Since the very first regular installment of this column over a dozen years ago, I've been covering the growth of pop culture conventions, which have evolved from geeky grass-roots gatherings into a ginormous industry. Right now, the con scene is in a coronavirus-induced coma, but some Central Floridian fanboys and fangirls are fighting to keep the con spirit alive online.
If anyone understands the bleak situation the fan convention business currently faces it's Tom Croom, CEO of Green Mustard Entertainment, whom I've known since we were both Universal employees in the late 1990s. His company owns WasabiCon in Jacksonville and presents anime programming at over a half-dozen pop culture events annually – including MegaCon Orlando, which rescheduled from last weekend until June 4-7, quarantine permitting. Croom has been helping produce pop culture events since 2001, and witnessed upheavals in the wake of 9/11 and mass shootings, but he sees COVID-19's impact as something unprecedented.
"We're watching Darwinism in real time as it happens in the pop culture convention industry," says Croom, who has already identified more than 300 pop culture events globally that have had to cancel or postpone. Croom predicts that a third of those probably won't return in 2021. "Conventions will fall into one of three categories: survival of the fittest ¬ the 'too big to fail' companies that can weather this; evolution – events that will adapt how they plan to survive this utilizing virtual elements and other tools; and extinction – the events that just don't have the resources to survive the financial impact."
One man who obviously votes for "evolution" is Melbourne-based author G.W. Pomichter, host of the "Hangin With Web Show" (hanginwithshow.com) and producer of CyberCon, a free virtual pop culture convention that streamed live on Facebook last weekend. The 56-hour online telethon featured virtual versions of all the classic con elements, including artists, musicians, vendors and discussion panels – even an online cosplay contest – designed to distract socially distanced fans disappointed by the cancellations of IRL events.
"Since many of us would have been at MegaCon that weekend, it seemed like a good idea to schedule this event to fill that time," says Pomichter. "With such a large and popular event being postponed and no real definitive end in sight to social distancing precautions, we wanted to do something to bring the community together, even if it's virtually."
Since they already create a regular YouTube talk show series, Pomichter's "Hangin With Web Show" team was well-positioned to produce such a marathon online broadcast by simultaneously leveraging software platforms like Be.Live.tv, StreamYard and Facebook Live studio. "Using the latest social media sharing and video sharing and studio software, distance doesn't have to be an obstacle," says Pomichter. "At its core, a convention or 'con' is an entertainment experience. ... All we did here was to facilitate and steer the energy of a hungry media consumer to good effect."
All of the participants in CyberCon were unpaid volunteers, and 100 percent of donations were sent to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy's COVID-19 Response Fund (disasterphilanthropy.org). "This is a time to find value in things beyond ourselves – in our collective community of humanity – and every one of our performers, artists, celebrity guests, panelists and vendors has agreed to lead our pop culture fan community by example," says Pomichter.
Alongside Aqua Teen Hunger Force voice actor Carey Means and a reunion of former Power Rangers, CyberCon was headlined by two Orlando troupes. Phantasmagoria (which, full disclosure, I co-produce) provided a mix of live appearances featuring creator John DiDonna and prerecorded segments of haunted poetry and fire dancing from company members in Florida and St. Louis.
Their CyberCon appearances followed their first month of weekly "Living Book of Face" broadcasts, which continue on Sunday nights. "We have reached tons of people we would never be able to reach otherwise, in other states, other countries, and the general response has been 'thank you,'" reports DiDonna. "We have people who have come on to celebrate their birthday night while watching us, people doing watch parties," DiDonna adds, saying the online appearances are "something we will keep doing well after all 'this' is past."
Orlando was also represented at CyberCon by Corsets & Cuties – the burlesque troupe led by "Lady" Jaimz Dillman spiced up the early morning hours.
"Since all of our live shows have been canceled and most of us have lost our jobs as well, we had to find something that would keep us active and relevant while staying safe within the stay-at-home order," says Dillman, who credits CyberCon with giving artists "a chance to flex our creative muscle and put out new content for both new and established fans to enjoy and support us."
Now that CyberCon has passed, Dillman says she's hoping people will be ready to get out again and support the arts soon. In the meantime, she's taking every opportunity to join in any virtual shows in hopes of keeping money going to her company's performers. "We're all itching to get back on stage and in front of our audiences," she says. "All us extroverts looking out our windows just waiting for the word."
This story appears in the April 22, 2020, print edition of Orlando Weekly. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you news on how coronavirus is affecting Central Florida. Please consider supporting this free publication with a one-time or monthly donation. Every little bit helps.