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DragonCon devours Middle-earth: what can fandom do?

I attended my first fan convention in 1992. It was World Fantasy Con and there I met a dear lady and now departed friend, Clara Miller, who recruited me to join the volunteers of her small north Georgia convention, Magic Carpet Con. I say “recruited” but I was a complete stranger to Clara and she to me; she handed me a flyer announcing Magic Carpet ON I. For some reason, I found myself on the last night of the MCC convention helping Clara count money in the con suite. There had been a dispute among the con staff (as sadly happens too often) and virtually the entire crew left. I promised Clara I would help the next year but I wasn’t able to take on the responsibility of being a board member.

They eventually recruited me for the board of directors for MCC III and eventually we started a new convention, Galacticon. Somewhere along the way I met one of the senior directors for DragonCon. I had heard of Georgia’s “big” convention. All my friends had attended it at least once but I was remiss in my fan experience, mainly because I kept so busy with other things. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the DragonCon guy was there looking for volunteers for the big convention. Some people criticized this practice but when I mentioned the criticism to him he pointed out that all the small cons were recruiting each other’s staff, too.

Ah, the world of fandom convention politics. I learned more and more about the topic as the years rolled by. Small conventions, big conventions, all conventions have their little differences of opinion. Those differences can turn into huge feuds, the sense of which escapes the majority of people. I will spare you the usual digressions to say that I saw plenty of differences of opinion. But con runners also want to create a great experience for their guests and their attendees. I watched many people go out of their ways to make that happen. If you don’t know how much work goes into giving you a great 3-4 day convention, then the convention staff has done its job.

DragonCon boasts an annual attendance of around 60,000-75,000 people. Maybe the real number is higher. As a privately owned, commercial convention they don’t have to disclose their exact attendance and revenues to the public. What you need to know is that DragonCon is the product of a lot of different opinions and ideas, and yet the chaos is managed at the top by the relatively small group of senior directors.

They gave me a Hercules and Xena fan programming track simply because I asked why they didn’t already have one (and because they knew I had experience at running a convention with hundreds of attendees, which was comparable to what a good fan track might build up to). Two years later when it was obvious that Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies were going to be a huge cinematic wave across the globe I asked the powers that be at DragonCon if I could launch the Tolkien and Middle-earth track. Because Hercules and Xena were filmed in New Zealand, and because the LoTR movies were recruiting film crews from the Herc/Xena productions, I was sure we would be able to bring in guests that could benefit both fan tracks and main programming.

I had a winning argument going in to the annual pitch competition. I was assured that every year people were proposing new tracks and most of them were shot down, but upon hearing my argument the senior director who sponsored me said he was pretty sure the leadership would agree. And they did.

At DragonCon 2016 fans for Middle-earth and Westeros waited for the start of an epic panel. Michael took this picture from the stage.
At DragonCon 2016 fans for Middle-earth and Westeros waited for the start of an epic panel. Michael took this picture from the stage.

I ran the track for two years but I gave it up because I had been doing conventions for a decade, I was traveling across the USA to get to Atlanta, and I just wanted a break from convention management. But the Tolkien and Middle-earth track continued without me and even grew beyond my best expectations. In 2016 the Tolkien programming featured huge events that could not be hosted in the track’s assigned space. I sat on a Middle-earth vs. Westeros panel that drew a larger audience (I was told) than the media guests. There is no shame in admitting that Tolkien & Middle-earth is BIG at DragonCon.

And yet within weeks after the last convention Larry Curtis, the last track director, posted something curious on the track’s Facebook page. He asked the members of the group if they could help justify why a Tolkien track was necessary for DragonCon. More than one person read between the lines, but I sensed a change in the winds of DragonCon. I had lost touch with other track directors through the years. They used to have a strong Star Trek track, and a powerful Star Wars track, and other tracks. But dedicated fan programming tracks had a way of dying off as television shows and movie franchises reached the ends of their production runs.

Any science fiction franchise that continues to create new art whether it be books, comic books, movies, or television shows has a very good chance of retaining a large active fan base at conventions. But Hercules & Xena vanished along with several other once valued tracks. As a convention runner I could see what the senior directors might be thinking: the dedicated tracks that last longest tend to be the generic ones that incorporate a lot of different franchises, like the Fantasy Literature track, the British Media (now the Brit) track, and so on. You can find Fantasy Literature, American SciFi & Fantasy Media, and Anime/Manga tracks on the DragonCon site but where are all the dedicated FAN FRANCHISE tracks? They are gone. No, wait. They are on page 2.

I know that Whedonverse and Tolkien’s Middle-earth have been cancelled. The cancellations were not because of low numbers, not because of poor feedback, and not because of lack of space. DragonCon sprawls across downtown Atlanta, consuming at least five major hotels and a convention center. Even if they are crowded for space right now they can negotiate for more space with more buildings. This convention makes a profit or two. Bringing in more people brings in more money. I don’t have access to the books but I would say that DragonCon generates between $30 million and $50 million in revenues for Atlanta businesses (including the convention). What business would not want a piece of THAT four-day pie if it’s still growing? They even have a sanctioned street parade which is now broadcast on local television.

Other fan tracks have been cancelled too, I’m told. The writing is on the wall. DragonCon wants to break with the tradition of the dedicated fan programming track. On Twitter they assured me that “Tolkien events will still happen, and that experience won’t go away.”

But let’s back up here and look at the convention from a historical perspective. I can tell you from personal experience that it is very, very hard to grow a convention’s membership. Most science fiction and fantasy conventions fall into one of two categories: they either specialize in some franchise or they create programming across their schedule for a lot of different franchises. If yours is the only convention in the county, you feel a need to relate to as many SF fans’ interests as possible. Everyone gets a little bit of what they love and no one gets a lot. Even so, some conventions have grown their memberships to 5,000 or more doing just this.

There are some big conventions that are closely tied to media production companies. These conventions are able to draw big crowds because they announce news, lots of news, and people want to be there to see the sneak peeks live and up front. You get a little bit of that at DragonCon but not a whole lot, and maybe less than you used to.

I believe that what led to DragonCon’s huge growth was its division of resources among dedicated fan tracks. You couldn’t have your own Hercules and Xena convention in Georgia but DragonCon could make it happen for you. I know. I was there when it happened.

And they gave us a Tolkien and Middle-earth convention, too. The dedicated fan franchise tracks were presented as “miniature conventions within a large convention” to the track directors (and we presented it that way to our volunteers and members and guests). You get a room (or in a few cases ROOMS) for four days. You get the full service of whatever venue you’re in. You get support from the main convention in other ways, too. And, oh yes, they give you a budget for BIG guests, people you can schedule in your time in your space (even though they will also be scheduled wherever else they can be used).

Popular guests at DragonCon are worked all weekend long. That is why they have handlers, and why they are kept away from the fans at certain times. They need to be shuttled around from venue to venue and they need time to themselves. John Rhys-Davies came to the 2001 Tolkien Track over the only weekend he had available between two filming projects, and he could have spent that weekend with his family. Instead he spent it with “us”, the fans, and I barely saw the man two or three times while he was there. In my defense, I was a little busy. He was busier.

We didn’t just do movies at the Tolkien Track. Every track director (and I think I have known them all) has integrated literary, even scholarly programming into their schedule as much as possible. They have also brought in creative talent from outside the movies. My musical guests included Glass Hammer. Later directors were blessed to host Emerald Rose. We brought in licensed gaming companies. We brought in scholars and authors and artists. Sure, I pitched the track on the strength of movies but I knew going in that I wouldn’t be able to make it all about the movies.

I think DragonCon’s annual membership was officially pegged at around 25,000 people when I joined the convention. The formula has worked beautifully but maybe the senior directors see a different way forward. Perhaps it’s time to step away from the dedicated fan track experience and try something new. I grok that, guys, I really do. But while absorbing the most popular Tolkien sessions into main programming main seem like a great idea today, what will you do for innovation next year and the year afterward?

Dedicated fan tracks can be very experimental. They are not afraid to try stuff that the generic tracks won’t consider. Having supported some disenfranchised fan groups with campaigns at DragonCon, I know how hard it is to get good sessions into the generic programming tracks. Unless you can flood those tracks with 100+ costumed fans, they don’t see why you need just one more session for YOUR favorite franchise. After all, there are a dozen other fan franchises that want that space and time as well.

I don’t mean to take anything away from the people who run the generic tracks, but they cannot provide the same satisfying experience that the dedicated franchise tracks create for fans. You can immerse yourself in the world of your choice, but only if it’s there in the schedule all the time.

The math suggests that if space is being taken away from a few dedicated tracks it must be given to a few (or all) of the generic tracks. And so that should mean more sessions and more rooms are available for Fantasy Literature (but fewer for Tolkien and Middle-earth), more rooms and sessions for the Film Track (but fewer for Tolkien and Middle-earth), and more for tracks that don’t overlap much with Tolkien and Middle-earth (or Whedonverse). Let’s face it, the sum total of the Tolkien experience will be divided and scattered across a confusing maze of hotels and streets and levels that will make it hard for fans to get to everything they want to see.

That special “convention within a convention” experience will be lost for the fan franchises that have enjoyed it. And it HAS been lost by several franchises already. This is nothing new, except that unlike in previous years the decision is not based on low or poor participation and experience scores. It’s based on something else.

To wind up a long-winded post, let me say that some fans are angry because they have been hurt financially by this decision. They have already booked rooms (and getting hotel rooms for DragonCon is not easy unless you stay farther out and commute). They have made their travel plans. They may get some refunds but they may not get all their money back. And they were only going because of the dedicated fan tracks that have been discontinued.

Dedicated Tolkien fan sites are striking up the chorus of support in hope of persuading the powers that be to defer the cancellation at least one year, or to reconsider altogether this most dreadful of decisions. I don’t know what the chances of winning a reprieve are. Supposedly very little is carved in stone, yet. And based on my own experience I know this is still early in DragonCon’s planning cycle (but they will make their final decisions soon).

I think the convention will lose several types of value if it goes forward with this decision:

  • They will lose the good will of anyone who loses money (and thus feels cheated)
  • They cannot replace that “convention within a convention” experience for dedicated fan tracks, although each of the remaining tracks still creates a “convention within a convention”. There will be no Tolkien convention in Georgia this year. That is the bottom line.
  • They lose the experimentation that comes from a dedicated track focusing on just one field. Tolkien literature and media productions are still ongoing, even if no major movies are in production. And the list of potential musical guests is extraordinary.
  • Some guests and panelists may decide it’s not worth their time to participate in DragonCon. That remains to be seen.
  • Who will champion new Tolkien-related guests and panelists? Who will maintain that Heimdallic, Mandosian watch for the next really good thing in Tolkien & Middle-earth? I don’t think a generic track can own the field like a dedicated track does.
  • When DragonCon looks homogenous and generic like all the little conventions, then why should people travel from afar to visit Atlanta if they can get much the same thing closer to home? Maybe the growth will continue. It will take several years to verify what the trends turn out to be. By then, who at DragonCon will know where to find a good dedicated fan track director, if they decide to go back to the old way of doing things?

It’s hard to estimate how many fans will be directly affected by this. I mean, how many fans spend most of their time at the Tolkien track events? I am sure the number of core track members is in the hundreds, but I’m not sure they will be heard if they just boycott DragonCon.

What can you do? Here are a few suggestions.

  • If you have attended DragonCon because of the Tolkien track, contact the convention and let them know. Please be polite. Trust me. I know what happens when you vent your anger in raw emotion. It won’t help.
  • If you want a dedicated Tolkien fan track, FIND ONE AND SUPPORT IT. DragonCon is not the only convention in the world. Other fan conventions carry Tolkien programming. You can help a local convention build up Tolkien and Middle-earth programming by attending, asking for the sessions, and even volunteering to run the panels.
  • Someone could start a new Tolkien & Middle-earth fan convention. There are not that many and the most well-known ones are located far apart. If you see an opportunity in your area, support the convention. Volunteer, help sell memberships, spread the word. Don’t expect a major media convention right away, but an existing mid-sized convention could have the resources to respawn the Tolkien & Middle-earth experience that DragonCon appears to be walking away from.  Some convention runners do manage two or more conventions.  You lose nothing by asking.

We don’t need to be vindictive about this. I will make myself available to DragonCon’s other tracks for Tolkien programming if I can attend the convention this year (that has been in question for a few months for completely unrelated reasons) and maybe in future years. I hope other people who have participated in the track’s programming give the new experience a chance, too. But one should always have a plan B.

In my opinion, if DragonCon doesn’t want to own the dedicated Tolkien and Middle-earth fan experience any more then let the fans find a new home. Or let them find several new homes. This may be the end of one journey but remember that the road goes ever on. So does Tolkien fandom.

About the Author: Michael Martinez
Michael Martinez is a graduate of Kennesaw State University and author of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, Visualizing Middle-earth, Understanding Middle-earth: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, and Mindfaring through Middle-earth.