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Small, but mighty: How local cons are made
For nerds, attending conventions to celebrate stuff they love is one of life’s greatest joys. There is little better in this world than geeking out about the latest season of a show with another fan, or seeing people dressed as your favorite character. From celebrity signings to panels on a whole range of topics, conventions are amazing hubs of nerddom.
Even folks with little to no interest in fan conventions know of the megaliths such as San Diego Comic-Con, C2E2, and New York Comic Con. Given constraints such as time, money, and travel, though, most con-goers get their start at smaller, local conventions.
But as major corporate-sponsored conventions grow, how do smaller ones survive in a world that is suddenly okay with being geeky (or, at least, way more chill with it than it used to be)? To answer this complicated question, SYFY WIRE looked into four independent conventions, veterans and newbies to the trade alike, and asked their organizers how they did it.
221B Con is a Sherlock Holmes convention that launched in 2013; WHOlanta is an East Coast answer for East Coast Doctor Who fans; Scarydad’s Haunted Halloween Show is a celebration of all things horror in Texas; and SqueeCon is the inaugural convention of the filmmaker and creator of The Squee! Project, which celebrates women and diversity in fandom. Together, these four conventions have seen their share of success and drama, and have a few lessons to share for those who want to enter the world of convention creating.
THE BIRTH OF A CONVENTION
WHOlanta and 221B Con have similar origin stories. They both started and live in Atlanta, and they both were willed into existence by very intense and passionate fandoms that more or less demanded a convention all to themselves: Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes.
WHOlanta was spared by the cancellation of another con that director R. Alan Siler was due to work on. When the space became available two weeks before the intended date, he took a chance and claimed it, having mulled over launching a Doctor Who convention for a while.
Fortuitously, the BBC announced the premiere of the new season of the show on the day of their event.
“With only two weeks to go, we had to come up with a name, put together a staff, plan a day of programming, and promote the event," Siler says. "We figured if we had 25 people show up, we’d call it a success. When the day of the event arrived, we had over 75 people attend! It was such a success and so much fun that we just kept doing it.”
In further proof that the world is quite small, the 221B Con directors all met at WHOlanta (then known as TimeGate). “We were talking about how great it would be to have an event like the Wholanta but just for Sherlockians,” Taylor Blumenberg, one of the directors and founders of 221B Con, says.
A Sherlock Holmes convention bloomed overnight.
“Starting the convention was really a whirlwind for us, it moved very quickly," Blumenberg says. "I initially put up my credit card for the rental of an event space at the Holiday Inn where Wholanta had taken place. We said that we would be happy to get 50 or so people, as it would cover the cost, and we could just do a day of programming in the one room.”
Blumenberg and her co-directors had no idea the idea would be as popular as it ended up being. “We then went to the internet and announcing the event at a $25 registration fee. From there it exploded. By the time of the event we had all the event space in the hotel and close to 800 attendees.”
It seems a lot of these smaller conventions have a similar origin story. They start with a conversation and then a sudden dash to make it happen as soon as possible. You'll hear the same thing from Billy Stuart, who runs Scarydad’s Haunted Halloween Show, a convention for all things horror.
“I went to the first hotel I could find and put a deposit in conference room space. We were going to have an event," Stuart tells SYFY WIRE. His show roared into the world after a failed blog and successful podcast with his co-runner. “Scott has convention experience and we discussed putting something together, and then I went to Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas and it was sealed.”
Like 221B Con and WHOlanta, once Stuart put the word out about his new convention the response was more enthusiastic than he'd anticipated, especially among their listeners and fellow horror fans.
“Response was so positive that we sold out vendor space in the main room and ended up renting the next room, then the next. By the end we had all available space rented and started to bleed into the hall. It was an exciting time,” Stuart remembers.
Creating a convention with an already existing base is a great way to start off, and like Scarydad, SqueeCon found inspiration and pulled from its fangrrl community to get their show off the ground and running.
“I thought it would be fun not just to document fangrrls at cons via the doc-series, but to actually create a con space that they can own," Oppenheimer says. "From there, I tried to find ways to get as much programming as I could into the 1 to 9 p.m. time slot.”
And thus, SqueeCon was born.
“The one-day event celebrated representation, diversity, and women in fandom with screenings of short films, panels on cosplay and alternative narratives, musical performances by musician and cosplayer Cat Smith and fangrrl theater troupe Tea Time For Mad Girls, local vendors, and an after-party featuring nerd karaoke,” Oppenheimer says.
“The first thing I did was reach out to my greatest resource, the fangrrl community, to see if they would be interested," Oppenheimer says. “I created a submission page for our film festival on the platform FilmFreeway.com and we ended up with more than enough great work to screen.”
Unsurprisingly, it seems the best way to get a small convention going is to make it about something people care about. However, it takes more than really, really liking something to make a convention actually happen. You have to have the funds to do it in the first place.
THE MONEY PROBLEM
Many small conventions find finances to be the biggest hurdle to success or, really, existing at all. You can have great ideas, but if you don’t have the cash to make them a reality, then you can kiss your convention goodbye before it's even had a chance to take its first steps.
221B Con is fully funded by attendee badge sales. And while that may seem like a convenient and great thing, it’s a double-edged sword.
“The issues with this system are that we, the directors, cannot pay ourselves," Blumenberg says. “Saying that may sound greedy to some people, but anyone who has put work into an event like this realizes how much time it takes and how it eats into your life; not receiving a portion of the profits is a little disheartening.”
This model also relies heavily on attendance, and if fewer people come to the convention one year, that’s less money for guests and programming the following year.
WHOlanta is mostly self-funded but occasionally has a bit of help, especially when it comes to getting those pesky Doctor Who stars across the Atlantic.
“We have had a couple of occasions when donors have stepped up to help out with guest flights or something like that," Siler says. “We started small, though, with very attainable goals, and as we made a little money, we’d make the following year a little bit bigger. We grew slowly but steadily.”
Relying on badge sales and being self-funded isn’t the only way, however.
“I’ve taken a strong stance about not making money off the vendors,” Stuart says on how Scarydad worked out its own monetary plan. “The way I see it is, we’re all in this together, and if you’re making money then so am I. Vendor spaces are mathematically break-even for me, with a small percentage for various costs such as advertising, decorations, et cetera.”
Because Scarydad is so Houston-centric, Stuart kept it local in terms of outreach. This also included going to local businesses for sponsorship, though he didn’t ask for money.
Instead, Stuart asked for items for door prizes. “A $20 action figure or something is infinitely cooler than a gift card of any amount," he says.
Scarydad also cut costs by using the tables and chairs provided by his hotel of choice, and while this helped him enormously, it became a problem for SqueeCon’s vendors.
“The venue was great as a theater, but not ideal for vendor space ... we ran into space issues, which was problematic for one of our invited vendors,” Oppenheimer says. Thankfully it was just a small bump in the road, as SqueeCon took on the crowd-funding model for raising money. “Funding it was a lot more successful than I had expected. I ran a GoFundMe and made almost the entire venue rental.”
All costs were kept to a minimum on purpose, with early-bird tickets just $15 and at-door tickets selling for $20. As a budget filmmaker, Oppenheimer understood needing to keep tight purse strings.
“I charged vendors a minimal amount of $25 to $50 for tables. I offered ad space in a unique ‘zine-style program for $15 to $40 and traded free ads to friends with podcasts or media companies to promote the event," she says. "Submitting to our film festival was only $3 to $10 for filmmakers.”
And in the end, it still paid off.
“I was hoping to at least cover my costs while promoting The Squee Project and the work of other creators. I was pleasantly surprised by how we exceeded our goals on all fronts … we were successful enough to cover my costs and register Squee Projects as an LLC.”
Nothing in convention planning goes as, well, planned. Things will inevitably go wrong. However, how you deal with said disasters can determine if they will make or break your con.
For example, Oppenheimer came down with the flu right before her event. Thankfully, her husband came down to help, despite never having been to a convention before. “I was a zombie," she says, "but he enjoyed himself and now he knows what I do at all the cons I attend.”
Another issue SqueeCon ran into, minus the table debacle, was programming. Having never run a convention before, Oppenheimer admits the programming was far too tight, and she didn’t realize there was a formula she should have followed. “My friend Kathleen David, a former stage manager and a guest at the con, told me about it afterward and offered to prep me for next time.”
Some unpleasant surprises can throw you for a loop, but you manage. Other things are just a bit too grand to do anything but throw your hands up at.
“Hurricane Harvey was totally unexpected," Stuart says, admitting that the storm definitely hurt the convention. “Although we were a first-year con, with all the other well-established seasonal competition in place, having the city destroyed by a biblical flood certainly cut into our attendance.”
While every con will have its fair share of drama, 221B Con had a particularly difficult hurdle to get past.
“The biggest challenge for us has been protecting our attendees at the expense of our reputation,” Blumenberg says. “We had an incident a while back where we had to ban an attendee due to some of their behavior at the con. We were basically trashed by this person and their friends but were forced, and still are, to not comment on the situations, as we do not discuss attendees information or actions with the public in the interest of privacy.”
Unexpected things can be good, however.
“In our first year, the biggest thing for me was that CBS Sunday Morning sent Mo Rocca down to record bits of a piece on Sherlock Holmes.”
Blumenberg says she and her fellow con directors (and goers) were floored by the roaming cameras and talent around 221B Con. “It was amazing to be featured on such a major show our first year.”
Scarydad had a mysterious benefactor at its inaugural con as well. “Someone had booked a table as an artist," says Stuart, "and then on the morning of the event this guy taps me on the shoulder and it’s ‘Captain Mark’ Kistler! He spent the day doing art commissions! We were shocked that he was at our little event.”
WHAT TO DO, WHAT NOT TO DO, AND WHAT TO MAYBE DO
So you want to create a convention. The advice across the board from these directors and creators is to definitely go for it! But also, prepare for a ginormous amount of work. And don’t expect the instant success some of them managed.
"Don't take us as a model for starting,” Blumenberg says of 221B Con. She admits they were lucky in their instant success, mostly in part to launching their convention when Sherlock’s popularity was at its highest. Also, their timeline from brainstorm to execution was unusually rapid. “We planned and had our first convention in less than a year, and since then have discovered that the suggested time for planning a first convention is at least two years."
Siles of WHOlanta says that “[t]hings like hotel negotiations and guest contracts can take much longer than you think it will. Be flexible! Always be willing to shift as needs demand.” One of the most important aspects of con planning, he says, is the crew you make it with. Surrounding yourself with good, creative people who are dedicated will make the show a success.
Also, get an amazing tech crew. “Those folks will save your butt and will make your show look better than it probably would without them! A good tech crew is so important. Our tech folks are my heroes!” he says.
Stuart maintains that openness and honesty are the best traits to have when running a convention.
“Own up to your mistakes," he says. "Really, the con world is rife with underhanded deals, and people feeling ripped off. Just doing what you say you’re going to do sets you apart from most of the ‘professionals.’ It’s sad, but it’s true."
It’s also important to remain realistic — one of the major failings of scam conventions trying to get rich fast. Stuart says to not “expect any sort of payoff for at least three years.” Even if you’ve done everything right, have great karma and reputation, and break even, it’s a hard business. "Slow and steady wins the race.”
That said, always keep pushing. Complacency won’t get you far. Oppenheimer tells us she’s planning another SqueeCon in Brooklyn, saying: “I’m very interested in bringing SqueeCon to other cities to support and promote local creators and uniting our communities all across the country.” Squee for all.
THE HEART OF IT
At their core, these homegrown conventions are all about love.
It’s love for fandom, for creative work, for the convention itself, and the family and friends you gain from these tight-knit communities. These smaller conventions have succeeded and will continue on because of the affection of the con-goers, the dedication and love of the directors, and the general enjoyment of the entire experience.
There’s a purpose to them.
“Fandom is all about community, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate it than to bring everyone together to share their joy,” Oppenheimer says. “The big cons can do the celebrity thing, but there’s a lot to be said for creating an intimate, supportive space for a bunch of creative people to share their work and get their squee on.”
221B Con recently lost a member of their close-knit con community. One of its directors, Heather Holloway, says it best: "Things they don’t tell you when you start a con: that you’re going to get all these kids. And you’re going to love them. And sometimes bad things happen and you can’t do anything to help them. And your heart breaks."
But out of that tragedy grew an even tighter-knit community that banded together to raise money for the family and spread their support and love.
Convention-making is done out of love, but there’s a lot of hard work, planning, finances, and long nights involved. However, these directors have run the gauntlet and come out the other side wiser and ready to keep going. Now it’s your turn.