Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fan Expo Vancouver Off to a "meh" Start

I've come to the conclusion that going to science fiction/fantasy/comic/gaming/whatever conventions is like going out for supper. Going to a fan-run con, whether it's huge like Worldcon or something more intimate like your local or regional con, is like going to a pot-luck at a friend's place: there's a price of admission (price of admission being akin to the dish you bring), and you're not entirely sure who's going to be there or what's going to be served, but, because the aim of the evening is for friends to get together and have fun, you know the evening will probably be set up so that you'll enjoy yourself. A professional con, on the other hand, is like going out to a restaurant that's price fixe and pay up front, where you have no idea what's on the menu and whether it's any good. You're taking your chances. Maybe things pan out, maybe they don't.

The Fan Expo franchise has been running for a few years now in Toronto. As a Canadian SF fan, if you bother to watch Space, our national science fiction specialty TV station, you're teased with flashy footage leading up to the event and for weeks afterward - shots of cool geek gear, cosplayers in all manner of eye-catching garb, and the biggest draw of all: genre celebs, some as big as Stan Lee. But, all these years, if you didn't live in Toronto and didn't want to shell-out for a trip to Hogtown, that's all it was: a tease.

But this year the Fan Expo folks decided to expand. They took the franchise to Vancouver for the first time this past weekend, and Calgary's next on the roster. Since it was the first time the event was going to be open for business here on the Wet Coast, I decided to give it a shot and see what it was all about. My wife came along - her first con experience - as did a couple of our friends. We all got 2-day passes. My wife and I only bothered to go on Saturday; our friends took in both days.

My verdict: a resounding "meh". Fan Expo Vancouver wasn't terrible; I certainly didn't feel ripped-off. On the other hand, I certainly wasn't a big fan of it either.

Part of the problem was that the organizers seemed to be thinking small when they set the event up. To be fair, the dealers' room at the new Vancouver Convention Centre was big enough to comfortably land the Millennium Falcon in, with room to spare, and a lot of dealers were in it. But you'd expect a big and well-populated dealers' hall at a professional con where the entire point of the event is for the con organizers to make money. When I say it was a small event, I mean there wasn't a lot to do: there was only one track, just one room other than the dealers' hall, one room running celeb Q&A's in one-hour blocks throughout the day. So if you didn't like whatever celeb was up at bat, your only other choice was to shuffle back to the dealers' room. Unless you count waiting in line at the one set of men's/ladies' rooms allocated to the con to be an activity.

This is a pro con franchise with a proven track record in Hogtown, and a lot of money behind it. Even though it was their first time out in Vancouver, they could have put a little more effort into building the thing and added at least one more programming room with another track going on. What about a games room for tabletop enthusiasts? What about a movie room? Or any of the other options that give con attendees choices and thus allow them to have more fun and become more loyal to the event? The convention centre is certainly big enough. I'm not going to get into centre-periphery/West Coast vs Central Canada cultural politics or city/province-bashing, but it's like the con organizers didn't really know anything about the size of fandom in Greater Vancouver (and really, the entire West Coast fan region) and weren't even trying. Let's look at the other local cons: VCon's the venerable elder, but attendance isn't more than a few hundred on a good Saturday, the Vancouver Comic Convention (from what I've heard over the years) is also not too big of an event, but Anime Evolution (home of a lot of cosplayers that Fan Expo was definitely trying to attract) has had attendances in the thousands. Look south to the fan population in Seattle, and you've got the folks who go to NorWesterCon and PAX, and those cons are huge, and their attendees will travel if they think there's something worthwhile to go to. So, with the potential audience, the Fan Expo guys really didn't have an excuse for failing to offer us more things to do for the price of admission.

I also take issue with the guest list: given the size of the potential audience and the stature of the host city on the global stage, they certainly could have got some bigger names. On the media side of things, Adam West and Burt Ward were the biggest celebs, but, as entertaining as those guys were, the con organizers could have done a lot better. Really, Stan Lee was booked for Toronto and Calgary, why did Vancouver miss out on that guest appearance? Did Stan have scheduling issues? I'm pretty sure the con organizers could have landed someone of similar stature if he did. Some of the other media celebs they did land were okay, like John DeLancie, Mirina Sirtis and Michael Dorn, but I still get the feeling Vancouver got short shrift in terms of guests. In terms of notable names from the world of comics, there were a fair number of comic artists and writers on-hand, but since I'm not as involved in comics as I was years ago, I can't comment on their stature. In terms of science fiction authors, I'll give the organizers credit for bringing in the great Spider Robinson, but they should have brought in some of the other talented authors who live in the region. Again, it seems like there was a real lack of effort this time around.

Then there was the logistical problem: it was next to impossible to get a wi-fi connection - or even a standard cell signal - in the middle of the dealers' room. Don't give me that too much traffic crap either - it's the 21st century, and the VCC is a relatively new building. If you've got the physical capacity for several thousand people jammed into one space, there ought to be the wireless capacity to carry their signals. If I'm at a scifi/comic convention and I can't tweet while cooling my heels in an autograph line or standing in front of a merchant table, something's wrong.

On the positive side, there was a pretty large turnout on Saturday; several thousand by my guess, based on the size of the crowd outside the building waiting in line to buy on-the-spot tickets, and the number of people crammed into the dealers' room. And the crowd was in a good mood. People were having fun, lots of folks were buying merchandise, the turnout in the Q&A hall varied depending on which celeb was on deck, and there were a fair number of fans who turned out in costume - some of them extremely detailed and well-made. Among the cosplayers, there were members of the 501st Legion out in Stormtrooper gear, the Ghostbusters of BC, a trio of guys in various incarnations of Iron Man, an army of anime characters, super heroes galore, and one girl who kicked ass in a Predator outfit, even though she was just a tiny thing, barely topping 5 feet tall, rather than a 7-foot behemoth from space.

And I've got to hand it to Spider and the group of comic artists and writers - they were having fun and took the time to really chat with people who passed by. And they didn't charge for autographs - something that can't be said for the media celebs. You can make the argument that the actors depend on the $20 or $40 or $50 fee per autograph as a vital part of their income, but I don't buy it. I think the writers and comic guys have got it figured out: interact with your fans, sign things, let them take photos, and you build fan loyalty, which translates into fans buying your next whatever and fans demanding your presence in more cons or demanding that you publish more whatever - all of which makes writers and artists, etc more money. Writers and artists have figured out that, beyond their own status of members of the geek community who are interested in this stuff themselves, it's a good investment for them to come to cons and sign stuff and have photos taken for free. Fan loyalty = money. I think actors need to learn this. While I find some of the actors who were at the con interesting - some have played really entertaining or intriguing characters - I'm enough of a veteran of fan-run cons that I flat-out refuse to pay for an autograph.

At any rate, here's how the day unfolded:

My wife and I arrived around 1:30 on Saturday, later than I'd wanted to. She was sporting her new Dr Who TARDIS hockey jersey and I was wearing the Ghostbusters jersey she'd bought me for Christmas (both courtesy of Dave's Geeky Hockey, which does awesome custom-made hockey jerseys in nerdy themes). It was a sunny day, and the crowd outside the building was at least a couple of thousand, many wearing their various geek-related T-shirts, etc, and a fairly large number in costume. After snapping a photo of a Storm Trooper and a Halo soldier (I missed grabbing a shot of the dude rockin' an epic pair of 'chops for his Logan/Wolverine look), we went inside, got through registration, looked at the pitifully small schedule for the con, and started prowling around. I'd wanted to see the Q&A with John DeLancie, but his session was almost over, and I prefer to start cons by walking around and getting my bearings, so we took a pass on the last few minutes of his bit.

Like I said before, there really wasn't much to familiarize ourselves with at this con: dealers' room, Q&A room, washroom. That said, the dealers' room was big enough and had enough in it that we spent a fair amount of time weaving through the crowds and checking out the merchandise.

Within 5 minutes of walking into the dealers' room, my wife was approached by a girl who admired her  Whovian sweater - admired it (and admired my wife for wearing it) so much that she asked for a hug. Seconds later, others came up and wanted to take pictures of it. I smiled and told my wife to get used to it - that's the way of cons: fans like cool stuff that fits with their particular nerdy passion; when they see something especially cool, they feel a connection with the owner and want to chat and take photos. All in all, my wife took it pretty well and got used it it. Good thing too - she was stopped, pointed at, cheered, or chatted up at least once every five or ten minutes while we were at the con. My own jersey got its share of respect (especially from the members of the Ghostbusters of BC, who I'd run into at last fall's VCon, and are a real nice group of people), but my wife was the belle of the ball. With everyone asking where we got the jerseys, the afore-mentioned Dave got a hell of a lot of free advertising.

Fairly early on, I broke one of my rules of con-going. Normally, I refrain from buying anything in the dealers' room on the first pass. It's good to take everything in and resist the temptation to buy - walking away from it and taking time to think let's you figure out what's really worth having, and what's simply an impulse buy that you could probably get anywhere else. Saves a lot of money that way. But this time, since there wasn't much to the con, I figured I could break the rule because it wasn't likely that much would change in terms of what the merchants had on display, and because before I went in I had a fairly good idea about what I was looking for. And I found it. A few weeks ago, I'd been admiring the new Ghostbusters graphic novel from IDW at Golden Age Collectibles, but I'd held-off on buying it. Now, in the comic artists' & authors' alley, I came across the book's artist Dan Schoening. The crowd had actually been sweeping me past his stall, and I hadn't noticed him, until he complemented me on my jersey. I stopped to say "thanks", and while we were chit-chatting, I then noticed his work on the table and remembered I'd wanted to look for it while at the con. So I made the buy and Schoening was nice enough to sign it.

Along with the flow of the crowd through the displays again. We ended up stopping at the Ghostbusters of BC stand and talking with them for a while. Again, an exchange of admiration, my jersey and their very detailed, very cool proton packs, and I ended up making a donation to a charity they were collecting for in order to get a chance to try on one of the packs and hoist a 'stick. As I've said before, they're a real nice bunch of folks and really passionate about all things Venkman-Stantz-Spengler-Zeddimore-related.

Round about that time, Spider Robinson arrived, so we queued-up so I could get him to sign my copy of Very Bad Deaths. No surprise, the line formed pretty much instantly and was fairly long, and it was slow-moving because Spider takes a lot of time to chat with fans (which is very cool), so we had a chance to chat with some of the other people in line - which is part of what's great about the whole con experience: impromptu, one-off conversations with fellow fans. We got near the front and discovered our friend Walter, co-owner of White Dwarf Books, was riding shotgun with Spider, selling his books. White Dwarf didn't have a formal stand in the dealers' room. Turns out it was a last minute thing - Spider had been booked to come, and the con organizers realized that if he was going to be there, it would be good if someone was selling his books so fans could buy something to have signed, so Walter was asked to come in with some of his wares, and he obliged. Always nice to catch up with Walter, who, along with his wife Jill (the store's co-owner), is a pillar of Vancouver's SF community. When it was my turn at the front of the line, my wife took a photo as Spider and I shot the breeze. I've had a chance to talk with him before, a few years ago at VCon, and he's a real cool cat - er, arachnid. He's been through a terrible time the past couple of years, with the death of his wife Jean (met her at VCon too, a real nice lady) from cancer, and then his daughter's recent battle with cancer as well, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him come out to an event like this. But he had plenty of good news: his daughter is doing well in her fight against cancer, her chemo seems to be working; Spider's working hard on a couple of things (always good news for those of us who are fans of his stories); and he's going to be recording some new episodes of his podcast, Spider on the Web soon (a happy coincidence, since I started listening to the 'cast a couple of months ago and have been really enjoying his mix of editorials, story readings, reminiscences, and music selections). He's the kind of character who's a real pleasure to talk with, and who you could probably quite likely spend the better part of an afternoon chatting about everything with. We eventually wrapped-up our chat and I got my autograph and my wife and I left - but not before Spider made a point of telling her that she should start reading his books too. And maybe someday she will.

After that we met with our friends Denise and Brandon. Brandon's a fellow geek who's been to a couple of cons and was also introducing his wife to her first con experience. Insert your own metaphorical joke, the four of us certainly did.

We mosied over to the Q&A room where InnerSpace (Space channel's SF news show) hosts AJ Fry, Cynthia Loyst and Teddy Wilson were interviewing the cast of the soon-to-be-released Primeval - New World. I never really got into the original Primeval, so I wasn't terribly interested in the interview. We were just there because, having been through the dealers' room, there was nothing else to do. Not a fan of the Space hosts either. Over the past few years I've been increasingly annoyed with the direction the channel has taken, and the quality of the hosts has gone decidedly downhill. Fry doesn't look old enough to shave yet, doesn't sound like his voice will be changing any time soon, and on air, for some reason, he leans forward about 30 degrees with a 20 degree list to port - like he's doing a Will Riker walk without actually walking. Loyst was is less than impressive in her own right - a while later, during the West/Ward Q&A, an audience member asked West about his role on an episode of The Boondocks and Loyst, who was paraphrasing the question to West, didn't seem to understand that it was a show. Now, I'm not a fan of 'Boondocks, but I'm at least aware of its existence, and if I was a co-host on a national genre-oriented channel's "news" show, I'd damn well make sure I at least knew what shows were out there than the audience might be watching, even if said shows weren't on my station. She killed whatever geek cred she's pretending to have. Watching this bunch up there, I found myself wishing for the good old days of the news show's previous iteration, HypaSpace, with hosts Jonathan Llyr (currently of the very cool site Hard Core Nerdity) and Natasha Eloi, who actually knew about SF and had a firm grasp of what shows and movies were out there and had street cred in the nerd community. But of course, those where the days when Space was a better channel all around, and when they were allowed to talk about books, but that's a different rant for another day.

Anyhow, the Primeval the Next Generation gang made way for Nicholas Brendon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame. I wasn't a Buffy fan either, but Brendan was, so we stuck around, and I'll give Xander credit, he was reasonably entertaining.

NB then made way for vintage Batman stars Adam West and Burt Ward, and that Q&A had a packed hall. Another worth-while session. Nothing terribly memorable, mind you, but a fun way to spend an hour.

After that, we did a final sweep of the dealers' room, and called it a day.

Over supper at the Steamworks Pub down the street in Gastown, the consensus was that the con had been worth while. I think Brandon enjoyed it more than I did, but again, I didn't hate it - I just didn't see the need to go back for day 2 on Sunday (he did, as it turns out). Most importantly, the wives both had fun. And that is important, because it's always nice when one's wife decides she likes geeky stuff and, even more, decides on her own that she enjoys going to cons from time to time - who doesn't like to share their passion with the person they're most passionate about? You can't force your wife to go to cons or to like going to cons (and in talking about this we chuckled over a reference to a particularly raunchy SNL sketch from a number of years ago), so I count myself pretty lucky that mine has said she'd go to another con, if it had the right stuff.

And to me, that's the central question for Fan Expo Vancouver: will it have the right stuff next year? Will the organizers, in their quest to squeeze money out of the Lower Mainland's fan community, rise above their mediocre start and put on a con that's worth all the hype? I certainly hope so. Meantime, I'm looking forward to VCon this fall, which may be smaller and less flashy, but is certainly a more satisfying experience.


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