Deadline article touches briefly on the legal case for such a claim, but anyone educated on these matters concludes that it is a gray area beholden to much subjectivity. Beyond the legal jeopardy that Kahn is now placed in, as purely a practical matter a claim of Fair Use is not an argument that can prevent DMCA takedown on the major video platforms. Thus, despite there being much to gain for creators from making Fan Films, they are subject to the uncertainty that their film could be pulled just at the moment of their viral explosion.
Whatever the validity of the legal justifications that creators use, the real reason that Fan Films have been able to flourish is the accommodation of the powerful media companies. Faced with the fear of pissing off the valuable fan-culture they rely on, companies have largely turned a blind eye to these unofficial productions, or even have celebrated them as valuable marketing for the brand. Lucas Films famously embraced Star Wars fan films early, co-founding an official Star Wars Fan Film Festival in 2002 with the influential, but now defunct, Atom Films.
With Saban obviously not pleased about POWER/RANGERS, is this a turning point in the generally amicable relation between rights holders and fan creators?
Why exactly did Saban pull the film? Are there larger lessons or trends that can be gleaned from their decision? Viewing Saban’s decision as a harbinger of things to come does mean ignoring what a exceptional case POWER/RANGERS is. It is hardly a representative example of the genre. It does not fit the mold of a production by plucky super-fans/underdogs after all. While undeniably a labor of love by which no parties expected to profit from (the SFW YouTube version has no pre-roll), Kahn has admitted in interviews that he does not particularly care about Power Rangers. While the film is “awesome” it is not meant as a compelling alternate vision for the direction of the franchise, Kahn instead, in statements to Drew McWeeny of HitFix, suggests that the entire film is an exercise in satire, and that his intent was to mock the dark reboot trend epitomized by Christopher Nolan’s influential Batman trilogy. In that spirit Kahn sought out the most ridiculous property he could think of in order to, in his words, offer a “deboot”.
Furthering POWER/RANGERS outlier status is that this semi-disrespectful stance to the source content is paired with super-slick production values out of the reach of almost every traditional fan. Sure, it was achieved on a shoestring budget via the cashing in of many many favors, but Joseph Kahn is a legendary music video director—a giant in that world with clips for Taylor Swift and Britney Spears to his name. Additionally, it is produced by Adi Shankar, a successful Hollywood producer most recently responsible for the big-screen reboot, Dredd.
Shankar, despite his Hollywood insider status, has made a strategy out of Fan Films. POWER/RANGERS is the third film of his “Bootleg” series, an initiative of semi-professional fan films that first made waves with Punisher: Dirty Laundry. It is a bold strategy that doesn’t ask permission, and subsequently doesn’t ask for forgiveness either. The first two films in the series utilize comic book characters The Punisher and Venom, and Shankar basically dared Marvel/Disney to complain. They did not however, again, perhaps recognizing the ill-will that would come from the fan community if they took action.
While the high profile of Kahn and Shankar in the entertainment biz may have rubbed Saban the wrong way, additional answers as to why Saban took this action may become clear if we look at the natures of the properties that have done the best in Fan Film form previously. Looking backwards, we see properties that are languishing, such as with Mortal Kombat. That fan short really did reignite interest in a dead property. Others were not strong contenders for franchise-hood to begin with as is the case with Portal. The Punisher, after two features, does not seem to be in the family friendly plans of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. What was unique about Kahn’s film, and perhaps unfortunate should the film disappear from the internet, is that it caught a valuable franchise at a turning point. Saban has already come to agreement with Lionsgate for a big-budget reboot of the franchise set to hit theaters in 2016. Was the threat of a competing vision for this reboot, especially one so dark and antithetical to the original target demographic seen as a legitimate threat to Saban?
Until Saban comments we won’t know, but, despite the takedown and potential legal jeopardy, it’s hard to say that the gambit has not paid off for either Kahn or Shankar. With the undeniable value of viral acclaim on this scale, even if this IS the precursor to a coming crackdown on the legally murky world of Fan Film, the incentives at play seem to guarantee that we’ll see plenty more of them going forward.