Today I heard about a fan-run convention that announced it was cancelling the event and no longer taking pre-orders; at least they closed up shop in advance of the con – about a month ago, another event shut down during the first day of the actual programming, leaving a whole bunch of people (and guests) high and dry. So what gives? Are sci-fi conventions fading away? I have a few theories about what’s been going on, and the answers may shock you… *
About a month ago I was waiting in line to see Some Piece of Summer Schlock when a friend had mentioned he’d gone to a low-turnout con that generally had a big crowd. He felt it was indicative of a trend, and combined with the recent shutdowns, we had to wonder – is science fiction running out of steam? Is interest in the genre itself dwindling to the point where it will go the way of the Western and only surface for a random movie every few years?
On the other hand, if we’re judging genre popularity based on convention attendance, big events like the annual Star Wars Celebration, last week’s Anime Expo and the San Diego Comic Con are always bursting at the seams (in fact, as I write this, it’s just been announced that Comic Con, for the first time ever, has totally sold out in advance).
Ok, obviously there are still plenty of sci-fi loving people out there going to big cons – so why are the smaller ones suffering? Alas, I think we can place blame at the feet of that insideous convention-slayer known as the Internet.
When I was a young, nerdy lad, the air was clean, gas was a quarter and candy was free. On the downside, we had no cell phones, no electric light, no motorcars – not a single luxury.
And, of course, no Internet.
No Internet meant no websites with daily updates and tidbits about our favorite shows, no Star Wars discussion groups, no email debates with our Star Trek pals and no YouTube with the latest fan films. Maybe you were lucky and had two or three like-minded friends at school, but other than that, if you wanted to geek out with your fellow brothers and sisters, you were out of luck.
Until a convention came to town!
Thank god for the conventions. They gave us a place not just to see our favorite stars and behind-the-scenes people, but we got to see each other. We huddled in the corners, embraced the Spock ears of the nerd next to us and shouted “you are not alone!” The weekend was spent attending panel discussions, checking out the guests, sitting in the film/TV room for hours on end watching old shows (pre-internet also meant pre-DVD) and spending the cash we saved all year in the dealer’s room (I remember literally shaking with excitement when I came home from my first con with an actual Colonial Warrior’s pistol and some gold Cubits (all made from the original mold, naturally).
Back then, a convention was the only place you’d ever find goodies like that! Nowadays, if a cool new toy comes out (licensed or otherwise), you get an email about it the next day, click a link, and it’s yours.
The Internet has replaced many of the reasons we went to cons: the film room, the dealer’s room and the global fan community are at your fingertips, ready to debate the last episode of Lost, 24/7.
THE HUMAN TOUCH
Of course, we continue to go to cons – personal interaction is still something most of us enjoy from time to time and there are some things our modem can’t replace. We still want to be in the same room as our favorite stars, we want to wear our expensive costumes on a day other than Halloween (because it’s just not the same to put on your Stormtrooper armor and sit down in front of the computer) and, above all, we still crave that communal experience with our peers.
Cons aren’t going to go away, but people are going to be more choosy about the ones they attend. Given all the con-like zen people can soak up online, they’re going to pick conventions that maximize their out-of-computer experiences. This probably means they’ll go to the ones that have the most stars and artists they want to see, which is why we’re seeing mega-cons with huge guest lists becoming the defacto standard. Instead of going to two or three small, local cons every year, fans will pack their bags, saddle up and make the trip to one, big annual event, treating it more like a spring-break pilgrimage.
I hate to see the mom & pop cons disappear and the Wal-Marts take over, but no one forced the fans out of town – they’ve been slowly migrating in this direction for a decade. Some of the larger fan-run conventions that have made a name for themselves (Dragon Con in Atlanta and Baltimore’s Shore Leave spring to mind) will probably soldier on for a while, but, like it or not, the “boldly go big or go home” fan mentality is here.
* Ok, there’s nothing shocking here, but blogs are supposed to entice you to click into the main body of the article by ending their first paragraph with the promise that something sensational or taudry lie ahead. Of course, this is rarely the case; I doubt anyone goes through their day shouting, “thank god I read the rest of that story on that new iPhone accessory, my life is now complete!” I mean who really cares if you read the rest or not? Is the point to put more ads in front of people so they might click one, and getting them to another page increases that chance? I’ll tell you right now, I’ve been reading top blogs like Engadget and io9 since day one and I have yet to click on anything other than the refresh icon, so if people are making a fortune by luring readers into clicking forward with the false promise of enlightenment, please tell me how.
“Lonely Trooper” image: