Supanova: The Sometimes Toxic Culture of Conventions

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Supanova problem
Image by EG Mum

Editors’ Note: GeekMom writers have been credentialed at (among many others) San Diego Comic-Con, New York Comic Con, C2E2, DragonCon, Denver Comic Con, and Boston Comic Con. Some have also been panelists at NYCC and DragonCon.

A wise colleague recently reminded me, “Every Con has at least two levels of ‘culture’; the attendees, and the management.” Most conventions I have been to in Australia are able to balance the fine line between keeping the attendees happy and keeping the management paid. It’s not always perfect; every convention has its strengths and flaws. But when management problems filter through to the attendees, it can sour the whole experience.

Sydney Supernova: Not a Safe Space

I recently attended Sydney Supanova and while I’m pretty sure the following article is going to blacklist me from future Supanova events, for the third year in a row I am in no hurry to return. I love the event as a collective expression of fandom and fascination, but it is marred by the underlying culture behind the scenes.

I love geeky conventions. I love the cosplay, the enthusiasm, the encouragement. It’s about local talent putting themselves out there to catch the eye of the general public. It’s a rare opportunity for ‘out of reach stars’ to be brought to adoring fans and share a little of their humanity. It is a fantastic way to introduce our spawnlings to the creativity behind everything they adore themselves, from writers to artists and actors. And I am grateful for the organisers in providing all of this in a convention like Supanova.

But we’re talking geeky pop-culture. These are conventions within our society, and as such are not immune from contemporary social issues. They are supposed to be safe places to express your passion without hurting yourself or others. And yet for the last three years, Supanova has instead courted controversy like a bad dance partner they either can’t ditch, or don’t want to.

Strike One: 2015 and Adam Baldwin

Two years ago, while in the midst of ‘Gamergate‘, Sydney Supanova invited Adam Baldwin as a guest to complement Nathan Fillion and attract some Fireflies to the convention. Considering Baldwin’s direct involvement in the horrible environment of Gamergate, it was understandable for many regular attendees and returning guests to voice their concerns.

At the time, Supanova management acknowledged but rejected these concerns—instead, they placed ‘Cosplay Is Not Consent’ signs as the deterrent for any bad behavior. There was no acknowledgment of Gamergate as an immediate social issue. In fact, the whole issue was felt by many as being “palmed off” with a (desperate) air of nonchalance. This prompted an outspoken boycott from a number of Australian artists, writers, businesses, and cosplayers, especially after the backlash received for voicing their concerns. Strike one for social insensitivity.

Strike Two: 2016 and Safe Schools Program

Last year, Supanova Head Honcho Daniel Zachariou was publicly linked to a petition against the Australian Safe School program (a program to support anti-bullying behavior and support transgender issues within public schools) because he was afraid of the influence from the LGBTQIA+ community on school kids.

Once again, the geek community questioned the culture endorsed by Supanova management. Supanova responded with a half-arsed attempt at a Diversity panel (you can read all about it in my review from last year). Once again, it was relegated to the “don’t talk about it” folder. Word on the floor was consistent: no-one was happy with the culture or vibe, but no-one really knew what else they could do. The list of boycotts grew. However, Supanova is one of the biggest conventions in Sydney for cosplayers and smaller local artists/creators. You don’t want to willingly blacklist yourself from these events; especially if you are trying to break into the industry as a first-time creator.

Strike two for social insensitivity and lack of enthusiasm to follow through with your claims to change.

Strike Three: Now It’s Personal

This year, I was hesitant to go. After the hassle and interrogation for a media pass last year, I was reluctant to ‘jump through hoops’ again. It was only after contact with a few returning exhibitors and guests, I decided to apply for the media pass.

The exhibitors I spoke with in the lead-up to Supanova expressed concerns about management; predominantly about the changed floor-plan this year (moving the Artists Alley into a second building next door) and the same social issues hanging over from the previous years.

When the floor plan was initially released, the first reaction was “Yay! More space!” However, it was soon realized how this would negatively impact on their participation. Some exhibitors perceived a direct impact on the flow of traffic from the ‘special guests’ and displays to their stalls. They were worried they would be too far removed from the main attractions, and not be able to compete for attention with the ‘big name businesses’ in the Main Area.

On the weekend, the vibe was far from enthusiastic. Many patrons had trouble finding the Artists Alley in the first place. The second building was set up with a stage at one end, sectioned off with a partition before exiting to Artists Alley and the Star Wars 501st display. In theory, attendees would finish a panel at this stage (for example, Chris Hemsworth) and then exit out to the comic book creators and on to the artists. In practice, the attendees easily exited out the same door for entry and were redirected back to huge commercial entities and away from the smaller local artists.

 

From a sales POV, I know one table who usually averages $2,000 on a Saturday and this year made only $700. That covers costs only. Another in the writer’s alley was placed right next to the Stage area but around the corner of the doors. He couldn’t hear what his fans were saying most of the time. He felt completely disconnected and ‘shoved in a corner’. He was one of many who felt like he was considered of less value because he wasn’t a huge commercial entity; despite being an invited guest.

And then there was my experience with the PR of Supanova, which was far from exemplary.

  • Pre-Convention: When I rang to discuss interview requests and general media enquiries, I was reprimanded for not following the email and for disturbing him prior to the event—despite his email saying to call him, and giving me his direct number with no suggestion of “best time to call”. I had presumed normal business hours a few days before the event would be ideal. Instead, I was treated with contempt and then he hung up on me.
  • Arrival: Picking up the media pass on site was smooth and uneventful. However, there was no further information provided regarding rules of the day, who to speak to, interviews to arrange, etc. We attended only one day (as per the allowance last year), and then found out we should have been there all weekend. It is helpful for us to do our job if we can be advised of any updates or additional information, especially since part of our service to readers and event organisers is to share that information.
  • Interviews: I called the media contact, as requested, only to be brushed off and told he would call me back. I waited an hour before trying again, to be told he was busy organising the “real media” and would get back to me. When he attempted to hang up on me again, he missed the big red button and continued to talk to whoever it was with him. His mistake because I overheard him say “some little girl from some little site“.

Wow. Just … wow.

I’ll admit. I was stunned. Clearly, I wasn’t scoring that interview with Temuera Morrison after all. Shame – he at least sounds like a lovely guy.

The first strike against Supanova related to a social issue originating from overseas; it was, unfortunately, easy to think it was not close enough to cause any great problem.

The second strike related to a social issue within our immediate community; however again it was easy to say “at least he apologized and they did try to make the effort with a panel…”

The third strike is personal but also emblematic of overall behavior. If he is saying this about me—how is he treating others? I have since received a few more recounts of their day with Supanova. A number of photographers and videographers were refused entry with their kit. One media representative rejected by staff at the gate asked why and received a derogatory glance up and down her body. Infuriated, this source then fired back “Oh, is it because I am female? Or is it because you know I’m gay?” to which she received the reply “Does it matter?

Now, let me clarify a few things here. Every writer here at GeekMom and GeekDad (and many I know elsewhere) attends every event in a professional capacity. This is our job, our work. And we do it because we know we have readers like you who have passions and interests like us. Despite our fandoms, we are reporters and that requires a level of professionalism.

We go to these events to share information with readers. We go to meet with artists, cosplayers, exhibitors, and find the cool geeky stuff to share with you. We go to these events to encourage others to go as well. It is a job and a relationship. And most of the time: the management teams are professional and respectful.

Making the comment “some little girl” is not just an insult to me but it also brings into question whether this is how the con organizers see all writers who review these events. It makes it sound like only those who are ‘mates’ (nudge nudge, wink wink) with the PR Manager can gain access to the inner sanctum. It gives me the impression I missed something in all of their professional questions on the web page. Some other ‘performing monkey’ task I needed to complete? A secret handshake, perhaps? I know many writers, both Australian and international, who will resent this implication. Resent it with a burning passion. It’s not just sexist; it is downright insulting to our professionalism and our relationship with our readers.

I also know many PR people, in Australia and internationally, who are going to be livid about the negative impact on their profession. There are many hard-working PR staff who are in contact with all levels of media to find out how best to meet your interests. They communicate, they research, they respond, because that’s their jobs. And they are professional and respectful.

This guy just crapped over all of that.

I know I’m not the only one. But right now, I am the only one who is going to speak out. I don’t want this culture oozing out of the management and down onto the show floor. The attendees are better than that. The exhibitors are better than that. The guests are better than that. But there is a pattern in behavior, stretching over three years. Whether or not it is intended, it needs to be addressed before it drags everyone down with it.

And not talking about it, no matter how intimidating this entire process has been… well, that would be to say “it’s okay”. That would be conceding this as the way writers and media and PR work. And I can’t do that. I won’t do that. There is an opportunity for change here. A real opportunity for improvement but first there needs to be some indication they want to change. And a ‘diversity panel’ isn’t going to be enough.

I will miss the cosplay. I will miss the artists and creators and writers. I may even miss some of the guests (that I never really had the chance to meet this time anyway).

I may never be invited back to Supanova. But in the words of someone I respect far more, who would I be if I stayed?

Three strikes. I’m out of there.

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