I’ve been to more conventions than I can count over the course of my life, and have been covering them professionally the last four years. The things I love about them remain the things I love, but the things I was always iffy about are becoming things I absolutely disdain.
Don’t get me wrong. I love drinking and singing karaoke with Klingons, and doing what I call the Star-Trek-Rick-Roll. If you’re curious about what that is, it’s putting on “Faith of the Heart” and watching the crowd go from groaning to singing “I’ve got faaaittth” at the top of their lungs. I love going into panel rooms, and arguing about stories that are outside of the Hero’s Journey narrative. I love seeing my friends that I only see a few times a year. I love learning new games. And I especially love buying that Stargate Universe shirt I’ve been having my eye on… oh, and throw that Pokemon hat in while you’re at it too, kind sir.
Those things, however, are going away. Just as anime cons used to be a place to find different sorts of imports (hello rare Daa! Daa! Daa! artbook!), but are now just rooms dedicated to whatever the anime-du-jour is (I remember one con having only the same Naruto and Bleach items), comic cons are losing their hard to find X-factor trades to cheaply made T-shirt towers. Panels are getting cut in an effort to place “quality of quantity” at Denver Comic Con (though I felt the quality wasn’t markedly better, and the variety was depressingly lacking), when really it means a lack of a variety. And sadly, I don’t hang out with my friend as much because they get stuck in increasingly long lines just to sit and listen to an actor say the same things they’ve said to panels before.
I understand I’m privileged in that last respect. With my press pass, I don’t have to wait in lines to get a mediocre seat to see Ben Browder. I can request interviews, and not spend hours trying to get an autograph (though, out of professionalism, I never ask for one).
But out of all this, what gets me really upset about cons is really just the cult of the actor that has been building up over the decades which can lead to the long lines, and some of the most boring question/answer sessions ever created. They are seriously worse than my early days when I was learning how to interview.
I, of course, know that many people haven’t been to as many cons as I have because of money, time, or distance. They don’t know the most typically asked questions, and the most typical answers. For them, this is the first time hearing anything about their favorite shows. I’m therefore being undeniably elitist when I suggest that cons lack quality for everyone just because I’m tired of someone always asking for a “funny story on set”, or “how to get into the acting business”.
By the way, the answer to that last question is always move to Los Angeles and pray real hard for a break. At least, that’s what I’ve heard from literally EVERY actor’s panel I’ve been to.
That being said, I think with my breadth of experience, I can truly say that we need to stop inviting so many actors to the conventions, and bring the lesser known people who are even more instrumental to the creation of the works we consume.
We’re nerds. We love the shows, and the characters. Why are we asking someone who only played the character, when we could be asking the writer? You know, the actual person who conceived of the character and their arc? Why are we demanding people defend their role in a show (i.e, asking Jonathan Rhys Davies about playing an Egyptian in Indiana Jones when he’s Welsh) when we could be asking the people who had a direct role in casting it?
Actors see shows through the narrow lens of their characters, as they should. They are supposed to be their character, so they need to react as such. Furthermore, some take jobs because they just need a job, not because they’ve thought of every nuance of the work. Much of the time, they are not the droid we’re looking for when we want answers.
That means that Avery Brooks doesn’t know what the reality really is in “Somewhere Beyond the Stars”, and frankly he doesn’t care. The writers, however, do know. Or if they don’t, they can at least tell us if it’s like Dallas (spoiler alert, it was all a dream) or Inception (spoiler alert, nobody fucking knows if it was a dream).
I’ll be blunt. I’m tired of hearing John Barrowman make things up about the canon that can’t be true if he has any memory of the show. I’m sick of people asking James Marsters what it’s like to kiss him. Oh, and please demanding that Sebastian Stan speak Romanian because you have some sort of language kink. And while yes, I was interested to hear Misha Collins say he had no idea what was going on in season six of Supernatural, I would have loved some follow up from the writers who were trying to make sense of a season that they were never planning to write.
So, this is my plea. Let’s have actors at cons, but please, let us invite more writers and directors. They are the ones with the answers, and are just as integral to these shows as the people that play the parts. They are the ones who see more of the shows and movies we love. They know what the intentions of the characters were. They know where the plot was driving too. They know when the science is wrong, and current theories they are extrapolating from. They know if they meant to have a message in a scene. They’ll be able to agree or disagree with the popular narrative assigned to their stories. The actors? More often than not, can’t.
Again, this is not to say we shouldn’t have actors at cons. It was hella fun to accidentally do shots with JG Hertzler and not recognizing him because he didn’t have his Klingon makeup on. I liked shaking Jonathan Frakes hand, and asking him about his overwhelming number appearances as a narrator on shows that proclaimed that aliens existed. I was honored to get a quick selfie with nicest person alive, Burn Gorman, after a press conference.
But these very spread out highlights through hours and hours of drudgery at panels, just hoping an actor will say something new, or enticing because they can’t.
I go to con after con, and write up the same answers actors give every reporter. “Oh, I can’t talk about the next season, but it’ll be great”. “Oh, it was great to work with them. Such a great cast”. “I wasn’t in that scene, so I’m not sure”. “I don’t know, I’m just read the lines.” They have nothing to say, and now that they are doing more and more cons, their nothing is just endlessly repeating into a white noise I want to ignore. We are over-saturated with the actors doing cons once every few months, which dilutes any import of what they say. Am I supposed to be glad that I heard that Lena Headey’s favorite character in Game of Thrones is Cersei in person, even if I’ve read it other places?
Though on a side note, Lena Headey is a hilarious, and stunningly charming person. But my love for her and my love for Cersei are divorced because they aren’t the same person… and she has made it clear that she has no idea where Cersei is headed, and can only make educated guesses on where she came from (the flashback chapters in the books aside). So, why do we keep asking her the same questions?
There are a lot of threads to this, so let me boil it down to one simple example.
The question I usually hear at every panel is “How much of you is in that role?”. I’m usually annoyed by this question because 1.) the actor have answered it a million times, and 2.) it suggests that they don’t know how to act if they are just playing themselves. But what’s more important to me is how much of the writer is in that role. How did they come up with the character? What was their starting point that they extrapolated out from. In the case of Cersei, was it because she loved her children? Or because she hated Robert? Of all the evils that she is accused of, and perpetrates, from which of these motivations did her plot extend?
But let’s not stop there. I would love to know if Heinlein was a militant fascist, like it seems in Starship Troopers. I would love to know what writers hate which characters, and if that bleeds into what they do. I would particularly like to know that in regards to Sansa Stark.
The two best interviews I ever had were with Timothy Zahn and Peter David. They both engaged with me at a story level, and explained far more than just the lens of one character. They were able to pull in elements of every part of what they wrote to answer questions. My worst interviews have always been with actors.
The best panels I’ve been to (aside from Ben Browder, or Gareth David Lloyd and Eve Myles) are the ones run by authors, who know not only their own material, but the history of literature that their stories fit into.
What it comes down to is this: the hype of celebrity has created a manufactured experience that lacks the uniqueness that con should have. Notice I did not say “used to have”, because even I will admit that there was no such thing as the golden age of con. Even in 1992, George Takei was repeating stories for people who had heard of a prank being pulled on him (apparently, someone got their police officer friend to pull him over while running).
But even so, it is undeniable that the variety of fan-run panels is disappearing at the larger cons, the merchandise is becoming standardized, and too much time is spent in line to see people say the same things they always say.
Here’s the thing. Writers are cheap. Bring them out, save money, have tons of new and different panels, and get answers to the questions you always wanted to know about. Fans who know all a lot about the shows are also cheap, they just need to be vetted if you want quality.
Cons should be about being fans together, and not spending money to get into a con to spend money on a picture and an autograph.
I was going to conclude it there, but I was informed by a California friend that what I want happens in on the West Coast all the time. As I have only been to cons from mid-America out to the East Coast, I was unaware of this. So I guess, what I should say, and you’ll never hear me say this in any other context, is let’s be like the West Coast.