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Hollywood is our bastardized version of Mount Olympus; like it or not, entertainers have become the demigods of our time. Once a film has gone to video or a TV series ends its run, the immortalization is left to fans who are willing to keep it alive through moments of shared adulation, for whom money is no object in exchange for a chance to meet their favorite stars. And then there are others, those who make it all possible -- people such as Fernando Martinez of Hialeah and Joe Motes of Pembroke Pines.
Motes and Martinez, two middle-age, long-time Star Trek fans, run Vulkon, a company based out of Motes's home that hosts a dozen or so weekend conventions each year in hotels in a half-dozen cities east of the Mississippi, including Cleveland, Nashville, Orlando, and Tampa. These conventions, or "cons," cater to fans of sci-fi television shows and movies. According to the company Website, www.vulkon.com, Vulkon cons include costume contests, dance parties, autograph sessions, and panel discussions with the celebrities, plus children's events. On average, says Motes, a typical convention will draw 800 to 1000 attendants.
Demand for fan conventions began in the early Seventies, he explains, when Star Trek devotees began to organize their own events. It didn't take long for the trend to spread, and hotels filled with enthusiasts who gathered religiously for weekends of kinship, alcohol, and, often enough, surging libidos. Into the scene stepped people like Motes who began handing out invitations of their own. He established Vulkon in 1977 and produced the company's first convention, also on a Star Trek theme, in Miami.
"Conventions originally grew as an underground, fan-run movement until there were a thousand of them a year," says co-promoter Martinez, who joined forces with Motes a decade later. "When I first started in fandom fifteen years ago, Star Trek was in its heyday. Star Trek: Next Generation had just aired, and four movies came out. All this created a new audience and pulled in the existing audience of classic Star Trek."
But by the early 1990s, and after a seven-year run, Star Trek: The Next Generation had taken its final voyage. When two new shows from the Trek franchise emerged, loyalty among viewers was splintered. "Now we had Voyager and Deep Space Nine,"Martinez says. "And for whatever reason, those shows didn't garner the popularity of the original Trek and Next Generation. " Star Trek fandom, he says, is now a house divided into four factions: the original Star Trek, Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine.
"Conventions had to change and adapt in order to please people and still attract crowds -- so we'd have one guest from every show," says Martinez. But even that wasn't enough to please the crowds. "The Star Trek conventions started dying and never recovered," he adds. "Eighty percent of them went out of business."
Vulkon was also in trouble -- $25,000 in the red, in fact, by the late Nineties -- which was particularly difficult for both men, who are also the primary investors in the business.
"If we make it, we share it," says Motes. "If we lose it, we share that, too." Neither man considers Vulkon his primary source of income -- Motes has worked full time as a computer programmer with Norwegian Cruise Line for the past fourteen years, and Martinez makes his money as a vendor at conventions. Motes estimates that he and Martinez each spend about 40 hours more a week working on Vulkon.
Aside from Motes and Martinez, Vulkon boasts four other official staff members, all of whom work for free. At conventions the two promoters add about a dozen more volunteers to work the admission tables, check tickets at the ballroom doors, introduce stars during the Q&A sessions, and run the games and activities.
Today Vulkon is one of only a handful of companies that produces ongoing events, even as the market continues to mutate. In the past few years, there've been whispers, maybe rumblings, within the Star Trek community that the show's appeal is not what it once was. Because newer Star Trek franchise shows, like Voyager and Deep Space Nine, aren't bringing in the younger fans -- attendance consists mostly of old devotees and con regulars who've come to think of one another as a kind of family -- the Vulkon promoters have had to rethink their strategy.
"When Star Trek was dying out," says Motes, "my partner said, 'Let's shoot for Buffy.'" Thus Vulkon began inviting Buffy the Vampire Slayercharacters to its conventions in 1999 and hosted its first all-Buffy convention last April in Cleveland. Though Buffyended its own seven-year run last spring, the show is considered by many to be the next great cult TV franchise after Star Trek. While it lacks a visionary outlook, typified by Mr. Spock's "I.D.I.C." ("Infinite Diversity, Infinite Combinations"), it practices the same progressive ideals in its writing. Begun when the characters were in high school and following them to college, the show has included storylines to which many marginalized kids can relate. It also employs a strong female lead, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, as the show's number-one ass-kicker.