Despite a long list of high profile films ranging from cult-hits (Dredd) to award season darlings (Lone Survivor), producer Adi Shankar is best known for high-profile unauthorized short film interpretations of popular movie and TV franchises. Dubbed the “Bootleg Universe,” Shankar has delivered alternate, not to mention very R-Rated, takes on everything from Venom to an animated Dredd spinoff series titled: Judge Dredd: Superfiend. However, recently, the producer/filmmaker has kicked his short film releases into overdrive – releasing two separate Bootleg Universe entries in the span of a single week: Power/Rangers (a NSFW take on the beloved kids TV show) and James Bond: In Service of Nothing (a 007 parody adventure starring an animated Sean Connery).
Within hours of their respective premieres, each short film had racked up millions of views and, thanks to social media, the videos became viral hits – reaching movie geek die-hards and casual internet browsers, alike. Yet, with all that attention came an equally strong response from creators, talent, and studios behind official versions of the Power Rangers (Saban Entertainment) and James Bond (MGM), respectively – armed with takedown notices and threat of legal action against Shankar and his team. For Saban and MGM – not to mention a long list of studios/networks before them – projects like Shankar’s Bootleg Universe represent unlawful use of licensed properties. But while the producer and legal teams battle over where to draw the line between artistic expression (as it pertains to fair use) and blatant theft, we’ve got several reasons why studios should love (and openly promote) fan-made short films.
There are plenty of reasons why creators should be protective of their properties – especially in a time when anyone with a camera and internet access can create a viral fan film. Ultimately, the creators or owners of a franchise, character, or idea, are the guardians of the original concept – the people responsible for ensuring that any future iteration stays, at some level, true to the spirit of the source material and/or maintains the long term profitability of the brand. To that end, it’s understandable that a fan-made viral video of Mickey Mouse spewing racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs would require a swift response from Disney lawyers; yet, most fan-made videos walk a more careful (and respectful) line – while stimulating interest in franchises that, frankly, could use some fresh ideas and buzz-worthy press.
NOTE: While there are countless fan-made films that studios and creators should love (and promote), in the interest of staying focused, the majority of this editorial will use Shankar’s Bootleg Universe for examples – since the producer has become especially notorious with rights holders in recent months. That said, feel free to list your personal favorite fan-films in the comment sections after reading the post!
Free Promotion: Making the Old Cool Again
At the very least, fan-made short films rekindle nostalgia and interest in brands that have entirely flatlined or fallen under the modern pop culture radar. Even if reaction to a bootleg video is mostly negative, it still gets people talking – and, in a lot of cases, keeps fans excited at the prospect of new franchise installments. Taking Power Rangers as an example: before Power/Rangers hit the web, when was the last time that anyone over the age of twelve was genuinely excited about a new Mighty Morphing adventure?
Some die-hard faithfuls were, understandably, interested to hear that Saban Entertainment was in the process of bringing Megazord action back to the big screen; however, given the increasing cost of theater admission and number of must-see event films hitting theaters in the coming years (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), how many former fans would ultimately shell-out cash for tickets – especially if the film aims toward the pre-teen/teen audience (or takes too many liberties with the source material)?
Power/Rangers: Unauthorized & Hardcore
Modern Saturday morning TV watchers may have followed the show from Power Rangers Samurai to Power Rangers Megaforce/Super Megaforce and on to Power Rangers Dino Charge, but each one will eventually outgrow the children’s program – and trade-up to meatier hero properties. Understandably, Saban Entertainment does not want the current Power Rangers audience seeing Shankar’s violent take on the series, but the short film succeeded in reminding an entirely separate subset of fans – specifically twenty and thirty-somethings – that the franchise still has the potential to be cool and relevant – even in an industry filled to the brim with CGI blockbusters.
At the end of the day, studios (in this case Saban Entertainment) should ask: are viewers more or less interested in Power Rangers (and the prospect of a big screen relaunch) after seeing the fan-made short film? Given the overwhelmingly positive response to the bootleg video – especially the opening Megazord fight – it’s clear that even if Saban doesn’t like Shankar’s movie, the short film reignited interest in their brand.
NEXT PAGE: New Ideas & Feedback
Unlicensed Freedom: Out of the Toy Box Thinking
Preconceived notions and adherence to source materials are two of the biggest struggles that movie and TV studios face when they choose to adapt an existing franchise into a new, high-profile, project. The Internet has turned speculation and public opinion into a lethal double-edged sword – where films and shows are either punished by fans for stepping too far outside of the box, or ignored by casual viewers if the project isn’t unique enough. As a result, filmmakers are locked into a difficult gray area where they flirt with the line between a faithful adaptation and modern demands/sensibilities (see Josh Trank’s explanation for why the Fantastic Four needed an update).
For that reason, studios often develop franchise adaptations inside of a safe box – even if it means releasing an otherwise vanilla movie depiction (see: Venom in Spider-Man 3). Working within the studio systems, challenged by demands and limitations from creators and rights-holders, filmmakers rarely have the opportunity to experiment or explore ideas that, while straying from the source material, could make for a better overall direction for a franchise. The result? An engaging glimpse into a series/character that tells a quality story and serves up invigorated (and uncompromised) approaches to fan-favorite properties, e.g., Shankar’s Eddie Brock/Venom short, Truth in Journalism.
Venom: Truth in Journalism
Conversely, unlicensed franchise short films have zero responsibility to creators, rights-holders, or fans, and are only limited by the imaginations and talent of the men and women behind the camera. Since the bootlegs are unofficial, watchers can react to what they see independently – without worrying about what the video could mean for their favorite film or TV series longterm. The fan-made shorts allow everyone – creators and fans alike – a greater space to dream, without the long-term consequences (casting, story choices, etc) that come with an official studio production.
This isn’t to say that, across the board, dramatic departures from source storylines and character depictions would be a good thing, but even though fans often see reboots as failures, we live in a time where there is no definitive film version of any property – meaning that Hollywood creatives should be allowed a bit more room to iterate and reimagine. Many will fail, but considering we’re about to get our third version of Spider-Man in seven years, it’s clear the wait time between reboots is becoming increasingly shorter.
Consumer Survey: Risk (and Money) Free
To that end, if studios are concerned about taking risks with established IP’s, why not let unlicensed projects do the dirty work, push boundaries, and take the heat? Without a doubt, Power/Rangers tossed the kid-friendly franchise into a violent and ultra-mature iteration – one that would not make it very far within the studio system; though, the short film’s grounded approach and eye-popping visuals still softened beliefs about how Power Rangers could (and should) be depicted in a live-action film – a live action film that would need to standout from similar toy-to-movie franchises (Transformers and G.I. Joe, among others) in theaters.
While Saban isn’t going to copy Shankar’s R-Rated format, the short film created an extremely valuable discussion among fans and potential ticket buyers as they reacted, sharing what they liked and didn’t like about the bootleg project. Even if response had been entirely negative, the conversation alone would help clarify what fans view as essential/necessary for a Power Rangers adaptation, and where there might be a bit of wiggle room for risk-taking in order to draw a wider demographic. If, instead of dedicating time and energy into shutting the project down, Saban had invested those same resources into understanding the overall response, and adjusting their vision for the franchise’s future accordingly, Shankar wouldn’t have been a bane to the franchise: he would have actually helped pave the way (internally and externally) for an inspired Power Rangers franchise, capable of pleasing fans and less familiar moviegoers, alike.
The Punisher: Dirty Laundry
After all, as Shankar has previously suggested, what’s the difference between his Bootleg Universe and the countless musical remixes and reinterpretations that are all over the internet? Like any aspiring DJ, Shankar is re-working a piece of popular culture, adding new layers in order to investigate unexplored elements of the source.
Surely, longtime fans (and at least one cast member) would balk at murderous gun-toting Power Rangers, but beyond the shock and violence of Shankar’s film, the producer also raises an interesting thematic question, one that two decades of Saban TV shows have yet to truly explore: what would be the psychological toll of life as a Power Ranger? That aspect, alone, is an enticing idea – fully capable of serving as a solid foundation for big screen storytelling that could entertain both kids and their parents.
Fortunately, Saban Entertainment and Adi Shankar managed to reach an agreement to get Power/Rangers back on YouTube – with the inclusion of a disclaimer at the front. However, at the time of this writing, MGM has yet to back down from their attempts to wipe James Bond: In Service of Nothing from the Internet.
Hopefully, in the coming weeks, the studio will see some of the potential benefits (we’ve suggested here) of supporting fan-made 007 films. Of course, the situation isn’t strictly limited to Shankar-produced Bootleg Universe shorts; plenty of other filmmakers have put their mark on established IP’s and helped push fresh ideas into stagnant franchises (with studios kicking and screaming the entire way). Shankar just happens to be the most prolific – and litigated – of the moment.
There are plenty of great fan-films with great production values, unique premises, and engaging storylines spread across the Internet – feel free to list and discuss your favorites in the comment section below.