Universal FanCon organizers give first interview since abrupt postponement of convention

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Following the abrupt postponement last month of Universal FanCon, an inclusive convention for women, people of color, disabled and LGBT fans of “geek culture,” a couple of the organizers have spoken with New York Magazine‘s Vulture, and it sounds like one has kind of come around to blaming the fans.

Robert Butler, founder of the website and podcast The Black Geeks, told Vulture in an interview published yesterday that he thought the overall enthusiasm for the event online would lead to more ticket sales.

“Unfortunately, they just didn’t,” he told the magazine. “I should have known better. But I let my belief in this nonexistent community blind me.”

Organizers were hoping for 10,000 people but only sold about 1,700 tickets by early April, according to the article. But that doesn’t paint the full picture: As part of the rewards for a crowdfunding campaign that kicked off in 2016, donors who gave $10 or more received at least a one-day pass for the weekend-long festival. Many reward options offered weekend passes.

Per Kickstarter’s count, more than 800 people received tickets by backing the funding effort. The campaign received $56,498, more than double the initial goal of $25,000.

According to Butler, a large chunk of this went to paying the Baltimore Convention Center, which required a deposit of $45,000. The convention center confirmed to Vulture that the payment had been made. Beyond that, organizers declined to show Vulture’s reporter, Lila Shapiro, any receipts or budgets, citing legal concerns.

They claim in the piece that the office of Attorney General Brian Frosh has reached out about consumer protection claims. Raquel Coombs, public information officer for Frosh, would only tell Baltimore Fishbowl, “Our office does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations.”

Trae Dorn, a writer at the site Nerd & Tie, which covers fan conventions, told Vulture that booking a convention center for a con in its first year was a critical error.

“With that Kickstarter money, they could have easily run a successful convention out of a hotel,” he said. “I can think of so many failed conventions that crashed and burned before they ever opened their doors because they said, ‘Let’s book a convention center!’ but then couldn’t get the money together.”

Butler attributes the belief they could fill a convention center to believing in the social media hype surrounding the convention.

“We were in the bubble of social media,” he said. “Our critical mistake on size and scope was that we believed that our combined tens of thousands of Twitter followers would actually come out and support us.”

According to the organizers, the Kickstarter ran out half a year after the campaign ended, and Butler and staffers at The Black Geeks started dipping into their own pockets to hire a marketing consultant and book celebrity guests.

In April, faced with huge deficits and a decision about whether or not to cancel, they decided to soldier on and reduce the guest list to cut costs. They reportedly hoped to attract a corporate sponsor to help them. SyFy Wire came through with $10,000, but that wasn’t enough.

The postponement notice went out a week before the convention was to take place, leaving many vendors, artists, celebrities and attendees marooned.

Other local groups banded together to quickly form Wicomicon, offering a home to the community Universal FanCon was trying to support.

Brandon Weigel

Brandon Weigel is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has been published in The Washington Post, The Sun, Baltimore Magazine, Urbanite, The Baltimore Business Journal, b and others. Prior to joining Baltimore Fishbowl, he was an editor at City Paper from 2012 to 2017. He can be reached at [email protected]
Brandon Weigel

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