Stories of cons gone bad are irresistible, and last weekend’s Fandom Fest in Louisville, KY had all the classics: disappointed vendors, cancelled celebrities and a last-minute venue change. But there are some new wrinkles of scammery that are a cautionary tale to those seeking celebrity autographs, in particular. And the new venue is one of the eeriest sites I’ve ever seen for a con: an abandoned Macys at a local mall. It seems fans just ASSUMED the con would be thrown at the local Expo Center, but with just two weeks to go, the Macy’s location was announced, surprising many.
Also, although I haven’t confirmed this, one message board has some gossip that’s too hilarious not to pass along: an animal had died in the Macy’s leaving a lingering smell that vendors complained about. On a less macabre notes the bathrooms were never cleaned.
Empty mall spaces are actually a common venue for cons these days, and good shows can certainly be thrown in such places. But it sounds like Fandom Fest had a lot of problems besides the venue.
Local con-goer Kentucky Geek Girl has haunting photos – supplied by an anonymous source – of load in and set-up:
While the oddball locale would be enough to make Fandom Fest 2017 stand out in the annals of comic cons, the real problem is the nerdlebrity exodus that also took place a few weeks out. Among the notables who cancelled, everyone from headliner Weird Al Yankovic to Burt Ward to several Beauty and the Beast cast members. On a convention industry message board, one booker reports that hotel rooms and flights weren’t paid for up front, which led to celebs suddenly developing “shooting” or “personal reasons” to cancel. And the lack of accommodations was confirmed by at least one guest:
I didn't exactly cancel. They did not ever confirm travel and/or accommodations with two deadlines accepted to do so. It was all on them . https://t.co/UOZh42ABSc
— Charlie Adler (@charlie_adler) July 25, 2017
And perhaps between line readers could figure out the rest:
I'm sorry to say I will not be attending @fandomfest this weekend due to unforeseen circumstances.
— Ian Ziering (@IanZiering) July 26, 2017
— C. Andrew Nelson (@C_Andrew_Nelson) July 25, 2017
Among those who did show up: some Stranger Things kids, Matthew Lillard, Sting the wrestler, Sean Gunn and so on. NOt entirely awful. The comics guest list didn’t have a lot of bold faced names, but it’s the week after Comic-Con, what did you expect.
However, attendees had already shelled out hundreds of dollars for autographs. And as the con’s website made clear, there would be no refunds. This made people so mad, it made the local paper:
“It makes you want to pull your hair out and just scream at somebody. It should never have gotten this bad,” Jeffrey Thompson said. Thompson said he’s out at least $600 after buying tickets to see celebrities that will no longer be at the show. More than half of the celebrities originally on the list cancelled and, as stated clearly on the website, there are no refunds.
A law suit is even being planned. It’s common for celebrities to cancel on cons, and REPUTABLE CONS refund photo ops and autographs which are paid for in advance. Even Wizard says this in its website FAQ:
What happens if a Celebrity cancels, and I bought a VIP Admission, Photo Op or Autograph?
A – These are automatically refunded and you do not have to do anything. For VIP Admissions refunds, if you still want to attend the show, you must re-purchase new Admissions or VIP Admissions!
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE: It seems the fire marshal had some concerns about packing “30,000” people into Macy’s and would only allow 1700 in at a time:
Fandom Fest, which starts today, may be facing more problems than just the fact that more than half of its celebrity guests have canceled within the past week. The pop-culture convention, which in past years has grown to attract up to 30,000 attendees some years, has only been approved to host 1,700 attendees at a time at its new venue at the vacant Macy’s in the Jefferson Mall.
WAVE 3 TV spoke to Okolona Fire Marshal Mike Allendorf, who said: “They’ll have people posted with a little clicking device. So, when they hit 17 (hundred), that’s it — no one else can go in until someone decides to come out.”
Co-showrunner Myra Daniels has some United Airlines-like customer relations in response to claims that the celebs never had contracts and complaints about not getting refunds:
“I am not going to say that everything I have done… that I have no made mistakes. Absolutely I have made mistakes. Has there been a time maybe flights weren’t done on time that they had wanted? Maybe they said they wanted them by 30, 40, 50 days out and they weren’t done at that exact time. But did they have flights? Did they have hotels? Yes they did,” Daniels said.
When asked if she felt bad about the fans who were left without any celebrities that they wanted to see she said, “”No, I don’t feel bad about that, we’ve done nothing to rip anybody off. They knew that when they signed up. They even had to click a box saying I understand this.”
Making matters worse: this isn’t the first time Fandom Fest has come under fire. For the 2013 show, fans also complained of disorganization:
We woke up Saturday and downloaded the program to my iPad. Immediately we were confused. We looked under the “events” page to see what was going on and while rooms and times were listed, we didn’t know which building. It’s great that the Masquerade Ball is in “Grand Ballroom A” but is that the convention center or the Galt House? No matter, we knew our first task was to buy Claire’s fiance a photo op with the Boondock Saints. This was where the disaster started. No one in a staff shirt knew where the line was. Or what each line was. Or sometimes even what you were asking. Our strategy ended up being Claire stands in line, go to the front to ask what the line is for and move as appropriate.
Apparently the 2013 con was so badly organized that on his panel, John Barrowman, a man who knows his way around a con, told fans who didn’t get photos to ask for their money back. Kentucky Geek Girl also had a brutal take down., including some snarky tweets from Barrowman:
— John Barrowman MBE (@JohnBarrowman) July 25, 2013
And British actor Colin Baker:
Still waiting for someone to collect me to start FandomFest…
Watching CSI to pass the time…
— Colin Baker (@SawbonesHex) July 26, 2013
Still sitting in my room, sans schedule, sans information, sans everything
— Colin Baker (@SawbonesHex) July 26, 2013
Anyone at #fandomfest today who was waiting for my panel – the cancellation was nothing to do with me. I was ready and willing.
— Colin Baker (@SawbonesHex) July 28, 2013
If the idea of a former Doctor Who sitting in his hotel room, forgotten, watching CSI to pass the dreary hours, does not break your heart, nothing will.
And yet people keep coming back, and many on social media had a good time with the guests who were there for the 2017 show. A gallery of cosplayers set among the empty Macy’s display cases shows where there’s a will there’s a way. People go to comic cons to have a good time, and you don’t need Weird Al to do that. But some people have a lot of complaints, as well.
But a couple of things set this “When a con is crap” story apart in my mind. #1, local news media was ALL OVER THIS. There are numerous stories from all the Louisville papers and TV stations. Reporters did a little digging and found all kinds of issues, like the fire marshal problem, and the threats of a lawsuit. When the local media starts getting beyond “Hey people dress up at cons!” stories and actually report, you’ll see a show’s reputation take a hit. (Needless to say, negative remarks have been removed from the Fandom Fest Facebook page.)
#2, this show has really upset a lot of people. There’s a private FB groups devoted to talking about the show’s problems with hundreds of members. Announcing guests you have no intention of paying to come to the show and then not refunding VIP packages is clearly a shady way to run a con and brings the whole industry down.
Will the word get out about Fandom Fest enough to either make the show runners improve or make fans to decide not to go? I’m not really sure, but I’ll be checking back to see.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.