RIO DE JANEIRO—The Force is strong with Brazilian Star Wars fans.
Not even the worst recession in a nearly a century could thwart their Jedi powers to crowdfund a recent Star Wars convention that brought together thousands of lightsaber-waving fanatics for two days of film talks, costume contests, and the country's first “official” Jedi wedding officiated by Darth Vader himself.
But the whole thing was almost scuttled by the dark side of Brazil's economic recession. Three months ago JediCon was at risk of being canceled for a second year in a row as sponsors pulled out. That's when Rio de Janeiro’s official Jedi Council turned to the power of the internet crowdfunding in its most desperate hour: Help me Kickstarter, you're my only hope.
It worked. The campaign quickly raised $10,375 and convinced sponsors to kick in another $15,500.
“Because of the crisis of the economy, we have to do crowdfunding,” said Jedi Council member Felipe Trotta, 46, who boasts a Star Wars collection of 2,500 action figures and a full-size remote control model of R2D2. “This wouldn’t have happened without Kickstarter.”
In Brazil, which has one of the most developed crowdfunding markets in Latin America, more than a dozen Kickstarter-like websites have helped fund everything from watchdog journalism to Olympics sports teams. It's made Brazil "a leader in South America in the crowdfunding space,” according to a 2013 World Bank report.
JediCon was financed through Benfeitoria, one of Brazil’s larger online crowdfunding platforms. Along with rival sites Catarse and Kickante, crowdfunding platforms are playing a growing role in Latin America’s largest economy, especially amid a recession that has forced banks to pull back on traditional lending and spurred borrowers to look for alternative financing. As cash-strapped sponsors cut back on spending, or focus their limited budgets on more high-profile events such as the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, smaller events such as JediCon are increasingly forced to seek funding from non-traditional revenue sources.
“Economic recession in the country has further influenced the demand,” says Candice Pascoal, founder of Kickante, which has organized more than 17,000 campaigns since it was found 2013 and raised more than BRL 20 million ($5.2 million). “Brazilians realized that do not need to depend on credit and traditional financing to carry out their projects. Now they know they can count on alternatives like Kickante and even in times of crisis,” she told Fusion by email.
That said, given the fever-pitch hype around this month’s film premiere of the first Star Wars installment in a decade, it would seem that even a Wookie could have recognized the market demand for an event like JediCon. First launched in 1999 and considered one of Latin America’s largest annual gatherings for Star Wars fans, the convention this year set a new record in attracting some 10,000 people last weekend to Rio de Janeiro’s planetarium, according to Henrique Granado, the 36-year-old vice-president of the Conselhos Jedi no Brasil.
Inside the convention space, Stormtroopers patrolled hallways, Jedi and Sith Lords waved lightsabers, and numerous white-gowned Princess Leias vied for attention.
But the top attraction was American sci-fi writer Timothy Zahn, bestselling author of a trilogy of Star Wars novels from the 1990s that were first translated into Portuguese and published in Brazil last year. Zahn appearance at JediCon as part of a three-week tour through Brazil that included a book signing in the Amazonian city of Manaus.
“We wondered why we were going to the Amazon, then we read that nearly 2 million people live there,” said Zahn.
Top crowdfunders were recognized during the convention in a special ceremony modeled after the closing scene of the 1977 original Star Wars film, “A New Hope,” including replicas of the medals awarded to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca.
Proudly holding up his crowdfunding medal, 23-year-old Felipe Lucas Rodrigues said he donated $130—a quarter of his monthly salary— to make JediCon happen. That meant sacrificing nights out with friends for several months, and likely also mooching off his parents, but it was money well spent, he said.
“Every cent counted,” said Rodrigues, who was dressed in a full Jedi costume that cost him $778. “It was totally worth it and I’d do it all over again.”
In a romantic twist to this year’s JediCon, the convention also included Brazil’s first-ever formally recognized Star Wars-themed wedding, officiated by a man dressed in full Darth Vader costume and flanked by two Stormtroopers. R2D2 rolled into the room as the ring-bearer.
“I always wanted to be married in this way,” said Francesco Anjos, the 32-year-old groom, who wore a brown Jedi robe while his bride was dressed in a white Princess Leia-style gown. “I’m living the movie!”
Stephen Kurczy, a Brazil correspondent, has reported from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the jungles of the Amazon. Somewhere along the way he became addicted to açaí, a purple slushy made from the powerfruit.