Lord of the Fans
At first glance, it appeared that the Empire had struck back at Fantastic Media, the Aurora company known nationwide as a one-stop worship center for aficionados of Star Wars and Star Trek. But in truth, a pair of business transactions that seemed to spell doom for the plucky firm actually translates to a new hope for boosters of two other hugely popular fictional fantasies: The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
"To say we've got our hands full is putting it mildly," says fanboy turned intergalactic entrepreneur Dan Madsen.
Fantastic Media was known locally by true science-fiction believers as the official home of the Star Wars Fan Club and the publisher of Star Wars Insider, a magazine devoted to all things Wookie, Ewok and Gungan ("Star Hustlers," March 4, 1999). But on December 22, Wizards of the Coast, a Renton, Washington, subsidiary of toy manufacturer Hasbro, announced that it had bought the fan club and the Insider. That was followed on February 9 by news that Norfolk, Virginia's Decipher Inc. had acquired Fantastic Media's remaining assets, including the Star Trek Fan Club, devoted to the Star Trek TV series and its assorted spinoffs, plus the Star Trek Communicator magazine.
These sales (none of the involved parties will discuss the amounts) led to plenty of speculation on various Web sites. On January 25, for instance, prequelwatch.com, a magnet for those already quivering with anticipation regarding the successor to Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace, implied that Lucasfilm, the corporate keeper of the Star Wars flame, had not so gently kicked Fantastic Media out the door. The missive read, in part, "Those of you who attended the first 'Star Wars Celebration' in Denver, Colorado, in April and May of 1999 will no doubt agree with Lucasfilm's suggestion that 'new leadership was needed' for the Fan Club to continue to be a success."
The problem with that assertion, according to Steve Sansweet, director of fan relations for Lucasfilm Ltd., is that his organization said nothing of the sort. He acknowledges that Celebration, an event staged at the Denver Air and Space Museum that was only the second bash of its kind ever sanctioned by Star Wars creator George Lucas, "had some problems, most of them weather-related; we had fifty-year rains that weekend." But Sansweet, who helped plan and run the extravaganza with Madsen and Fantastic Media vice president Jon Snyder, takes any other implications "as a personal affront. We expected good attendance, but even we didn't anticipate how good. There were 30,000 people there, and we had to cut off daily ticket sales on Saturday and Sunday because demand was so high. It was probably the most exciting Star Wars event ever, and Fantastic Media did a great job."
If that's true, then why has Madsen stepped back from that galaxy far, far away? Burnout, he says, although he swears he's every bit as fascinated by space travel, strange creatures and light-saber battles as he's ever been. Indeed, he credits Star Trek, in particular, with giving him a reason to live during a period in his life when such motivation was tough to come by. Because of a bone disorder, he was always much shorter than other kids his age (he ultimately topped out at four feet, two inches), and thus an irresistible target for bullies. But he discovered worlds of acceptance on the starship Enterprise, and in 1982, the local Star Trek fan club he started as a teen in the late '70s was sanctioned by Paramount, the studio that owns the rights to the franchise.
Four years later, Lucas gave Madsen a similar endorsement regarding Star Wars, and after the filmmaker decided to bring Darth Vader back to the screen (this time in the guise of cherub-cheeked lad Jake Lloyd), Fantastic Media found itself smack in the middle of the action. "The last few years have been more intense than I can even describe," Madsen confirms. "The buildup to Episode I was amazing, and the last two years have just been overwhelming." Among the highlights were Celebration, which he calls "incredible," and the opportunity to actually appear in Phantom Menace. "I'm in the very last scene of the movie, the big parade scene. Jar Jar Binks comes riding up on a creature called a kaadu, which looks like a cross between a camel and a dinosaur, and as he's getting ready to get off, I come running out and grab the reins and take the kaadu off through the crowd. You can definitely recognize me."
Despite such perks, Madsen grew restless, feeling that his commitment to Star Wars was preventing him from doing anything else. So last year, he decided to sell this segment of his business to Wizards of the Coast, a Lucasfilm licensee that makes the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and publishes the bi-monthly mag Star Wars Gamer. Liz Schuh, senior marketing manager for Wizards, which first made its name with Dungeons and Dragons, promises plenty of new gewgaws for Star Wars types, including a Web site that will give fan-club members their chance to buy some merchandise early. But she emphasizes that Madsen will remain involved. Wizards has hired him as a consultant, and he'll also contribute a regular column to the Insider featuring interviews with Rick McCallum, producer of Star Wars: Episode II.
As for the sale to Decipher, which puts out a customizable Star Trek trading-card game, Madsen says the pact leaves him in charge of Fantastic Media's day-to-day operations and allows him to retain all forty of his employees. In addition, it provides him with more resources -- and he'll need them, because the coming months promise to be his busiest to date. On the Star Trek front is another new series, expected to air in September; according to Madsen, "They're keeping things quiet right now," but he hints that the show may take place during the years prior to the original series and sport a "retro look." And that's not to mention a new Star Trek theatrical release starring Patrick Stewart and the rest of the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew enacting a script by John Logan, an Academy Award nominee for Gladiator.
And this summer, Madsen says, Fantastic Media hopes to launch official fan clubs for both The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of films based on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkein that will open one at a time over the next three Christmas seasons, and wizard-in-training Harry Potter, the J.K. Rowling creation whose first cinematic escapade, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, arrives in theaters late in the year. (The company is currently in the process of putting together presentations to obtain the licenses to these properties, but the licenses have not yet been officially awarded.) Madsen is especially jazzed about the Rings flicks, made by New Zealand director Peter Jackson, whose credits include the visually intriguing Heavenly Creatures. "I've seen some of the early footage, and it's unbelievable, mind-boggling," Madsen says. "And I think Star Wars fans will be attracted to the films because they have similar themes: mythology and wizardry and magic and large armies and good guys and bad guys."
With all of this going on, Madsen expects he'll have to add more people to his staff. Yet he knows better than to take the success of Fantastic Media for granted. "This wasn't started with the intent of making a living for me or anyone else," he says. "And the fact that it does is a real blessing."
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