The potential innate sadness and tawdriness of the “nerdlebrity autograph/photo op faire” aspect of contemporary “comic-cons” gets examined in this piece at The Walrus by Jonathan Kay entitled Ron Weasley Made Me Sad, in which a dad takes his kids to Fan Expo Canada and, unencumbered by the fannish enthusiasm that often overlooks just how mercenary the meet-and-greet economy can be, takes a cold hard look at facts:
In fact, the best way to describe Fan Expo’s celebrity protocol is as a sort of Chicago Mercantile Exchange for human beings. Instead of live cattle, lean hogs, skimmed milk powder, cash-settled butter, and softwood pulp, this big board (displayed above) lists prices for Billy Dee Williams, Gillian Anderson, Danny Trejo, Neve Campbell, Norman Reedus, Skeet Ulrich, Zach Galligan, and fifty other stars and quasi-stars. The precision of the numbers suggests a fine-tuned demand-driven adjustment process that any commodities trader would recognize. Williams (Lando Calrissian from Star Wars, but you knew that) was listed at $57. Anderson (X-Files): $91. Danny Trejo (Machete): $74. Neve Campbell (Scream): $97. Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead): $130. Skeet Ulrich (Jericho): $68. Zach Galligan (Gremlins): $63. Just my luck: Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley, Harry Potter’s red-haired sidekick) was listed at $142—highest on the board. I wanted to bail out. But having made the mistake of getting dragged this far, turning back wasn’t going to be a good-dad move.
Kay eventually shells out over $300 for a photo with Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) as well as the Weasley Twins (James and Oliver Phelps) — a transaction that lasted all of five seconds.
The reason I felt sad and hollow after meeting the Weasleys wasn’t that I’d spent a lot of money. It was that in the space of just five-and-a-half seconds, that entire free-to-be-you-and-me conceit got turned on its head. When it comes down to the big money, it’s actually not okay to be unpopular or odd: It’s all there in black and white on the human mercantile exchange, like the middle-school social hierarchy that Greg Heffley meticulously tracks in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Drop below $50, and they don’t even put you on the big board. (You’re on notice, Lando.)
Now, to be fair, it appears that old Thunderpants isn’t ready for the human throngs of a comic-con, according to one commenter:
I think it’s worth noting also that this was Rupert Grint’s first ever fan convention. So this is not how he makes his living. His co-stars, Tom Felton and James and Oliver Phelps, who are old hands at conventions, said that he was very nervous about it and asked a lot of questions about what it would be like. He is known to be shy and gets nervous in front of large crowds, so it’s very possible that he was simply overwhelmed by the experience. Other reports from the convention have people who met him describing him as very sweet, so it may be that your family simply caught him at a bad time.
I’ve been covering nerdlebirty con culture for as long as there has been a Beat (13+ years) and it’s obviously way bigger than it has ever been, as social media has removed so many of the layers between fans and their idols. People want ever closer connections to their obsessions and comic-con culture is part of that. Some slebs seem to thrive on it – Norman Reedus will wade right into a throng of seething fans as easily as a horde of zombies – and others, like Grint are seemingly mortified. However $50 is $50…and many former childhood stars and third victim from the left SF film quasi actors find this a good way to pay for ongoing rehab. A bunch of booking agents have sprung up who handle all this, and the fan photo op has become the basis of an entire economy.
But there is often an ongoing sadness here. I remember at the Wizard World New York that was held at Pier 94 there were many former prime time stars who I had never seen at such a show, and they had little or no lines. There was one guy who had been in one of my all time favorite shows (non genre) and was my favorite character on said show who was just sitting there alone looking like he wanted to kill himself. Doubtless a better expression on his face might have drawn in more people, but it was not a pleasant time for him and I’ve never seen his name listed again at an autograph faire. That said, some people just love it! I reported on EternalCon in June where I watched Marina Sirtis work the crowd like a pro, clearly loving it. And to be clear, as mentioned in the comments on the Jay piece, you CAN usually go up and chat to a nerdlebrity for free, although for actual one time movie stars like Val Kilmer and Carrie Fisher it might not be possible. But most people who set up time after time are used to awkward banter and and quite approachable. Or, like Casper van Dien they won’t let up until you buy a $25 photo. I used to go to Chiller Theater regularly, a Halloween themed autograph show, and always had a great time. I’ve met several of the veteran nerdlebrities listed on the above price board for free and had some nice chats. (I understand they now have more paid photo ops however.) In fact, I’ve met just about everyone I’ve ever wanted to meet. But I understand for some people, meeting an idol is still on the bucket list. Convention photo ops may be little above a cattle call, but as long as the need exists they will exist. Just be kind to each other and be kind to yourselves along the way.
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.