Rise of the geeks

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For many growing up, hours were spent watching TV shows like Star Trek, Mork & Mindy and Doctor Who, many even read the odd comic. While some of us grew out of these past times, for others, imagination was captured and an obsession was born.  The word geek used to be a derogatory term to describe those who chose comic books over football, and simulation computer games over a night out on the town.  Now, ‘geek’ has become a positive buzzword, and geek chic is the height of cool. Creative agencies and exhibition organisers around the world such as Media 10 and SME London (more on them later) have latched onto this culture, knowing that it has become more than an obsession and passion, it is a potential goldmine. Big Money. Society has moved a long way since then as Harry Potter fans don their cloaks with puffed out chests, and Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts step out from the shadows to play their role-playing games, proudly, all in celebration of this profound geek culture. Discussing the latest Game of Thrones episode is now a weekly office water cooler moment, friends are casually tossing out Tolkien references, and mothers are watching How I Met Your Mother. What was once seen as a secret community behind closed doors, now exerts a powerful influence over the global economy and society, as a phenomenal culture. More and more people are understanding  the pleasure that can be derived from indulging your inner geek once in a while – it’s there lurking under the surface of all of us. If you can’t beat’em, join ’em seems to be the mantra for event organisers all around the world as nerd friendly comic cons are growing in scope and attendance from London to San Diego, and even in the Middle East. Attending a comic con, has always, and will always be, a lifelong dream for movie, videogame, sci-fi, anime, cosplay  (costume play) and comics fans who long to experience the unparalleled joy of being in the same room as their heroes.  And that’s what has helped this particular market be one of the few to emerge from the recession relatively unscathed over the years. What was once thought of as a mere trend or small niche has continued to soar beyond belief. Much like a comic book superhero, the concept of a comic convention is rooted in humble origins before evolving into the massive pop culture gathering it is today. San Diego Comic-Con International, the giant of all cons, started in 1970 as the Golden State Comic-Con, a three-day event held at San Diego’s historic US Grant Hotel. That drew about 300 people. Forty-five years on, the event attracts more than 130,000 visitors as its loyal cadre of fans. The stigma of being a fan is rapidly disappearing and people are ‘coming out’ in increasing numbers – it’s become socially acceptable to be a geek. Cons are a reflection of what’s happening in the larger entertainment world and people are clamouring over themselves to get a ticket for a comic con to satiate their thirst for pop culture gatherings. Experiential exhibitor, Chris Whittle director of Experience 12 has worked on show features at the past two MCM Comic Cons, for the likes of Fox TV, Vertigo Films, Paramount and RealD, and knows what an audience wants. Visitor numbers for the MCM Expo shows have been in rude health as the organiser hailed 2014 as a milestone year with an attendance of 401,000 visitors to its events, compared to 258,000 in 2013. Whittle says well known shows such as Game of Thrones are acting as a gateway into the wider world of geekdom and the natural impulse to find out more asserts itself. “This is enabled by online and social media, it’s possible to become an expert, discover something new or to connect with people with the same interests and passions across the country or even globally. This creates online communities, the comic cons are the physical embodiments of those communities.” In our generation, he adds, comics and comic media are at the heart of our entertainment, and cons provide an incredibly attractive environment to enjoy what’s happening, with like-minded people, and to understand what’s coming up next. Rob Nathan, group marketing director at Media 10, organiser of Destination Star Trek says it’s all about people being in their element. “There’s a lot of people who spend their time with an interest in science fiction, anime and cosplay who communicate with their friends online most of the time. So when you offer them a living breathing event, then that is a pilgrimage to them. They’re about people coming together,” he adds. “These events are becoming more and more popular and accessible to a generation who can now act out and indulge in their passions in the same way people go to dog shows and boat shows.” It doesn’t stop there. Over the past two years the industry has seen an emergence of ‘immersive experiences’, such as the Zombie Run where you have to race against the clock, obstacles and the living dead to become the ultimate survivor. This has been helped by the likes of The Walking Dead and other zombie programmes that people like to sink their teeth into. Have you read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? How about Alice in Zombieland or Wuthering Heights and a Werewolf? There’s even the Zombie Survival Guide. In fact, all things zombie are worth an astonishing US$5.74 billion to the global economy over the past six years. People can really step inside their favourite TV programme, says Tim Etchells, managing director at SME London, organiser of the biennial Doctor Who Convention in partnership with BBC Worldwide. Comic cons, collector manias, conventions and even RPGs draw groups of individuals together from all places, ages and every part of society to celebrate a shared interest. “Our events are designed for committed Doctor Who fans, (aka Whovians) as well as the occasional viewer and the family, who just want to have a good day out. It appeals at all levels,” says Etchells. “The team behind the event are very much the team behind the production of Doctor Who in Cardiff, so you're actually getting the people inside delivering the content, delivering what they think people might want, and they are the most excited people about the programme I know.” As the phenomena of cons grow, so does the sophistication of each event. Gone are the days of cons just being a collector show. Mix in talking head-style interviews with geek celebrities Michael J Fox, Warwick Davies and George R. R. Martin, as well as panels, seminars, behind the scenes experiences, awards, and exhibitions – you’ve got the recipe for geek heaven. Steve Cooper and Alice Lawson, co-chairs of Loncon 3 - the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, said their extensive programme aimed to take the attendees “from the farthest and earliest reaches of the universe to the depths of the human cell, from subatomic particles to the theory and practice of geo-engineering, from ancient Greek technology to the engineering practicalities behind low-cost space flight”. Their last event attracted more than 10,000 writers, artists, fans, editors, publishers and academics all under one roof at ExCeL London. Sitting between a middle-aged man dressed as a hobbit, and a female Darth Vader – EN felt strangely at home - if a little underdressed. For many attendees, the more arcane the cosplay, the better. People dress up as their favourite characters from cartoons, video games and other pop culture franchises. It's more meaningful when their clothes speak to a small, cultish group, giving you automatic membership in a special society. “Cosplay is the ultimate expression of fancy dress,” says Whittle. “Fancy dress has always been a feature of humans enjoying themselves. Everyone is judged on the how good their costume is, not who they are or where they come from. It’s escapism in its purest sense, you get to be someone else for a period of time but with an emphasis on artistry and ingenuity rather than budget.” Going the extra mile in costume, Media 10 was awarded the world record for 'The largest gathering of people dressed as Star Trek characters’ at its Destination Star Trek London convention in 2012. As well as celebrate favourite characters, these events are also the kind of place
where a geeky guy can marry his equally geeky girlfriend in front of an enormous crowd – in full Klingon attire – and instead of being judged for it, gets a standing ovation. Destination Star Trek was also the first event of its kind for over a decade where for the first time in European history, all five Star Trek Captains, William Shatner, Sir Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew and Scott Bakula from the iconic TV franchise appeared on stage together. Globally, there’s no doubt that the likes of Marvel, HBO, Christopher Nolan and even Tim Burton have contributed to geek culture, choosing to engage with their fans at events. The wider publicity of such events is bringing the culture to the notice of the general public in a way that would seem to have been impossible a few years ago. Some of you may have noticed that June appeared to be having 90s revival with the opening of Jurassic World, and the welcome comeback of Chris Evans’ TFI Friday. It seems to be a better time than any for pop culture, the question is, what is the next big money spinner for the UK exhibition market? What is the next geeky niche, obsession, or online sensation to grab a community? Cat Con, Disney’s Frozen Con or Game of Thrones Con? Who knows… But finding it, and making it could lead to a Tardis full of money.   This article was first published in the July issue of EN. Any comments? Email Annie Byrne
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