Until the 13th century, Ghent was the second largest city in Europe and it was even bigger than London. Silent (but popular) witnesses of Ghent’s glorious past are medieval buildings like Gravensteen Castle, built in 1180. But during rare occasions you can still find noble knights and evil warlocks lingering around in Ghent, only now they are better known as Jedi Knights and Sith Lords. The 20th and 21st of October was not a weekend easy to forget for Belgian Star Wars fans. It was the weekend of F.A.C.T.S. (Fantasy, Animation, Comics, Toys and Space), the largest convention in the Benelux (Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxemburg) and one of the largest conventions in Europe.
I’ve been at F.A.C.T.S. since its third edition in 1994 and I’ve seen it evolve into a very large media event. “I believe two things have been decisive in the ongoing expansion of F.A.C.T.S.,” says Emmanuel Van Melkebeke, the big chief of the convention and one of its original founders. “It was an important decision to have F.A.C.T.S. take place on two days (until 2000 it used to be only on Sunday) and since we moved to our current location, the convention continues to grow each year.” The queue of visitors started more than two hours before the entrance was opened, so it can hardly be a surprise that even the enormous halls of the centrer got crowded at certain moments.
F.A.C.T.S. features a massive amount of merchandising, guest stars (actors and artists), games, workshops, and many, many fans! There even was a Japanese pop concert and a demonstration of Japanese martial arts this year. The organization of F.A.C.T.S. has always been very eager to allow fanclubs and groups to populate the convention. In the last decade, cosplaying has become a very common sight at F.A.C.T.S., just like at other conventions around the world. TeeKay-421, the Belgian Star Wars Fanclub, has been at F.A.C.T.S. since 1997 and along with other organizations, such as our friends from Rebel Legion Benelux, we found ourselves in the Fan Village, next to the large gaming zone. At the booth of TeeKay-421 people could join our fanclub and get our most recent t-shirts. We also promoted the new Star Wars Detours show and a lot of visitors dropped by and asked information about it. The fanclubs and games were situated in one large hall, but the dealers and the guests were located in an even bigger hall.
For collectors, F.A.C.T.S. can definitely be Valhalla. Dealers from Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, France, the UK, and even the United States fill the dazzling amount of tables, which form a maze of holy grails, rare collectables, special sales, and super-deals. Star Wars merchandising has always been very plentiful at F.A.C.T.S., something that fans and collectors can surely look forward to. The figures, toys, comics, and statues lure fans to their tables like lost sailors to mermaids. At F.A.C.T.S. you won’t crash into a rock in the sea, you’ll just end up with a depleted wallet instead.
Some dealers already brought the last Vintage Star Wars wave (wave 7) of 2012 and other rather recent items like Hasbro’s Darth Maul Returns Battle Pack or the Hasbro Ewok and AT-ST Driver two-packs. Of course, other Star Wars licensees were represented as well, such as Sideshow Collectibles, Gentle Giant, and LEGO. Books, clothing, photos, posters, statues, toys, action figures, and vintage Kenner merchandise could be found at the convention. But F.A.C.T.S. is not just about Star Wars only. Other popular franchises and series, such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Disney, Indiana Jones, Doctor Who, and The Walking Dead showed their influence through cosplayers and merchandising. That list also includes anime, which has a very solid fan base in Belgium. The dealer’s room in 2012 was even bigger than last year. A good idea (though rarely executed) would be to bring some thread, like Theseus did in the Minotaur’s labyrinth. If you thought you had seen it all, you would always discover another desired item during your next tour. “I rarely have spare time to look for merchandising,” says Van Melkebeke. “The organization constantly keeps you busy, but usually I take a tour at the final moments on Sunday and then I have a look for quality statues or neat vintage Star Wars items. Last year I bought a lightsaber.”
Guest stars at the 2012 edition included Sean Patrick Flanery (Young Indiana Jones), who seemed to enjoy the convention very much. He was very cheerful and after all, he did serve as a Belgian (Henri Defense) during World War I in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Other guests included Charles Dance (Alien³, Game of Thrones), Ian Whyte (Prometheus), and Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead). Paul Blake (Greedo) and Dermot Crowley (Crix Madine) were signing and greeting fans as well. Colin Wilson, who drew covers for several Star Wars comics from Dark Horse, was one of many artists in Gent. “Being able to invite a true star like Jean-Claude Van Damme in 2007 was a big achievement for F.A.C.T.S.,” says Van Melkebeke. “Another highlight was John-Rhys Davies, who joined us in 2003 when Lord of the Rings reached the peak of its popularity and when the convention was still a lot smaller than today.”
Though merchandising may always be the main attraction at the convention, it has become so much more. It has evolved into a yearly social gathering for fans from different cities, regions, and countries. Visitors can get autographs from their favorite stars, they can attend Q&A sessions, and they can check out several workshops. Game addicts can play the latest releases and cosplayers can be whoever they pretend to be. The edition of 2012 was a success for TeeKay-421 and we were able to welcome new members into the fanclub. F.A.C.T.S. is a really awesome convention, certainly when you have credits or Wupiupi to spend. For Belgian fans it’s an event that you just can’t skip. You can get lost forever in the dealers’ room, you can meet up with friends long gone, or just simply be among kindred spirits. Before we knew it, another edition had passed. The gathering in 2013 will certainly be special as well, since F.A.C.T.S. will then celebrate its 20th anniversary. I’m already looking forward to it.
Tim Veekhoven (Sompeetalay) is president, editor-in-chief, and cofounder of TeeKay-421, the Belgian Star Wars Fanclub. He’s an administrator for Yodapedia and has written four (former) Databank entries on the Official Star Wars website, thanks to “What’s the Story.”