Universal Fan Con: What Went Wrong

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[This post originally went out with The Beat’s weekly newsletter, but with events moving very quickly I’ve already had to update it. See the end.]

If you spent your weekend doing fun things like seeing family or going on vacation, you may have missed perhaps the biggest imbroglio in “When A Con is Crap” history, Universal Fan Con. If you’re just joining us, here’s a brief timeline. If you just want to get to the new parts, scroll down. Reading tweets in the hashtag #universalfancon and #fancon over the last three days has been like watching a slow motion car crash over and over. But it’s also been heartbreaking because real people were hurt. Real people lost money.

Universal Fan Con started about two years ago with discussion among a group of fan/nerd/blerd culture figures. We first wrote about it in December 2016, when it was announced for April 2018 at the Baltimore Convention Center.

• A Kickstarter was run to fund the con.  It had lofty but important goals:

Universal Fan Con will take place on April 27th through the 29th of 2018, at the Baltimore Convention Center. Our goal is bring together at least 10,000 of our closest geek friends from all over the nation to have fun and celebrate geekdom in a place where all are welcome. The world of fandom is one in which personal identity plays a pivotal role. From cosplay to live action role play (LARP), identities of race, gender, and sexual orientation contrast with identities of genre, era, medium and myth.

In the Kickstarter Jamie Broadnax of Black Nerd Girls and Robert Butler of The Black Geeks are the first two names, and I mentioned them as spearheading the effort in my piece. Journalist Chauncey Robinson was also listed but indicates she left the project six months ago. Two other staffers were listed. The Kickstarter was very successful and raises more than $55,000, much more than the $20,000 that was asked for.

• Time passed and announcements were made. Occasional Beat staffer Elana Levin made plans to go to the con to present a panel; I tentatively discussed going down to the show for a day. Hundreds of other people around the world had already purchased stock to sell at the show; reserved hotel rooms and purchased travel.

• In the weeks leading up to the con, about for the last month or so, I saw many people tweeting to urge people to buy tickets to Universal Fan Con repeatedly on my twitter feed, usually through a discounted link. It was unusual, in my experience, to see this much activity about a con. However, I chalked it up to enthusiasm, although somewhere in the back of my head, I also thought “Hm, bet they need to sell tickets.”

• On the afternoon of Friday,  Apr. 20 an email went out to Kickstarter backers stating that the convention was cancelled. The email was not BCC’d, meaning 500 people just got each other’s email addresses.

• Shortly thereafter, co founder Robert Butler tweeted about what happened but later deleted them.

• Overnight, an official statement was released, which included a FAQ. Which said that no one would get their ticket prices refunded. That did not go over well.

• Co-founder Broadnax released a statement on the 21st as well.

I think it was about here that all hell broke loose.

All of the above confirmed that the show was out of money and couldn’t have been put on, but the official story at first is that when they told the hotel the show was cancelled the hotel went and cancelled the rooms, alerting people that the show was off.

My conjecture: the timing was about right to have missed a payment for hotel rooms and the hotel would then have cancelled the rooms, which would explain the suddenness of the event.

In the bigger picture, I don’t think you have to be too much of a detective to figure out what happened here: $55k is not enough to run a major show for 10,000 people with celebrities, panels, security, food, signage, insurance, venue costs and everything else.

The last few days have seen a fleet of buses come by for people to be thrown under. One person under suspicion is Thai Pham, who was on the UFC board and had previously thrown two cons that were cancelled under suspicious circumstances. Trae Dorn has that covered here.

This is three conventions in a row that have crashed and burned because of financial problems. There’s a pattern forming here, and it’s not a good one.

Look, I want to be clear — I’m not hear to assert motive or intention. Nor am I here to suggest that there’s been any deliberate wrongdoing. It’s entirely possible that Thai Pham is doing his very best to make these events happen. There is zero evidence to point towards anything else.

But these are failures due to money problems, and his background in con work was doing financials for one of the biggest anime conventions in the world. The best version of events here is that he’s really, really, really bad at planning conventions, and with all of these flops he’s not learning anything.

The Blerd Girl– who was an affiliate for UCF at one point and is now helping to organize the Wicomicon eventhas an excellent post with a lot of information. I think this is the bombshell graph:

What I’ve been told is that it was spent on the venue mostly. The Baltimore Convention Center I believe cost $40K and several contracts ate through the rest. (I do not have exact numbers on any of this because I wasn’t privy to any financial documents). The balance was supposed to come through ticket sales, contributions and sponsorships. I also know that several Fancon team members sunk a lot of their own money into the event. (over $300K)

Finally here’s a video from Dee of 3 Black Geeks, another affiliate, and he comes driving a huge, speeding bus right through the narrative:

This is what they call “straight talk.” According to Dee, the financial shortfalls were known as far back as February or March. Some urged the organizers to “scale it back” but that didn’t happen because of the egos involved, he claims.  He declines to name names because “I don’t want to be petty.” But in a quote that should enshrined he adds,”I’m not gonna drink tea on twitter because the tea is getting cold and bits of dead horse are being found in the tea.”

Someone please sign this man up.

There are so many heartbreaking tweets about how devastating this fiasco is to people who believed in this event and what it stood for. One more quote from a devastating blog post by sineaterdanyi:

I should still be gleefully gluing beads to my Okoye cosplay, not angrily writing an essay to keep from crying.

The matter of Broadnax’s involvement has also become a huge controversy. Many writers have left the Black Nerd Girl network that Broadnax runs and a lot of tea is being spilled over her behavior. It’s also been pointed out that she shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame when there were clearly others (men) who didn’t slam on the brakes when it was obvious what was happening. But I can’t helping thinking of Open Letter About Black Girl Nerds that she wrote in the middle of March where she mused on the future of BGN. The timing would be about right for it to have been a writing on the wall moment for UFC. Again, conjecture.

UPDATE: See below Broadnax has resigned as BGN editor in chief.

The fallout from this is still unfolding. Jazmine Joyner and Rosie Knight are writing a story about this for Women Write About Comics, and the threads of their Mueller-like investigation can be seen spreading out about Twitter even as the story gets bigger and more bizarre.

I feel uncomfortable writing about this in some ways, as I’m not a member of the blerd community that Universal Fan Con was meant to reflect and celebrate. It is not for me to say how that community should police itself or how people in it should feel about this.

However, as a long time writer about conventions and con culture, I will Heidi-splain one thing: You gotta start small, people. Look at Flame Con, the queer-focused, volunteer-run show that has become one of the gems of the NYC scene. It started in a weird event space, moved to a hotel and has now moved to a bigger hotel. For Year Four. Throwing a big con costs A LOT OF MONEY. Don’t invest your own money in throwing a big con!

In my youth I helped throw a banquet for a cartooning organization I was involved with. The agony of getting people to commit to steak or chicken instilled in me the knowledge that I would never, ever throw a big event on my own. When I do an event, I pick a nice space and invite nice people. That’s the level I’m capable of. Sometimes you gotta stay in your lane.

The Beat is littered with horrifying yet darkly amusing stories of cons that went bad, but these bad shows hurt real people. Based on what I’ve read and heard, I don’t think the original UFC people were there to abscond with a lot of money. I think they probably wanted the props that comes from doing something that helps a lot of people. I’m guessing that the ones that were part of the community believed in what they were doing. It seems that some shady characters came on board as things went on, but I’ll leave that to another story. Maybe I’m being too generous. Time will tell.

Also: plenty of white run cons fail. Plenty of minority-run and themed shows succeed. This story is a unique and specific one.

Universal Fan Con ended up conning a lot of people, and we’re nowhere near the end of that story. There is a lot of dead horse in that tea for sure.

UPDATE: and news continues to flow.

• As mentioned above, Broadnax has resigned from BGN, as announced over night on Twitter.

The claim that she is an “unpaid volunteer” has been met with a lot of pushback, since she was clearly one of the forward facing oganizers when the Kickstarter was announced.

• Nicole Gibson has rounded up complaints about Broadnax here.

• I’ve confirmed that Showclix has sent out refunds for tickets that were purchase for an Infinity Wars screening and a UFC associated karaoke party. These tickets were probably purchased at vendors other than FanCon, thus there is money for refunds.

I’ll continue to update this post with major developments.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Of course I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but if you are planning something like this, you think you’d at least reach out to someone with experience at this kind of thing and try to get some first hand information/advice on what truly is needed to pull of something like this. I’m sure financials would be at the top of the list with so many unanticipated/unexpected costs that could quickly escalate and run you off the rails.

  2. An event of this magnitude requires more than an enthusiastic committee; it needs a team with experience and a top tier with a solid grasp of business finance. This isn’t some a daft 1940s musical where something can be thrown together in an empty barn: convention venues are commercial operations, and will expect anyone they deal with to approach such an enterprise in the very same frame of mind.

  3. One of the main problems with Kickstarter is that the people starting projects often have absolutely no idea what it actually costs in the real world to pull off what they’re promising.

    So yeah, like you said: Start small.

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