The founders of Universal Fancon want nothing more than for their hard-won passion project to live up to its name. The fan convention, which will run April 27-29 in Baltimore, Maryland, boasts the kind of inclusivity that fans often point out is missing from other cons. Described as “the first large-scale, 24-hour, inclusive event that celebrates the diversity of fandom and the diversity of fans,” Universal Fancon “is the place for everyone who is a part of the true fan universe.”
As Fancon approaches its maiden voyage and the 5,000 or so expected con-goers put the finishing touches on their cosplays, SYFY WIRE spoke with the three-person tag team behind Fancon — President and Executive Director Robert Butler, Director of Community Outreach Jamie Broadnax, and Vice President of Business Strategy Peter Matise — about creating an inclusive fan space on a “shoestring budget.”
I’d love to start out by telling folks about how this came together.
Broadnax: It really started all over a dinner conversation, and we were just talking about some of the things that we would like to see ourselves reflected in when we go to all these different cons. And then each of us has been building our own respective brands for several years now as podcasters and bloggers and even building our own online communities.
As we've gone to these different events, we noticed that a lot of panels are just relegated to diversity panels, and they just don't always reflect marginalized communities the way that we've seen the community that we've built over the years. So we really wanted to be able to bring that. We kind of hashed it out over a phone conference call as to how we're going to put this together and, you know, got some folks that were also interested. It just kinda grew from there.
When you were sitting down over dinner and chatting, what came to mind? What were the things that were specifically missing from other conventions that you would want this convention to address and cover?
Butler: Well, one of the things that we felt was specifically missing, as Jamie mentioned, going to cons for so many different years, you see that the biggest complaint for many marginalized groups and communities are that they didn't feel included. The most you could even hope for was a diversity panel. So even among groups, if you talk to the Latinx community, the LGBT community through message boards, or just walk up to them at your favorite convention, they'll make a joke about the diversity panel. Because that's about the best you could hope for. If you even look at the guest list, sometimes, the programming, it doesn't seem like everyone's reflective of the actual fandom.
So we were just saying, how can we do this? How can we bring this experience? This is something we've been writing about, talking about, advocating for years, and while it's making headway in the entertainment space and movies, films, literature, we still haven't seen it from the fandom events. How could we leverage what we already know and create a positive experience that addresses those things?
Matise: For us, this wasn't about being exclusionary. This was about building a bigger table for everyone to see themselves and have fun.
At the end of the day, we're all huge geeks, so this is about how do we celebrate being geeks and get more of our friends, more of our compatriots, and family to be involved in that celebration? So Universal Fancon, it's just an outgrowth of that idea. Like what if everyone had a place at the table, as opposed to [it being like] Thanksgiving, when you have the kid table and the adult table. We all share the same space, and it's just really about the love we have for fandom and really wanting to be able to share that with everyone else. What happens if we took the diversity panel and expanded it until it represented society and it represented the entire con, as opposed to people being pushed over into the corner?
So now you have an entire convention that's dedicated to diversity. There’s not just a single diversity panel — you've been able to expand it into an entire weekend.
Butler: Yeah, and it's a bit more than that. It's really the idea, the sentiment, the spirit behind diversity and inclusion. It's looking at panels and saying, “Hey, how can we add an intersectionality to this so that everyone sees themselves?” So it's not just separate and apart, but integrated into every step we take as we build this program out.
When you look at [Fancon’s] guests, you see representation of every stripe. You see diversity in music, you see diversity in games, you see an opportunity for those who are differently abled. They have the ability to join in because we created a space for them to join in as opposed to not being able to get into a panel because of a lack of ADA facilities, for example [making a space for] service dogs and things of that nature so that everyone has an opportunity to see themselves. Ultimately, the spirit we're trying to engender [is], everyone can come out and have fun and see themselves represented.
How do you go about setting something like that up?
Butler: One of the things we did, which Jamie alluded to earlier, is we reached out to other groups that we'd known over the years that advocate for and talk about different inclusion matters.
Some of them, like Vilissa Thompson from Ramp Your Voice or Alice Wong from Disability Visibility, they are experts in this space, so we asked them to come on board to ensure that we can help include something like wider... exhibition areas, making sure ramps are at stages so people can get up there. We basically just made this a grassroots coming together of like-minded individuals to address all of our specific needs the best way we can.
That's literally how we got started. Grassroots effort. People think about diversity, well, you know, there's a lot of diversity. Obviously. We were focused on inclusion, on giving people the opportunity to feel like they're able to be there. To do that successfully, we felt that we had to partner with, work with other groups that can help accomplish that mission. And that's why we have over 20 partners and even some non-profits that are experts in different spaces to help influence our direction.
Broadnax: It was a very easy process for us to put all of these groups together… Part of my role as director of community outreach is that I manage all of the affiliates that are partners with us for Universal Fancon. So these are people that are often podcasters and bloggers and vloggers, and these are folks that are part of marginalized groups. So, as Robert mentioned, Vilissa Thompson of Ramp Your Voice, who created the hashtag #DisabilitySoWhite and is an advocate for the disability community. And then other folks in our organization like Nerds of Color, which represents Asian-American nerds and has fought very vocally about the Iron Fist situation and whitewashing of Asian-Americans in media.
It was easy for us to just simply talk to these people that have been followers and just mutual friends of ours for years to be like, "Hey, do you want to be a part of this? Do you want to align your brand with this mission of Universal Fancon and be a part of this journey with us?" They said yes, and they've been sort of our cheerleaders in this effort.
It’s been really great to just see how this opened up all different kinds of aspects of diversity, because it's interesting to me how so many people are like, "Oh gosh, I can't find a woman to do this. I can't find someone with a disability to do that." It's not hard. These people are around.
We've been champions of these communities for years, so I’m glad to see an event come to fruition, that everybody to be able to celebrate and finally see themselves.
Do you hope the example you're setting with Universal Fancon is something that might carry over to larger cons like New York Comic Con or San Diego Comic-Con?
Butler: Absolutely. That's our entire hope, actually. This didn't come out of an idea to separate from other events, it was that these groups, the people that we represent, were getting frustrated waiting for the other events to get to the point that we were already. So we decided to create an event, almost as a model of what could be, especially for these larger events who have way more resources, who could easily help implement a lot of the plans that we're trying to on a grassroot, shoestring budget.
Matise: It's really interesting, because we're one of those businesses that ultimately, if we're successful, we kind of put ourselves out of business, which is great. We go from representing inclusion and diversity to either just being just another con or being absorbed into and becoming part of larger con like San Diego or New York or something like that. Because then our mission of diverse and inclusive spaces has become the standard as opposed to a kind of an outlier.
So we would be really proud of, whether it's two years from now or 10 years from now, to say like, "Hey, there's no longer a need for a Universal Fancon." I mean, we would have accomplished our mission of diversity and inclusivity and now become the norm in a fan space, and that's a great day to look forward to.
Let’s talk fandom events and programming. What are you guys most excited for people to experience or to experience for yourselves?
Butler: I think the big thing about Fancon for me, just as a fan, is our program. Our panel program is such a healthy mix of issues-based discussion. You have the black rules matter panel, we have the Super Asian panel. We have a ton of great LGBT panels as well. Those are the things I'm looking forward to. If I get a chance to peruse the panels.
On top of everything else.
Butler: Yeah! That content was curated. It's really good. This program, and this is without bias, is one of the best I've seen at a convention.
Broadnax: I'm really looking forward to a lot of the special events. Um, we actually Hodor coming, Hodor from Game of Thrones. He's going to be DJing, so that's going to be really great.
And then we're having screenings. So Geek Girl, the documentary, which, you know, shameless plug, I'm in it, because that's something that's going to be happening. And then Looking for Leia is a great documentary that's also going to be screened. I'm really excited that, you know, as Robert mentioned, it's just such a diverse and healthy dose of all of this unique content, from these great panels to fun events.
We're having tabletop gaming, music and concerts. Samus, who I love, and Mega Ran are performing. So I'm just really excited to see all of the content, and I hope I'll get to get a little dose of all of those things. It'll be a little difficult. But people are going to be in for a treat for sure.
Matise: Same here. Super excited for the programming, but also for some of our celebrity guests as well. I'm a huge sci-fi nerd. I've been watching the SYFY channel for eons... having guests coming from two shows that I enjoy quite a bit, The Magicians as well as Killjoys. I'm really excited about that. I probably won't get a chance to see anybody because of our work schedule. I decided that the fans will have an opportunity to experience that.
Butler: We just found out last night that Hannah [Levien from The Magicians] is joining in last minute.
Broadnax: That's awesome! I just found out myself.
Matise: Nice! Awesome!
I love it. Well, speaking of last-minute editions and surprise changes, you guys have two weeks left before the con starts. How are you feeling going in? Are you excited? Nervous?
Butler: All of the above.
What are y’all up to as you finalize everything and get the ball rolling at last?
Butler: One of the things for me is, I'm now doing the cleanup. Like when you're finishing a house remodel or something. You know, checking the doors, making sure everything is working properly, that type of stuff. I think we're just running on a combination of fear and joy. It's a crazy mix. Like, "Oh my God, we're really doing it, but oh my God, can we do this?" And I think whatever happens, one of the biggest things I walk away from this is that we had a bunch of people come together to put something that's never done anything like this before and for us to get this far, without the help of, like, major corporations are anything like that. I've had people ask me, "Who's backing you?" and I'm like, "Ourselves."
But we also had these partnerships and mentorships... We took a bunch of regular people who are really passionate and we put this on. Even if everything goes wrong, it may not have been the Fancon we envisioned, but we had a Fancon and we did it. I'm looking forward to it. But I'm nervous as well.
Broadnax: I'm excited too, just because I know that at the end of the day people are going to be excited just to be here. A lot of the feedback that I see from fans online or when I talked to them in person is them being like, "I just want to be in a space where I'm around people that are cut from the same cloth as me. I'm excited to be in a place where I feel safe in this space, where I'm around my family," and that means a lot. So it doesn't matter if we have big celebrities or the great events where we're doing these music concerts and stuff.
At the end of the day, people just want to be around family and want to be around community. And that's what we hope that we're going to bring to everybody with Universal Fancon. On April 30, when this all ends, we hope that people are just like, "You know what? I'm just glad that I was a part of this experience, and I'm glad that I've made some friends along the way."
What's the most important part of this endeavor that people need to know about?
Matise: Everyone needs to know that this was created by fans for fans. And this is something that everyone, regardless of economics, regardless of your background, your race, your gender identity, this is a place where you can come and have fun. Fancon is about fun, it's about family, it's about making new friends, it's about building a community and celebrating the best that is fandom, and we hope you'll come out and join in that celebration.
And if for no other reason is my birthday and I'll be working, so come hang out and party with us.
Universal Fancon runs from April 27-29. Find out more about the convention on its website.