Tuesday, August 09, 2005
Long the butt of media scorn, Star Trek fans -- aka "Trekkies" or "Trekkers" -- are coming into their own as an economic force. Beginning Thursday, when Creation Entertainment's fourth Star Trek Las Vegas Convention opens at the Las Vegas Hilton, an estimated 3,800 fans are expected to descend upon the city, bringing considerable buying power with them.
"The geeks shall inherit the earth ... or at least spend the earth on their hobby," reported intelligencia.com last June, disclosing the results of a SciFi Channel Geekforce Report conducted in the United Kingdom.
It found science fiction fans to be upwardly mobile, outgoing, Internet-savvy and exceptionally aware of new products. The "New Geeks," a third of whom are female, aren't shy about spending, either -- 8.2 billion pounds sterling, or about $14.6 billion, according to the study.
Chase Masterson has leveraged her popularity on the convention circuit into a platform for selling her first album, proceeds from which are donated to Foundation for Hospices in Sub-Saharan Africa http://www.fhssa.org
"We sensed a disconnect between the massive commercial value of the sci-fi genre," SciFi's UK sales director, Martin Heaton Cooper, told intelligencia.com, "and the misconception that its consumers were socially inept losers. Not only are Geeks high-net-worth individuals, but their independence from standard purchasing behavior has resulted in fundamental changes to the traditional product life cycle."
Take Katie English, a computer-support engineer from South Bend, Ind., a twentysomething who commands in excess of $50,000 annual income. She's attended 14 Star Trek, Stargate and Xena: Warrior Princess conventions.
She says that the biggest misperception about attendees is: "That we're social misfits with no lives and no friends. Conventions are social events. The convention mechanism really serves as a convenient venue for disparate friends to get together."
Her observations are confirmed by traffic on Internet message boards and Yahoo! chat groups. Consumers like English have also been good for the DVD business, with even canceled or little-seen TV series like Farscape, Earth 2 and The Lone Gunmen drawing top dollar on disc.
According to the Detroit Free Press' Terry Lawson, the lavish box sets of long-running cable and syndication ratings leader Stargate SG-1 are outselling the DVD release of The Bob Newhart Show. Newer, darker series like the reconceived Battlestar Galactica have brought the SciFi Channel to the forefront of cable-TV ratings and given science fiction highbrow respectability such as a New York Times Magazine profile on Galactica mastermind Ronald D. Moore.
Poised to capture the "New Geek" spend are entrepreneurs like Creation co-CEOs Gary Berman and Adam Malin, who present fan-oriented events in the U.K. and America. High school classmates from Fresh Meadows, N.Y., the duo have evolved from teenagers with a serious comic-book hobby to convention presenters whose events gross approximately $6 million per year. One-sixth of that revenue is generated by the annual Las Vegas Trek convention, or 'con' in Geekspeak, while millions more are generated by ancillary merchandising.
This weekend's 'con' involves 33 celebrity appearances -- including 'The Four Captains,' actors William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Kate Mulgrew and Avery Brooks -- plus 47 additional celebrity signers, game previews, a NASA presentation by Arizona State University's David Williams, a Las Vegas Philharmonic concert, music-video and costume contests, three celebrity luncheons at the Hilton's Benihana and memorial tributes to DeForest Kelley and the recently deceased James Doohan, members of the original Star Trek TV cast. Doohan remains Creation's record-holder for celebrity appearances and once said of 'cons': "It's the greatest feeling in the world and I do it about 30 to 35 to 40 times a year."
"I don't want this just to be about getting an autograph or fighting to get in to see something. I want it to be a show because that's what I want to do for a living," says Berman, whose ability to convert a youthful passion into a multimillion-dollar business has earned him the admiration of "New Geeks" and affectionate nicknames like "King Ubernerd."
Berman and Malin got started when their families put up the money to rent the New Yorker Hotel for a comic-book convention.
"We had 800 people and made 800 bucks," Berman recalls. After the two graduated from college, they decided to try and convert their hobby into a career, incorporating Creation in 1978.
When Creation hired Walter Koenig, Chekhov on the original Star Trek, to appear at an early 1980s comic-book 'con' in Chicago they discovered the power of the Trek brand, which eventually swamped their comic-book business.
"When the (Star Trek brand) was at its peak we were running 40 or more Star Trek conventions a year and we were able to tour with it, sort of like vaudeville: go to even small cities and attract large crowds," Berman says. "Now there are so many other entertainment choices and Star Trek is not at its highest point. So we're running maybe three or four solely Star Trek conventions a year."
Did the recent failure of UPN's Star Trek: Enterprise hurt the brand? "It didn't help," Berman concedes.
Las Vegas casinos originally resisted the Trek business, Berman says.
"Any name property in Vegas, I don't think they think their (casino) drop would not be helped by Star Trek fans. They had the wrong image, and our fans gamble. Star Trek fans are not 20 years old anymore," Berman says. "They're in their forties and it's the prime audience for casinos. Judging by the fact the Hilton has invited us back each year they've done well. We've also sold 3,500-3,600 hotel rooms (at $95 per night) at the Hilton, which of course is good."
There's an old cabbie joke about Comdex attendees that they hit Vegas with one shirt and one $20 bill, and don't change either. When Las Vegas Hilton Vice President of Communication Ira David Sternberg is reminded of this, he laughs and says, "Years ago, most of the casinos in this town were opposed to conventions, because of that stereotype."
As for whether Trek fans gamble or not, Sternberg says it's a moot point: "If (casinos) don't see it reflected in gaming they'll see it reflected in food and beverage, reflected in retail."
The Hilton's on-property attractions are a cinch to exceed to those at a July Stargate event in Boston that was quickly dubbed "Ghetto Con." Creation and its patrons found themselves confronted with hotel/convention facilities far less appealing than they had been led to expect. Terms like "skanky" have been heard. Berman says his celebs went above and beyond the call of duty, personalizing every item presented for autographing, something that time constraints and flight schedules usually inhibit.
Given the competition for tourist dollars in Las Vegas, how does Berman get his patrons to maximize their 'spend' at the convention?
"From a business point of view, we try to keep them at our convention as long as possible," he says. That's why Creation is scheduling special events like the Philharmonic concert. In addition, at least 50 vendors, including local autograph dealer Icono Graph, are expected to have booths at the Hilton, selling myriad items ranging from jewelry to vintage action figures to rare soundtrack albums.
Creation is also leveraging the proximity of the Hilton's Star Trek: The Experience, renting it out for two after-hours events featuring singing by Chase Masterson of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, who will be launching her "Ad Astra" CD at the convention.
Not surprisingly, the Experience expects the weekend to be their best business period of the year. It's offering a $40 backstage tour, $30 if bought in tandem with a package of thrill rides, at which Experience trade secrets will be revealed for the first time, according to the company.
Masterson is an example of what Berman describes as actors who might go unrecognized on the streets of Los Angeles but are huge stars on the convention circuit. She made 17 appearances as Leeta, a casino worker who helps unionize the DS9 labor force.
"She's parlayed that into a fan community that far exceeds what her actual work on the show would engender, if you thought about it. She's also been able to get lead roles on Sci Fi Channel movies because of that," says Berman of Masterson. "I see how hard she has to work to do it. She's probably the one I would pick who's really taken what they had and realized that the sci-fi community will support you."
Other performers who fall into that category of con-circuit phenomena are the late Doohan, Farscape star Virginia Hey and Canadian actress Teryl Rothery, whose 75 guest appearances on Stargate SG-1 made her a major draw at sci-fi conventions. "There are just some personalities that really shine in front of an audience. And even if these folks were not recognized by the Hollywood producing communities they had/have a 'star quality' that remains bright within the smaller universe of fans," Berman explains.
"By using this personality they are able to build a community of fans that help support them, in terms of following them to conventions, buying their products, and watching whatever film or TV show they manage to get into," Berman adds. Rothery, for instance, is slated for guest shots on both The Dead Zone and Stargate this season, and was able to use her sci-fi celebrity to broaden awareness of a recent Vancouver production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, in which she played male and female roles.
"I'm betting Renee O'Connor and Lucy Lawless come awfully close (to the Rothery level of convention stardom)," says English of the two Xena stars, "because they definitely share a great respect for the fans and make an effort to really make conventions special." O'Connor even wore a wedding outfit from the series while posing for photos with Xenaphiles.
For Masterson, the conventions have had a dramatic impact on relaunching her musical career. She moved 3,000 units of her first CD, "Thrill of the Chase" by way of convention appearances and her Web sites.
Both Masterson and Rothery have sung in cabaret events that Creation initiated in response to fan feedback. Masterson has also appeared with her DS9 'in-laws' at the rival Trek Expo event, held annually in Tulsa, in a comedy act called "The Ferengi Family Hour."
For fees ranging from $15 to $80, convention attendees can have merchandise autographed by various Star Trek creative talent, while photo opportunities with many of the same performers can be purchased in a $35-$70 range.
Revenues from these are divided between Creation and the celebrities, varying according to individual contract. At a recent Burbank convention, Stargate: Atlantis lead Joe Flanigan did 56 'photo ops' at $40 apiece, generating $2,240. Actors, writers, composers, etc. also receive appearance fees, which Berman says range from a couple of thousand dollars to a $25,000 'top,' although fees on the overall Star Trek circuit have been rumored to go as high as $40,000.
"For years we didn't even charge for autographs," Berman says. "It just became necessary after these agents came into the business and eBay and so forth."
"It's not so much for me about how many autographs I sell as about getting the word out about the CD," adds Masterson, who emphasizes the importance of saying 'thank you' to the fans. "It's an opportunity to connect with the public in saying that. That's the greatest blessing," she says.
The actress and singer, who was in corporate marketing for both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the House of Blues, tries to apply marketing principles to her career, including involving herself in which Masterson-related merchandise will be available for purchase. "It is a little cottage industry and extending the brand is something I focus on," she says, "but (her managers) handle all the financial aspects of it."
Despite the revenue-generating propensity of the Star Trek Las Vegas Convention, Berman laments that he hasn't been able to find any takers in Vegas for Creation's Lord of the Rings event. "We're locked into Pasadena one more year but we feel that's a partying crowd, the LOTR fans," the co-CEO says. "So that's our plan, hopefully."
Melanie LaRae Osorno knows about beating the odds.
The 27-year-old Salt Lake City woman survived birth with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. So winning a one-of-a-kind car - a restored '63 VW Beetle used in the movie "Herbie: Fully Loaded" - and meeting the movie's star, Lindsay Lohan, is not that big a deal by comparison.
Still, Osorno was excited showing off her prize, just arrived in Utah, during lunch hour Monday at The Gateway.
"Nothing like this has ever happened to me," Osorno said. "This is just awesome."
Osorno, a nursing assistant at Wasatch Valley Rehabilitation Center, called in to a radio station in June, winning tickets to see "Herbie" and a chance to win a trip to Hollywood for the movie's premiere. She won the trip, chosen from 50 or so other qualifiers.
"We walked the red carpet," Osorno recalled. "We got to meet Lindsay Lohan, Larry King, Matt Dillon, George Lopez . . .."
At the June 19 premiere, Melanie's name and those of 19 other trip winners from around the country were put in a drawing for the Bug.
"Lindsay Lohan stuck her hand in there and called out my name," Osorno said.
"I started crying, I was so happy, and [Lohan] gave me a hug. Her exact words to me were, 'It's OK, honey - don't cry.' "
The ivory-colored Beetle has a red, white and blue racing stripe over the top, and the trademark "53" on the hood, doors and trunk. The glove-compartment door bears autographs from the movie's stars.
Osorno said she doesn't know the car's value - "To me, it's priceless," she said - or how much she might have to pay in taxes for it. She doesn't plan to drive it, but occasionally will bring it out for display.
How does it drive? According to Osorno's husband, Alejandro, "it's pretty good for the year it is."
Football To Kick Off 2005 Season With Aug. 20 Pigskin Picnic and Scrimmage
Annual Event Also Includes Photo and Autograph Session For the General Public
Aug. 9, 2005
OXFORD, Ohio -- First-year head football coach Shane Montgomery unveils his 2005 Miami University RedHawks at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 20, when the football program hosts the Third Annual Pigskin Picnic and scrimmage. Along with preseason comments from Montgomery and the last chance to catch the team in action before its Sept. 3 season opener at Ohio State, fans will have the opportunity to seek autographs and photos with their favorite RedHawks players and coaches in Yager Stadium.
Following the picture and autograph session, which begins at 11 a.m., a picnic lunch will be served at Noon in the Yager Stadium complex. The team's final preseason scrimmage kicks off at 2:05 p.m.
Tickets for the lunch are $15 for adults and $10 for children and can be ordered from the Miami Athletic Ticket Office by calling 1-866-MUHAWK. Director of Athletics Brad Bates and Montgomery will make remarks on the upcoming season and introduce the 2005 senior class.