Universal Fancon Goes “Schwupp!”

Universal Fancon, originally scheduled to begin just one week from now, has announced via Twitter that the show is now “postponed indefinitely”. In a series of tweets from April 20, the organizers declared that the convention would not be taking place at the Baltimore Convention Center this coming April 27-29 as planned. This official statement appeared on their web site the same day:

As many of you may have heard, Universal FanCon has been postponed until further notice. It will not be held as previously scheduled on April 27-29 at the Baltimore Convention Center. This is an incredibly heartbreaking decision. Based on an evaluation of all the information available, it was decided that it would be irresponsible to move forward with our plans. Although we worked diligently to preserve the vision of an event that fosters true inclusion, diversity, and safety for all of our guests, exhibitors, and attendees; despite working tirelessly for close to two years, we fell short in delivering the event we envisioned.

As of April 19, their Twitter account was still promoting the event, so the decision was sudden. Unfortunately, the realization that they could not actually deliver the convention as promised came too late for fans who had made plans months in advance to travel to Baltimore for the convention. An anonymous source told reporters at The Hollywood Reporter that the event has a “financial deficit” (quick translation: they burned through all the money).

This is particularly dismaying in at least two ways. The convention’s Kickstarter originally asked for $25K and got more than double that amount, and they still ran out of money. Secondly, one of the perks offered during the Kickstarter was a free hotel room.

Everything unraveled very quickly. The initial news of the failing event did not come from Universal Fancon’s organizers. Instead, it came from hotels providing rooms for the convention, when those hotels sent out emails notifying hopeful attendees that their room reservations, made through the convention’s Kickstarter, had been canceled. After the hotel announcements had gone out ahead of any notice from convention organizers, an email was sent out to the Kickstarter backers confirming that the show wasn’t going to be taking place as scheduled. Unfortunately the organizers did not see fit to notify any of the other ticket holders — or even some of the panelists scheduled to appear — that the event had been canceled. It is also unclear as to why the convention organizers did not see the oncoming train any further out than one week from the convention start date.  (One of the executive board members of the convention, writer/producer Melanie Dione, announced her resignation via Twitter on April 20 when the news broke.)

At least some of the emails sent to Kickstarter backers were improperly addressed as well, with recipients being CC’d instead of BCC’d, which means the convention planners revealed potentially hundreds of email addresses to other people without their consent, further adding to the firestorm.

Fans from as far away as London had taken vacation time off work and purchased nonrefundable tickets to fly in for the convention.

Black Girl Gamers@Official_BGG

I’ve received no e-mail about @UniversalFanCon and as someone that has made travel plans from London -> NY -> Baltimore. I need to know whats going on.

Black Girl Gamers@Official_BGG

Not only have I *not* received an e-mail. I’ve spent £500+ on this trip and people have been kindly and selflessly donating to get me there too!

I am, to not mince words, VEX! I can’t cancel my flight to NY, I literally just booked a train and bus to get me to Bmore and back.

 At least one of the other board members turns out to have something of a history of running Kickstarters for conventions that never happened. Thai Pham, who according to his LinkedIn is the Vice President of Convention Operations & Entertainment with Universal FanCon, had just gotten off the back end of another Kickstarter in 2016 for a planned convention called PrideCon in Los Angeles, which also cancelled just days before its planned opening. For that event, ticketholders received no refunds.

Pham was also the COO of Touzai Company in 2014 and 2015, which ran TouhouCon in California for two years before running out of money for a return in 2016. In 2015, TouhouCon also had a problem with promising accommodations it couldn’t financially deliver. According to this report from NerdAndTie.com, the convention guaranteed free hotel rooms to artists and vendors but was unable to actually pay for them afterward, leading to the artists being charged full hotel fees unexpectedly. One may conclude from this that Pham had a significant hand in the Universal Fancon situation.

Guests scheduled to appear included comic book writer Greg Pak, actor Billy Dee Williams and The Magicians star Hannah Levien.

Fans To The Rescue With Wicomicon

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of the fans themselves. As news of the catestrophic failure of Universal Fancon spread, a coalition of fan groups centered around Hard Noc Media quickly formed to take up the slack. A one-day popup convention called Wicomicon 2018 has been organized for the same weekend. It will take place at a historic building at 1100 Wicomico Street in Baltimore, Maryland, and has been announced as “a home for fans and artists left homeless due to the unexpected postponement [sic] of Universal Fancon.”

Today’s front page on their web site proclaimed that they, in association with Nerds of Color, Black Heroes Matter, New Release Wednesday, theblurredgurl, and André Robinson of Carbon-Fibre Media and Elijah Kelley of the Be A Boss App, put their collective resources together to make it happen.

Black Heroes Matter®@BHMatter

We’ve secured a massive space for an all day PopUpCon – Saturday 4/28! Location is the Wicomico Building – about a mile from the ConventionCenter. We’ve dubbed it & are opening our doors to any vendors negatively affected by the FanCon fiasco. It’s on! Spread the word!

From their web site:

Featuring some of the most acclaimed names in the comic book, arts, and entertainment industries, WICOMICON 2018 will open its doors starting at 10:00 am on Saturday, April 28 and run until 7:00 pm. In addition to dozens of exhibitors, this unique pop-up convention will also feature panels, cosplay contests, special guests, and a wide variety of food options. Admission at the door will be only $10 for everyone ($5 for FanCon ticket holders) and free for children under 12 years old.

There are a great many inspiring quotes from the geek community leaders who came together to solve this emergent problem, including one by Uraeus, creator of Black Heroes Matter:

“If we are to say that we are a community, then we must truly operate as a community. That means picking each other up when we stumble and fall, and elevating each other to the best of our abilities. We saw a problem that needed solving, and mobilized our collective resources and skills to solve it.”

That so many came together so quickly to address the sudden implosion of Universal Fancon is nothing short of marvelous, but it’s not without precedent.

When The Going Gets Weird, The Weird Turn Pro

In 2006 a convention called Flanvention, an event catering to Browncoats (fans of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly”), was to have been held December 8-11 at the Burbank Airport Hilton and Convention Center in California. It, too, was canceled without warning, with less than 48 hours notice. The fans didn’t just disperse in a veil of tears.

Instead, they pulled together a substitute convention called the Browncoats Backup Bash for the displaced attendees. New emergency facilities were procured, buses were provided to help attendees get around from site to site, and convention goers had a more direct, intimate and personal experience meeting their favorite stars and other creative talent from the show.

Brian Rubin wrote down his recollections of the remarkable replacement event. Despite not having access to the hotel convention facilities, fans circulated and met their favorite stars and writers in the bar. Then the whole thing was moved over to the Pickwick Club in Burbank, where an impromptu schedule of events played out on the stage. Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk and Adam Baldwin came out for the fans, even though they obviously weren’t going to get paid for their appearances. So did a pretty large number of other folks, writers, composers, costumers, and media mavens from companies like Dark Horse Comics, and Multiverse.net (who were working on a Firefly online game at the time).

Fandom is nothing if not resourceful and resilient. Thanks to fans like these, there is still some light to be had at the end of the day.