Additional reporting by Sarah Lacey.[Editor’s Note: For many of our readers, San Diego Comic-Con is the only convention they attend each year. But interest and popularity is increasing within the convention scene, so we wanted to take a look at how the other big cons stack up against SDCC. This week, Kerry takes a look at Fan Expo Canada, which was held in Toronto on August 22-25.]
Now in its 19th year, Fan Expo Canada is the third-largest comic and pop culture convention in North America, but it’s one that’s not often talked about outside of Canada or the northeast United States. While similar in attendance size to San-Diego Comic Con, it had a completely different feel – some of which felt like an improvement over SDCC, and some of which didn’t.
Tickets: Fan Expo Canada offers a tiered ticketing system, that looks like this:
- Single Day: $25-$50
- Deluxe Pass: $115. All four days of tickets and Fan Expo shirt.
- Premium Pass: $149. All four days of tickets, shirt, badge, and collectible bag.
- V.I.P. Pass: $499. All four days of tickets, shirt, badge, bag, special reserved seating for every panel, first entrance for autograph sessions, photo-ops, panels, and access to a VIP lounge.
Yes, you’re reading that right. Fan Expo Canada will not give you an actual, physical badge unless you pay them an additional $34 (if you don’t feel like paying that, you get a wristband). Even then, attendees are on their own for a lanyard. At Comic-Con, attendees wear their badges like a war medal, because we feel proud that we’ve fought the good fight during ticket sales and come out victorious. Fan Expo doesn’t cap ticket sales, and continues to sell tickets even during the convention, which makes it less exciting to score entrance to the con (but also a lot less nerve-wracking). For those that were willing to pay for V.I.P. access, the first few rows of almost every panel room were specially reserved for them, and they could walk to the front of any line and get in first. If Comic-Con tried something like this, there would probably be mutiny, or first-born children offered up in exchange for one of the passes.
Length of Con: Fan Expo lasts four days (Thursday-Sunday), but with Thursday getting a later start than other days (4PM, or 2PM with early entry, versus every other day which started at 10AM), it felt more like a traditional preview night. While there was programming on Thursday, very few of the bigger stars attended (Room 105, Fan Expo Canada’s version of a Hall H, only had a single panel all night: Stan Lee), and the exhibit floor was much less congested. However, Sunday, which is typically a lighter day at SDCC, was just as packed as Friday and Saturday on the Fan Expo schedule.
Exhibitors: The Metro Toronto Convention Centre is so large (over 750,000 square feet – a substantially larger space than SDCC) that there are actually two different exhibitor booth areas, one in each of the convention buildings. The south building holds the main floor, which featured the majority of the 900+ exhibitors this year (though a large percentage of those were artists in Artist Alley), while the north building holds the overflow vendors, as well as a Sports Expo with booths dedicated solely to sports merchandise. Compared to Comic-Con, only a handful of television networks had booths, and there were no movie studios. The gaming area seemed comparable to that of SDCC, with Assassin’s Creed, Xbox, and others in attendance. There were also booths for LEGO (which brought the same Hobbit-hole LEGO set it brought to the Bayfront lawn at SDCC), Hasbro (though without exclusives), and lots of various small-to-medium-sized vendors. Here’s a look at the north building, which held the overflow and autograph booths:
Autographs/Photo-Ops: One of the biggest draws of Fan Expo is that, like many smaller cons, they offer photo ops and autograph sessions with most of their guests. Since the majority of guests are being paid by Fan Expo to attend (as opposed to being sponsored and brought by a network there to promote their TV show or film), almost all of these cost money, usually somewhere between $20-$70 for an autograph or $40-$80 for a photo. The autograph and photo-op areas were constantly busy throughout the con, attracting a large percentage of attendees, but lines moved quickly. Unlike SDCC, guests offered signings and photo-ops at various times, allowing you to find the one that worked best with your schedule – however, since autograph schedules were almost never available before the day-of, it actually made planning more difficult than at Comic-Con. The few TV series that were brought to Fan Expo by the network (Orphan Black, Covert Affairs, Warehouse 13, and a handful of others) also typically offered autograph sessions that were available by lottery, very similar to SDCC.
Programming: Because of its proximity to LA and the studios and networks, there may actually never be anything that comes close to rivaling the amount of programming that San Diego Comic-Con has. For comparison, Canadian networks brought 18 of their television series to Fan Expo over the four days; SDCC had 19 on Thursday alone this year. However, what Fan Expo does have is a wide variety of offerings. They break their schedule down into a few sub-genres, including Comics, Anime, Horror, Sci-Fi, Gaming and starting this year, Sports. Sponsored guests held Q&A panels, including celebrity fan-favorites like Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Richard Dean Anderson, Karl Urban, Zachary Quinto, and many others. There were also several attendees who likely wouldn’t ever be seen at Comic-Con, such as a 90210 reunion Panel with both Luke Perry and Jason Priestly (which was surprisingly both candid and awesome), and Hulk Hogan. There were also many of the smaller, more fan-centered panels similar to SDCC, including Fun with Daleks! where attendees could learn how to make their own daleks and try for the Guinness World Record of most daleks in a single room (they did it!, beating out the previous record of 95 with the new record-holding 156), as well as a masquerade and screenings of new series Almost Human, Super Fun Night, and more.
Exclusives and Swag: Considering the amount of exclusives at SDCC, we were shocked by how little there was at Fan Expo. With only a handful of exceptions, almost all exclusives are actually sold at Fan Expo Canada Store booths set up at various locations around the convention center. Here, they sell exclusive t-shirts, comics and bags (including the only Hasbro exclusive, a My Little Pony/Fan Expo bag). DC did have some cool action figures and statues, including a Man of Steel variant statue of which there were only 50 available – but even late into the second day on Friday, booths still had some available (though they did eventually sell out).
There was free swag on the floor, but nothing truly exciting. Dark Horse gave away free lanyards at various times, the Space network’s booth offered Orphan Black and Doctor Who buttons throughout the con, and Bravo had huge posters available for all of their shows. The most popular free swag item all week appeared to be an Xbox Call of Duty bag, which made up for the lack of a free Fan Expo bag. Mostly.
Lines and Attendance: Despite having a similar attendance size to Comic-Con (over 100,000 attendees this year), Fan Expo never felt as congested as SDCC. The sheer size of the convention center, as well as spacing things out so much (as already explained, the expo floor was actually spread among two separate buildings on two different floors), but the Fan Expo staff also very heavily directed foot-traffic. In many cases, rather than opening up all escalators in a given area, staff would keep only the escalators moving in a certain direction open and direct attendees going the other way to another area. They also controlled the flow of people moving onto the escalators, which led to lines forming just to move to a different floor. Here’s a video of the line to leave the exhibit floor, but we saw much longer queues on Sunday to get downstairs:
Because Fan Expo clears rooms between events, lines for panels were only permitted to start once the previous line has been let in. This led to a lot of congregating around panel rooms, and in some cases, a stampede once staff finally said it was time to start a new line. However, this also meant that attendees didn’t have to “park” themselves in a single room all day just to see the one panel they care about at the end of the day.
Outside Attractions: Just like Comic-Con, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre is located in the heart of downtown, just a short distance from the waterfront. It’s right next to Toronto’s most popular attraction, the CN Tower, which means that we got to do some sightseeing without leaving the area – something that doesn’t really happen at SDCC.
Whereas all of downtown San Diego embraces the convention, turning into the “Comic Con campus” that attendees have grown accustomed to, you’d never have known there was a fan convention in Toronto if not for the occasional Stormtrooper buying coffee at Starbucks next door. There are a good amount of restaurants in the immediate area, but there never seemed to be more than an hour wait at any of them, so where attendees disappeared to after leaving the convention center is anyone’s guess. There was also no nightlife, unlike SDCC which turns into party-central once the convention center lights go dim. The only party all weekend appeared to be on Saturday night at a nearby hotel bar, which was put on by Fan Expo, and did sell out.
Fan Expo may be the third largest con in North America, but in a lot of ways, it felt like the smaller step-sister of the monster that SDCC is. However, Fan Expo does a lot of things right, that Comic-Con International could still use some pointers in. Their staff is obviously more prepped beforehand in how to handle and direct the massive crowds (though we don’t foresee escalator-control happening at Comic-Con without a full-on riot), and by offering more than one autograph or photo-op session with guests throughout the week allowed fans a chance to make more things work with their schedule. But there is nothing out there that compares to both the amount of programming that SDCC can offer, and the sense of community that seems to envelop all of downtown San Diego for a week every July. If you’re considering going to Fan Expo Canada and you’re in the area, it’s a great convention to tide you over until the next July, but probably not worth flying in for unless there’s a specific guest you’re dying to get a photo with.
We’ll be posting our exclusive interview with the cast of Orphan Black, where we discuss the differences between Fan Expo and Comic-Con from the actors’ perspectives, as well as what’s coming next for the characters, in a few days.
Did you go to Fan Expo Canada? Are you planning to attend in the future? Leave us a comment and let us know!