With the 2015 con season hitting its halfway mark, the io9 staff got together for an in-depth, round-table discussion on what exactly makes for the best possible pop culture convention. Whether you’re a potential attendee or a longtime organizer, here’s everything you need any quality con need to have.
(This transcript has been edited for coherence as originally almost none of used punctuation.)
Rob Bricken: Well, not to shock anyone, but the first question is “What are the necessary ingredients for a good con?”
My first answer, and it’s insanely obvious, but there has to be enough to do. I’ve always found the cons that have 24 rooms—anime, video games, CCGs, etc.—are inevitable more fun because those are indicative signs that these people are trying to make sure attendees are potentially entertained 24/7.
I’ve been to plenty of smaller cons where things just die at 5:00 pm and you’re left in your hotel. That’s not fun, and it’s more than a little depressing.
Germain Lussier: And I think the key to having fun is being one of those people who actually gets involved. You have to pace yourself. You have to pick the one or two things you really want to do, do them, and then be open to doing anything else.
Rob: Actually, Comic-Con has this problem; virtually everything happens before 6pm. There’s always a few screenings and events, but mostly the con shuts down so industry people can eat and go get drunk.
Germain: I prefer WonderCon to SDCC simply because it’s more relaxed.
Charlie Jane Anders: Well, a lot of Comic-Con is now run by the big entertainment companies, which have evening parties that are invite only. To me, what makes a great con is having a lot of fan-run experiences. Dragon*Con is the gold standard for having great fan-organized experiences. So is Convergence.
Rob: What do you mean by fan-organized experiences CJ? Like, fan-run panels? Or that the con itself is fan-run?
Charlie Jane: Both. There are panels which are just fans discussing stuff. There are cool parties run by the fans. Dragon*Con has tons of events that are huge and fancy but don’t have Robert Downey Jr. at them. I actually think the more the focus is on promoting upcoming movies and TV, the less fun a convention is.
Rob: I agree with that
Katharine Trendacosta: 100%
Germain: I think overall, yes, but if you love that movie or TV show I can’t imagine anything more exciting.
Rob: It’s always exciting to see those things, but then the excitement of the con come from a panel or a video, not the con itself.
Germain: I’ve been to a dozen SDCCs and all of my best memories surrounding seeing a person or piece of footage that no one else had ever seen before.
Charlie Jane: Yeah, I get that, Germain.
Germain: But in recent years, that’s become the SOLE focus and I don’t like that.
Rob: I mean, there’s value in seeing stars and panels and exclusive trailer, and that can be enough to propel your happiness for the entire convention.
Charlie Jane: There’s no room for just fun spontaneous amateur stuff at SDCC any more. Smaller conventions tend to have more just fan-organized content and parties.
James Whitbrook: As an outsider looking into it, SDCC leant a little more into that fan experience this year, even if it was very much the big media companies doing it for the fans rather than it being by fans for fans.
Rob: I can think of cool panels and so forth from the recent SDCCs I’ve attended but I wouldn’t say I’ve enjoyed the overall cons themselves for quite some time.
On the other hand, I think fan organization can be a double-edged sword. Fans know what fans want and see the con through their point of view—as fellow fans, and not potential consumers to be marketed towards. But the flip side of that is that not having pros run a con means that the whole thing can be a nightmare of disorganization.
There’s a weird, fine line between fan and professional — some cons hit the sweet spot just right
Katharine: Organization is be-all, end-all
Germain: Right, I’d even be scared to call something a “con” unless it has some kind of professional organization. It just needs to allow for fans to do what they want within that.
Katharine: You can have the best panel in the world, but if no one can find it, who cares?
Rob: SDCC is practically a trade show at this point that they let consumers into, like E3.
Cheryl: Good point
Germain: Oh 100%. E3 is a great example.
Rob: Anime Expo is like that for anime, too. Meanwhile, the East Coast Otakon is fan room but they’ve been doing it long enough that they’ve got it down. It was always my favorite anime con because it felt more like a convention more than a giant marketing experience
Charlie Jane: To me, the biggest litmus test of a con is what kind of nerdy conversations I can have at 2:00 am. Like, are people really up for geeking out about weird obscure stuff?
Katharine: Or in line. A long line has been saved for me by the people I got to talk to.
James: Yeah, some of the best moments I’ve had at conventions haven’t necessarily been what I’ve seen, but the random conversations you happen to have when you’re queued up or whatever.
Charlie Jane: I’m not sure where that would even happen at SDCC.
Rob: I’ve never waited in line for Hall H at Comic-Con—do people talk there and become buddies like they would at smaller shows?
Germain: Yes and no, Rob
Katharine: I did that in line for Ballroom 20. Hall H is harder.
Germain: Mostly they bond over hating the line and line cutting.
Rob: That’s kind of indicative right there. Hall H is a competition to be won, while Ballroom 20 is more of a community experience. Would you say that’s safe to say?
Germain: I think Ballroom 20 is on its way to being another Hall H, but yes, it’s a fair assessment.
Katharine: There’s also the way the Hall H line is just different, with the wristbands, and the camping.
Germain: Hall H should be its own convention. You really can’t do Hall H and Comic-Con at the same time. For me, Comic Con was ruined when I had to stress about getting into Hall H. I have no problem waiting, but if I have to wait and not sleep —or try to sleep but worry about not getting in—that’s no fun at all.
Charlie Jane: Again, getting back to what makes a convention fun, to me it’s the sense that people are just geeking out together. A great convention is almost like Burning Man or something
Germain: Geeking out together and being spontaneous
Charlie Jane: Yes. It’s hard to scale up. The bigger you get, the harder that is to make space for. But Dragon*Con does manage it, I think.
Rob: Anyone want to argue with me that a good dealer’s room is also integral to having a good con?
Germain: Nope. I need to shop at a con. Or at least pretend to shop. I love going into a Con with one weird, old toy in mind. And then I use that as an excuse to look at every single dealer.
Rob: Yes! And I’m not necessarily talking exclusives toys—honestly, I think those also turn cons into work if you spend all your time trying and/or stressing about getting them.
Katharine: Oh my god, the size of the dealer’s room has to be right, too.
Cheryl: Comic-Con’s floor was so crowded and insane. I can imagine it would be fun to shop at a smaller con, though
Rob: I don’t know why, but the Dealer’s room is like a medical readout of the con. Is it bustling? Are people excited? Is it sparse and depressing? Is it so crowded you can barely move or talk?
Charlie Jane: I wanna be able to buy weird underwear
Umm... I mean, underwear with the USS Enterprise on it.
Rob: The time is long gone since cons were the only place you could buy these things; it’s all available on line.
Charlie Jane: That’s true, but I still buy stuff at con dealers rooms.
Rob: But as Germain said, I want to be able to think about buying things even if I don’t really buy them. It’s a bit like a rummage sale, especially with old toys, obscure anime collectibles, comics, etc.
Germain: There’s still a thrill of the hunt that’s unique to a con.
Katharine: Online is great, but you still have to know what you’re looking for to find it. But in person you can stumble on stuff.
James: Exactly. Browsing for Enterprise pants is fun, standing in line wondering if the guy two people in front of you is going to nab the last pair of variant-printed Enterprise pants that are only available for the first 15 minutes the show floor is open? Not fun at all.
Katharine: The weirdest stuff I own is all con-bought.
Rob: Yes, chances are you’ve seen all these wares at every other booth.
But sometimes you stumble on THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE
And it’s like a religious experience.
Cheryl: What’s the best thing you have found at a con?
Rob: I have an immediate answer! I found a doll at an anime con—yes, a doll. One was a 12-inch PVC of Lum, the star of UruseI Yatsura, that mostly obscure anime I love and have a tattoo of. I didn’t even know it existed and I saw it there for $40. I lost my mind.
Katharine: Kermit the Frog. This was years ago when your options were ebay or nothing, since Disney wasn’t making Kermits. And I grabbed a vintage stuffed Kermit from a bin. (Muppets. You know me and Muppets.)
Germain: I collect these metal, high end Masterpiece Transformers. You can find them at almost any Con. But I love going around and comparison shopping with them and buying my first Optimus Prime like that is my favorite thing.
Rob: I know those Germain. I’m not even a big Transformers fan, but you see that huge table of merchandise, and the variety and your nostalgia starts kicking in—it can be a powerful thing.
James: Mine’s similar to Rob’s, actually. I have a really tiny model of Gundam Heavyarms from Gundam Wing that I got at a sci-fI convention when I was really young/ It was just before Gundam Wing had sort of blown up in the west and got its own action figures in toy stores and stuff.
And I remember just being mindblown that there was this physical, tangible thing from a show that no one else I knew was watching.
Rob: If I’m having a good time at a con, I would easily spend $80 to purchase a toy I knew I could get for $60 online later. There’s still a real treat to physical shopping at a con, I think.
Katharine: Lauren once found me staring at t-shirts trying to figure out if I liked them, or was just con-high.
Rob: “Con-high” needs to become a real word STAT.
Okay, so on this same token, what have been your favorite panels?
Katharine: Easy. Person of Interest, the year before it aired. My brother and I went to it to get to the panel after.
Charlie Jane: Oh neat!
Katharine: And not only was the pilot great, the table was funny and interesting. It was in a tiny room, too.
Germain: For me, it’s hard to beat the high of the Marvel Studios Comic-Con panels. They drop all this news on fans and you can feel the room reverberate.
Charlie Jane: One time at Dragon*Con Annalee and I went to a panel about Pern that was just “Dragonriders of Pern” fans all talking about what it would be like to live on Pern.
Rob: That sounds insane, CJ. Was there a moderator? Or was it a free-for-all?
Charlie Jane: It was sort of quasi-moderated. They were demonstrating how you would help someone who had fallen off their dragon. And how you would make a stretcher out of materials found on Pern while also calming the dragon down.
Germain: Oh, also there was this panel where Peter Jackson and James Cameron talked in Hall H one year. No one was paying attention, but it was like the coolest nerd conversation ever. And you didn’t even have to wait in line for it.
Rob: I’ve been to so many industry panels, especially in my anime days, because cons are always were where they announced new licenses, always the big deal. And they’d trot out voice actors or Japanese creators and it would always feel very rote and scripted. Again, like we were being marketed to. And I don’t remember any of them.
The panels I remember were always smaller when it turned from a crowd to something a little more personal, more informal.
Germain: To be fair, this year’s Force Awakens panel at Star Wars Celebration where I cried live on the Internet was pretty amazing.
Rob: Well, I imagine after seeing Han, Luke and Leia together J.J. Abrams could have done nothing but blare an airhorn for 45 minutes and people would have left with smiles. That’s a unique experience you can’t get elsewhere
Charlie Jane: And now, JJ Abrams airhorn rendition of the Star Wars theme
Katharine: I’d still cry. One note of the theme this year, and I was basically a bawling infant.
Germain: I feel like being marketed to is okay, but it has to be big. It has to be fun. Different.
Cheryl: Mind-blowing, even
Germain: Right. This year, Hall H was a snooze fest most of the time. The same formula over and over again. And many conventions don’t put a lot of thought into it. You should so something to differentiate. Some kind of video, something that makes the people in the room feel special.
James: Yeah, the best experiences are the ones defined by the fan reaction rather than the bit where you’re being marketed to.
Charlie Jane: Yeah, I do not want to say that being marketed to is bad, at all. It’s just that it has to be cool and creative—and shouldn’t be the only focus.
Katharine: The Avatar/Korra people were GREAT at this!
Rob: How so, Katharine?
Katharine: I didn’t even know much about the show, but I came out of their panel last year in love. They always bring concept art, and they have real, fun conversations.
And remember, last year they addressed being yanked off the air. The panel was STILL fun.
Germain: The Lost panels back in the day were like that. The fans got super nerdy with their questions and it was always fun.
James: The one bit I remember from one of the panels I went to at the 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Con wasn’t the bit where they trotted out Matt Smith to talk about the anniversary special. It was the bit where the moment he stepped out and suddenly the room was pierced by the sound of hundreds of toy sonic screwdrivers being activated and thrust into the air.
I can’t remember a single thing that actually was said at the panel, but I remember that reaction and how intense it was. (Aside from the bit where hundreds of simultaneous sonic screwdrivers REALLY HURTS YOUR EARS)
Rob: Charlie Jane, I know you’ve run panels before. What are your thoughts from the other side of the table?
Charlie Jane: I mean, as a moderator of a panel, I just try to keep it from getting boring. I try to keep the conversation interesting and make sure we don’t get stuck on a boring topic for 30 minutes.
Katharine: Oh, can we talk about moderators? No one really understands how important they are until they have a bad one.
Rob: 100% agree
Katharine: I suffered through the first truly awful moderator I’d ever seen this year.
Germain: There’s a careful mix of them running the conversation, engaging the room, and the talent.
Cheryl: Don’t sit up there making Kardashian jokes.
Katharine: There was a panel this year where the moderator’s questions were downright offensive.
Rob: I will say, however, that I will take a million shitty moderators over five horrible fan questions.
Cheryl: dear god yes
James: 100% in agreement. Maybe this is just me being cynical, but there is never just a bad Fan Q&A segment. If they’re going to be bad, they’re going to be catastrophically bad.
Rob: The worst case scenario is you get Comic Book Guy, minus the self-awareness, asking a question that makes no sense to anyone and then trying to explain it for 10 minutes to everyone’s misery.
Germain: Or they ask to hug the star or something.
There should be a screener. That may be asking a lot, but it would be ideal.
Katharine: I actually will take a bad question over one that’s been asked a billion times.
James: Oh my god Katharine yes
Katharine: In the hopes of, like, bullying the answer they want out of someone.
Germain: Yes. SDCC has been getting better and better over the years. People boo bad questions now, which I welcome.
James: I always dread the moment just before someone asks “what was it like being asked to play X” for the billionth time.
Rob: There are good questions. And fan Q&As are essential to cons, I think. Well, to some panels—once you get something so big as The Force Awakens, no one should be allowed to potentially waste everyone’s time with a bad question.
All right, still on Comic-Con: Is it becoming a trade-like show a consequence of being the biggest con, or is being the biggest con dependent on having the best ties to the industry?
I mean, I sincerely doubt that it’s a coincidence most of the biggest nerd industry shows — SDCC, Anime Expo, E3 — are all in LA or nearby.
Katharine: Only because I think big studios don’t know how to market except as a trade show.
Germain: It’s definitely a bit of both, but yes - proximity to LA is major.
Then again, WonderCon has been even CLOSER over the last few years and Hollywood has avoided it like the plague.
Katharine: Yeah. But, you know. It’s Anaheim.
Germain: So I think SDCC birthed itself as the biggest con on its own, and then everything fell into place.
Rob: Why do you think that is, Germain?
Germain: I think it’s timing. and it’s also prestige. Whe nyou say Comic-Con, you mean San Diego Comic-Con, period.
Katharine: I loved the New York Comic-Con, but it was pretty much only in comparison to SDCC’s madness. Plus, I got to go home at the end of the day!
Rob: NYCC is very much SDCC-lite, which is a benefit until itself.
James: NYCC also feels like it’s the more actually comic-book-y of the two as well. Like, you get a little less of the Hollywood glitz there, but you get to hear way more from comics creators and artists and everything.
Germain: That’s going to continue to happen I think. New York City is such a huge market and the fall timing is unique.
Rob: It helps that Marvel and DC are in NY—although now DC has moved to California. I wonder how NYCC will be this year.
Katharine: I’m curious. NYCC last year felt like it was trying to ramp up its star power and surprises to sort of ape the SDCC dog and pony show.
Rob: The Reed-run conventions—like NYCC—didn’t start that long ago, and Reed definitely wants NYCC to compete with SDCC. I’m not sure how viable that is, especially because of the LA thing, but do you think SDCC has improved at all over the last few years now that it actually has a legit competitor?
Germain: I think SDCC adapts when it needs to. And then there’s the whole battle with the city to keep it there. For the most part though, they are the status quo. I haven’t seen them react to any competition.
Rob: Any other thoughts anyone wants to add?
Germain: Yeah—I feel like people are scared of going to cons because of San Diego, and they shouldn’t be. Just plan in advance, leave time to adapt and have fun.
Katharine: Don’t do San Diego first if it sounds intimidating. While, simultaneously, go to one with a proven track record.
James: Definitely. I’m still a relative newbie when it comes to con-going, but a lot of people expect SDCC and then freak out.
Katharine: We’ve seen new cons go off the rails entirely, too.
James: When going to a lot of the smaller, proven cons can be a huge amount of fun.
Charlie Jane: I would definitely say go to smaller cons, but also go to cons where there are party floors and karaoke and dance events and arguments at 3:00 am about which epic fantasy writer is best.
Rob: And try to make friends.
Katharine: Friends! Friends are great.
Germain: Yes, make friends, be social, debate, you’re all there for the same thing
Rob: If you can’t find someone to nerd out with at a con, you’re missing out.
James: Never con alone! Basically, you’re going to get the most out of a con, any con, regardless of the size, when you put a little something of yourself in it.
Charlie Jane: And a good con is one where you can do that—where there’s space for you to put yourself into it.
Rob: A con is like a fan site, except the commenters are less more polite and less insane!