Fandom: Not Just Funny Business15 min read


Andrea Judy
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As I supervised the towering pile of tentacle hentai, my boss started cursing behind me. “Dammit, dammit! Sell it all, sell it all! They’re going out of business.” While I had always known a company somewhere made the products I helped sell, that was the moment I realized that conventions were more than costumes and fun. An entire industry runs on the backs of the fans. For me, the revelation hit late for sure, but it has stuck with me as I’ve continued to go to conventions and been on various sides of the table.

Over the years I’ve been just an attendee there to enjoy the panels and items for sale. I came to meet some of the celebrities, show off my costumes, and meet friends whom I had only known online before the conventions. They were a time to go a little crazy with people who understood the things I was passionate about.

I’ve volunteered at conventions, guiding lost guests, getting celebrities to and from their rooms, and helping field questions at large Q&A events. Now, I’m beginning to attend conventions as a guest who runs panels and sits behind a table trying to get fans interested in my books.

Working at the little anime booth was my first foray into any kind of business work, and my first real job. My boss had changing rules about tax: if we added it, if it was already in the price, but if we didn’t add it, then we had ruined him forever. The dealer room was fast–paced as people swarmed the booth asking about item after item. Some people just wanted to talk and would spend far too much time crowding the booth to try to compare favorite animes.

It was in this booth that I first learned how cutthroat the world of the vendor’s hall could be. First, the vendor must pay for the tables, usually months in advance. Depending on the size of space that the dealer wants, these costs can range from under $20 to several thousand dollars. Then the vendors must bring in stock, set up their tables and be prepared to take cash or cards. They also have to cover the cost of their hotel room (and potentially that of their staff) and meals for the weekend, on top of travel expenses. All of this is lost upfront with the hope of making back their costs, and then some, over the span of three days. It’s a high stakes gamble for the people behind the table.

My boss had been in the business for years, and always told me about what the next big thing would be. He talked fast and frantic, like he was running a marathon and always falling behind. It took a few conventions before I finally realized that no one ever knew from convention to convention what the next big thing would be. Sometimes he completely missed the mark and lost out on a massive amount of sales. I spent several years going from state to state trying to hit a moving target with his company, and avoid the wrath of my short–tempered supervisor.

The hot ticket item changed from location to location, and year to year. Trying to stay in front of the ever–changing fandom groups was a battle that we fought and lost on a regular basis. Eventually, I had enough and worked my last convention at the anime booth. The stress of the business had ruined the joy of the conventions for me. Instead of spending my time talking about what I loved, or learning about what other people were there for, I spent it worrying about money, making my sales quota, and ensuring that nothing was stolen.

After that micro burn out, I avoided conventions for several years. I continued to watch them from a distance, keeping track of what others were doing, watching as every year more and more people descended into the convention centers across the world. But I avoided attending them with any regularity, instead watching from a safe distance.

In 2008, I listened to a friend talk about this book series she loved being made into a movie called Twilight. I then watched as San Diego Comic–Con sold out for the first time in its history[1]. Twilight exploded at San Diego Comic–Con, bringing with it a wave of passionate female fans, willing to wait in lines overnight to ensure they were able to meet the stars of the Twilight series. This set a new precedent for line waiting at SDCC and rapidly increased the growing trend of Hollywood at conventions.

Many fans who had been attending SDCC since its inception worried that these fangirls would ruin the convention. Instead, what they did was bring Hollywood more tightly into the convention. Movies had, for years, attended San Diego Comic–Con because its closeness to Hollywood made it convenient, but now Hollywood studios realized that fans were an untapped, but incredibly powerful market. And more so, the power of the teenage woman was an incredibly powerful demographic as demonstrated with the explosive force of Twilight.

Now it’s a game that just gets bigger and bigger every year. San Diego Comic–Con has become the place for big Hollywood and TV announcements. Studios bring out their top stars and writers and tease out tidbits of new projects. Hollywood has joined the fandom staple of conventions. After years of not really being sure of their existence, Hollywood wants fans, and they are willing to spend big money to keep the attention of the fans on them.

San Diego Comic–Con is one of the largest conventions in the world, with attendance capped at 130,000 people. In recent years tickets have sold out almost immediately. It’s a high–stakes gamble to get into the convention, a hotel, and transportation. The visitors to SDCC bring over $178 million of revenue into the area[2] through hotels, restaurants, bars, and local attractions as fans swarm the area and take over San Diego.

Growing continuously since its start in the 1970s, SDCC has become one of the premiere locations for Hollywood to build buzz. Starting with Star Wars and reaching a new level of frenzy with the arrival of Twilight, SDCC exploded into pop culture stardom. Fans line up for hours, sometimes days to get into hallowed Hall H where the announcements from the biggest studios are made. Each year ups the ante in a gamble to outdo the previous year. In 2013 Marvel reached a new level of presentation by having actor Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, arrive in secret and perform in character on stage in front of the more than 6000 people crammed into the hall.

With shows like The Big Bang Theory, Cosplay Star, Agents of Shield, The Walking Dead, and Green Arrow on TV, and Iron Man, Captain America, and Batman on the big screen, almost everyone is exposed to fandom in some way. Casual observers walk into a world filled with people who devote hours of their lives and tons of money to completing the perfect replica Black Widow costume, or hunting down the ultra rare first edition comic book.

No longer is the backstory of Bruce Banner something that only nerds discuss over Magic games in their comic book shops. Children are growing up with Iron Man dolls sold at every major store and a superhero movie coming out every few months to keep their interest. The business of fandom is booming, but what does that mean for fandom itself?

Trying to define fandom has always been a struggle, especially for someone who is involved in it. Fandom is my community, the group of people that care about the same type of shows and things that I care about. Fandom is a network of people supporting an idea. Fandom is a nebulous, wibbly–wobbly thing to put a name to, but fandom is becoming a business.

The groups that descend onto conventions year after year continue to grow and expand in size and diversity. And while I’ve been a part of fandom since I was young, it still fascinates and puzzles me. Even trying to define fandom presents some difficulties. The most succinct definition simply defines fandom as “the regular, emotionally involved consumption of a given popular narrative or text.” [3] What this definition fails to look into is that fandom is a collection of fans, but not every fan is in a fandom or interacts with others.

Even the study of fandom in an academic sense is difficult to pin down neatly. Fandom intersects new media, communications, social sciences, and, as the economic impact of fandom grows, business. To keep it categorized in one academic realm is to miss out on other important aspects of fandom: trying to talk about the social interactions without also examining the texts that inspire this group and the economic impact of that interaction is to not look at the whole picture.

While businesses are actively wooing fans, there are certain fans who are not the ideal for a business model. The fans who actively participate, write fanfiction, argue over what a background character’s role really is, and who actively follow the writers aren’t always the ideal viewer. Why not? Because those fans are more likely to ask questions, to talk back, to share their ideas and remix the story presented to them, either through fanfic, fanart, or some other creative means. They do not just accept the story or products that are given to them. They believe they can create something different and work to transform the original into something new.

Fandom questions the power of ultimate canon of the universe and wants to interact with the text in a deeper way. People write theories to explain holes in plot points; they speculate on upcoming themes, they write their own back stories to explain away problems, they debate on what the symbolism means, and they discuss problems with portrayal of minorities. They want to be engaged with the text, not to just buy whatever product the company produces.

With the intermingling and absorption of fandom into our culture, that dynamic is shifting and two distinct groups of fans are becoming more prominent. Henry Jenkins looks at the differences in these two groups, “Official fan organizations generate and maintain the interest of regular viewers and translate them into a broader range of consumer purchases; i.e., spinoff products, soundtracks, novelization, sequels, etc. Fandom (i.e., the unofficial fan community) provides a base from which fans may speak about their cultural preferences and assert their desires for alternative developments.”[4]

The official groups accept the text as presented and are more likely to buy all of the products related to it, while this unofficial community questions the story and attempts to recreate it by making alternative universes, changing the character dynamics, or re–appropriating pieces of the text into new formats. Fandom holds the people who look at all the Pixar movies and say, “What if they’re all in the same universe? How do they fit together?” They look deeper into the texts they are presented.

The commercialization of fandom is already creating some interesting changes; in years prior, you could not find a zombie toy aside from at horror conventions, online small businesses, or comic book shops. Now The Walking Dead toys are available at any major retailer.

However, this new commercialization of everything has put a damper on some of the smaller creators trying to sell their wares. The lines of copyright and fair use are paper–thin and constantly being argued, and cease and desist letters shut down many small companies or young fan artists. This is true especially at conventions, and even if the small fan artists are not shut down by larger groups, they still have to contend with the issue that the group they are selling to has the option of professionally made, mass produced goods, or spending their money on the experience of meeting one of the celebrities (usually from a popular movie or TV show) and paying for an autograph with them.

Wizard World recently made waves as they traveled to several major cities with conventions that allowed attendees to meet several of the stars of Captain America 2, or stars of Firefly and other popular geek shows.

While many criticized the shows as being dog–and–pony shows without a real basis in the fan community, they sold an incredible amount of tickets and fans were thrilled by the chance to pay for the interaction with an actor and an autograph. However, that meant fewer people visited the artists and small vendors and less money exchanged hands in these areas.

What is happening in the convention community seems to be yet another retelling of the David vs. Goliath story. Fandom has always been a small group of dedicated people who like things that are not a part of the mainstream culture. Conventions are a second home where geek flags fly proud and speaking Klingon may very well get you a response. However, now more and more conventions are becoming increasingly commercialized. They are less about the community behind a show, movie, game, or book, but more about the selling of things.

Growing up in the fandom world, it has been a strange shift to watch happening and to experience from multiple sides of convention life. As a volunteer staff member, I get asked more questions about where a certain celebrity is now than I do about where the dealer’s room is or what time a certain panel starts. However, there are also more people than I’ve seen before, and each convention just seems to grow with increasing speed every year as new conventions start up. I’ve seen people attend a celebrity Q&A session, and then run straight to the dealer’s room to look for the comic books their idol just recommended.

The power of the Internet has also played a huge role in the interaction between fans and the creators. With the Internet, fans have even more access to the creators of their shows and books. They can interact with other fans in nearly instant time and can even learn about what a show is like across the globe as fandom travels internationally. No longer are fans having to wait for zines to come out, but are able to respond to events as they happen in their own communities online. Social media has allowed what was once an isolated activity to become incredibly social and a powerful way for people to make friends and meet new people.

Social media even allows a fan to virtually attend a convention. By following a tag on social media, and reading live reporting from the event, even fans who cannot afford to go to conventions get to experience the information second hand. Every year I watch SDCC happen via social media, and that gives me a snapshot of what is hitting big at the convention. The year that Tom Hiddleston appeared, it exploded across social media and was talked about for days. It brought attention to the new Thor film to people who couldn’t make the convention, and was a huge marketing success for Marvel.

This instant access era also allows people more access to shows at a faster rate than ever before. The rising number of shows and movies available on streaming services allows for faster distribution and discussion among fans. They can record an episode, and then review it frame by frame to find a hidden clue. The Internet also allows fans to discuss the show with other fans, live, as it premiers. However, this instant access and openness of the Internet also leads to rising issues with piracy and the continuing struggle to regulate that.

Conventions are one of the few fan experiences that cannot truly be pirated in any way, shape, or form. While I can watch SDCC happen from my browser, I can’t download the experiences of the convention. That’s one of the reasons that conventions continue to grow, while the rest of the comics, movies, and publishing industry devote more and more resources towards combating piracy.

Conventions create the opportunity for fans to interact with their idols on a personal level. This is another experience that can’t be pirated, and those celebrities increasingly become the draw for new fans to attend. I know several friends who have specifically attended conventions just for the chance to meet a particular actor, but while they were at the convention passing time, they discovered several new shows or games that they’re now huge fans of. The original draw of the celebrity led them on to other aspects.

While several talk shows and conventions have started exposing fan work to the celebrities associated with it, most fans create their work for other fans, not for the creators of their show. Their reinterpretations are done for free in their free time. Most of this work is done as re–creations of the characters themselves, not the actors or actresses. However, with the continuing rise of social media, more and more celebrities are discovering fandom.

Fans care about representation and are a vocal group that can really harness a brand’s power. Some brands are better at interacting with their fans than others. Sleepy Hollow, a supernatural television show, has been praised for its interactions with fans, primarily headed by actor Orlando Jones who interacts directly with fans and asks questions about what he doesn’t understand. However, he had several recent missteps[5] that drew criticism and ire from fans.

The rise of social media has let brands follow the activities of their fans, but many of them still don’t understand fandoms, what they are, and why they do what they do, which presents a distinct lack of communication. Many brands just interact with fans in the most basic of ways through one–way posts on social media, occasionally sharing details about when a new episode might premiere. However, social media is, by its nature, meant not be treated like a billboard but as a conversation. Many brands are just now starting to understand the power that social media can present and are attempting to harness it. For instance, actor Orlando Jones from Sleepy Hollow created his own Tumblr account to talk directly to fans. The conversations have led to better understandings of the show, and have cemented a personal bond with the show for these fans.

This feeling of a personal connection with brands is what leads to brand loyalty and to fans sticking loyally with a particular show or company. It’s how smaller companies are still able to compete with larger ones. Small companies can better create that personal interaction with their fans, and create a more meaningful experience. However, since most of the costs for a convention come up front for the vendors, smaller vendors can do fewer conventions and take up less table space. For a small vendor, misjudging the popular item can have disastrous consequences, while larger companies are more capable of taking a financial hit from a misjudged show.

At every show I’ve been to where I’ve been able to interact with the vendors, there is always a discussion of how everyone did. Everyone wants to know what made the most sales, where the most popular table location was, and who is coming back next year. More and more vendors now look to see what celebrities are going to be there to decide if a convention might be worth the cost.

Conventions are where fans come to meet their celebrity idols, and maybe a few choice writers and artists. The focus of the conventions (at least the larger ones that are more general conventions than extremely focused) is on pop culture and Hollywood, not on the latest book, comic, or other smaller item.

That is the competition of the future and what smaller vendors are going to have to be prepared to face as conventions continue to grow and change.

This rising knowledge also leads to fandom being taken seriously within the halls of academia. As pop culture studies increase and Henry Jenkins continues to popularize the idea of the acafan (an academic and a fan), there is more study and interest in fandom, both within and outside of the pop culture field.

Increasingly, graphic novels, movies, shows, and other mediums are being allowed into classrooms for study. The advent of free online courses allows for an even wider range of topics to be studied and allows more people to have access to these opportunities. Kids are growing up with Batman and Iron Man movies; they are reading comics in class, and talking about them with people who live across the world. These kids are the future of fandom, and they are fast, smart, and not afraid to speak their mind about the things they are passionate about.

It’s been a great pleasure to watch these kids come into their very first convention, running over to every Disney princess and superhero that they see, and in love with this magical world around them. It’s one of the things that makes conventions fun for me still.

As the world of comic books, video games, and movies continues to merge into the world of conventions, fandom will continue to rapidly grow as more and more people are exposed to the texts. When these trends invariably die away, the conventions will have to adapt again, shifting into more specialized spaces and moving on to the next trend.

Right now fandom is hitting an explosive growth that’s bound to burst one day. How far into the future that is, is hard to guess. Many people are already getting wary of the massive scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and worry that these movies coming out year after year will burn out the superhero genre, as happened with countless other styles that ebb and flow with popular favor.

When that happens, many conventions will likely feel a dramatic decline in attendance as the pop culture aspect of fandom fades away and what’s left behind are the people who enjoy the shows on a deeper level than casual fans. Those people left behind will not just be the original crowd of hardcore fans. Many people have found their fandom through the rise of the availability of media now, but even after that media fades, they will stay involved. It’s a community that is continuously growing and shifting.

[1] Obias, Rudie. “31 Facts About San Diego Comic–Con.” Mental Floss. N.p., 18 July 2013. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
[2] Ser, Kuang. “Interactive: Comic–Con By the Numbers.” NBC 7 San Diego. N.p., 25 July 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
[3] Sandvoss, Cornel. “Fans: The Mirror of Consumption.” Oxford: Polity, 2005. Print.
[4] Jenkins, Henry. “Textual Poachers Television Fans & Participatory Culture.” New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
[5] Cox, Carolyn. “Orlando Jones Sincerely Apologizes For Making Sleepy Hollow Rape Joke.” The Mary Sue Orlando Jones Sincerely Apologizes For Making Sleepy Hollow Rape Joke Comments. N.p., 22 Oct. 2014. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

  • Andrea Judy

    Andrea Judy makes her home in Atlanta, Georgia. She has been involved with conventions since 1999 when she first found anime. She has had poems and short stories appear in various literary magazines, as well as several anthologies. Her first digest novel, The Bone Queen, was published in October 2013 with the sequel coming out in 2014. While completing her master of rhetoric and composition, she was introduced to the study of fandom on an academic level, and has never looked back.

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