Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Where Fan Mail Goes to Get Answered

From the Wall Street Journal, 4/22/2009

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Where Fan Mail Goes to Get Answered

By JOANNE KAUFMAN

In the course of her career as a psychotherapist, Shelley De Angelus counseled schizophrenics, patients with multiple personality disorder, and garden-variety neurotics.

Long exposure to people with inflated expectations, economy-size fantasies and delusions of grandeur serves her well in her current slot as the office manager of Mail Mann, Inc., a Los Angeles-based fan-mail and fan-club service. Daily, she or her colleague Marie Kehoe stops at the post office to pick up white plastic bins of letters addressed to such clients as Anna Paquin, Ralph Fiennes, Richard Gere, Reese Witherspoon, Kyra Sedgwick, Kevin Bacon, Joe Cocker and Samuel L. Jackson, as well as some cast members of the series "Two and a Half Men," "30 Rock" and "Brothers & Sisters."

They've got mail, thousands of missives a week -- from fans who want to express approval/disapproval of their idols' political stands, religious beliefs, recent headline-making behavior, taste in mates or taste in movie roles. From fans who want to express sympathy or support when there's been a death in the celeb's family. From straitened fans seeking cash (five- and six-figure requests are not uncommon) and from fans seeking a far more precious commodity: a date for the high-school prom.

"What surprises me is the intensity of the expectations," said Ms. De Angelus in a recent phone interview. "It's one thing when a 14-year-old writes 'take me to the prom.' But when a mother writes saying 'take my daughter to the prom,' you have to wonder."

She wonders equally about the woman who keeps those cards and letters coming for Chad Michael Murray, star of the series "One Tree Hill." "This fan seems to see him as her best friend," said Ms. De Angelus. "I find it astonishing seeing that she has written many times a week for years and has never gotten a response. Her letters are incredibly boring," she added.

The requests contained in such notes may vary, but the opening salvo and closing line are strikingly similar. "Everyone tends to start with 'I am your number one fan,'" Ms. De Angelus said. "And all the letters end with 'please send a picture."

Mail Mann is one of a small handful of companies that has taken over a job once handled solely by movie studios. "Years ago, that mail was seen as a very important gauge of an actor's popularity," said veteran publicist Lee Solters. "Now it's all about the box office: You're bankable or you're not bankable."

Named for its founder, Mackie Mann, a child actor who grew up to be a producer of TV commercials, Mail Mann was launched 25 years ago. "A friend who was a talent agent asked me if I knew anyone who did fan mail," recalled Ms. Mann. "She had a client, Peter Reckell, who's on 'Days of Our Lives.' At the time he was very big, a teen heartthrob, and I said I'd look into it. I started looking and I couldn't find anyone -- and I thought, hmmm."

She began Mail Mann in her garage, handling Mr. Reckell's correspondence, and soon signed up David Hasselhoff, then the star of the series "Knight Rider." Ms. Mann's husband, a dolly grip, was very helpful with client recruitment. "When he went on location, he would talk to stars about my business," she said. "I got a lot of people that way."

As time passed Ms. Mann increased her revenue stream by helping stars start fan clubs and by creating a Web site to sell celebrity merchandise.

There's an ebb and flow to the client roster. "We usually get called when celebrities all of a sudden have so much mail they don't know what to do with it," said Ms. Mann. "Then they stay with us while their career is peaking. But after a while their popularity may wind down and the expense of responding to their fans becomes more than they want to incur."

The decline in scripted programming has hurt the firm; an actor without a series or a movie of the week may not be getting a sufficient hillock of letters to need assistance in dealing with them.

There's a "set-up charge" of $250 and a minimum monthly charge of $125 for Mail Mann to pick up letters from the post office or a celebrity's home, retrieve emails and deal with correspondence per clients' wishes. For Emilio Estevez and Marina Sirtis, star of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," that means a form letter thanking fans for their support. For most others, it's the dispatch of a 5-by-7 photo (8-by-10s have gotten too expensive) with what's known in the trade as a plate signature (a mechanized copy of an autograph).

"We have a few customers like Hector Elizondo who will come in the office and sign their own photos," Ms. Kehoe said. "He's the sweetest guy in the world. I think Charlie Sheen also signs his photos. He likes to be liked by his fans."

Mail Mann screens letters for threatening content, with protocols in place for handling such situations. "We'll also keep a dubious letter on file for future reference if it's something we don't feel easy about but doesn't constitute an imminent threat," said Ms. De Angelus. The company is also on the lookout for letters that might be worthy of a celeb's special attention -- for example, a charity requesting a personalized item for a benefit auction or a fan with an especially compelling story. "I remember a letter from a young French girl whose father had never acknowledged her and she didn't have a lot of friends. She used Elijah Wood as a role model," said Ms. De Angelus, referring to the "Lord of the Rings" star. "He had inspired her to achieve quite a lot, so she got a personalized photo."

Another attention-getting letter came from a young gay man to the campy actress Elvira, saying that she was his fairy goth mother and had helped him through a difficult adolescence. He too received a personalized photo from his idol.

For some celebs less responsive than Elvira and Mr. Wood, "we're the last thing on the totem pole," said Ms. Mann. "They have managers, they have agents, they have publicists. They don't care about letters accumulating somewhere. The people who want their mail done understand that the fans make their careers."

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