With over $7,000 raised through crowd-sourcing and three days of shooting in the coastal mountains near Malibu, two women were able to do in seven months what Warner Bros hasn’t for almost a decade: Make an ElfQuest movie. Well, okay, not a movie, exactly — a trailer.
ElfQuest: A Fan Imagining, based on the graphic novel series by Richard and Wendy Pini, was spearheaded by new media actors/producers Stephanie Thorpe and Paula Rhodes after the two women discovered a mutual love for the series last fall. With the support of the Pinis, the two proceeded to create an account on IndieGoGo and raise the funds necessary to produce the four-minute trailer/short film hybrid.
Thanks to a panel at last weekend’s WonderCon convention and coverage from big-name blogs like io9 and Boing Boing, ElfQuest: A Fan Imagining went into its April 6 premiere with a huge amount of buzz. But one contributor to that buzz came from an unexpected source — the Screen Actors’ Guild. This Wednesday, the union hosted a red carpet premiere, screening and Q&A for the project — the inaugural installment in a planned series of new media screenings.
Why start with ElfQuest? SAG Head of New Media Mark Friedlander said in an interview that after learning about the ElfQuest project from its early press coverage, he and his team were interested in spotlighting it because “it had elements that represented how new media is different from traditional media.” These elements included the use of IndieGoGo to crowdsource its funds and the cast, which included notable web series stars like Sorority Forever‘s Taryn Southern and lonelygirl15‘s Jessica Rose. And it was shot under the protections of the SAG New Media contract.
The purpose of the premiere, in short, was to spotlight the SAG New Media program and emphasize its advantages to other producers — specifically, the talent pool that becomes available. For Thorpe and Rhodes, there was no choice about whether or not to shoot the project under SAG protection, because not only are they both members of the union, but so was nearly everyone else they wanted to cast in the project.
SAG has put tremendous effort into streamlining the process of bringing a project under its protection, according to Friedlander. While the standard SAG contract with producers is over 700 pages long and stuffed full of contingencies that apply to traditional production, a SAG new media contract is four pages long, and flexible for negotiation. Thanks to extensive simplification, it’s now possible to sign up a new project in a day if necessary, and SAG is currently developing a system that would make the entire process digital (currently, some real signatures and paper originals are still required).
“We’re trying not to be a burden,” Friedlander said, which Rhodes and Thorpe found to be the case — according to them, once a producer becomes a SAG signatory, all that’s required is one sheet per character of extra paperwork, plus a daily timecard signing actors in and out. And there was no financial strain; the cast deferred their fees because of the nature of the project.The nature of the project, of course, being unauthorized. While the rights to ElfQuest belong to WB, there’s a legal gray area for fan films — as long as the project remained non-profit, they probably wouldn’t have any problems.
There are instances of such projects being served cease and desist letters, but Rhodes researched the issue and found that while some studios are “terribly restrictive,” Warner Brothers has a history of supporting such projects — as witnessed by the numerous Batman and Harry Potter fan films that exist online. All that matters, Rhodes said, is that you’re not making money. And being a fan film does not exclude a project from SAG protection; other fan projects, such as Star Trek: New Voyages, have worked with the guild.
Thus, the primary goal of ElfQuest: A Fan Imagining is fan engagement, at which the final product may be quite successful. Longer than a real movie trailer, but with the same structure, Fan Imagining largely eschews dialogue or voiceover, relying on visual storytelling (and the incredibly accurate recreation of ElfQuest characters) to draw viewers in. The result is that while outsiders to the ElfQuest world might find it a challenge to understand what’s happening — however, a true ElfQuest fan (I talked to a few unconnected to the project, who confirmed this) will experience no confusion as to what’s happening.
And that approach makes perfect sense, when you consider that the trailer’s purpose is to engage with that fanbase — the fanbase, in fact, that supported the project during the fundraising stage. Thorpe and Rhodes’ hope for the project is that it becomes a “rallying point” for ElfQuest fans, the theory being that if the trailer gets enough views and buzz, it might inspire Warner Bros. to speed up production on its own project.
Currently, the Fan Imagining teaser trailer and full trailer have, combined, over 75,000 views on YouTube; the livestream of the premiere was watched, according to Thorpe, by almost 28,000. There’s no word if any of those views were from folks at Warner Bros., though at least one person involved is aware of A Fan Imagining‘s existence — last fall, Rhodes received a Facebook message from Rawson Thurber, the director attached to the project, wishing her luck with “the elves and the ears.”
In the meantime, Rhodes and Thorpe consider the trailer a calling card for them as producers and actors. “In a super dreamworld of dreamworlds, the most amazing thing would be any one of us being involved with the feature in any way — but it’s not anything we need or imagine will happen,” Rhodes said.
If there’s enough demand, though, they might consider creating a follow-up project — working again with SAG to get the cast they’d need.
Photos by Beau Ryan and Andrew Deutsch, used with permission.