Opinion: The Crisis at Space City Comic Con

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As a Texan, I spent Memorial Day weekend watching the skies and my weather app to make sure anywhere I went wasn’t going to be flash-flooded. There’s nothing like being in the grocery store and having everyone in the aisle’s phone light up at the same time with the horrified tones of a severe weather update.  Houston, home of Space City Comic Con, was one of the cities most affected this weekend, and that wasn’t even the real storm brewing for this convention.

This weekend, reports from writers, artists, cosplayers, con volunteers and attendees flooded my Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr feeds, reporting on unfair treatment, guests failing to be paid for their time, poor placement of booths, and expensive VIP experience tickets that were not honored. Many of these horror stories didn’t even factor in hotels that suddenly lost power and water, or the desperate attempts to stay dry. In short, this is what a nightmare a convention can become.

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These were not first time con folks objecting; these are people who regularly travel the convention circuit to meet their fans. These are people like the Kitchen Overlord, also known as nerdy cookbook author and badass Chris-Rachael Oseland, who regularly hand makes goodies before conventions to feed people who come to her booth. She made a thoughtful post on her own Facebook honoring the volunteers who worked so hard at Space City Comic Con to keep it from being a complete horror show, but was happy to share her own thoughts.

I paid full price for my booth, but for unknown reasons was tucked into an aisle with the professional cosplayers who were given booths for free (WAY out on the fringes of the expo floor, far away from other dealers). The guests were being screwed in other ways, so very few of them actually showed up. This meant I was one of two actual vendors on an otherwise empty aisle for most of the con. This is lethal for sales. There were at least half a dozen unoccupied booths in the main body of the convention, so there’s no excuse for them to hide me like an embarrassing country cousin.

Let me clarify something; booths are expensive. When you’re paying out of pocket to promote, get prints together, make giveaways like buttons and ribbons, or even just to get basic things like a sign for your booth, it costs money. Often those artists, writers, and cosplayers have day jobs that they go to and regular bills to pay. Yeah, we’ve got car payments and rent due as well. Over the past few years, I’ve had many friends have to forgo a convention because the cost of a booth was so high.  These booths can often cost up to hundreds of dollars, if not thousands in the case of San Diego Comic Con.

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Then there’s the case of the Sons or Anarchy, The Harp Twins, and a whole slew of AVI folks who were never paid for their time. I’m sure you’ve seen the sheer wealth of click-baity articles this weekend about the Sons of Anarchy cast having the cops called on them.  Sons of Anarchy was the biggest draw for this convention. After a mixup with their hotel, which was later clarified and rooms paid for, Charlie Hunnam took his check to the bank to find out it was from a closed account.  This happened to the entire cast when they went to get a further look at their payment checks. Here’s an account of what went down from journalist Ava Jade:

Many of the actors went to the promoters office to demand payment, where the promoter ended up calling the cops because he was “being held hostage”. The cast was in no way held him hostage, but wanted answers and payment.  The panel schedule was completely jacked up, the cast was not given the correct times for photo ops and for panels. The Friday panel was canceled due to the AVI team refusing to allow anyone onstage until they were paid. They were promised payment upfront, instead they weren’t paid and pulled the plug on the event. The cast was all there, waiting to go on. It seems that the event promoter broke the contract not once, but TWICE. He attempted to pay the cast with pre-sale ticket money. This would explain why there were  so many inconsistencies and ticket gouging happening online. Many people were “forced” to buy the VIP because there was no option to purchase a day pass. Overall, it was clear after this interview that a huge CON had taken place, leaving the cast unpaid and the fans unaware of what was happening. The promoter was described by cast as a “fraud, unethical and has broken the contract twice.”

However, many of the Sons of Anarchy cast remained behind to sign autographs and take pictures at a highly reduced rate so that fans would be able to get their experiences. Unfortunately, there is no word from Space City Comic Con as to whether attendees who paid for VIP experiences will be getting a refund.

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Then we had the Harp Twins, a fantastic identical-twin-musical duo that went out of their way to stay and play for fans.  After the Sons of Anarchy fiasco, they decided to stay and play for their fans anyhow, knowing folks traveled from as far as Europe and China. Their checks for their appearance fee, per diem and travel expenses was falsely written, just like many others. They expressed their concerns via their Facebook after the convention. Friday night was a huge mess:

An extra HUGE thank you to those who came to our Friday concert and stayed until the sound guys finally turned on the sound. We didn’t learn until the literal minute our Friday concert was scheduled to start that the sound guys had not been paid by the con and were subsequently refusing to turn on the sound system for our concert. We learned this from the sound guys themselves and no representative from the con came to tell us in person, so we had to announce to our own audience that we had no way to play because the sound techs were not going to turn on the sound without the check they were promised from the con. Our fabulous fans in the audience actually tried to pay the sound techs to turn on the sound if they all chipped in some money. We had an impromptu Q&A session with the crowd not knowing whether or not we would be able to play that night. After about 30 minutes the con worked something out and the sound guys finally turned on the sound, allowing us to perform our show. Even with this incredibly unprofessional action by Space City Comic Con, the amazing fans who stayed and waited for a concert they didn’t know would happen kept us smiling all night. You all are the best!

The worst was how fans were treated. We’re not talking about the volunteers, who by all accounts were helpful, funny and wonderful folks. We’re talking about extremely expensive VIP tickets not being honored or refunded. Author Ava Jade again on her blog:

The fans poured in and many spent an upward of thousands of dollars to get their chance to score autographs, pictures and VIP treatment at the event. What they received was far from what they paid for and many of the General Admission ticket holders were treated better than the VIPS. Many VIPS opened their wallets and depleted their savings for this once in a lifetime event.

I attended this event to review it and cover the festivities for everyone who couldn’t make it. Yet, when I showed up, I was blown away at how disorganized this convention was. Long lines for VIPS, panels canceled, and photo op tickets not being honored. I’ve never seen such a poorly ran event.

Conventions are a chance for fans to meet other folks who love their fandom as much as they do. They are where we meet people we admire, get the chance to ask our questions, get autographs and photos. Conventions are where we dress up and express our inner nerds that so often get filed away with our day jobs and life commitments. They are where we find new things to read or watch, and the people who excitedly explain why we should. I’m starting to wonder how many folks will start to pass up comic conventions after reading stories like these. How many people will reconsider spending what little money they have to attend conventions or come as vendors and professionals. I truly hope Space City Comic Con makes it up to the guests and attendees.

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