Showcase: Star Wars Celebration Europe

A spectacular three-day Star Wars convention brought fans from across Europe to Excel London. Mike Fletcher joined them.

On the same day David Beckham began his quest to popularise the UK's national sport at a Galaxy far, far away, a US export was making its debut at Excel London. A generation of Star Wars fans descended on docklands for a convention to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original trilogy.

Cards Inc, the largest licensee of Star Wars merchandise in Europe, had in mind Star Wars Celebration - a convention staged in the US every four years - when it bought the rights to host Celebration Europe and approached IMIE, organiser of the British International Motor Show, to manage it.

Huge following

"At first I was sceptical," admits IMIE director Tim Etchells. "I just couldn't get my head around staging a US-style convention for a UK audience. But when I delved into the range of characters, the heritage and the huge following Star Wars has built up, it became obvious we had something to offer."

That 'something' resulted in the advance sale of 23,000 tickets. On 13 July the first visitors began arriving at 4am. By 6am there were more than 100 queuing to ensure they'd be among the first to buy limited-edition Darth Vader helmets made especially for the 30th anniversary celebrations. Targeted marketing at fan clubs and online forums resulted in an international audience - dressed in character, each armed with their own lightsaber - while a small £150,000 marketing budget reached families looking for a day out and saw visitor numbers swell to around 30,000 with no complimentary ticket handouts.

Jonathan Sands, director of Weird & Wonderful, which built the sets and provided costume actors for the three-day convention, believes it was always going to attract more than just the hardcore fans. He says: "Thirty years ago a film was made that blew the imagination. The majority of the thirty-somethings that witnessed the phenomena now have children of their own, so it's only natural they would want their kids to experience what they went through in 1977."

On the show floor, Sands created a Jedi training school on the swamp planet Dagobah that was packed with children. Other Weird & Wonderful-designed feature areas included Tantive IV, where visitors could be photographed with the Stormtroopers who raided Princess Leia's spacecraft during the opening scenes of Episode IV: A New Hope. Weird & Wonderful also provided the official props, including an X-Wing fighter and models of Jabba the Hutt and the Death Star.

Interactive content

"We've been an official licensee of Lucasfilm since the late 1990s so this was one of those events where it was important to have Star Wars running through the veins," adds Sands. "Rich interactive content was vital to bring the show to life. I manage the sister exhibition in County Hall which is now permanent so I knew the convention would draw the crowds."

Licensees such as Lego and Toys R Us sold merchandise at the event, while actors and production staff talked about filming the trilogy during lectures and personal appearances in the main hall. In Excel's Platinum Suite, an exhibition of painted Darth Vader helmets ran alongside more technical lectures that included a glimpse into the keenly awaited Star Wars animated TV series.

IMIE's Etchells says: "We worked so closely with Lucasfilm since naturally it is protective of its brand. Each and every stand, piece of merchandise and set has had to be approved by them, but they've done it many times in the US, the process was straightforward.

"In the evening we staged an outdoor screening of Episode IV. We did look at other ideas such as a fancy dress ball but it became too complicated. Most of the European fan clubs are here on three-day tickets so the hotels are full in July and the clubs are organising their own evening entertainment."

One of the main draws of the show was the autograph area, where fans could buy tokens and swap them for the autographs of voiceover actors or minor players in the films. The star attraction was Luke Skywalker himself, actor Mark Hamill, who signed 400 autographs a day for £85 each. Judging by the queue to secure his signature the force is still strong with both him and the Star Wars brand.

Star Wars Celebration Europe
Organiser: IMIE
Venue: Excel London
Dates: 13-15 July
Exhibitors: 120
Set builds: Weird & Wonderful
Costume actors: Weird & Wonderful