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Star Hustlers

Sir Alec Guinness has won two Oscars, one for best actor and the other honorary, and has been nominated for four more. Queen Elizabeth knighted him in 1959. A remarkable career; a distinguished actor. And, now, for just $275, you can have a sixteen-inch ceramic cookie jar in the shape of Alec Guinness's head.

Technically, it's not Guinness's bust but that of his most famous character, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, a film for which the actor received one of those Oscar nominations. What does Sir Alec think of his ceramic doppelgänger? "He's a little embarrassed by the whole thing," says Dan Madsen, whose company, Fantastic Media, home of the official Star Wars fan club, sells the jars along with other Star Wars merchandise. "He's not crazy about his image being on cookie jars."

But Madsen can't keep the Obi-Wan containers in stock. In fact, he can't keep much of anything relating to Star Wars on his warehouse shelves these days. Ever since the Star Wars trilogy was re-released to theaters in digitally enhanced "special editions" in 1997, Fantastic Media has been traveling in hyperdrive.

The company's extraterrestrial excursions aren't limited to Star Wars. Until recently, the business was fueled by Star Trek and all its related paraphernalia. When President Bill Clinton wanted a pair of Star Trek boxer shorts, for example, secretary Betty Currie contacted Madsen. (Fortunately, Madsen was spared from having to testify before Ken Starr's grand jury on the subject of Clinton's underwear.)

But what's a mere president of the United States compared to the emperor of a galaxy far, far away? At the end of April, Fantastic Media will stage the second official Star Wars convention in the film franchise's history, a three-day "celebration" at the Denver Air and Space Museum of anything and everything connected to the movie series--including sneak-preview clips from the new release set for May 21, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the first of three films that tell the story of young Anakin Skywalker, who grows up to become Darth Vader. The star-studded event promises to attract every Star Wars fan in the galaxy. And Madsen, now 37, may be the biggest fan out there.

For a long time, Dan Madsen wasn't the biggest anything. But he sure stood out.

A rare bone disorder stunted Madsen's growth, making him a favorite target of taunts, stares and pranks from other kids when he was growing up in Aurora. He had some friends and loving parents, but he was different and couldn't forget it. Today he stands just 4-foot-2.

And for all the prejudice Madsen faced in the outside world, he didn't always get a break at home, either. Every day when he came home from junior high, he'd find his older brother, a high-school linebacker, plopped down in front of the family's TV set, staring at the Star Trek reruns that aired at 4 p.m. Star Trek--gag! Madsen was no fan of Captain Kirk and his space-faring crew.

"I hated it," Madsen recalls. "It made me angry when he'd watch it. I just hated it." But then, like a photon blast, a single Star Trek episode changed his mind--and his life. "I don't know what got into my mind, but I decided to sit down and watch it with him. Maybe it's fate--I don't know."

The episode was the classic "Plato's Stepchildren," with guest Michael Dunn, a character actor and little person like Madsen. But the show didn't use Dunn as a human sight gag. Instead he portrayed Alexander, a little person living among a race of Greek-god-like creatures who possessed special powers and used the powerless Alexander as their slave.

"When Kirk and Spock came to this planet, they saw how obnoxious and arrogant and disgusting they'd become, and they looked at this little Alexander, and he was this humble, really unique individual," Madsen recalls. "In this one scene, he sits next to Captain Kirk and he asks, 'Are there any people like me where you come from?' And Captain Kirk looks at him and says, 'Where I come from, size, shape or color makes no difference.' And that just dawned on me. I said to myself: They're talking about a world where no one would judge me because I'm short. They would just accept me for who I am."

At the end of the episode, Alexander beamed up to the Enterprise with Kirk and Spock and they took him away. "And," Madsen says, "I beamed up myself."

Not just on the Starship Enterprise, either. In 1977, after seeing Star Wars in the theater, Madsen hopped on board George Lucas's fantasy, going so far as to plaster Star Wars posters over the Star Trek pictures that covered his bedroom walls. Deep down, though, he was still a Trekkie at heart.

 

Inspired by the first Star Trek movie released in 1979, Madsen, by now a high-school senior, decided to start a Trekkie fan club. The first meeting consisted of Dan and five friends sitting in his garage, sipping lemonade and eating snacks on TV trays. From there, in the heart of sleepy suburbia, Madsen and his friends teleported themselves to places where no man had gone before. Soon Madsen was compiling a newsletter for his pals, pecking it out on a manual typewriter. "I was just as proud as I could be," he says of this primitive effort.

After he graduated from Hinkley High School, Madsen took a job at a local print shop, where he learned typesetting and printing. While most eighteen-year-olds are yearning to break out of the parental orbit, Madsen thought only of science fiction and how to make his Star Trek newsletter look "slicker and slicker." Now, with his print-shop connection, it was easy. "I was almost able to trade my time in order for them to make my newsletter," he says.

He poured his paychecks back into the fan club, taking out ads in Starlog magazine to solicit members. His first pitch convinced about a dozen people to send in their $12 dues.

Then, suddenly, the stars came into alignment. A man walked into the shop--today Madsen has trouble remembering his name--asking for a flier to promote his new Star Trek playing cards. When the man discovered he was in the presence of not just a Trekkie, but a fan-club president, he asked Madsen to put an endorsement on the flier. But then the flier landed at Paramount Pictures, and the film company's licensing department took aim.

"They said, 'Who the hell is this Dan Madsen with this Star Trek fan club?'" Madsen remembers. "So I sent them some copies of my newsletter. And I fooled them. They didn't realize it's some little guy with fifteen members."

Paramount, which has been criticized recently for attempting to shut down fan-based Web sites, wasn't thrilled to see an unlicensed someone using the Star Trek name back in the early Eighties, either. But although movie moguls knew there was a demand for a fan club, they'd resisted starting one themselves--and saw a solution in Madsen's renegade newsletter. "They told me, 'You are the first one that has the right amount of professionalism mixed with the right amount of fanaticism,'" he remembers.

In 1982 Madsen turned his tiny group into the Official Star Trek Fan Club, with Paramount's blessing. Although the company's "blessing" essentially meant it wouldn't sue Madsen and would simply let him use the word "official" in his club's title, the connection gave him unprecedented access to the Star Trek universe. He began interviewing the actors and behind-the-scenes talent, getting to know them on a personal level.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry became a "grandfatherly" figure to Madsen over the years, he says. Madsen shared with him his very personal story about how the show came to mean so much--a story that Roddenberry said he'd heard many times before. Disabled fans in particular reveled in the utopian, discrimination-free future that the late Roddenberry envisioned.

But all the connections didn't add up to cash, and Madsen still had to find ways to support his club. "It wouldn't have worked if I hadn't been living at home," he says, "and if my mom and dad hadn't supported me and allowed me to put my money into this." Finally, at 26, he was able to buy an Aurora townhouse and live on his own. "I had always been babied, so I was a little uncomfortable with it," he admits.

And that step only came about because Madsen had been noticed by George Lucas. After completing Return of the Jedi in 1983, Lucas wanted to farm out the official Star Wars fan club that his company, Lucasfilm, had run since 1978. (It happened to be the only official fan club Dan had ever joined as a kid.) Lucas gave Madsen the chance to take over the club in 1986--one of the few times a Star Wars license had been extended without an upfront exchange of cash.

It was a risk for Madsen. Although fans knew that Star Wars had been conceived as a nine-part series (the original Star Wars was actually Episode IV), by the mid-Eighties it was unclear whether Lucas would ever revisit his vision, and the fan club had metamorphosed into the official George Lucas fan club. So Madsen pulled together stories on other Lucas projects, including Willow and the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, to pad the fan club's magazine, and waited. And waited.

"I knew he was going to do another Star Wars," he says. "I just believed in Star Wars. I felt I was mining my little goldmine. I was just picking away. People would come by and laugh and say, 'There's no gold there.' I kept saying, one day I'm going to hit the mother lode."

 

Thirteen years later, Madsen has his bonanza. With all the attention accompanying the release of The Phantom Menace, Madsen figures his company could double last year's $12 million in business in 1999. Already, in just three years, the twelve-person operation has grown to encompass more than eighty employees.

Business could be even bigger if Madsen were willing to take his head out of the clouds and accept all the offers to create flavor-of-the-month ventures. "We've been offered the chance to run so many different fan clubs it isn't even funny," he says. "Power Rangers, Sylvester Stallone, Pee-Wee Herman, Lassie, Simpsons, Metallica, G.I. Joe, Lost in Space, X-Files, Xena, Hercules."

So far, though, Madsen hasn't succumbed to the lure of short-term profits. "I didn't place my bets on Star Trek and Star Wars because I wanted to make money, but because I was a genuine fan," he says. Still, he recognizes that he's been lucky in love. "If I had been a fan of Gilligan's Island, I'd be out of business today."

World--no, galactic--headquarters of Fantastic Media is just off I-70 in a cavernous warehouse large enough to house the Millennium Falcon. From floor to ceiling, shelves overflow with Star Trek and Star Wars T-shirts, bedsheets, card games, puzzles, pewter figurines, action figures, greeting cards, Christmas ornaments, costumes, masks, books, skateboards, posters and, yes, those cookie jars. The space is neatly divided: Star Wars on one side, Star Trek on the other. Life-sized replicas of C-3PO, Darth Vader and R2-D2 stand sentry duty at the front office.

This is the home of Star Trek Communicator and Star Wars Insider, the two clubs' magazines, both of which include merchandise catalogues. The bimonthly Insider alone has a circulation of 300,000; Madsen predicts that its circulation will grow to half a million in the next two months. Last year the company launched a third publication, Star Wars Kids. In addition, Fantastic Media runs the online stores found within the official Star Wars and Star Trek Web sites.

Despite the plethora of paraphernalia just outside their door, employees cover their work spaces with their own Star Wars and Star Trek mementos. Action figures battle atop computer monitors. At Fantastic Media, corporate culture is fan culture.

When The Phantom Menace trailer hit theaters last year, Madsen closed down the entire office for the afternoon and arranged a special screening. "I feel awfully lucky to be able to give people a job in a place they love," he says.

In fact, keeping Fantastic Media a fan-run operation may well be the key to its success. Two years ago, when Madsen realized the re-release of Star Wars would heat up business, he hired superfan Jon Snyder as his right-hand man. Today Snyder is Fantastic Media's vice president, overseeing the production of Star Wars Insider magazine and managing retail aspects of the business.

Snyder recently traveled to New York's Toy Fair to check out the new Star Wars line, looking for merchandise to add to the catalogue and schmoozing manufacturers. "Toys are really a cutthroat business," says Snyder, sounding more like a hardened dealmaker than a star-struck collector. "Toy Fair sounds like fun, but believe me, it isn't. It's just a bunch of big ol' guys in charcoal-colored suits smoking cigars. Toys are fucking business, like hog futures or something."

But when Snyder talks about the new Star Wars gizmos he saw in New York, his inner child comes out--kicking and screaming. "Every new Star Wars action figure is going to talk!" he says, going on to describe in excruciating detail the movie lines those dolls will recite. "It's pretty cool." (In the Star Wars fan universe, "cool" is the preferred adjective of high praise.)

Snyder, who will be thirty this month, grew up in Spokane. He was eight years old when he first saw Star Wars but denies that he was immediately hooked. He prefers "immediately fascinated."

That Halloween he dressed as a Tusken Raider. Any kid could have bought a Darth Vader mask, but only a true fan, a hooked fan, would spend his time and energy making a costume depicting a creature that had less screen time than the opening crawl. (Tusken Raiders were the scary sand people who attacked Luke Skywalker in the beginning of the first movie.) Snyder also had all the Star Wars toys and played with them constantly, "making them kill each other, making them fuck each other."

 

His interest waned through high school and college, when he was distracted by music and comic-book art. But Snyder rediscovered his passion after college, when he was living in San Francisco. In 1991, working out of his apartment, he produced a Xeroxed 'zine called Report From the Star Wars Generation. The second issue featured a snapshot of Snyder wearing a Stormtrooper helmet, a Blue Oyster Cult T-shirt and carrying a blaster. "I love that photo," he says.

Snyder didn't choose the Star Wars Generation title at random. For Gen X fans, the film is more than a great movie--it's a way to recapture part of their youth, a more innocent time. (At least, it is for male members of Gen X, Snyder says, since 80 percent of the Star Wars fan club is male. The nostalgic equivalent for females his age, he adds, is Grease.)

Although by 1993 Snyder had replaced the 'zine with a full-sized magazine, the irreverent tone carried through. "Is Luke Skywalker Jesus?" asked one article illustrated with characters dressed as various figures from the Bible. The same issue also featured a snapshot of a rare trading card depicting C-3P0 with a fully erect goldenrod.

Lucasfilm was not amused. In August 1993, Snyder received a cease-and-desist letter from the company's lawyers. "I was bummed," Snyder says. Although he had a new issue ready to go, he was afraid of being sued if he went ahead.

But the Force was with him. Some people at Lucasfilm recognized that under Snyder's irreverence lay a deep understanding and real passion for the films. In 1994 he started writing for the Lucas-approved Madsen magazine Star Wars Insider, which proved the springboard to his current job.

"Three weeks ago I was sitting in Lucas's private screening room at Skywalker Ranch," Snyder says. "That's pretty fucking exciting."

Arnie Davila, a customer-service rep at Fantastic Media, doesn't need a private screening to stay excited. The mere thought of Star Wars is enough to get him out of bed and into the office every morning. As he fields phone calls from fans, the pleasure is all his. "As a fan myself, I know what customers need, what they want," he explains. "There are very zealous fans who call me, and you're very satisfied when you can help them."

A fan since he was an eight-year-old growing up in Puerto Rico, Davila remembers when his father bought him his first action figure, an R2-D2. Since then, Star Wars has become a profound part of his life. "It's such a simple fairy tale and a simple adventure about what you can do with a little faith and a little help from your friends," he says. "The biggest theme of Star Wars is that friendship can overcome any adversity, whether it's winning the girl or conquering a galactic empire."

Davila eventually landed in Denver and graduated from Machebeuf High School, still a Star Wars fan. "I was very unashamed at expressing my interest in high school and college," he says. "Some thought I was a bit of a dweeb."

Still a dweeb, Davila was working at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts last year when he received a letter Madsen had sent to Denver-based fan club members, inviting them to apply for a job at Fantastic Media. "Would I have taken a pay cut to work here? You betcha!" (Luckily, he didn't have to.)

Such fanaticism amuses office manager and customer-relations supervisor Loretta Halboth. When she started at Fantastic Media seven years ago, the now-61-year-old grandmother wasn't a fan. She just needed a job. A former keypunch operator for IBM, Halboth had stopped working in the Seventies to raise her family and wanted to get back into the workforce with a smaller company. Enter Fantastic Media.

"It's been marvelous to sit back here and watch how we've grown," she says. "I was here when Dan held things together by a string." Now, of course, she's tied into that sci-fi culture, collecting crystal figurines of the Star Trek ships and taking Star Wars toys home to her grandkids.

But even Madsen likes to draw the line sometimes. "While I'm still a fan, I'm not quite as passionate a fan as I once was," he insists. "I don't go home from work and yearn to watch Star Trek all day. If you work in a pet shop, the last thing you want to do is go home and clean animal cages."

While his office decor includes a blaster that was used as a prop in Star Trek: First Contact, there are also historical pictures and framed letters from George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry hanging on the wall. His ex-wife got him interested in the past, he explains; today he collects Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain memorabilia.

 

But with a seven-year-old son who's developing his father's taste for sci-fi--"I had nothing to do with that," says Madsen. "Wink, wink"--Madsen admits he often finds it hard to leave his work entirely behind when he exits the office.

To date, the Star Wars films have grossed $1.8 billion at the box office. But the real cash comes from merchandise sales: $4.5 billion and counting in Star Wars stuff.

"It never ceases to amaze me how much fans spend on a Star Wars product," says Madsen. From $400 light sabers to $1,200 life-sized sculptures of Han Solo encased in carbonite--that's the stuff Darth Vader freezes him in at the end of The Empire Strikes Back--being hooked on Star Wars can be an expensive addiction.

"The fact that there's merchandising around this movie could be used as exploitation," Madsen concedes. "But you're also meeting a demand that people want."

Pamela Roller is editor of Star Wars Kids, the latest addition to Fantastic Media's sci-fi empire. With her magazine's target audience of seven- to twelve-year-olds, with a "bull's-eye" of ten-year-old boys, Roller is particularly sensitive to any charge that she's producing little more than advertisements for more toys.

"We don't want to turn off the parents," she says. "We don't want parents to say, 'Don't subscribe to that magazine, because I don't want to shell out fifty bucks every time it comes in the mail.'" When she started her job, she proposed an article on how action figures were made, but Snyder shot it down because he thought it might send the wrong message. "I don't want this magazine to be just a piece of fluff," Roller says today. "While I enjoy Star Wars and the imaginativeness that comes with it, I mostly want children just to read."

As a result, the magazine includes a mix of Star Wars and real-life science articles, as well as word games and puzzles. One recent story compared Star Wars and the Wizard of Oz, since their similar story lines describe a bunch of people banding together to fight pure evil--and becoming friends in the process. Star Wars Kids also offers a Collectors of the Month column, for which readers submit photos of their Star Wars collections. "You wouldn't believe the submissions we get!" Roller says. "Kids with rooms full of Star Wars. They go into the reject bin." Much more suitable for publication is the photo of an Ewok village diorama built by a father-and-son team. "This isn't a kid who keeps his toys in the packages," she points out. "He takes them out and actually plays with them."

But Roller's favorite part of the job is reading mail from readers. Kids submit Star Wars jokes (Q: What's Luke Skywalker's favorite car? A: Toy-Yoda) and share pressing concerns regarding the movie ("How come Luke Skywalker never brushes his teeth?").

Madsen says his experience as a child fan--and then as an adult fan with his own child fan--makes him acutely aware of what fans are looking for from the club and its magazines.

"Dan is very dedicated to having the very best magazine available," says KathE Walker, whose company, Starland, puts on the Starcon and Starfest sci-fi conventions held in Denver every year. "Dan is really a fan. It's not something he does because he thought he was going to get rich doing it."

Jeanne Cole, a Lucasfilm spokeswoman, says her company's been extremely pleased with how Madsen has handled the club and credits its success to his devotion to Star Wars. The club and magazine have been a "fabulous tool" for feeding the constant craving fans have for Star Wars information.

"With the fans we have, if something's not right, they will eventually pick up on it," Cole adds. "If something's not right, you'll hear about it. We're judged by the fans who know this world inside and out."

"What they've done is incredible," says Joe Wiles of the official fan club's publication. Wiles is a writer for theforce.net, an unofficial Star Wars Web site. Over the past year, Web sites such as this one have become notorious for their zealous pursuit of insider gossip, news of new characters and secret plot details called "spoilers" once they're spilled. But while theforce.net might scoop the official Star Wars site or Star Wars Insider, Wiles says they serve different needs. "They have more access; we have greater speed."

But Madsen has a greater motivation: his childhood. "I always felt that I had to accomplish and achieve more than others just to feel like I was as good as anybody else," he says.

Arnie Davila has a little secret he'd like to share. "I like to call the Star Wars Celebration 'WarStock,'" he says. "It's going to be very much like that wonderful weekend back in '69. It's going to be a real out-of-this-world experience. I'm waiting for Sunday morning for the Cantina band to play the 'Star-Spangled Banner.' I always think about that wonderful moment when Jimi Hendrix played it at Woodstock. It's just a fantasy I have."

 

The only other officially sanctioned Star Wars event was held by Lucasfilm in 1987, to celebrate the film's tenth anniversary. Though there have been smaller, unofficial conventions, the upcoming celebration will have access to Lucasfilm resources--including clips from the film that will be released a month later. As a result, to date Fantastic Media has sold 4,000 tickets to the April 30-May 2 event.

"Everyone asks, 'Why is the fan event in Colorado?'" says Madsen. "Well, there isn't any other answer except for the fact that Dan Madsen was born and raised here. Dan Madsen started his business here, so everything has to happen here."

Like Madsen's business, the film that fuels it had rather humble beginnings.
KathE Walker remembers. In 1977, Walker, already a confirmed Star Trek geek, had organized the very first Starcon convention at the Denver Regency. She recalls that Twentieth Century Fox was less than confident that its about-to-be-released movie--starring a hairy dog/gorilla creature called a Wookiee, a beeping wet-dry vac called R2-D2 and a princess who looked like she had a pair of pastries plastered to her head--would appeal to anyone other than diehard sci-fi fans.

"They begged us--begged us!--to show the Star Wars trailer," she remembers. "Yeah, so we were responsible for making Star Wars so popular."

Walker and her husband are using their years of experience in events-planning to help Fantastic Media organize the Star Wars Celebration. "You can really tell if the people hosting the event are just running you through the door to take your money and that's it," she says. "There's no heart to it."

But there will be plenty of heart at Madsen's event--as well as plenty of inside information. A life-sized X-wing fighter--the ship that Luke flies--will land at the museum to greet visitors. (Actually, it will be assembled there from three pieces.) Anthony Daniels, the man underneath the C-3PO gears and wires, and Rick McCallum, the films' producer, will be on hand. George Lucas himself will send a videotaped message to his troops.

Wiles, who lives in Pennsylvania and works for a catering company when he's not pursuing his Star Wars obsession, plans on covering the celebration for theforce.net. He's been to enough sci-fi events to know the good ones from the bad. An avid collector, he spends about $3,000 a year on Star Wars merchandise, which fills three rooms in his house. "A lot of these events lose sight of the movies by catering to the collectors rather than to the fans," says Wiles. "It's all dealers' tables and people trying to make a buck."

Even stars of the films exploit the connection, signing autographs at conventions and comic-book stores, where fans line up and pay to have their photos taken with the actors. When he first got the chance to meet David Prowse, the guy beneath the Darth Vader helmet (James Earl Jones provides the voice), "I was so excited I couldn't sleep at night," Wiles says. "Now, if I see that guy in Harrisburg one more time--I tell ya!"

The fear of being exploited has prevented some longtime fans from committing to Star Wars Celebration. "If it's just going to be a chance to look at props or see toys that are released three days later and bits and pieces of the movie, I don't know if it's going to be worth it," say Brian Graham, a 27-year-old machinist from Dubuque, Iowa.

Graham measures his life in intervals of 45 seconds--the time it takes for the machine he operates to finish casting the piece of machinery it's making. During those intervals, he lets his mind drift off to a time long, long ago. "Star Wars reminds me of the fun I had as child with my brother, playing with the toys. It reminds me of the pleasant memories of when I was younger. It makes you feel good."

And while he concedes that the upcoming celebration will be a "once-in-a-lifetime experience," Graham doesn't want to have those good feelings tarnished by commercialism.

Fantastic Media recognizes the problem. According to Snyder, Star Wars Celebration planners are currently grappling with how to strike the appropriate balance between those who merely want to immerse themselves in their favorite distraction and those who want to take home souvenirs from it. So while there will be some opportunity for signature-collecting, the films' actors will not be the ones signing autographs. And although there will be a collectors' tent, it will be off to the side. That way, organizers hope to keep the focus on the excitement of the new film.

 

And there's no one more excited about that new film than Madsen and Snyder. Not because they're positioned to make a killing off its success. Not because they're dying to know how the story will unfold cinematically (both have already read the script). Not because this first installment continues the journey these two have been on for the last two decades.

No, they're excited because they're in the film--as extras.
"It's basically a pain in the ass," says Snyder of his film debut, trying--and failing--to sound blase. "You're standing around all day in this dorky-ass costume. It was fun and great and all, but being an extra is a lot of standing around." He plays a citizen of Naboo--that's a planet--in a crowd scene with Ewan McGregor (the young Obi-Wan), Jake Lloyd (the young Darth Vader, then going by the name Anakin Skywalker) and Natalie Portman (who plays Queen Amidala--don't ask).

Yeah, no big deal. Of course, when he opens the door this Halloween to find some eight-year-old kid dressed as a citizen of Naboo--because every other kid is dressed as Darth Maul, the film's new bad guy, and this kid wants to show he knows even the minor characters--Snyder may change his mind.

Madsen doesn't even try to feign nonchalance. "I can't wait to get into a theater and watch it with an audience," he says. "I'll tell you, I can't wait. I'm a fan to the core when it comes to that stuff."

And so Madsen's hoping that his big scene--the film's last--will make it to the final cut. (At this point, he's hearing it will.) His tiny role required him to grab the reins of a giant animal (digitally added after he shot the scene) and hold on.

You won't be able to miss him: Madsen will be the little person riding a great beast off into the distance, the little person turned twenty feet tall on the big screen.


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