Star Trek Boldly Goes Where Its Merchandising and Licensing Rights Say It Can Go

Star Trek 2.1: The Wrath of CumberKhan

I've been a Star Trek fan for a significant portion of my life-spanning geekhood, although my overall enthusiasm for the franchise has waned considerably during the last decade. It's not that Star Trek is a bad franchise as a whole; I just think that its potential has been squandered time and time again due to the absence of a strong, central leadership figure at the helm to guide the franchise through its various incarnations and effectively capitalize on its successes. As a result of this lack of leadership, Trek has been subject to Paramount's whims, which has largely resulted in competently made yet frequently bland Trek content and products. Whether it was using Trek to prop up a fledgling TV network (as was the case of Voyager and then Enterprise for Paramount's now-defunct UPN) or pushing one of the more successful Trek spinoffs onto the big screen just to makes some extra dollars (the underwhelming and uninspired Next Generation movies), Paramount's decisions concerning Trek appear to be made mostly by its accounting department and no one else.

With that in mind, I've been paying attention to the media coverage of Star Trek Into Darkness, the second movie in Paramount's reboot of the franchise that debuts here in the U.S. this weekend. The reboot started back in 2009 with a movie directed by J.J. Abrams, who has returned to direct the sequel. Most of the coverage of the new movie has been routine promotional stuff: articles reviewing the long history of Trek, fans discussing which Trek iterations were their most and least favorite, interviews with the reboot movie cast, and so on. But with director Abrams recently being hired by Disney to direct the first film in the next Star Wars trilogy, speculation has run rampant about what will become of Trek in the near future and whether Abrams will stay on with Trek or, if he leaves, who will continue the Trek reboot effort when Abrams is gone.

After reading dozens of reviews, articles and discussion boards, I finally found one article that sheds a considerable amount of light on the future of Trek and why Abrams signed on to a rival sci-fi franchise even though his last Trek film was a box office smash and the sequel looks to be equally profitable. Read on to learn more about how this Star Trek reboot might not live long and prosper after all.

According to The Wrap, Abrams' vision for the Trek reboot were much grander than what the fans actually got. This may have led Abrams to abandon ship for Disney, which recently acquired ownership of Star Wars franchise from creator George Lucas. As stated in the article:

"Competing ambitions between Paramount, CBS and Abrams' production company Bad Robot over merchandising surrounding the first film in the rebooted "Star Trek" franchise led the director to curtail plans to turn the series into a multi-platform experience that spanned television, digital entertainment and comic books, according to an individual with knowledge of the dispute. ... "Star Trek's" licensing and merchandising rights are spread over two media conglomerates with competing goals. The rights to the original television series from the 1960s remained with CBS after it split off from Paramount’s corporate parent Viacom in 2006, while the studio retained the rights to the film series. CBS also held onto the ability to create future “Star Trek” TV shows. ... (CBS) was making roughly $20 million a year on that merchandise and had no incentive to play nice with its former corporate brother ... In response, (Bad Robot) scaled back its ambitions to have "Star Trek's" storylines play out with television shows, spin-off films and online components, something Abrams had been eager to accomplish." (Click here to read the full article.)

Q: How much are Kirk and Spock worth?
A: It depends upon which ones you're talking about.

The Wrap concludes that Abrams left Star Trek for Star Wars largely because Disney has much more control over the Star Wars franchise than Paramount does over Trek and is thus more likely to work with Abrams' grand ambitions, and I'm inclined to agree. A major difference between Star Trek and Star Wars is that Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry never had nearly as much control over his creation as Lucas did over his, and I think that this difference is going to work in the favor of Star Wars in the long run. I'm still miffed that Disney discontinued production of the animated Clone Wars series, but it is obviously much more organized than Paramount when it comes to nurturing franchises.

(For another comparative example of Disney's prowess with building franchises, just look at how Marvel is doing under Disney and compare it to how DC is doing under Time-Warner. As of now, Marvel is starting on "Phase Two" of its movie adaptation plan and is set to release two new cartoons and a live-action TV show, while DC is still struggling with what to do with its characters that aren't named Batman.)

With the ongoing conflict of interest between CBS and Paramount and Abrams's frustration over it, I suspect that this particular Trek reboot will sputter to an end within a few years regardless of what Into Darkness does at the box office. I've said it before and I'll say it again: The worst thing that has ever happened to Star Trek was Paramount. That's been true for a long time and the fact that it's still true doesn't bode well for the franchise no matter how loyal its fan base is.


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