Nilmini Klur, dressed as Princess Leia, shows of a light saber at her home for a gathering of the Pennsylvania Star Wars Collecting Society.

Nilmini Klur, dressed as Princess Leia, shows of a light saber at her home for a gathering of the Pennsylvania Star Wars Collecting Society.

‘The Force Awakens’ in Philly Star Wars fans as movie release nears

Justin Ledesma was into Star Wars as a child, but it was because of a friend who happened to be sitting next to him on a train home from college that he obtained a box of collectibles from the series and brought them home. Years later, the 39-year-old and member of the Pennsylvania Star Wars Collecting Society owns action figures, ship replicas, comic books and nearly every novel ever written off the Star Wars series.

“Star Wars is the first movie I can remember,” Ledesma, of Havertown, said at a Society meeting last weekend. “I was just in a place where it was a big part of my childhood.”

About a dozen of the about 400 statewide members of the collectors’ club met in a home just outside Philly Saturday to show off their collectibles, discuss trades and sales to other members and, largely, talk about the new Star Wars movie coming out. “The Force Awakens,” episode VII of the series, is set to drop in theaters in nine days as of the writing of this story, and its official trailer has been watched more than 68 million times.

The Star Wars franchise, which has released six movies since 1977, has millions of fans but has been able to leverage merchandise sales unlike any other. Financial analysts suggest “The Force Awakens” alone could spur $5 billion in sales in its first year after release which, according to The Atlantic, would translate to roughly $500 million in revenue for Disney, which bought out Lucasfilm in 2012.

Some members of the local group estimate they’ve spent thousands of dollars over the years acquiring Star Wars merch from in stores and online. Most of them couldn’t even begin to guess the exact amount they’ve dropped, some of them on thousands of items, big and small.

Since 1977, the franchise has racked up $32 billion in merchandise sales, largely dwarfing the $4.5 billion made at the box office over the same time period. Though, “The Force Awakens” could bring in more than $170 million at the box office in opening weekend alone, and that estimate is considered conservative.

Part of Nilmini Klur's collection of Yoda items.

Part of Nilmini Klur's collection of Yoda items.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

The members of this society have different ways of counting down until Dec. 18 (or the evening of Dec. 17) when “The Force Awakens” hits theaters. Ledesma has been wearing — and posting about on Facebook — a different Star Wars T-shirt for each day of the movie release countdown since Dec. 1. Nilmini Klur, a former lawyer who hosted the event this past weekend at her home just off City Avenue, started officially counting down the days in mid-October.

Klur, who was dressed as Princess Leia throughout the meeting, has Star Wars memorabilia and merchandise adorning nearly every corner of her home, but her biggest obsession is Yoda, the little green guy who was a legendary Jedi Master with a close connection to the force.

“The moment Yoda appeared, I wouldn’t leave the theater. He was just so very philosophical,” Klur said, remembering when she saw the first film. “Star Wars is a way of life.”

Mark Schiffman, of Philadelphia, holds a special seven-foot long light saber.

Mark Schiffman, of Philadelphia, holds a special seven-foot long light saber.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Each member of the society collects something just a little bit different. For Ledesma, it’s largely novels. Michael Clarke, a 42-year-old counselor, collects movie posters from only the original trilogy, and he’s amassed about 20 official posters over the years. Mark Schiffman, of Philadelphia, has a collection of toy ships, an interactive R2-D2 robot and a box of full-size light sabers that run hundreds of dollars apiece.

Schiffman, a karate instructor, brings his box of light sabers to the meeting and held a Jedi lesson to teach members some of the best ways to fight. I went in the front yard Saturday evening with Schiffman and a father-son pair to learn the ropes of flinging around a (kinda heavy) four-foot-long light saber.

He taught us different moves that corresponded with numbers, whether they were blocks or jabs, and then “fought” each of us after we’d learned. When I walked back inside after working on my Jedi skills, Klur assured me: “You are now a Padawan.”

That sort of camaraderie is why members say they come together for monthly meetings to talk about their Star Wars memorabilia. There are few others who understand, or would want to talk about the number of times certain action figures bend or the possibilities of what will happen with Luke Skywalker in the upcoming film.

Shaina Libert, 3, plays with Star Wars collectibles.

Shaina Libert, 3, plays with Star Wars collectibles.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Lauren Libert, a textile designer, was at the meeting Saturday with her 3-year-old daughter Shaina who was fascinated playing with different Star Wars-style Christmas ornaments. Libert said she remembers seeing the original Star Wars at age 8, and “when the words came across the screen, I was enthralled.”

Now, she’s planning on taking Shaina to see her first Star Wars film in theaters. “It’s just a part of your childhood,” she said.

Some members of the group said there’s a bit of apprehension coming from super fans of the franchise about what’s going to happen in the upcoming film. They could all agree that the special effects are expected to be incredible. And they also agreed that even if the storyline isn’t perfect, the release of a new Star Wars movie will be a pivotal moment in the lives of fans who have waited more than three decades for this episode to come out.

“And the prequels were just so bad,” Clarke added, “that it can really only go up from here.”

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