Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An old con

I've been sitting here over the last few days (not literally, mind; I have been peeling myself out of my chair for toilet breaks and snacks) reading all the exciting news coming out of the San Diego Comic Con as it hits the interwebs. There's some awesome looking things on the horizon (Clark wearing a Superman costume in Smallville? Where The Wild Things Are?? And I'm inexplicably intrigued by Tron Legacy…), and I think I'd like to go to the Comic Con sometime. Which is strange, because aside from the Collectormania thingies that used to take place in the middle of Milton Keynes' shopping centre (so you could handily escape wander off to do some shopping in Topman or HMV if you got bored of leering at Katee Sachoff) I've avoided them like the plague for the last nine years.

Y'see, I've only ever been to conventions - proper conventions, I mean, not ones in shopping centres - about three times, and on all three occasions work paid for me to go. Bless them. Now, I'm not dissing the whole convention thing; I think it's a grand idea in theory, but the general execution - at least of the ones I've been to - has been sadly lacking to say the least. I mean, you look at pictures of Comic Con and it looks exciting and awesome and what you'd imagine geek heaven would look like, but with smaller conventions, at least in my experience, the reality is that you spend hours stuck in some godforsaken hotel, wandering aimlessly between the bar and the merchandise room where some bored looking fellow is hawking ill-fitting Star Trek uniforms and overpriced models of the Enterprise-E which only have one working illuminating warp nacelle*, all the while glancing at your watch because Robert Picardo is doing a talk in four hours, and Robert Picardo genuinely is a funny guy.

Possibly my favourite convention memory is when I found myself sitting alongside Stargate SG-1 star Amanda Tapping in an autograph room before the crowds were allowed in. She was utterly delightful and we chatted away like old friends. What made this moment even more memorable, though, was another television actor - who I won't name - who was sitting at another table and downing double scotches like his life depended on it. As the doors opened and the fans swooped in he knocked back the last of his drink and glanced over at me with a 'please kill me now' look on his face. It was priceless.

And this leads me onto my worst convention memory.

About 10 years ago, shortly after I'd joined the company I'm with now, I hatched an idea for a new magazine with a colleague of mine. We were rather excited at the prospect of it, and generated a whole load of page mock-ups as proof of concept. As they say, though, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we decided we needed to find out what real people in the real world thought of it. There were two ways we could do this: the first was to arrange a focus group of people recruited off the street, and the second was to take our idea directly to our target market and go to a convention.

We decided on the latter, for a variety of reasons, one of which was that it was actually more cost effective to send a couple of us away for the weekend than it was to drag some people in off the streets and ask them some questions for the best part of two hours.

And so we booked two tickets for a weekend-long science-fiction convention in Torquay in mid-October, and arranged to do a presentation of our work.

Now, I was rather looking forward to this because a) I love science-fiction, and b) it was very exciting because it was my first business trip, which meant that it had the added bonus of the fact that c) everything was being paid for by the company. Good times.

Anyway, the convention started on the Friday, but while my colleague headed of at midday on the Friday (quite possibly to get out of doing an afternoon's work), I didn't set out until the following morning. I arrived in Torquay at around two in the afternoon, amazed that my little white Fiesta had completed the journey without exploding, and that I'd manage to follow Sparky Pa's directions without ending up in Glasgow (these were the days before sat-nav, after all). The hotel where the convention was being held wasn't actually in Torquay, however, and was in fact a fair few miles away from the city centre, nestled atop a hill, and only accessible by very narrow, windy country lanes.

When I eventually found it I pulled into the car park, parked up, and got out to stretch my legs and take a good look at where I would be staying.

No word of a lie, it looked like Fawlty Towers.

Laughing at the resemblance, I turned back to my car only to notice that I'd parked about half a metre away from a sheer drop that was neither marked by a sign, nor fenced off. I gulped, retrieved my bag from the boot, and prayed that my handbrake would hold over night.

A couple of minutes later I got my key from reception, and found the room in which both myself and my colleague were staying (OK, so the company were paying for everything but they weren't springing for two rooms). A bit tired from the drive, I plopped myself down on the single bed/cot that had been designated as mine (in addition to getting out of an afternoon's work, I think my colleague set out on the Friday specifically to snag the double), and flicked on the telly. The reception wasn't great because we were in the middle of nowhere, but I started watching the 1993 movie The Adventures of Hucklebrry Finn anyway. It was actually quite good, despite the fact that the static made it look like Huck was in the midst of a blizzard.

About half an hour later my colleague returned to the room. For some reason she needed to use something like a hairdryer, but as it turned out the room only had one plug, so I had to turn the telly off. To this day I have never seen the end of that Huckleberry Finn movie, and still don't know if Huck escaped that blizzard. After she was done, she offered to show me around the convention.

Let's sum it up in a few words: it was rubbish.

There were lots of 'viewing rooms' set up to show classic science-fiction series, but they were actually just small rooms with a portable TV set up on a table and a VHS player off to one side. There was no merchandise room. The stars of the convention were, I believe, someone off Blake's 7 and a British television presenter who had a background in comedy, and I'll be quite frank, a rather rowdy body odour issue. There was someone there who was dressed like Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from the blond hair to the long leather coat, who remained in costume THE ENTIRE WEEKEND.

Dinner was served only between six and seven, and it was a set menu of some foul-smelling stew that resembled something a cat with dysentery might produce. I took one look at it and decided I was going to find something else to eat even if it meant gnawing on the chipboard cabinet beside my bed. Fortunately, someone informed me there was a McDonalds a few miles down the road.

Around this time, however, the south-west of England had begun to be battered by a storm of rather biblical proportions. The winds had picked up, and rain was lashing down. I can clearly recall very carefully engaging reverse gear as I set out, conscious of the fact that there was that sheer drop just a gnat's crotchet in front of me, and the car park was slippery from mud and rain.

Half an hour later I'd found McDonalds, and duly spent the next couple of hours sitting in there like a complete tramp surrounded by the remnants of a meal I'd wolfed down in about 42 seconds.

I returned to the hotel at about 10pm, parked up very carefully (I hadn't seen the drop in the daylight, let alone at night), and headed back to the room. My colleague was there looking a bit worse for wear. Turns out the stew was having a reaction somewhat akin to a warp core breach at both ends. We turned in for the night, ready for our presentation in the morning.

I awoke on Sunday at about 8:30 as my colleague was returning to our room. She'd gotten up feeling a little bit better after the previous night's stew incident, and headed down to the dining room for some breakfast with Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Apparently stew wasn't the only thing the kitchen staff weren't very good at preparing, though, and her breakfast had thus consisted of two slices of toast so black that they looked like they'd been through some sort of thermonuclear war. She'd somehow eaten them anyway, and within two minutes of returning to our room was once more praying at the porcelain altar.

When she came out of the bathroom, looking a bit green and wiping the vomit from her chin with the back of her hand, my colleague informed me that we might need to rethink our presentation strategy based on her current predicament. The original idea, y'see, was that she, being the more senior and experienced of the two of us, would give the presentation while I stood to one side looking pretty and gesturing at mocked-up page layouts on display boards like I was some sort of cheap gameshow totty. Now, though, I was being asked to step-up and do the lion's share of the work in case she felt like she was about to go all Linda Blair over the crowd. I nodded once, certain I could do it.

Our presentation was set for 10:30, and by 10:15 we'd set up our display in a reasonably large room with seating for about 30-odd people. By 10:40 we found ourselves looking back at a crowd of about eight people, at least two of which were there because the VHS in the room showing 'Genesis of the Daleks' had broken and they had nothing better to do. My colleague was still looking rough, but she turned to me, looked at her watch, and said "I s'pose we better begin." I nodded again, turned to the, um, crowd, and said "welc-"

And that's pretty much all I said throughout the 45 minute presentation, because somehow my colleague had weaved some sort of mad-spell that completely reenergised her. You would seriously not have believed that just an hour or so earlier she'd been painting the bathroom in technicolour hues. There was one point where I tried to interject to add something, but she paused, glared at me a bit like Zuul from Ghostbusters until I shut up, and then carried on as if nothing had happened.

Three-quarters of an hour later, and with a reasonably positive response to our idea, the, um, crowd dispersed, and my colleague let out a deep sigh before promptly turning green again. I subsequently packed up the display boards and retrieved some mocked-up page layouts showing a fembot from the Austin Powers movies from a large man who tried to make off with them while she went off in search of the nearest toilet.

Fifteen minutes later we'd packed our stuff in our cars, checked out, and were ready to hit the road. Unfortunately, the other thing hitting the road at that time was massive hailstones; the storm was in full-force and the driving conditions were absolutely treacherous. We left just before midday, and I finally got home at eight o'clock that evening (at least twice as long as the journey should've taken). I'd actually given serious thought to pulling over around the halfway point and booking into a travel lodge for the night.

Anyway, to top it off we never went ahead with the bastard magazine either.

*If anyone would like to buy/have a model of the Enterprise-E with only one working illuminating warp nacelle, please drop me an email. And yes, it's boxed.


CyberPete said...

Wv: bless

Tim said...

'Nuff said.

Ian said...

You should remember that the Comic Con convention reports are all coming from people who have press passes and don't have to face the hell that constitutes attending as a member of the public.

Do the maths: 120,000 people but all those "celebrity" panels take place in one room that can't hold more than 6000 people (with an ever-increasing number of 'prime place' seats pre-reserved for those with press passes). Comic Con has gone from being a fan event to a huge industry event that's forgotten the word 'comic' in its title.

On Saturday (which is the big 'Hollywood' day) you queue for hours (the queue is literally miles long) along the sides of a very long convention centre in the hot baking sun and the whole of the side of the building is doors into the centre. Trouble is there's never any clue as to which doors will open first and the security guards don't give a damn - so the concept of 'first come first serve' is completely out the window. If you're going simply because of all those guest panels think again (unless you have a press pass).

Then there's the stall area. It's huge and full - of lots of stands mainly all selling the same things. And it's packed, even on preview night (which you pay extra for and which used to be a 'guaranteed quiet' night) You need the best part of a day to get around it with crowds that don't move and refreshments which are few and far between and seriously over-priced.

The whole event was busy before it decided to have a regular 'Hollywood Saturday' and announce the panels in advance, where before these were a surprise. And as soon as the mainstream media (The OC, anyone?) and the press started publicising it (and the likes of 'Empire', 'Total Film' and 'SFX' etc actually realised that maybe those who kept telling them they should cover it decided to bother going) it went even madder and deteriorated to the point where the last time a group of 20 of us went we spent the whole time hiding in our hotel room instead.

My lasting memory of the last Comic-Con I attended (6 years ago) is of endless B.O. and queueing. NOT a fun experience.

Ian said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention the Q&A panels. Endless 'Can I have my photo taken with you?', 'I have cancer. Can I meet you afterwards?', 'I have a script can I give it to you?', 'Will you record a message on my answerphone?' nonsense and no real insight even when ordinary fans actually have the chance to ask the likes of Angeline Jolie about her movie career. Truly human nature, the cult of celebrity and crowd mentality at its worst

BEAST said...

I have always fancied going to a rubbish convention in a dreadful hotel. It sounded wild :-)

watch*paint*dry*news said...

Now I want to know who it was you were with!?

Tara said...

Wow, what a memory you'll have of that place now, right? Almost amusing that McDonald's was a healthier choice than hotel food. Your friend's experience reminds me a bit of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where the lady just wound up eating fruit instead of "snake surprise" and "chilled monkey brains". Course based on how they prepared the food, I'm thinking the hotel fruit would've been bad too.

I'm so sorry that you didn't have as big of a turn out for the presentation as you had hoped. You could always regroup and try again.

Tim said...

Ian - I'm, er, guessing you didn't enjoy it then? Ha ha, seriously, I was with you at 'B.O.' Ugh!

Beast - You should, just so you can moan about it years later!!

Watch*Paint*Dry - I'll email ya!

Tara - Nah, that magazine idea died a death, and with good reason. We swiftly moved on to bigger and better things!!