Thought Bubble: The Waning Celebrity of Conventions

At the start of any convention, there’s a familiar buzz that builds during the approach to the venue. The more Pikachus there are traveling in your direction, the bigger the sense of anticipation.

By those standards, last weekend’s Toronto Comicon was a subdued affair. While the crowd for summer’s Fan Expo sprawls across half of downtown, its sister Comicon made little impact beyond the Convention Centre. Fan Expo regularly exceeds capacity in two buildings. Comicon fit comfortably on half of one show floor, with plenty of autograph and registration room to spare.

But as a paean to commerce, Toronto Comicon felt pretty much the same as any other con, which feels strangely appropriate given the circumstances. Near as I can tell, the various spending opportunities were the main reason to attend, which makes me wonder what attendance would have been like without Karen Gillan’s name on the marquee.

Have we reached the stage where the pop-up mall is the primary attraction? Are we looking for an excuse – any excuse – to congregate and play dress-up for a weekend?

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That’s always been the appeal for me, and I’m increasingly getting the impression that I’m not alone. I’ve never cared much for celebrity photo-ops, but I still love going to cons because I know the stuff I like – including cosplay and Artist Alley – is going to be there regardless of the guest list. If I’m just looking for a nerdy t-shirt, Toronto Comicon still offers a lot of great stuff that’s hard to find elsewhere.

With that in mind, is the celebrity component even necessary?

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That’s mostly a rhetorical question. Of course celebrity matters, as does size. The fact that Comicon is so much smaller than Fan Expo is proof enough of that. It feels like a holdover, a halfway point between main events, and the lower celebrity wattage is one of the main explanations for that diminished buzz. Stars like William Shatner and Patrick Stewart can draw fans that need to be persuaded to attend.

That translates directly to the show floor. There’s less energy in a smaller crowd, and without that frenzy, the fear that that thing you want will be sold out in an hour, Comicon becomes hit or miss for many of the exhibitors, a concern voiced by several of my friends in Artist Alley throughout the weekend. That matters to the overall health to the event. The Con won’t survive if too many exhibitors pull out because they’re losing money, so it’s trouble if the audience isn’t looking to spend.

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But as recently as three years ago, I would have said that no convention could survive without a strong celebrity game plan, and that no longer seems to be the case. Though Toronto Comicon was small, it was at least sustainable, and I didn’t seen anybody who regretted the decision to attend. No convention has a mandate to exist and no one will mourn them should they fail. The fact that they don’t speaks to the high demand for nerd-friendly gatherings, as well as the fact that many guests are looking for something beyond an autograph.

I most definitely fall into that camp. The quality of goods has steadily increased over the course of the past five years, as has the general level of enthusiasm, and I appreciate that far more than any of the Hollywood trappings. The cleverness of some of the fan-made products often exceeds that of the properties that inspired them, and I enjoy finding that one-of-a-kind, hand-made Appa plushie just much as I love the many great prints, shirts, and toys that fall within my price range.

It’s nice to know it’s there, even if I can’t afford it.

That enthusiasm becomes more important as more and more conventions dot the calendar and organizers need to rely on something other than fame to draw a crowd. If Toronto Comicon is any indication, that strategy is more viable than I suspected. There’s never been a better time to be a fan largely because it’s never been easier to share that experience with other like-minded individuals, and conventions are one of the primary venues for that exchange. They’ll be around as long as they continue to offer an atmosphere that can’t be found anywhere else.

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