Key chains, helmets, masks, bed sheets and not to mention pet costumes, toasters and coasters – there seem to be no boundaries to the varieties of merchandising products. George Lucas, the mastermind of Star Wars, is said to have earned a fortune of about $ 1 billion from Star Wars’ ancillary products and sequel rights. Certainly, blockbusters like Harry Potter, appealing to children, are the most obvious vehicles of merchandise, but when it comes to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or the Star Trek Universe most of the collectors are not even minors merely interested in toys.
We are speaking of adults glorifying their plastic replicas as treasures, unopened on a display case at their homes. In addition to that these individuals tend to dress up as their favorite movie or series character and this not only on Halloween. Shows, fairs and conventions related to their favorite series is where you can find them. Gathered up to passionately discuss details of the series, like the upholstery of the Enterprise’s bar Ten Forward, or the characters private lives, technical ideas and possibilities related to the series and their creators.
Richard Meyer, a former collector, is founder of Andere Welten, which is a realm of specialist collector’s items and merchandise related to fantasy films and television series such as the famous Alien movies, Star Wars, Blade Runner and Space: 1999, in the heart of Hamburg.
Richard, why do grown-ups buy plastic orbital gliders and Jedi Knight figures? Is this a longing to visit the furthest reaches of the Universe or an attempt to escape from a hopeless earthly life?
Of course, there are stargazers within my circle of friends and among my customers who believe in extraterrestrial life. After all, the ultimate question is if we are alone in the Universe or not. And if not, how can we prove it and initiate contact? That may have escapist traits and offer some kind of hope for the solution of mundane problems. Even in the 50s, believers in UFOs claimed everything would turn for the better on Earth with the arrival of Martians. Shortly before Obama’s inauguration, a neatly dressed man in his seventies came to the shop and predicted that, on the day of Obama’s swearing-in, Obama would announce that the Area 51 UFO crash site really existed and that aliens had been in close contact with all international governments ever since. That paper money would be disestablished, and cruisers chase Princess Leia on top of the heads of the audience.
And right from the beginning there were action figures and guns being released along with the movies. A whole new era of merchandise began with George Lucas. Everybody knows the story of how no Hollywood studio wanted to buy Star Wars, and finally Lucas completely renounced his pay in exchange for the marketing rights to his film. In collaboration with the toy giant Hasbro, he developed the Star Wars figures. There could potentially be 900 different ones today.
Keyword: Episode I
Well, just before the movie was launched in theaters, business was booming. There were, for example, five stores in Hamburg selling nothing but Star Wars figures. But as older fans of the first movies started to criticize Episode I, the sales collapsed. Even today, there are collectors that could live on shredded Episode I figures for years. Only with Episode II and Episode III did it become obvious George Lucas wanted to inaugurate a completely new generation to the Star Wars cosmos. With animated movies such as Star Wars: The Clone Wars and a new very gloomy television series, he will succeed.
Amassing shrink-wrapped toys, visiting fairs and collectors meetings worldwide, losing oneself in the Universe that surrounds a movie series; in my circle of friends we call a person like that a nerd, and that’s not meant to be a compliment.
I understand that very well.
Don’t you have mini Kirks and little R2-D2s standing on your dresser at home yourself?
No, but I was up to my neck in books for five years. I was a nerd, too. Collecting, like any other passion, is hard or even impossible to control and can take over your life. In some cases it does forever. A collector wants two things; firstly, he wants to hold what he reads about, what he sees and what he loves. And secondly, he wants to be complete, an urge that drives every collector. That’s why he even buys the 34th Darth Vader action figure edition, wishing he lived in a sports center, where he could finally have enough room for all of his treasures.
Family is supposed to be a good therapy for a collecting addiction.
A spouse and children are an effective remedy, yes, because then being a collector becomes annoying pretty quickly. Since I’ve been clean, the dawn of paradise on Earth would be nearing. However, for the majority of fans and collectors, the technical aspects such as spaceships and the magic bullets of the future, and the possibility of establishing contact with alien cultures is more important.
What got you interested in these things initially?
A movie from 1954, The Creature from the Black Lagoon by Jack Arnold, a science fiction horror movie about a Gill-man, which opened up the world of fantasy to me. Being six years old at the time, I saw it with my mother at the theater. Until I hit puberty, I used to devour dime novels nonstop, and then girls became more important. In my twenties, I began to collect those dime novels and fantasy literature. I found myself compelled to buy them, which eventually resulted in my 80 sqm apartment being 90% filled with 6,000 books. I crossed the flat along narrow aisles between the high stacks of book. Out of the need for more room and because my future wife wanted to finally sit on the couch once in a while, I started trading my treasures. I also read a lot of classic world literature, but I still consider science fiction to be the most innovative genre, with a lot more happening in it.
And what led you to make the transition from books to action figures?
Well, when customers at my first shop frequently asked for devotional objects and memorabilia, primarily items from the Star Trek series, I did some research and found out that just such figures and various other articles were produced in the United States, what we might call merchandise these days. In the early 90s, I collected the first consignments from the United States at the customs office with a pounding heart because, at this point, we were pioneers in Germany. When the television channel Sat.1 started to broadcast the Star Trek series over and over again, we suddenly found ourselves at the center of the boom. All of a sudden there were fan clubs with about 10,000 members. Nowadays, the hype has really calmed down. Too many follow- up series, too many spin-offs: which story hasn’t been told yet? Maybe 40 years of the Enterprise and other ships is simply enough. We’ll have to wait and see whether the new blockbuster can revive the whole thing.
And then there was Star Wars.
I remember, those ran at the same time as the Star Trek series, but initially I regarded them as dumb. The story was too simple for me. Not until I saw the first movie on the big screen again, when the second movie was launched, did I finally grasp why everybody was so excited. Now that was something – just the first two minutes, when star I’ve become aware of a personal trait of mine: Like former smokers tend to become militant non-smokers, I also must take a deep breath in the presence of some overeager hardcore collect
ors, watching them not find satisfaction because their tenth brand-new figure has a nearly invisible crease in the packaging.
What about fans that dress up as Borg on the weekend, and go on galactic missions with their Enterprise buddies in city parks and pedestrian zones?
Why not? Character players have fun, get out in fresh air and do no harm to anyone. And many of the Trekkies, who reenact stories in highly elaborate costumes more than other collector communities, could operate power stations with the energy they put into their hobby. People like that can quickly draw the exact layout of the Death Star on a napkin, too. What really strikes me is the quite pronounced, almost physically noticeable desire of many Star Trek fans to be beamed somewhere at least once in their lives. These guys would give anything for their homemade spacesuits to begin to flicker just once.
I understand this longing, even if it occasionally drives me up the wall to get involved in a conversation about the construction details of fictitious spaceships several times a day. These people also ask William Shatner at international fan conventions what he felt like when the blade warship, Bird of Prey, appeared behind him. Shatner then usually returns good-naturedly: “That was just a bloody movie. I didn’t see the thing at all; I just stood in front of a blue screen.” Sometimes these legendary actors simply make something up, just to make their fans happy.
At the moment, alternative types of investment are in demand. Do fantasy figures represent a good investment?
Not anymore, unless you have real rarities on your display case. But because of scores of relaunches and the permanent worldwide availability and networking via eBay, a loss in value is most likely. In addition, for maximum prices, which few pieces still achieve, the figures must be in their original packaging and in perfect condition. The Action Figure Authority (AFA), which is located in Roswell incidentally, provides transparent grading criteria. No, the figures are not a financial investment. They’re more of an investment for the heart.
(written for & published in Qompendium Volume 1, 2009; www.qompendium.com)
Foto: Jens Boldt