On the floor of San Diego Comic-Con, Robocop, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and an astronaut look over the crowds from a high perch. The motionless figures welcome visitors to the booth of Prop Store, a site that specializes in selling screen-used props to fans of all stripes.
This year, in the middle of this booth, stands one of the suits used in Netflix’s recently released film, Spectral. It will be the focus of an auction the week following the convention, and so it’s presented as something of a centerpiece. But who exactly is in the market for a screen-used suit from a C-grade sci-fi film that debuted on Netflix or really any of these meticulously designed (and sometimes obscure) outfits and props?
The answer, according to Prop Store’s CEO and founder Stephen Lane, is more people than you might guess. While cosplay and prop replicas are becoming more common among fans, Lane deals with the objects that were used for the production of films and television, from the hats and shirts worn by crew members involved in the production, to the full costumes once worn by the film’s stars, to the miniatures of starships and vehicles.
Lane got his start in the world of collecting in the early 1990s, beginning with action figures. That propelled him into the world of collecting screen-used items, the sort of stuff he deals in today. While action figures were exciting and interesting to collect, he says that there’s a particular rush in owning a part of a film. As Lane says, “I can watch a movie and point to an object and say, ‘I own that piece.’”
Lane founded Prop Store in 1998, and has around 8,000 objects for sale, ranging in price from around $20 to $15,000. The goal of the store, according to Lane, is to “educate people that these objects survive, and that anyone can own a piece of movie history.” His buyers have a disposable income, are predominantly male (but not exclusively), and range from age 20 to 60. One thing deeply links them together: nostalgia. Customers are frequently looking to own a physical object that goes back to their original experience for their favorite film.
Lane explains that it’s a small marketplace, one that experienced a boom with the advent of the internet. Before, fans and collectors would photograph their collections and mail the images to one another, while forums and storefronts now allow him to connect with a much wider group of buyers from around the world. The cost of the hobby runs the gamut. Big-ticket items like a prominently used space suit can go for half a million dollars at auction. But Lane finds that most people start with the cheapest objects and slowly grow their collections.
Lane gets his costumes and props from a wide range of sources, from private collectors to production companies
Lane gets his costumes and props from a variety of sources. Once a film wraps production, the props and costumes frequently end up as the property of the film’s production or distribution company. He often buys entire lots of costumes from these companies. Other film ephemera comes from various sources: collectors looking to purge their collection, cast and crew. Lane often cultivates relationships with collectors, helping them move their collections when they need a change of pace, or want to shift from one type of collection to another.
He explains that his buyers fall into three broad categories:
- Serious collectors who want to be part of the chain of preservation of movie memorabilia, helping to keep these objects intact and in good condition for other people to look at down the road, acting as amateur archivists or curators.
- The second category looks at buying costumes as an investment, buying up objects with the intention of reselling them down the road at a profit, hoping that their value will increase with time.
- The final category: cosplayers. They pick up costumes with the intention of wearing the costumes at conventions or parties. He cited one example of the necromancer costumes from Chronicles of Riddick. He purchased a group of the costumes, and now resells them for $1,000–$1,500 each. Lane’s since seen a number of them pop up at conventions and repurposed by new film productions looking to score costumes cheaply.
Lane notes that his company frequently consults with collectors, advising them on the best way to store a costume, with experts on light, temperature, and light exposure, as well as materials specialists. They help ensure that the costumes don’t go anywhere, but they also repair and restore costumes that haven’t withstood the test of time.
Above all, what attracts Lane to the scene is honoring the time and expertise that goes into costumes. “It’s an art form,” he explains, “built by professionals at the top of their field.” Lane wants to ensure that piece of films aren’t thrown into a garbage can, because, he believes, future historians, archivists, or fans would regret their disappearance. And he notes how some film objects have already ended up in the Smithsonian Museum, such as Dorothy’s slippers from The Wizard of Oz.
The use of CGI is changing how films use props and costumes — but it probably won’t eliminate them completely
For a while, he says that he and others in the field were worried about the advent of green screens and CGI in films. Ten years ago, he was worried that digital work in films like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Star Wars prequels would replace traditional props. And while there’s been some pushback in more recent years, with directors such as Guillermo del Toro and Christopher Nolan using more physical sets, props, and costumes, his fears remain. He mentions Rogue One. When he first watched the film, he tried to figure out if the droid was a real prop. “It was disappointing to learn that there isn’t’ a real representation [of the droid],” for future fans to take in, and predicts that the next decade will see fewer physical props and costumes, because it’s more cost effective to put those on-screen.
Still, he says that he’s optimistic about the world of collecting: there’s a limited amount of objects to buy and sell, with no shortage of nostalgia from people looking to own a piece of the film that they fell in love with. Even if it’s an unlikely film from Netflix.
Lane looks at Spectral costume sitting in the middle of the booth, and says that it’s a costume that took months design and build, before it ever landed on a sound stage. It’s something made by people who cared.
Photography by Andrew Liptak / The Verge