Friday, September 15, 2017

CON LIFE: Why We Didn't Bring Your Favorite Actor to the Con

Once my next birthday hits, I will officially have been working cons for more than half my life. Conventions -- guesting, staffing, attending, observing -- have been a big part of my life and, later, my career. And in my work with Onezumi Events and other event planning groups, I've been privileged to learn about how and why things go the way I do.

While every convention is as different to each other as the next, there is always one piece of feedback that never, ever changes: wondering why we "won't" have a big-name guest.

My problem is this. Years working in event planning, hosting, etc. makes me just automatically flinch at the question because I know why. I know every potential reason why someone may not be on the guest list this year. And I have to remind myself that this is not a knee-jerk thing for everyone. In many ways, going to a themed event and not seeing the person you consider the poster child for the thing can feel like a waste or a betrayal.

So, you know. In my usual way, I want to pull back the curtain a bit and tell you -- not scold, God knows, but tell you -- why your fave wasn't here this year.

A Few Points Before We Begin

This is gonna sound stupid and kind of patronizing, but it's something you have to hold in your mind to understand any of this.

Guests are people, too.

While some really do make all their big money anymore doing guest appearances, many -- most, in fact -- are still working. Whether that's acting, appearances other than cons, or cutting and running to make a jazz album because honestly that's actually all they've wanted to do with their lives and now they can afford to.

This explanation can't function unless you can acknowledge and understand that guests of all calibers, small to big, webcomic artist to action star, are human beings with needs and wants outside of seeing fans.

Guests can love their fans and need other things, just like you can love your friends but have a late shift or want to sleep in.

Good? Forward.

How Does a Con Sign a Guest?

I've talked about this elsewhere, but a speedy run-down for those who may have missed it.

Most guests have an agent, and some even have a specific convention agent or agency. (Many of the regulars you see on the con circuit actually work with an agency whose sole job is getting them spots at cons.) Negotiations have to go back and forth, and be signed and countersigned, with the con, the guest, and the agent.

Incidentally, this is the main reason why cons often take a long time to announce "signed" guests -- we're waiting on the counter-signature and if something goes belly-up and we've already announced the guest, we've just lied to you and now everyone's upset.

Anyway. Guests are paid up-front or via guarantee. Big cons or cons with backers can do up-front payment. "Guarantee" means the guest will leave the con with what they asked for, be it via sales or payment from the con. If their guarantee is $5,000 and they make $6,000 via photos and autographs, they take home $6,000. If they make $4,000, they take that and the con pays the difference.

Working actors, or actors with families/friends/immune systems, may have to cancel for reasons that can't be changed. Work, for example. A sick child. Those sorts of things. That's where cancellations tend to come from.

So with all that under our belt.

You came to our con, but we didn't have Your Guest and that upsets you. I get it. Truly. Why? How about we bring them next year? That's easy, right? Just, you know, ask them.

Now we can get into what issues might prevent a guest from coming:


I know, that's a lousy reason, huh? Actors love their fans. We understand there's money involved, but isn't there a way you could get them to come for cheaper or free for the sake of the fans?

The problem is, convention time and travel counts as "work hours" for them. Even though it's not a comment on their love of the fans and the fandom and the community, what's a vacation for you really is a job for them. That can be hard to admit because the instinct is to somehow take that as an insult. But it's not. It's just a fact.

Smaller cons can't necessarily get guests who are six figures a weekend, much less six figures a day. We'd love to. But conventions make very clear decisions on venues, size, ticket price, and the like, which often require less-than-fun choices about guest caliber.

How You Can Fix That: Go to smaller cons! Buy their merch, support them, talk them up. Just because they can't afford a guest this year doesn't mean they never can, and if you support smaller venues, they'll have the bandwidth to reach out to bigger people.


Signing guests on a guarantee is a bit like gambling. You have to ask yourself, "Will this person's name bring in enough people to make their guarantee or bolster us enough that we don't go into debt paying off the guarantee?" You have to decide if certain guests together will be a bigger draw. Will adding this very expensive guest to your existing lineup draw enough members of a separate demographic to be worth it?

Obviously, some guests aren't a gamble. But many that are asked for, especially by hardcore fans who know a lot about the characters, do become calculated risks. This is independent of them as human beings (and considering the gamble sucks because sometimes we want to bring someone we love but we just know it won't work without a certain set of other guests around them).

How You Can Fix That: It would be misleading of me to say "gather up enough people to convince the con it's worth it," because that's still iffy. And just asking fifty times becomes a bit of a broken record. However, if you really want a guest and can demonstrate their popularity at other events (with numbers, not with eyeballs), that might be a thing to consider.


Here's another fun piece of con business. You know how you see that a guest is coming to a super-big event three hours away and there's a smaller event closer to you the following week? Your first thought is "Oh, because they're at BiggoCon, they can hop a train to SmalloCon!"

The thing is? This is exactly the reason they can't.

Many cons have what's called "blackouts" -- agreements that, if a guest appears at their event in a certain region (the mid-Atlantic, say), the guest can't also appear at another similar event in the same region for a couple months before and after. This is to protect their business and make their guest acquisition, you know, means something.

For the most part, it's a good thing for business -- though it does mean some big cons who want to snipe the life out of small cons will park next to them and drain the guest pool.

How You Can Fix That: Sadly, you can't. It's a contractual obligation, and it's something that actively prevents appearances. On a long-term scale, supporting your local venue so they have more pull for big guests and get past the blackout window first is a help -- but in the short term, it is what it is.

Real Life

Fun story: we almost had a huge Doctor Who guest at a con one year. We were so close. Then she got back to her agent and said her best friend was getting married that weekend, and all bets were off.

This is a big one to remember. Guests have jobs. They have friends. Sometimes an "I can't" is just that: they can't. There's a job. A previous commitment. A family issue. Things that they themselves are already committed to that they have no ability (or desire) to get out of.

How You Can Fix That: Be understanding and move on.

They Don't Want To

Some guests don't want to do cons. Ever. Sometimes they just don't feel like it because they don't dig it. Sometimes they've had a bad experience at one con and they swear off cons (or cons in a specific country/region or of a specific type) forever. Some do not like the business end of it and just refuse.

Which guests are those? I'm not telling you. Honestly, because I as a fan and as a con staffer don't want those people's personal choices to be taken as dislike of the fans. These people love the fans. They really do. It's just the event scene they don't like. Kind of like how if all your friends were getting together but they were going to a hipster tapas bar and dear God you hate hipster tapas bars so you might just stay home.

And for guests who've had bad experiences, I feel even less inclined to elaborate. If someone had a bad time and has made a decision based on that, that's their decision. And for all the people saying "But maybe if they came to this one they'd like cons again," I get you. I feel it too. I've also watched it happen. But again, their choice. If I could get you to come over and watch all 49 episodes of GaoGaiGar maybe you'd watch more giant robot anime with me, but offering someone the chance doesn't obligate them to take it.

How You Can Fix That: In existing cases, you can't. But in potential future cases? Be kind. Be polite. Treat guests how they'd want to be treated. Do your part as an attendee to make the event comfortable and fun for them, so that we don't lost more amazing potential guests to bad experiences.

It's Possible, But Not Pleasant

We once had the opportunity to get a huge-name guest on a day trip... but that day trip would have wiped them out in the middle of them rehearsing for a play. We offered several potential options to make it less stressful, but none of them was feasible.

In the end, we said no thank you. Physically bringing them to the event for a certain set of hours, paying them their due, etc. was completely possible. But they'd have missed a full night's sleep (if not more) in the middle of a very important gig, and while they were willing to do it, we weren't willing to do it to them.

Yeah, we were kicking ourselves up and down the hallway. But we knew the guest in question would be happier in the long run. Plus, we were potentially avoiding a Bad Experience (see above) that might have made them hesitant to come to our event -- or others -- ever again. We, of course, extended an invite for a future year when things would work out better.

How You Can Fix That: You can't fix it, but it's a good moment for thought. Are you still okay with meeting your fave even if the circumstances are unpleasant and exhausting for them? Is your desire to see them at an event also inclusive of their comfort and well-being? Good event runners consider the guests' comfort to be indispensable. As, hopefully, do fans.

... Other Reasons

This is the one I least wanted to talk about, but fortunately it refers to the smallest slice of the pie.

Guys? Guests are human beings. And not all human beings are nice. That's the sucky truth.

Fortunately, as I said, this is a really slim number. But once in a while you'll run across an individual that you discover you just can't have at your event for a variety of reasons. Maybe they're known for breaking contract. Maybe they're regularly offensive in front of children or attendees in general. Maybe they're just really unpleasant to work with.

I list this only because it's fair to note. Not because I have a certain person in mind. I've been extremely fortunate to never have worked with a guest who was anything but awesome. I think the majority of event planners are equally lucky. But it's a truth, and it's a thing that has prevented some guests from getting many convention jobs.

How You Can Fix That: It's... it can't be. It's life. That person made their choice. Which is pretty sad, but it is what it is.

The short, potentially obvious version of all this is what I said before: guests are people, too, and thus their lives and their livelihoods are subject to the same things ours are. If someone in your close friend group doesn't make it out to a gathering at the beach house for a weekend, it's never because of maliciousness or forgetfulness, is it? There's always a reason, and the reason almost always has to do with respecting that friend's wishes. They have a work shift they can't get out of, or a prior engagement with family. They can't afford the trip and you can't spot them at the moment. Maybe they really don't like the beach, or maybe the only way they could make it would involve an expenditure of time and energy that would make the trip not worth it. But none of those occasions is an issue of forgetting them or not wanting them.

Now, this isn't me saying don't ask for guests if the con in question has a suggestion form. If there's a form where you can suggest guests or panels or what have you, put in your vote. That helps with the "Gamble" portion of the issue -- and many times it's been attendee suggestion that has gotten us to rethink the level of gamble we're dealing with.

If all goes well, maybe you'll get to meet your fave!

And what to do when that happens will be the topic of Monday's entry.

Are you a Doctor Who fan? Check out (Re)Generation Who, the mid-Atlantic's premiere Doctor Who event! Our fourth event takes place this coming March, and we'll have visits from Peter Davison, Michelle Gomez, Pearl Mackie, and more to be announced. We're an event built specifically to help fans of smaller-sized events have big-event-style fun!