The Con Job

Last weekend our beloved site-mistress and I attended the Calgary Expo in (surprisingly enough) Calgary, Alberta.  It was my second convention in two weeks, the other being AwesomeCon in Washington DC.  As a fan of pop culture, genre television, and general geekdom, I find cons to be a lot of fun.  I’d gone to a few in the past, but my attendance has been picking up over the last couple of years.

I enjoy seeing the cosplay and continue to marvel at the skill and creativity that goes into the outfits that people wear.  It takes amazing dedication not only to prepare the outfit, but also to commit to wearing in around a crowded hotel or convention center for an extended period of time.  I imagine after a few hours that full stormtrooper or Spartan armor gets pretty uncomfortable.  And those outfits are pretty basic compared to some.

Another big aspect of every con is the dealer room…or rooms in the case of Calgary Expo, where there were hundreds of vendor stalls selling everything from comic books to t-shirts to toys to heating pads.  Yeah, I thought that last one seemed a bit out of place as well.  Comic books and art were a huge part of both AwesomeCon and the Calgary Expo.  Artists were there to meet the fans and, in many cases, create on-the-spot commissioned pieces. 

The biggest part of the cons for me is the opportunity to meet stars from the various shows and movies that I love.  I booked my trip to Calgary before a single guest had been announced, but I’ll admit that my excitement level increased dramatically when I learned that Matt Smith and Karen Gillen from Doctor Who were attending.  I knew I would be attending AwesomeCon as soon as I saw that Nicholas Brendon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jewel Staite from Firefly would be there.  The addition of Billie Piper from Doctor Who to the list was just the cherry on top.  Well, more like a whole bushel of cherries.

The decision for me at this point is what sort of contact do I want to have with the celebrities I am interested in seeing.  Just because you paid to get into the convention doesn’t mean that you can just walk up and ask for an autograph or a picture.  Those things cost extra, buddy, and they aren’t cheap.  Depending on the level of the celebrity, you could find yourself paying anywhere from $20 upwards to well over $100 for an autograph or a photo. 

If the photo is a group shot with several celebrity guests, the price skyrockets.  The cast of Aliens had a reunion panel at the Calgary Expo (The panel was hosted by Garrett Wang from Star Trek: Voyager, who did a fantastic job).  Fans could also get a photo op with the cast…for $460. 

Ouch.

So I go into every con with a list of the celebrities that I want to see and whether I want an autograph, a photo op, or, in rare occasions, both.  If I want to talk to the star for a moment, I go with the autograph.  Even with the biggest star, you get to talk to them for a little bit; although, that often leads to me putting my foot in my mouth (See this POST for an example involved Kate Mulgrew). 

I tend to like having photographic evidence that I was in the same room with the bigger celebrities, so in those instances, I go with the photo op.  The downside is that those are a bit of a cattle call.  You stand in line, when it’s your turn you walk up and maybe exchange hellos with the celebrity, the photo is taken, and you’re on your way.  It’s not very personal, but I love that I have photos on my wall of me with William Shatner, Billie Piper, and Matt Smith and Karen Gillen.

I also try not to think about it too much.  Because then it starts to get a little weird.  Why do I feel it is worth $20 to have Garrett Wang pose with me for a photo taken with my own camera at his signing table?  Don’t get me wrong.  He was great, and I enjoyed talking to him quite a bit for the couple of minutes I was there. 

I also don’t begrudge him or any of the celebrities one bit of the money.  These cons are a job for them.  Sure, it’s not the most grueling work ever, but Matt Smith spent several hours last weekend in a small, curtained off area as a seemingly-never-ending line of fans came through to have their picture taken with him.  Would that be his first choice of how to spend a Saturday afternoon?  Probably not. 

Smith and the other guests are getting paid to interact with the fans.  That doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy it.  Calgary Expo was Paul Reiser’s first convention ever, and in his panel he said something to the effect that he could understand the draw of being surrounded by people who adore you.  I’m sure he was only half-joking…if it was even half. 

Granted, you can see the guests even if you don’t pay for an autograph or a photo.  Walking around the autograph area is a great way to see them from afar without standing in lines.  And really lines can be the biggest detriment to a con experience.  If you only have one day at a con, do you want to spend all of it waiting for those couple of moments with a star?  It’s a legitimate question.  Someone with geek god status, like Bruce Campbell or Felicia Day, will have long lines of fans waiting for autographs all day long. 

At many cons, the lines can be avoided (or at least mitigated) by getting a VIP pass, but that involves more money.  Instead, I would suggest trying to decide what those autographs and photo ops are really worth to you.  Anthony Daniels was at Calgary Expo, and I seriously thought about getting his autograph.  The man is C-3PO, and Star Wars was a massively formative part of my childhood.  Despite that, I didn’t have a big connection with the C-3PO character, whereas I loved the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond.  I needed a photo op with them, but I was content to see Anthony Daniels from a distance as he signed autographs for a long line of other fans.  I just couldn’t justify spending the time in line or the $40.

As I was sitting at my gate at the Calgary airport waiting to fly home from the Expo, Michael Rooker walked in and sat down.  No one else seemed to recognize him.  The man has over 110 credits on IMDB, and has appeared in multiple episodes of The Walking Dead, one of the hottest genre properties currently on television.  To me, he will always be Mr. Svenning from Mallrats.  At the Expo, long lines of fans paid big money for his autograph or to be in a photo with him.  At the airport, the mainstream masses didn’t have a clue who he was.

After about 20 minutes, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I went over to him and said very quietly, “I’m sorry to bother you, but Mallrats is one of my favorite movies.  I had to come over to tell you how much I enjoyed your performance in the film.”  He thanked me, asked my name, and shook my hand.  I went back to my seat thrilled to have had the chance encounter. 

That, I realized, is why I pay for the autographs and photo ops.  It may be a job for the stars attending, but in paying that money, I am guaranteed a few moments of their time.  Maybe it’s just a few seconds while I’m getting a picture, but it has meaning to me.  It’s my way of showing appreciation for their work.  “What you do means enough to me that I am willing to stand in a long line and spend a ridiculous amount of money just to stand next to you in a photo.”

Sure there are more heartfelt (and creepy) ways of showing devotion, but this one works for me.  And when I look at the wall in my guest room that is lined with the photo ops and autographed pictures, I smile at the memories of how I got them.  Except for the Kate Mulgrew one.  That was just embarrassing.

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter