Just before Christmas I had a chance to catch up with Master Replicas at their headquarters in northern California. There are a couple new faces at Master Replicas, and it was good to visit with them and see what kinds of changes we can look forward to in the future. While itís always interesting to hear about new products and plans, Master Replicas was particularly interested in hearing my thoughts on how to get closer to their customers and do more of what fans want as well.

I believe most reading this are aware Master Replicas knows about and appreciates the incredibly strong prop replica community, particularly in forums, both at Rebelscum and the RPF. Anybody who has spent time in either is aware this community includes huge fans, but even the biggest fans can be quite critical about the slightest issue with a product plan, execution, quality, or customer service.

Since my last visit with Master Replicas, they have a new CEO and a newly created position Iíll refer to as a "Star Wars Business Manager", though they are keen to avoid titles around the company. Michael Cookson, Chairman of the company is now also CEO and has run a number of businesses, mostly in the toy industry. Michaelís resume includes experience as CEO Aviva Sports, Chairman Wild Planet Toys and, CEO of Whamm-o and has direct experience bringing a quality product customers want to market very efficiently.

I first met Michael at the San Diego Comic-Con this year and was delighted to see how excited he was by the crowds of fans enjoying the Master Replicas presence at the show. I felt he understood the event, the fans, and the excitement building around Star Wars. During my visit with him, it was even more clear to me he gets the passion many of their customers have for Master Replicas products and he understands even the most critical customer is only trying to communicate sincere desire for Master Replicas to succeed. Michael is listening very closely to what customers are saying, and was very interested to hear thoughts on whatís good, bad, and where they need to concentrate effort so they can be a better supplier of items fans want. All new CEOs make changes and Michael is no different. Early changes already show Master Replicas is definitely headed towards opening line of communications with their customers, including changes to their website that will make it a more comfortable and familiar place for Star Wars fans as well as a source of information heretofore unavailable on the site. Michael is also hard at work deploying quality control processes we will all be the beneficiaries of, including the opening of a Hong Kong office that places people closer to the actual manufacturing process, which will not only save development time, but will enable Master Replicas to discover problems before they show up here in the states. Unfortunately, contrary to what we would normally expect, final product may not necessarily match production samples. Itís anticipated that having a local presence will have a dramatic and positive impact on product quality.

Another new face at Master Replicas is Barry Jones, though he isnít actually totally new to his job as Star Wars Business Manager, as he has been helping out with product specifications for awhile, working on a number of Master Replicas products - the most significant of which is the AT-AT. The best news, is like Steve Dymzo in product development (whom weíve interviewed before), heís a movie prop fan, a Star Wars fan, and as concerned about turning out a fantastic product as anybody you are going to meet.

Barry has quite a background that one can easily see is more than ideal for the job he's doing at Master Replicas. He founded and ran Halcyon Models in the U.K. in the 80s, running it for almost 10 years. He had licenses with T2, Back to the Future and Aliens. He successfully entered the Japan market and had very nice success with the company. The company was specifically known for a great reputation within the community, managing to elicit comments from them like, "ah, this company gets me", a hallmark any company hopes to achieve. His day job in the UK was in visual effects as well as stop motion animation and in time he was recruited to the U.S. by Warner Brothers to set up a stop motion animation studio for the movie Mars Attacks. Coincidentally, Barry and Steve both had Judge Dredd licenses at the same time before they met. Barry and Steve Dymzo now work together on product plans and execution, which frankly is a darn good partnership for Master Replicas customers. Barry intends to give customers more of what they like and for Master Replicas to branch out (though I donít think this includes $400 fiber optic jackets).

But all this would not matter if there wasnít a product plan that included items we are all anxious to see Master Replicas make, and they donít disappoint. Are you ready for 2005?

With the mini-saber popularity continuing to grow, be ready for more mini-saber collections. Weíll see two batches of mini-sabers next year from Epsiode III. Jedi sabers in Q2 and Sith sabers in Q3. There will be a convention exclusive mini-saber again next year, with the premiere being at C3, of course. Master Replicas has also heard loud and clear we want generic cases for the sabers, so letís keep our fingers crossed on that item. Look for more mini news on the horizon...

Hugely anticipated and desired by many fans, Master Replicas is entering the Star Wars costume replica business, and by movie time will announce and begin shipping the first of several EP3 Clonetrooper helmet versions, each made from the digital files used to create the movie. Details and pricing are not yet finalized, but expect them to sell for between $250 and $350 or so, depending on decoration and details. These should ship in the May, June, July timeframe.

How about an EP3 preview saber in the March timeframe? How about a battle damaged, Star Wars universe worn, EP3 Yoda saber? Steve says it has a darker stainless steel finish, burns, scratches and dings and is more "mean" looking than the one we saw in EP2.

Like other Star Wars licensees, Master Replicas will also have regular line EP3 products available on April 2. Look for both an Anakin and an Obi-Wan sabers from EP3. An interesting difference in the replication process for these weapons is how LFL allowed Master Replicas to send the actual sabers to Hong Kong for use in creating the replicas and as a result they are "spot on" accurate, according to Barry.

Master Replicas Collectors' Society members can look forward to a couple of special pieces in 2005, the first of which will be a Luke Skywalker saber from A New Hope, as an Elite version that will be limited to 750 units in the U.S., but will also see a limited release outside the U.S. currently anticipated to be 250 units. This is anticipated to be available in the March - April timeframe and is sure to be a very hot item. You can also expect to see some positive changes to the program, and in the case of this piece, more limits on the number of pieces each member can purchase. Regarding the Collectors' Society, Barry says they recognize where they could have done more for members in the past and they are dedicated to enhancing the program in the future.

Blaster fans will be delighted to hear Master Replicas is doing a Han Solo blaster from ESB, also in the March - April timeframe. Unlike the previous Solo sidearm, where Master Replicas used a Denix replica Mauser as the base, they have tooled to make this piece from scratch. Like its predecessor, it is not expected to have an orange plug, but as in the other blasters made in China, it will not ship with a working trigger, something not allowed by Chinese export laws, much to Barry and Steve's displeasure.

Other items mentioned during my trip are FX sabers, which will see wider distribution in 2005 and studio scale models, which they aren't yet ready to discuss, but with the huge success of the AT-AT, we should certainly see more effort pointed in this direction.

With 2005 being a movie year, Master Replicas knows their customers will have many choices where to spend their hard-earned money, and they are really focused on understanding what these customers want, as well as delivering higher quality products in a timely manner.

Are you new to the Master Replicas prop collecting scene? You can visit the Rebelscum Master Replicas Photo Archive and see detailed photos of released pieces, some of which have appreciated significantly in value since release, as well as find checklists of the entire line. And donít forget to check out the Rebelscum prop and prop replica section in our forums where you will find many collectors who will warn you this area of collecting is very addictive.

Or, if you just can't wait to buy right now, you can head directly to Master Replicas and get started.