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culture

A 2013 Fan Expo Postmortem

Fan Expo, Toronto's biggest nerd celebration, is over for the year. Here's how it went.

Thursday: It Begins

The show started off bumpy. Volunteers were having trouble getting into the convention. It turned out that, for some reason, there simply weren’t enough passes printed yet. Some volunteers who made it in reported that there were, in fact, paying attendees and even exhibitors who had pre-purchased badges and who weren’t yet able to get them. (We went looking for these people and couldn’t find any.)

That having been said, by about 6 p.m. the con was in full swing. Thursday is usually the best day to get the lay of the land and look at everything before there are a zillion people everywhere, and it’s the best time to meet people. For example, Chris Sopsich and Dave J. Woodward, a pair of young indie comics artists from Michigan, who had come to the convention to promote their comic Gordie Gnomo. This was their first Fan Expo experience and they were both excited and worried; the cost of the convention was a major outlay for them, but they had decided the exposure was worth the risk. They’d brought along numerous copies of their comic book, paper for drawing caricatures and, as they pointed out, “gorgeous hand-lettered signs.”

Friday: The Gathering (Okay, Okay, The Gathering of Daleks)

Friday is traditionally the day of the convention when you truly come to understand which costumes are going to be the most popular (Thursday presents too small a sample size to serve as an adequate predictor). There was, of course, the usual selection: your Batman-related costumes (Batmans, Robins, Batgirls, Jokers, Banes, Harley Quinns, etc.), lots of Jedis and Ghostbusters and the ever-popular Character From Anime Series I Don’t Recognize And Shut Up I’m Not Old. But it soon became apparent that this year’s favoured costume was Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, most likely because it’s really a very simple costume to execute: wear a nice, simple dress, have blonde hair or a blonde wig, and carry around a toy dragon.

Friday was also when fans started grumbling about some of the exhibitors. The Hyundai exhibit was probably the most harshly criticized. Perhaps you’re asking yourself, “wait, what does Hyundai have to do with nerds?” And the answer is, “not a goddamn thing, but they did have big, expensive touchpads next to the cars on display, on which you could enter to win an EB Games gift card,” presumably because this was the only excuse they could find to make themselves relevant to nerds. And indeed, the EB Games area itself was also roundly criticized by many fans for taking up an exorbitant amount of space in a convention where fans were very rapidly becoming aware of the lack of it.

Not all of the non-traditionally nerdy booths were so disliked, however. The Canada Post booth got respectable traffic because of some new, Superman-themed stamps. Sick Kids Hospital was on hand because it was promoting the Extra Life gaming marathon for charity, and staff said the response had been enthusiastic (and that they loved answering the question “why are you here, exactly?”). Nerds don’t demand that you be a nerd product. But they do want there to be some relevance. And they’ll line up for anything that respects their interests as nerds, hence the success of a clever Lucky Charms interactive ad experience, where you brought a cardboard “chest” to a scanner (given to you by a living RPG character, of course) and you had the opportunity to win something. Granted, most of the time you just won a miniature box of Lucky Charms (and more than a few people at the convention were more or less living off of miniature boxes of Lucky Charms).

Saturday: Where Hyundai Becomes an Island in a Sea of People

The “longest line of the show” award this year was hotly contested, but we think for 2013 the award has to go to Nathan Fillion, who is well known as the King of the Nerds because he was in Firefly and Dr. Horrible and, well, combined with a whole lot of online nerd-pandering on his Twitter, that is most of the reason he is King of the Nerds. But he worked hard for the title, so good for him, we guess.

Not everybody was doing well, however. The Sports Expo portion of the convention, for example, was struggling. At 2 p.m. on Saturday—basically the absolute peak for convention attendance—the Sports Expo grounds were, more or less, getting skipped by most attendees. Understand that the Sports Expo subsection was located in the northern half of the convention centre, at the very front of the convention, which everyone had to pass, and further that, Fan Expo had mandated a special low-attendance price for people who only wanted to attend the sports portion of the show. None of this helped. Not even a little. Every vendor in the sports area told the same story: all of the intense convention traffic was going straight through the sports section and to the nerd grounds beyond. One vendor pointed out that he had put out boxes of Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh cards simply to try and entice some of the nerds to buy something. “This isn’t a hockey show, that’s for sure.”

But if people were swarming past the sports show, it was to get to everything else. Fan Expo has since sent out its usual press release about how many people attended (over one hundred thousand, the most in the convention’s history), and although the crush wasn’t nearly as bad as last year (when the crowding was so intense that it was practically a fire hazard) due to the autograph lines being moved to the northern building, the convention was still intensely crowded on Saturday. (Although you could get a breather by going to the Hyundai exhibit.)

We feel the need to mention at this point that Fan Expo made a big hubbub about promoting the Doctor Who Society’s attempt to break a world record for largest single gathering of Daleks (the most famous of Doctor Who baddies, if you weren’t aware). And we went and, yeah, it was fine. But events like these are never as fun as the organic things congoers come up with themselves, the posing games cosplayers put together or the foam-sword battles run upstairs by the live-action roleplayers.

At 7 p.m., as the floor closed and the huge mass of fans swarmed to attend the annual Masquerade, other fans stayed behind. One of the great things about Fan Expo, and a mostly unknown thing for 95 per cent of congoers, is that when the floor closes at 7 p.m., the gaming section on the second floor just keeps going, with board games and miniatures games and roleplaying games and everything else for hours and hours after the main part of the con has gone silent, because when gamers go on vacation—and what is a con, to gamers, but a vacation?—they just play more games. At 7 p.m. on Saturday night, organizers had put together a five-table Pathfinder mega-game (Pathfinder being, essentially, Dungeons and Dragons with the serial numbers filed off). The game had filled its capacity that afternoon and had been turning away interested players for hours, and the overflow had translated into people playing other games more often than not. It looks like the convention’s best kept secret is slowly being discovered by the general con public.

Sunday: And the Rest

On the floor, most vendors were at least satisfied with their performance. There were of course exceptions: some of the steampunk jewelry and accessory dealers in particular figured they would, at best, break even on the show, and that it was still in doubt. Gemma Files, attending to sign copies of her Hexslinger series books (a series of Western-horror-erotica novels featuring gay sorcerer-cowboys) put it as follows: “A lot of people tell me that I put out a thing that is exactly the sort of thing they wanted to see. They’re really glad my work exists. That doesn’t necessarily mean those people are willing to pay for it. Which is fine, because people actually buy my books, but…you have to recognize that fandom sometimes doesn’t mean financial commitment.”

However, some—heck, many—were more than satisfied: the folks at ChiZine Publications told me they had broken even on the con by the end of the first day and everything since had been gravy; the Two Wacky Pin Guys explained that their booth had been successful because they use Fan Expo as an opportunity to clear out their older stock at lower prices while showcasing new items at full price. (“We get to keep doing what we like to keep doing this way. Larger runs of each item, the old items fund the new, we do all right.”) Artist after artist in Artist’s Alley told me the same story: this had been an extremely successful year. (“I didn’t get to see much of the con, because I was too busy…but busy is good, you know? I can’t complain.”) Even the comics dealers, traditionally the biggest Sunday price-slashers, were reducing their prices less than usual. They hadn’t needed to do so.

The Sports Expo vendors were decidedly less enthusiastic. “Look, I get it,” said one. “It’s a fan show, not a sports show. The audiences don’t really cross over. I think we all knew that going in, and we all recognize that a sports show takes a few years to get going. And we’re willing to put in the time. But now we’re hearing they’re gonna raise the table fees again next year? This was expensive to begin with, and while I’m willing to give them a chance, I’m not willing to fund it for them, you know?” Other vendors were less accommodating, saying that they weren’t inclined to return at all.

The fans were circling around one Batman who, carrying around a Canadian flag and calling himself Toronto Batman, had spent the entire convention interacting with other cosplayers and screaming “I’M NOT BEN AFFLECK” in his Imitiation Christian Bale Voice and doing other things that people found entertaining. Cosplay is at its best when inspired cosplayers make the experience truly interactive, whether it’s Toronto Batman making anger-eyes at a Rorshach cosplayer or one of the several Deadpools present continuing up the proud con tradition of Deadpool cosplayers gleefully interacting with other cosplayers for maximum fun value (it starts with them high-fiving everybody in sight and gradually progresses to them fiddling with other people’s costumes). It’s good to see it developing at Fan Expo, and it’s good to see people having fun.

And as for the Gordie Gnomo boys, Chris and Dave? By con’s end they figured they had definitely made their money back. They’d sold every copy of the first issue of Gordie Gnomo, Dave’s hands were cramping from the number of caricatures he’d drawn, and they’d gotten the opportunity to hang out with the larger comics community and get advice from established pros. And were they coming back next year? “Almost definitely. But next time we need to bring more stuff to sell.”

CORRECTION: August 27, 11:30 AM The post previously stated that the Gathering of the Daleks was organized by Fan Expo itself, when it was, in fact, organized by the Doctor Who Society of Canada. The correction has been made above.

CORRECTION: August 27, 3:35 PM The Gathering of the Daleks event was on the Saturday of Fan Expo, not the Friday, as previously stated. The correction has been made above.

Comments

  • Gordon Yarley

    Thank you for the honest review. The convention continues to raise their fees and cram as many people in with little thought to crowd control. Happy I avoided it this year. Will spend my money elsewhere.

  • TorontoistCopyEditors

    Thanks for pointing this out! We’ve made the correction above.

  • Gordon Yarley

    Soon they’re gonna run out of people who have been “only once” and then will they learn. :(

    • Christopher Bird

      People have been making this complaint for years and it just isn’t true. Plenty of folks like going to Fan Expo.

      The crowding is troublesome (and last year it was dangerous) but they’ve taken steps to address that by using more and more of the Convention Centre every year and this year, other than Saturday (always the busiest day), the crowding was really quite manageable.

      As for the volunteers, they mostly do a good job and work hard for very little recompense.

      • Gordon Yarley

        I gave up on Fan Expo. Sorry. Too little too late. The overcrowding wasn’t fixed and they have been told to use the entire centre year after year and instead they screwed it up by buggering up the escalators.
        Don’t understand their mentality. Sorry, they also should be paying people too. Not volunteers. There’s far too many people now for volunteers to be in charge of.

  • Dinah Might

    I would NOT have recognized Colin Baker without the caption…. yoiks

  • uglyredhonda

    I thought it was kind of silly that they basically had people whose job it was to make sure that people didn’t take pictures of Nathan Fillion / Carrie Fisher / etc from 20 metres away (on the walkway above that section). Because, of course, people aren’t going to pay for an autograph or for a photo with the actor if they can take a crappy one from the rafters.

  • ChristinaB

    The Dalek world record attempt was also on Saturday. Not Friday.

    • TorontoistCopyEditors

      Thanks for letting us know! The correction has been made.

  • therantguy

    They need to kill sports and use that space for celebrity autograph lines…seriously, just have the celebs against the back wall…and cordoned off lines that can accomodate 100+ for every major celeb…push the minor ones off to another side…and most of your problems disappear…FanExpo never seems to understand that people aren’t going to leave the area when they want to meet celeb X…let them line up and and wait if they want to…and if photographing the celebs is such a problem, then don’t create sightlines to them…having a path right through the autograph area next to Fillion (one side) and Perlman (the other) is silly if you are trying to stop gawking and photos…

  • Sarcasm-hime

    I was selling handmade accessories and jewellery, and sales were pretty crap. The crowd is mostly general public who don’t go to fandom cons, and as such they seemed to lack the understanding that the artists and artisans make things themselves and have to price accordingly. I had so many people saying “OMG your stuff is gorgeous” then expecting Made In China prices like at the mall.

    I probably won’t vend at FanExpo again; I made a profit but just barely. It wasn’t worth it for me. Other cons are FAR more lucrative and less annoying.

  • Adam Mogyorodi

    If you were someone who wanted to play Pathfinder and were turned away due to full tables, I apologize. We severely underestimated the number of volunteers and tables we needed to have, and I plan to have a much larger showing for “Dungeons and Dragons with the serial numbers filed off” next year! :)