So there’s a few different topics I want to get to in the coming weeks: best punk bands, my apology to the Nintendo Switch, E3 predictions, etc. While I need a bit more time to do some journalizm on some of those future reads, I’ve been itching to talk about programming at conventions.
Cards on the table; since 2012 I’ve been in the business of putting together and coordinating programming for a few conventions, corporate events, and premieres. Because of confidentiality, I can’t list the full resume but if you’re perceptive you can probably take a guess on some of them. One thing I can say is no coordinator for comic cons enjoys dealing with submitted panel proposals. The sheer amount of submissions can sometimes be overwhelming, lack of lucid content can make you ram your head in a wall, the sheer balls it takes for a site with a 54 person twitter following to ask for the show’s top guest; it’s astounding what planners come across. However, panel submissions are a necessary evil in consumer driven conventions as a show of good faith towards the pop culture communities. NOTE: What I’m about to talk about is from my own experiences which aren’t the same for everyone that does this specialized job, but if you’ve ever wanted to have a panel at a convention I hope you’ll come out of this with a better understanding of what a “panel” actually is.
Let’s start with the onion people. Those who submit “panels” to smaller conventions simply looking for a free pass to the show. Convention programming is a helpful platform for anyone looking to put themselves out there and target an audience for a number of reasons. Any good show keeps tabs on attendance numbers and issues that might arise during programming. Low attendance doesn’t always mean you’re out, especially if you’ve got good content. However, no-showing a panel, violating any copyright laws (which we’ll talk about), or offending attendees in any way will get you blacklisted. A few years back an X-Men Evolution panel happened at a smaller convention I worked as a coordinator. The host/submitter was some stoner who happened to work at a popular comic book shop in the area. After the panel, the show received an email from an attendee who felt he’d been embarrassed during the panel when said host called his question “stupid” in front of the audience and after the session couldn’t help but point him out to the crowd as “stupid question guy over here”; it was probably one of the more immature issues to come to light. If you are accepted into a show’s programming lineup, YOU are representing the show utilizing its good will. Have fun, but know you don’t own the building or the name going in front of it that weekend. Personally, I keep a list of people who just ain’t gettin a second chance at any event I might work with in the future, believe me, this dude is on it.
So that brings us to the question of “how do I get my panel accepted?” It’s not as hard as you might think but understand that the larger and well recognized a convention is the less likely you are to get in, at least not without help. The numbers just aren’t in your favor. Between Cosplay groups, small press, local acts looking for exposure, podcasts, and exhibitors; there just isn’t enough physical room and audience bandwidth to go around if the show isn’t Reed Pop or CCI. If you have a local convention, they’re the best place to start. Most cons will have a link or email address to submit proposals. The more concise detail you can get in, the more likely a person reading it will take you seriously.
When submitting, your name is secondary to everything else. Conventions are looking at the content you can bring to it. If the person reading the proposals isn’t floored by your title, they know their audience won’t be either. Naming a panel is finding that sweet spot between short and informative. If you submit something that’s broad or basic, know that the show you’re submitting it to probably has something like it already planned. We all keep a small metal trashcan used to light those proposals on fire. For example, I can’t count how many submission forms I’ve received that simply call their panel “Cosplay 101”. You’re not being cute or clever. I’m looking for the people who put some thought into their words. Some of the better ones I’ve seen to that effect were “Suit Up!: Getting Set For Your First Day of Cosplay” or “How to Start Your Cosplay”; titles in a program guide are headlines. Like anyone in media will tell you; the more unconventional or witty a title is, the more likely it sells.
It goes double for creators at the show wanting to do something. Simply naming a panel after your independent comic book isn’t enough. There has to be some meat to it. If your comic book tackles diversity issues, play that card to expand the conversation. Not only does it look good to us, but it’s likely to attract people interested in the issue as well who may not have ever heard of your comic.
Should your proposal be for a podcast or press of some kind where you ask for featured guests at a show; know you are swimming in to very treacherous waters. First of all, every convention spends money on booking special guests in a variety or ways. From travel, appearance fees, even just comping a space is valuable resource coming out of a promoter’s pocket. It’s usually best not to demand Jim Lee be on your podcast taking place in a 50 seat room. If your notes on the form say “we’d like to be put in touch with talent attending the show”, unless you’re in the top 100 websites in the world, know that sh** ain’t happening.
It shows you don’t have manners or a plan. There is a way to give yourself a chance, it’s called etiquette. Back in 2014, there was a little thing called Eat.Geek.Play. A neat small press site with a modest following. Their E-I-C traded notes with me. Every single ask started with the phrase “Would it” or “Would we be able to” and every note ended with “Thank you”. In a business where 90% of the people demanding things feel they’re entitled to them, “please and thank you” go a long way. That year, I got him a couple of good guests including KROQ’s Ralph Garman.
There’s the all-important “Description” part of the application/form. This is not the part where you brag about how many conventions you’ve done this panel at or how many people you had in the room. We know you sitting on the stage do not take attendance. We also don’t care how many other shows this panel has been presented at. In fact, it’s best not to say that because no one wants a show’s sloppy seconds unless you’re the WB Movie presentation from SDCC. If you’ve nailed the title or a show is desperate enough for filler content that you didn’t go in the round file, the description will make or break you. Know that the bible is too long of a book and a fortune cookie is too short. A description is a place that should target your potential audience and be welcoming at the same time. You can start it with a question or an impactful subject, but don’t waste time. Most coordinators only have time to read the first 15 words before they decide your panel’s fate. A good description is between 75-100 words, sells what the audience will get out of the experience, lets them know who will be there, and why they’re important.
Here’s an example of a dumpster description I actually received for a show:
“The beginning of 2016 was dark for NJPW. They lost 2 of their top stars and their top tag team to the WWE. See who stepped up to create an unforgettable 2016 – 2017.”
That was the whole thing! I have no fu**ing clue what I’m in for. Am I wrestler? Is this dude going to walk off a stage? This is an extreme example of bad from someone who probably just wanted a free ticket to a con. But if you’ve written a description for a convention, you see where my point is going.
Here’s an example of a better one. Not perfect mind you, but definitely better:
“Mark Arganbright aka Professor Gel E Bean leads an informative interview and question and answer session with local cosplayer/builder Steven K Smith of SKS Props. Steven has been cosplaying only for a short time but finds himself at the top of the cosplay scene as one of the best costume and prop builders in the world. Last year at C2E2 he distinguished himself by earning 1st in the US regional competition and placed 3rd in the World Championships with his amazing Warcraft Orc. This year Steven appeared on SyFy channel’s cosplay competition show, Cosplay Melee. Come learn more about Steven’s meteoric rise to the top. Hear about his experiences on Cosplay Melee and ask questions about the techniques he uses to achieve excellence in prop building and costuming.”
The above description lets you know what the panel is about almost from the start, who is on it, as well as why they’re important. Best of all it’s sized at that sweet spot of not being too short while not being overworded. It will look good in a program.
There’s a lot more to talk about on this topic regarding content, interactivity, recognizing the voice of a particular show and adapting your panel for it. We’ll go over that and more in part two, but for now, I hope you’ve got enough to sharpen up your own panel ideas.