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Review: Supernatural Con Burbank

Mika Kennedy breaks down the recent Supernatural Con in Burbank and what a fan event means to the followers of such a show.

By Mika Kennedy

Conventions (or "cons", in the fannish parlance) like Creation Entertainment's SupernaturalCon in Burbank, CA aren't looking to secure their next legion of television-watching prospectives.  They're not like San Diego's Comic-Con, with a warehouse full of vendors, promotional panels, or enticements designed to help you remember their name.  If you've been to Comic-Con in the last six years, you're there for what's to come--television's new spread of genre shows this season, exciting upcoming developments in extant genre shows, the newest set of genre tropes graving the silver screen this summer.

Supernatural's Burbank Con isn't like that, nor does it try to be.  "News" doesn't factor in, and rarely does "new" in any sense.  If anyone was there to glean some juicy spoilers, talk candidly and specifically about what the next few episodes will have to offer, they walked away empty-handed.  And if you stop to think about it, it makes sense:  within the realm of single-series fan conventions it's a sure bet that your target audience, by virtue of the rapid-fire dissemination of info via Twitter, Tumblr, and LiveJournal (the dinosaur of this triumvirate)--they already know the hottest info you could possibly offer.  There's almost no point in bringing any news to the table, because your audience already heard it from Ask Ausiello; they Tweeted a producer and received an answer; someone hiding in the bushes in Vancouver Instagrammed paparazzi photos of that day's scenes and now the entire Internet's already seen it.  Should you disregard this ineffable truth and choose to divulge something at the con, the fans on the outside will absolutely hear about it before half the audience does, thanks to the more nimble-fingered Twitterers in attendance.  And I can speak from experience on that one--the first thing one of my Internet pals said to me when she learned I'd been to the Burbank Con was, "SO YOU SAW JENSEN IN A HOODIE???" 

Jensen Ackles plays one of the pair of brothers who comprise the bare entirety of Supernatural's regular cast members.  He had indeed made an appearance, and I had indeed seen him, but the revelation he'd been hoodie-clad that weekend was certainly new to me.  True, this tidbit isn't a real "spoiler", the way TV Guide might conceptualize it, but the news hit the big time online; everyone from Italy to Nova Scotia was abuzz before the day was out.  But I digress.

Cons like these--the single-series fan conventions--serve two major purposes: 

1) Naturally, they are lucrative.  At Burbank, the proximity of your seat to the main stage is determined by your ticket price: general admission is in the back, at prices on par with a theme park day pass ($30-50); the rest of the pricing spectrum you can interpolate from the Gold Members, sitting mosh pit-close, who've proffered a generous $500+ for their seats.  Whether these sums count for anything in the television industry is debatable, but the sheer persistence of conventions would suggest their financial merit.  And there are thousands more to be made via memorabilia auction--canvas posters can go for $250-750, depending on who's signed it.  At Burbank this money went to charity, but you see now what convention cash flow can be like at cons.  These are not Mom's Basement; they are business ventures.

2)  Cons are also crowd-pleasing, cult-growing, meme-spawning tributes to the power of fandom (which, yes, means exactly what you think it means--a kingdom of fans).  These cons are for the die-hards, the hard-and-fast-in-loves--the people who, after seven seasons, still want more.  This isn't to say that all the die-hards attend, of course, and it isn't to say that every con caters to the same loyal three hundred.  Most of the attendees in Burbank were first-time con-goers; and this is, again, after seven years of similar conventions.  But even then, they are not about inspiring new viewers, but keeping the ones you already have.  Staking your claim to their fannish attentions, as it were.

Supernatural in particular seems willing to acknowledge how close the relationship between a show and its fandom really is.  One of the show's major components is "meta" storytelling--in one episode, our heroes Sam and Dean discover a man who has been making his living publishing a trashy pulp fiction series, the plot of which is twin to the plot of the show itself, complete with book titles that align with the actual episode titles (4x18 "The Monster at the end of the Book").  In another, they stumble upon a convention dedicated to said book series, complete with its own fan fiction writers, costumed con-goers, and role-playing shenanigans (5x09 "The Real Ghostbusters").  Its sixth season (2010-11) took the meta a step further, and a bolt of Divine Intervention landed Sam and Dean in a strange "TVland", which is--you guessed it--filming a television program called Supernatural(6x17 "The French Mistake").

How does this illuminate the relationship between fan and film?  During the same season as TVland, Supernatural featured on the cover of TV Guide, after winning a competitive online poll. This year it won the People's Choice Awards for both Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Best Drama.  Obviously, winning popularity contests will only get you so far in life, but when you consider that the show regularly pulls in less than 2 million viewers, and was in competition with major network dramas like Fox's House, MD (which averaged 10.32 million viewers for its eighth season last year), there's enough there to give one pause. 

Through television meta, characters caricature the actors and viewers out in the real world, to the point where the fourth wall only selectively exists.  Through the sheer power of the popular vote (and in Supernatural's case, the popular vote-multiple-times-multiple-days) the real-world viewers have a scary hold over what pedestals their show might habitate.  You can go by the numbers, or you can glean behavioral data from the con-goers all around you, but there's a conversation happening here.  It creates a feedback loop wherein a TV show becomes inextricable from those who watch it; and that is a powerful thing.  Going to a con like this is like watching that relationship unfold in real time.

The actors take the stage, in front of a theatre full of breathless fans.  People queue up to ask questions. Some of the questions are personal, some are silly, most are reasonably professional; the answers entertain a similar range.  They mostly contain information freely available on the Web--from interviews, from other cons.  It's not about the information so much as it is about the pure idea of speech.  People are there to hear it in the actors' own voices, in real time, with body language to match.  It seems a simple thing, but it matters deeply.

Still, it's difficult to know where to draw the line, where capitalism starts and where goodwill begins, where fact and fiction lie, where one might find that nexus between private life and professionalism.  And it's not just the fans straddling the boundaries ("Which of your co-stars would you most like to kiss?").  Jared Padalecki, who plays the other of the aforementioned brother pair, announced the progress of his wife's pregnancy to the entire room.  His wife (Genevieve Cortese) starred in the show a few years back.  Is it a professional statement?  A friendly, personal one?  Or simply an awkwardly personal one?  There is no easy answer.  But the Padaleckis recently welcomed a newborn son, Thomas Colton, into their lives.  The Supernaturalfandom raised $20,000 for St. Jude Children's Hospital in his honor; the family then matched it, for a grand total of $40,000 to charity from Supernatural et al.

Whatever draws a fan to the show, be it a love of horror and monstrosity; a love of hot male leads; a love of homoerotic subtext; a love of hot female leads from other, older shows who happen to be guest-starring in an episode; an avenue for coping with trauma, or death--for all its meta slapstick and its (lovingly implemented) genre kitsch, Supernatural still makes time for depression, illness, and the seemingly impossible task of surviving the death of a loved one--wherever you're coming from, that draw is personal.  What fandom does is force all of those isolated relationships with a static work of fiction into a multifractal conversation with each other.  What a con does is take all that a step further, and extend that conversation to, if you'll forgive the gross metaphor, what lies beyond the pale.  The cast and crew behind the green curtain, etc.

Supernatural describes itself as a family, in the way that I think many television shows would be quick to match; some may even include their fans as part of their families, as Supernatural (blatantly, fourth wallless-ly) does.  Maybe it's a little over-friendly, idealistic, saccharine, and A Very Good Marketing Plan in any case.  But think about the last dinnertime conversation your family had--the one that's now basically distilled itself to a series of humorously insulting quips and one-line zingers.  Unless your dinner was particularly catastrophic, your memory is probably not of the speech itself, or of revelations that outline striking new developments in your family's circumstances.  Instead, it's the simple memory of shared conversation.

And that's what this kind of con sounds like.