ALL STAR COMIC CON: A First Year Con with a Second Year Feel
Until recently, the growth of Cons in the DC/MD/VA areas had seemed to bypass Northern Virginia completely. Though Creation had done a couple of shows in Crystal City, Virginia still seemed to lack what DC now has with Awesome Con, or what Maryland can now claim with Farpoint, Shoreleave, or RegenerationWho - a home grown Con all its own. However, that bucket list item can now be checked off with the emergence of All Star Comic Con, a first year Con that felt like it was already in its second year thanks to how well run it was.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Ben Penrod (shout out to Ben at @AwesomestBen, the mastermind behind DC’s own AwesomeCon) to discuss what elements help to make a con successful. He succinctly said there are two things you need above all else: 1) financial backing and 2) someone running the show who cares. In recalling these statements, the latter comment rang particularly true for me, because if you don’t have an organizer at the top who cares, it will undoubtedly have a ripple effect across the entire Con. With that said, all throughout the Con, from the opening ceremony to the end, you could see how much Co-Founders Kevin Bednarz and Michael McNutt cared that everything at this Con went right. McNutt & Bednarz posted daily and nightly videos talking about what was going to happen each day as well as what was going on each evening. Both were seemingly everywhere during the Con hours. Even though this was the first year of All Star Comic Con, their effort made this feel (and run) again like a second year con.
Some of what they did that worked very well was:
Location of the Con. The Sheraton at Tysons was a central location. Not only was it an easy drive from DC and MD, it was also located close to a metro stop on the silver line. Furthermore, the hotel was located near a commercial area full of restaurants and had a sunny atrium in the middle of the lobby.
Communication with Attendees. They really did a nice job here. Even before the Con, they did not hide from the fact that Zazie Beetz (Domino from DEADPOOL) had cancelled. For most Cons, having your headliner cancel a month before the show can induce panic; however, this was not the case with All Star. Instead, the show runners took it in stride and put out a video letting people know about the situation. Even more impressive was their transparency regarding the cancellation of Summer Bishil (who had to cancel a week before the Con).
What could have turned All Star Con into ‘Almost Con (“we almost had…”) never happened because Michael & Kevin shared the news on their social media feeds, told people that they were working on replacements, and got them (Dichen Lacham was a superb guest). All in all, there was really outstanding communications about what was happening at all times.
Good Layout of the Con. They did not have a lot of space, but they made every inch work. Rather than putting all of the guests against the same wall in the vendor room, they had them on either side of the rectangular room. This meant people had to move in between the vendors, allowing maximum foot traffic for everyone. Not surprisingly, many of the vendors I spoke with said they had done well at the Con.
I also noticed that the Con took a page out of anime Cons like Otakon and separated the artists room from the main vendor room; as a result, this helped avoid the vendor room from feeling too small. They used the atrium for the Cosplay contest and the musical quartet, and on the other side of the atrium they had set up the rooms for photo-ops, board & video games, as well as talks. Having these rooms on the opposite side of the vendors and sigs meant that there was a constant flow of people with the atrium functioning as a central hub.
Signs and Volunteers everywhere. There were large, very visible, printed signs outside each main room indicating what was inside, and if needed, what the breakdown of programming was in each. In addition, volunteers were seemingly everywhere, able to answer any questions. Attendees always knew where to go and what was in each room.
Tried new things. All Star was not afraid to try new twists on programming. The string quartet on Sunday playing themes from movies and TV at the main atrium proved to be especially inspired when a couple dressed as Belle and the transformed Beast waltzed at noon to the main score of BEAUTY & THE BEAST. The Silent Auction, though small, was another attempt at shaking things up. Lastly, the All Star photo booth (set up as a mint action figure box - my pic further below) was another great touch to help spread the word on social media.
Strong moderators. They used people from the Uncanny Nerd to moderate the panels with main guests and they did a very good job. Instead of relying only on audience participation, they did their research and started the conversation with some questions of their own, and then opened up the talk to audience questions, being careful to fill in gaps in the conversation until another question came forth. Susan Eisenberg’s panel was especially good as she shared the hashtag being promoted by her and other cast members of ‘Justice League’ to motivate Warner for one more film with the original cast (#jlreunion, #justiceleagueanimated). She also shared how they all would work together in a recording studio on top of a mall, and guest stars like Clancy Brown or Powers Boothe would not do their parts separately but rather come and record with them.
Though there were many things that worked, there are a few minor things to consider for next year:
Parking. Thanks to strong attendance, parking at the hotel quickly became an issue. The Con did a very good job in warning people of the parking limitations (and offering alternatives), but if the Con is held at the same venue again next year, it would be worth exploring a partnership with the nearby college (2 blocks away) that has parking not being used by virtue of it being the weekend.
Hotel Challenges. The hotel is nicely located, but if the attendance grows any more, it will likely need to find a new site. Successful attendance is oftentimes a catalyst for change, and this eventuality may result in the Con only getting one more year out of the venue. Additionally, there were also issues with the AC on Saturday (the Tom Kane talk was especially hot) that - while outside of the realm of what the Con can control - should be a factor in deciding if the same venue gets used should it grow bigger.
Signing for the hearing impaired. The main guest talks should have someone versed in sign language. You never know who is in the audience to enjoy the programming.
Cosplay Contest. They had a lot of very good cosplayers in attendance. With that said, the Atrium might not be the best place for the costume contest next year as it quickly got very hot under the glass (likely more so I imagine if you were in cosplay) when the sun came out in full. Additionally, there were no seats for the people who wanted to sit to watch the Cosplay contest.
Silent Auction. This was a terrific idea! I just felt that it needed to be advertised much more. I feel that its location in the middle of the hallway leading to the rooms used for talks and photo ops caused it to get somewhat lost.
All in all, All Star Comic Con was a first year Con that felt like a second year one because of all the things done got right from the start of the Con. As mentioned before, the show runners weathered guest cancellations without blinking (at least not publicly). The guests who came were an ideal mix of screen & voice actors as well as artists (including Jason Aaron, scribe on ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Thor’). It definitely came across very strongly that this Con was not just a business meant to make money, but that its organizers cared about the fan experience. The next step is to judge how large of a Con they want to grow into because the potential is there.
I give All Star Comic Con a solid A-.