“…and that’s why I say Louisville CANNOT STAND for this grave injustice one moment longer!” I bellowed into the Q&A stage microphone.
The crowd of righteous, wronged fans cheered me and waved their Funco Pops in the air while a pair of Louisville detectives escorted the owners of FandomFest away in handcuffs, ankle cuffs, and scarlet letter Rs (for “ripoff”) spray-painted on their thousand-dollar suit jackets. At last, all the sins of these unrepentant hucksters stood exposed and would be held accountable. Justice would soon be ours thanks to the newly instituted Department of Geekland Security.
I passed the mic to the nearest Colonel Sanders cosplayer, who had been hastily appointed the convention’s interim chairman in accordance with Kentucky convention regulations. Next to him stood a six-foot tall KFC bucket because of course it did. He shook my hand and faced the crowd.
“I am SO SORRY that fandom has had to endure this charade, but soon we will put this right!” He pointed emphatically at random points in the crowd. “I vow that you shall get a refund! And YOU get a refund! And YOU get a REFUND! ALL Y’ALL WILL GET REFUNDS!”
The applause and roars and whistles reached ear-shattering decibel levels, a standing ovation rivaling any ever endured at the Oscars. And just when we thought we fans couldn’t explode any harder, a pair of hands burst through the giant paper chicken bucket and waved at everyone.
Out of the mega-bucket climbed an enthusiastic Weird Al Yankovic. He’d come after all, cleverly disguised as food. We should’ve known.
Weird Al took the mic from the Colonel, summoned his band out from behind the nearest support columns, and proceeded to play a free three-hour greatest hits dance-party concert, followed by unlimited photo ops and autograph signings that lasted well into the night.
We were content.
* * * * *
…okay, so FandomFest didn’t turn out exactly as I’d imagined.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
It’s in the spirit of out-of-state geek adventure that my wife Anne and I bought Saturday advance tickets for this coming weekend’s FandomFest, the largest recurring comic/entertainment convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Before setting any of this entry into print, I asked my wife Anne whether she would prefer I refer to us as “idiots” or “suckers”. She suggested “hopeless optimists”. Whichever sounds right to you, here we are with weekend plans for which we are presently bracing ourselves for stress and failure. But the important thing is we’ll be miserable and angried up and disgustipated together.
I spent the week following the tense FandomFest conversations all week long on Twitter and wherever I could find them on Facebook, when they weren’t deleted by heavy-handed convention minions eliminating unsightly dissent on orders from above. I cleared out a ridiculous amount of head space and let FandomFest rent it for the week as a war room in preparation for what we assumed would be the worst convention experience of our lives.
We’ve had cons go sour on us before. The one show so drastically underattended that we had a twenty-minute chat with a comedian/voice actor because no one was behind us in line. The first-time show that was temporarily shut down upon reaching maximum capacity, leaving thousands of would-be attendees clogging a cavernous hallway without hope of admission. That time a showrunner announced guests without contracts in place, tried double-crossing a Star Trek captain into coming anyway, and effectively ended his career when his check to the renowned actor bounced. That time a show let a former governor and future convicted felon sign autographs as an unannounced guest. The celebration with the Worst Line We’ve Ever Waited in Our Entire Lives, 5½ hours just to buy the con’s own merchandise.
The way that FandomFest’s past burned customers had been talking up their war stories, we expected far worse. An organized guest walkout. Picketers demanding refunds for broken promises past and present. Fire marshals shutting down the whole affair if it reached the 1700-occupant limit set forth by the local fire department. Burning effigies. Riots and looting. That sort of thing.
As previously explained, we knew the cautionary tales but signed up anyway when THE Weird Al Himself was announced as this year’s headliner. We knew there was a 98% chance his listing would be a hoax, a dream, or a precursor to cancellation heartbreak. We hung our hopes on that 2%. The one-day general admission were cheap in the first place, but Anne nabbed them when the official site had a 40%-off sale. Weird Al’s respective autograph and photo-op prices were, to be frank, offensively low for an influential entertainer of his stature. Even with egregious online processing fees tacked on (a sideline irritant we experience with nearly every con ever), our pre-ordered grand total added up to a few bucks less than what it would’ve cost us to attend one day of Gen Con this year instead. Obviously FandomFest is no Gen Con and never will be, but still.
We rolled the dice and took the plunge. When the con announced less than two weeks before showtime that this year’s edition would be held inside an abandoned Macy’s, we took that as a yellow flag the size of Texas. When Weird Al canceled, we weren’t surprised but we freaked out anyway. Even though thirty-one personalities had bowed out over the course of the past several weeks, the con held fast to its strict NO REFUNDS policy. Fans who’d bought autograph/photo-op tickets for the canceled guests, or who now didn’t want to attend this show at all, could either exchange those tickets for other guests or have their funds credited toward the same company’s future events. If any living being exercised the latter option, I’d be tremendously shocked.
Anyone interested in initiating the “exchange” process online in advance found it was a joke. We received an email instructing us to purchase tickets for the celebs we’d rather see, and then the show would refund the costs of the canceled celebs’ tickets to us. Have you ever gone to McDonald’s, asked for another sandwich because your Big Mac was given to you stone cold, only to be told you’d have to buy another sandwich first? No. No, you have not. This was absurd and no rational fan was having it, even if “rational” became in question as soon as we’d bought tickets in the first place.
After a few days talking it through and charting the guest list’s steady decline, we came to a decision. We’d paid for basic admission, so we’d at least do that. We’d investigate the exchange process in person and see if it worked differently. If they allowed an exchange, we knew which two actors we’d like to meet, out of the fifteen who ultimately were in the house on Saturday. Honestly, our Plan A was literally “meet Weird Al and run”, so we hadn’t given hard thought to the rest of the guest list till he backed out. As you can imagine, constant cancellations complicated the decision-making process. My sincerest condolences to anyone who prepaid for all five Beauty & the Beast guests only to find themselves having to Plan-B the heck out of this shindig when their agent withdrew them en masse.
If the show did not allow the exchange unless we jumped through the aforementioned hoop that sounded like the heinous contrivance of a Leverage villain, then we’d consider the Weird Al tickets a loss and consider them our purchase price for FandomFest complaining rights in perpetuity. Either way we’d walk the show floor, look for cosplayers, maybe buy an object, and be on our way. For a two-hour drive from Indianapolis to Louisville, we veteran road-trippers found these terms minimally acceptable.
Just to confirm: writing off that much money would’ve sucked. We could weather it if we had to, but I realize a significant number of fans would find it a much more crippling loss and shouldn’t have to weather it. Major satisfied shout-out to the folks at Wizard World, who’ve cheerfully refunded monies to us in years past whenever actors had to bow out. When your con can’t measure up to Wizard World standards, you’re running the wrong kind of “con”. Customers can tell when a company’s service policies are designed with “Never, ever let their money go” as your #1 guiding principle. You don’t get to act surprised when they revolt at your upfront greed.
Saturday morning, we braced for the worst, which would’ve been denial of exchange and denial of admission. For a show that once boasted 30,000 attendees, the fire marshal’s limit of merely 1700 would spell instant disaster if that many Kentuckians still bought in despite past letdowns.
We arrived at 9:00 a.m., an hour before showtime, at one of the con’s three entrances (two outdoor plus the interior mall doorway) and discovered early indicators that overcrowding might not be a problem.
The other fans in line had read the same news articles we had and had the same complaints we did. They also shared our determination to find some day to make the best of our day and our funds held hostage. That same sort of tempered positivity was the rule of the day throughout the show floor. With the social media firestorm set aside, it was easier to unwind and get into the spirit of geekdom, regardless of the cumulative disappointments.
We’d started the day off on the right foot merely by choosing the door nearest the Will Call pickup line. Anne also confirmed this with the volunteer manning the door, though she first had to explain to the young teen what “Will Call” meant. I was among six fans nationwide who’d done the research and realized that FandomFest’s official app had a map of the show floor and that the official site did as well. For some reason it was posted under the “Exhibitors” section instead of the empty “Map” section, one of many failures for which someone ought to shake their web designers really, really hard.
[Added 7/30/2017, 8:35 a.m.: That wish for holding their web team accountable is especially emphatic in light of the troubling fact that their site still showed active photo-op/autograph ticket listings for canceled guests days after they’d pulled out. (Prime example: Ingvild Deila, who admitted she wasn’t coming to a lone fan who asked, but never formally announced her withdrawal.) I saw posts from many casual internet users who were used to trusting official sites and hadn’t been keeping up with the headlines, only to be stunned when they arrived on the premises and learned what some of us sadly already knew. We pressed on a bit more securely than that, but only because tracking the con’s activity became a week-long defensive obsession for me.]
At 9:30 we were ushered into the building to pick up our Saturday wristbands and gather in the final entrance line. I saw one (1) VIP ticketholder allowed onto the show floor early, where he mostly browsed a Funco Pop stand because not much else was going on yet.
At 10 sharp we were ushered in and wandered the two floors, exploring the various compartments and their lingering vestiges of the erstwhile Macy’s shopping wonderland. Fixtures and signs had been left behind, some put to creative use by the dealers and groups on hand.
It’s worth noting the official map listed general locations of kinds of groups, but they never publicly shared anything more detailed pointing to locations for any specific vendors or guests, unlike your average detail-oriented con. The photo op booth required a few right turns to find beyond an otherwise desolate plain. In that preceding photo, turning left at the red pillar brought you to the faraway table of the Ohio River Valley Cosplayers and Prop Builders, upstanding folks far too easy to overlook. The site listed more cosplay groups ostensibly intended for that section, but I’m guessing they skipped out. At far right in the same pic, you can just barely make out the lone Army recruiter who had dozens of square feet all to himself, quarantined away from all other tables.
We spent the first forty minutes of our con on a critical task: ticket exchanges. They had one table for autograph exchanges by the first-floor celebrity section, and one table for photo-op exchanges by the second-floor photo-op hidey-hole. We hit the autograph table first, where they had a list of prices and “Autograph Tickets” in the form of pre-printed paper scraps. We gave them Weird Al’s ticket; they wrote another actor’s name on a scrap and handed it to us. Since Weird Al charged less, we had to hand in our photo-op ticket to make up the difference in price. They in turn handed us a second scrap with our unused credit amount and the volunteer’s signature on it. We walked the second scrap up to the second floor and exchanged it for a “Photo Op” scrap with another actor’s name they hand-wrote on it.
The prices came out close enough that we’re not overly concerned with the small loss we incurred to finish the exchange. It was a lot less painless than the “you throw us the idol, we throw you the whip” malarkey their advance email had outlined.
You may have already noticed the winner of our autograph exchange: Matthew Lillard! In addition to bringing enormous energy to Kevin Williamson’s incisive Scream script and portraying the greatest Shaggy since Casey Kasem (as he’s continued to do for numerous post-movie Scooby-Doo animated projects), Lillard previously impressed me in the li’l 1998 indie SLC Punk and in a small yet critical role in the devastating Best Picture nominee The Descendants, in which he played an adulterer whose overall train of thought was “Is George Clooney about to murder me?”
Lillard had been the most engaging of all the celebs on Twitter in the days leading up to the show, particularly having fun discussing his recent turn on the revived Twin Peaks. In person he was just as kooky and charming. Upon noticing my shirt, he also told us the story of the time he got to work in London with a young David Tennant before he became a British TV superstar. Very much a delight to meet and he totally got our thing for “jazz hands”. None of the actors ever had a long line the entire time we were there (more than a few were left alone for long minutes to play on their phones while waiting for any fan to come say hi), but Lillard was one of several who never lacked for interaction.
At noon was our appointment for our photo-op winner: Brenda Strong! You might know her as the narrator for every episode of Desperate Housewives, or as a Ewing in the Dallas relaunch, or in supporting roles in dozens of shows in her career. To us she’s Lillian Luthor, scheming matriarch from season 2 of The CW’s Supergirl. In other DC universes usually Lex Luthor’s mom is either a dead saint or a forgotten footnote, but in the absence of Lionel she’s an underhanded businesswoman and mother who proves the apples don’t fall far from the tree, as she hinted we might see from her daughter Lena in the season ahead.
A few days earlier I’d seen a public Facebook post from a former FandomFest photographer incensed that his services had been determined unnecessary this year. Strong’s was the first photo op scheduled Saturday, which meant she had the not-exactly-pleasure of waiting for the seemingly new photographer to work out the kinks in his system, by which I mean booting up their three photo printers and getting them online. After a few awkward minutes he got up ‘n’ running, and everyone’s pics were printed within seconds of snapping…though not without some noticeable composition issues. I promise I’ve scanned and posted that photo exactly as it turned out, no haphazard cropping on my part.
UPDATED 8/10/2017: I was later contacted by someone (I have no idea whether or not I’m allowed to identify them) who saw the above results and arranged to send me a digital copy of our photo, citing issues with the printers that obscured the results. Behold our actual photo, with immense thanks to the party who went above and beyond in making this possible.
Lillard and Strong were our two primary objectives completed. Beyond that, we walked the show floor, we met cosplayers, and we bought things from the following successful salespeople:
* C. A. Preece, a high school science teacher who’s joined the ranks of educational comics makers as writer of the new graphic novel CheMystery, which promises a fun read.
* C. Bryant Productions, Preece’s next-door table-neighbor who had drawings for sale and a logical “hey, lookie, we’re right here!” approach to marketing toward anyone within close reach.
* The aforementioned Sugar Fashion Cakes, for one cupcake to go.
…and that’s it. I knew there were Q&As coming soon, but once all our basic goals were met, we lost any remaining desire for extra credit. Also, I was starving and had no desire for mall food court grub. We finished our FandomFest experience and were out the door by 12:30. For the math-curious that’s four hours of two-way driving, one hour spent on the line to get in, forty minutes on ticket exchanges, and 110 minutes on actual conventioning. We’ve done worse for less.
By the end of the day at least a couple hundred more fans had packed into the Macy’s and begun turning into a bona fide crowd. Anne noted that today’s attendance was probably more people than the actual Macy’s had entertained in years. But it was never anywhere near 1700. For a show that once welcomed a five-digit annual attendance, that’s an alarming deceleration.
For a show in its twelfth year, with so many years of experience and resources (you’d think, anyway), that’s a drastic sign either of incompetence, evil, or intentional downsizing. We can’t speak for the innumerable fans still upset with their FandomFest fleecing and still crying out for retribution, but I wish more could be done for them.
But in all honesty…for our short time up in there, it was fun. We saw other folks with differing priorities also having fun. Severely adjusting our parameters ahead of time made a huge difference, to say nothing of the massive research and constant monitoring I’d done all week long so I knew exactly which guests were or weren’t attending, and so I knew which informational tidbits were available where. That’s not how most folks approach conventions, and I wish we wouldn’t have to do that, but there it was. We controlled what we could, found workarounds for the rest, and ultimately got something resembling our money’s worth.
We’re the Goldens. It’s who we are and what we do. Or drive ourselves bonkers trying.
* * * * *
[a year from now]
“Hey, honey — did you see FandomFest has announced their 2018 guest list? So far they’ve added Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Kate Mulgrew, Kevin Spacey, They Might Be Giants, and Omar from The Wire. Should I buy tickets?”
I looked at her for several long, silent seconds. Then we both laughed together for several minutes until tears streamed and messed up our glasses.
We went back to our quiet reading and never visited the FandomFest website again for the rest of our lives.
We were content.
Coming up next: the other chapter, in which we cover the mandatory part of every convention experience…cosplay!