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A Fan Expo 2012 Post-Mortem

It was another overcrowded—yet still oddly amazing—year at Canada's biggest nerd convention.

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Thursday

The con opened strong. Every observer said the same thing: “this is like Saturday rather than Thursday.” Retailers were especially pleased. After last year, when sales were generally weak, starting out with a good showing meant the difference between a profitable weekend and financial failure for many of them. Several exhibitors said that they made more money on Thursday then they did during the entirety of Fan Expo 2011.

Many cosplayers now attend most or all of Fan Expo rather than simply the masquerade on Saturday, so Thursday was the first opportunity for surveying the costume field. There was, of course, the usual complement of Doctors Who (a simple costume that basically consists of nice clothes and a sonic screwdriver), Team Fortress 2 characters (iconic and attractive designs that work well with a group of friends), and Jokers (obviously). But there were definitely two up-and-comer categories this year.

The first was Assassin’s Creed assassins—mostly Ezio Auditores (whose ornate and gorgeous Renaissance Italian duds make for an attractive costume option), but there were one or two Altairs and even a lone Desmond. One Assassin cosplayer chalked this up to the new Assassin’s Creed game coming out later this year, but a new Assassin’s Creed game comes out pretty much every year, so we don’t buy that. Mostly we think that the Assassin costume is effectively gender-neutral (since there are male and female assassins), attractive to look at, and extremely badass. These are three elements that make for a good costume.

The other trend was gender-bending girl cosplayers as Marvel’s Avengers. There has always been gender-bending cosplay at Fan Expo, of course, but this year there was more of it than ever, and naturally a lot of it was in tribute to the most profitable film of the year. There were a bunch of girl Thors, several girl Captain Americas (one of whom was easily the best Captain America at the con, male or female), a few girl Nick Furys (in black and white versions), and a girl Iron Man or two. One girl was cosplaying as Agent Coulson. More numerous than any of these were girls cosplaying as Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Our theory for that particular costume’s popularity is that girls think Tom Hiddleston is dreamy.

Friday

So the big story of today was, of course, the Fan Expo wedding. We’ve already written a lot of words about it, and there is not that much else to say. His vows were clumsy but heartfelt; hers were thoughtful and eloquent. The shoehorning of the Green Lantern oath into the exchanging of rings was a bit of a groanworthy moment. But it was a wedding, and weddings are almost always nice, and the couple was happy, and that’s what’s important when you’re talking about a wedding. (And then they had to clear out to make room for Jamie Bamber’s Q&A.)

When you’re talking about a convention, though, there are other important things. The enormous line for Jay and Silent Bob Get Old, or as we like to call it, The Four-Hundred-And-Second Stop On Kevin Smith’s Extended Sulking Tour, Featuring Jason Mewes certainly qualifies. Hey, more power to Smith for realizing that his fans don’t actually care if he makes movies so long as he reminds them all that it is possible to make millions of dollars as, effectively, a professional nerd. Kevin Smith’s entire career, at this point, seems predicated on people paying him to be Kevin Smith. Nice work if you can get it, we guess.

Saturday

The big story of today was, of course, the lines. Firstly, it is worth noting that Fan Expo’s excuse about the escalator breaking is not untrue. The escalator did break. Of course, they still had one working escalator, and the broken elevator was repaired halfway through the day, so it only slowed down the rate of entry into the con. This casts doubt on Fan Expo’s claim that they did not oversell tickets. (Also casting doubt on that claim: Fan Expo having oversold tickets in previous years and refused to give refunds. They didn’t give refunds this year, either.)

In addition to lining up to get tickets, get in, get a picture taken with the DeLorean from Back to the Future, and meet True Blood‘s Nelsan Ellis, people also had to line up for up to half an hour to get a cup of coffee, and, in some cases, to get a ticket entitling them to stand in another line. If this sort of Soviet-style queing happened at any other event, there would have been a riot.

But the lines are just a symptom of the real problem, which is that Fan Expo has completely overgrown its current capacity. The convention, at this point, could likely fill the entire Metro Toronto Convention Centre: north and south halls plus the meeting rooms. Booking the entire centre would allow Fan Expo to continue to grow; there is clearly demand. (Which is unsurprising, because it’s effectively five or six substantial conventions in one).

That would also mean that the convention would not be so fucking crowded. Fan Expo claims 80,000 attendees this year; we suspect it was even higher than that. The main convention floor was, for the entirety of Saturday, completely packed to the point where many retailers were complaining that the human flood was hurting their business, because there was nowhere for people to shop. Several retailers said that Thursday had been more profitable for them than Saturday, which never happens. But here we are.

Even volunteers were unhappy. Partially this is because volunteers want the con to be run well, but this year it also had to do with the fact that some of them were worried that other sections (Fan Expo is split into comics, horror, sci-fi, anime, and gaming sections) were inflating their attendance numbers. Lower attendance numbers for a particular section mean less space next year. Fan Expo’s cramped strategy is effectively causing the con to compete against itself, which is just nuts.

However, we doubt that the con will expand to fill the entire Convention Centre. Partially this is because it is probably not easy to book the entire Centre only a year in advance. Also, we suspect Fan Expo has likely decided that it is better to book a con for maximum profitability (and rest assured that at present they have exploited every single inch of space available in the south building) than risk making less money by expanding. After all, business after business has learned that if you piss off nerds, they just keep coming back. And if a few of them don’t come back, well, there are always more nerds.

Sunday

Sunday’s attendance was not as dense as Saturday’s, but the con was still extremely packed. Retailers slashed prices in order to move inventory (always a sign of a weak Saturday for sales) and then reported that the price slashing had stimulated sales. Every retailer we spoke to said the event was very profitable despite a weak Saturday.

Despite the masquerade having taken place the night previous, there were still huge numbers of people in costume, because if you’ve gone to all that trouble to come up with an elaborate outfit, you will wear it as much as humanly possible. (It’s kind of like a wedding dress, except that it often tends to be spikier.) You wear a costume to be seen, and to share the con experience with as many people as possible. And that is nice. In fact, it’s one of the nicest things about Fan Expo.

Similarly nice is fans’ interaction with celebrities and professionals. Even though the appearances are usually paid, they’re still nice: the fan pays not for the autograph so much as the chance to tell someone, in person, that they love their work and that it made a difference in their life. The autograph is just a reminder of the experience. It would be nicer if the prices were lower, sure, but celebrities gotta celeb, we suppose.

And it’s not just big stars who get this treatment. Fan Expo is, generally speaking, a celebration of all things cult, so it makes sense that people who aren’t “stars” in the traditional sense of the word are huge deals here. Anime fans take this to another level. For example: voice actors are legitimate celebrities in anime land. Names like Wendee Lee and Colleen Clinkenbeard may not mean much to the vast majority of humanity, but for fans of Japanese animation, they’re roughly on par with Scarlett Johanssen. Fans lined up for over two hours for the chance to get an autograph and a photo with the people who gave voice to Cowboy Bebop‘s Faye Valentine (Lee) and Fullmetal Alchemist‘s Riza Hawkeye (Clinkenbeard). Several fans were bordering on tears when they met their heroes.

And that’s why Fan Expo remains fun in spite of itself, in spite of an organization that seems to pursue profit above all else. Enthusiastic fans make any convention better.

CORRECTION: August 28, 12:35 PM A caption on a photo in the gallery accompanying this post originally misidentified a villain from the TV show The Tick as Blowfish Avenger. In fact, the character depicted is Sewer Urchin.

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