People are often aware of fandom and fanwork through the lens of fanfiction. Sometimes fanart makes its way into the public consciousness, but more often than not, these two expressions of fanwork are the most commonly recognized. Some other methods of fandom expression, such as podfic, fanvids, and cosplay, are also well known, but an area of fanwork that’s overlooked and not understood very well is fanfilms.
Fanfilms are films, usually shorts running from 5 to 25 minutes, but are sometimes feature-length. Fanfilms usually have a narrative story and a script of some kind, which can separate them thematically from fanvids. Fanfilms are shot, produced, acted, edited, and distributed much like any piece of original film. They are written and crafted, and some are played in small theaters, and very often at fan conventions. There are also fanfilm awards and archives, and often big-name franchises like Star Wars will endorse fan-made creations, hosting the Star Wars Fan Awards which honors fanwork that uses Lucasfilm assets. It’s interesting to note that while they accept films, fanart, and photos, no writing of fanfic is allowed. Some other fanfilm networks, such as the Fanfilm Awards, do allow submissions of screenplays.
The acceptance of fanfilms as legitimate fan labor is very different from the way that fic as perceived. There are a few reasons why this could be. One is sexism; the fact that fan films usually revolve around the stories created by men, are rewritten to be about male character, and are usually written, produced, and distributed by men, whereas fic and many other derivative fanwork is overwhelmingly female. Another possible reason is that, unlike fic, there are actual costs associated with fanfilms; whether that’s paying the actors and crew, paying to produce the film professionally and allow for distribution to small theaters, or submission entry fees into fanfilm contests. Films are more likely to be noticed by producers and Intellectual Property holders, as they require large crews and collaboration, and can be easier to monetize by the original IP owners. This can lead to endorsements of fanfilm and even promotion of fanfilm from the original media’s creators and owners, creating greater visibility through accessibility of films and the viral nature of videos.
Fanfilms have been around for almost a century, almost as long as film itself. The first known fanfilm is from 1928, Anderson Our Gang, and the 1922 film Our Gang. Many amateur filmmakers have created fanfilms for fun, whether with friends or a larger more experienced crew. Like many things, Star Trek and the rising popularity of cons in the ’70s allowed more fanfilms to be shown, and also allowed more people into the hobby. Until the early 2000s, technology and production costs severely limited the kinds of fans who could produce fanfilms. Recently fanfilms have been made by people of all levels of experience and professionalism, from critically acclaimed live-action Aragorn prequels to animated shorts. The advent of accessible technology has led to an increase in the production, popularity, and distributions of fanfilms as fan work.
Much like fic, fanfilms seek to explore nuances in characters and storylines that are either not identified, addressed, or glossed over in the original work. A lot of fanfilms don’t have the budget or production to create intricate battles, CGI, or special effects; so often this means that fanfilms must rely on sharp storytelling, minimal effects, and off-screen implications. While fic often seeks to represent underrepresented people, fanfilm usually seeks to tell another story within the world of the original franchise. Very rarely does fanfilm venture into alternate universes, domesticity fic, or extremely ship-centric work. Fanfilms rely on accuracy to convey a message. Productions will recreate props, costumes, and settings with as much detail as possible in order to maintain the illusion of being a part of the original film franchise. Actors are chosen to represent characters based on the original look of those characters. A fanfilm in the 1980s originally had George Takei signed on to reprise his role as Sulu, adding to the reality of the work. This attention to veracity and the ability to mimic the original is often seen as a measure of how good a film is. There is a core idea that the purpose of a fanfilm is to make it extremely believable and immersive in a way that creates total continuity.
Fanfilms exist in a strange in-between space of gray legality. While not technically protected, neither the appearance nor existence of fanfilms necessarily threaten the monetary gain or impact of the original work. Fanfilms are by necessity predicated by the popularity and reach of the original piece of media. Often fanfilms will be ignored by Intellectual Property owners, and it’s only in the very rare instance where a film could be seen as damaging or derogatory when IP owners make threats or deliver cease-and-desist letters in order to remove or suppress a fanfilm.
Much like fic, money seems to be the driving force for leniency. According to Paul Levitz, DC’s president, “we [DC] are not against things where people use our assets if they don’t do anything monetarily with them.”
Ultimately, fanfilms are growing in popularity because people consider this type of fan work appropriate for portfolios and resumes, as well as a labor of love. Again, because of the difference in legitimacy-via-IP owners and the way fanfilms are viewed, they are considered more “justifiable” pieces of fanwork. Although it feels like the accessibility and understanding of fanfilms is becoming more mainstream, the presence of IP owner authority and awards with regards to fanfilms makes this kind of fanwork not as subversive as fic, nor as representative. I believe that fanfilms will continue to expand in popularity, and allow for greater representation of marginalized communities, but I doubt that we will ever see the intense rewriting and reinterpretation of original media in fanfilm that we see elsewhere in fandom. If this sort of radical derivation happens, I believe that we will either see IP owners back away from film support, or we will see an increased acceptance and accessibility to this mode of fanwork.
If you want to watch some amazing fanfilms, you can start by browsing the (somewhat out-of-date) fanfilm archive. YouTube is a haven for fanfilmakers, and a quick search of fan film [insert fandom here] will reveal a treasure trove of good work.