Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are late taking the stage. The ballroom is a bit more than half full, and the audience - surely about 98% female - is politely buzzing. They’re excited, but for many of them this is just one part of a series of close encounters with the male leads of Supernatural. A series of close encounters that cost some of them about 550 bucks.
I had come to the LA Supernatural convention, held by Creation, probably the nation’s biggest organizer of fan conventions, to get a look at this world. I’m a fan of the show, and I feel like it’s a show that doesn’t get the respect it deserves. But who are the people who have been really into it from the beginning? What does the fanbase of Supernatural look like?
The short answer: women, averaging in their late 20s to late 30s. They wear t-shirts with the names of their favorite Supernatural actors on them (one woman wore a shirt that said “I Would Go Straight For Misha Collins,” referring to an actor who plays the angel Castiel on the show). Many of the shirts seem to have injokes - possibly from fan message boards or previous conventions. There’s a lot of that on display here; many of the people at the convention seem to know each other, seem to know what happened at the Vancouver Supernatural Con and to know which stars will and will not be appearing in Orlando or New Jersey later in the year.
When Jensen and Jared took the stage the fans erupted, but politely. Cameras flashed endlessly throughout (as they did through every Q&A, no matter how minor the celebrity). Both actors were polite, jovial, friendly, respectful to both fans and the show’s writing staff, and seemed to have a pretty breezy good time. It wasn’t the worst Q&A I’ve ever sat through, but it certainly was the most vapid.
The fans interact with the actors in ways that show a familiarity - probably all false. They know the names of wives and girlfriends, and ask about them. They know about pranks played on set. They know about favorite foods and drinks, and will bring gifts of bottles of liquor (so much so that the rules now make you check in your gifts at registration and not to bring them to the photo ops or autograph sessions).
For some of the actors this seems like a rare moment to shine. Many of the people who took the stage at the Supernatural convention baffled me, and I’ve seen every episode of the show. People who were in three episodes and got killed off were treated like superstars; Jared and Jensen’s BODYGUARD got to do a Q&A. When Traci Dinwiddie, who has appeared in four episodes of Supernatural, took the stage with a bunch of West African drummers and, without an intro, just started doing a drum circle thing, the audience ate it up. I was kind of mystified - what the fuck is this nonsense, I wondered - but everybody else seemed to have fun. And Dinwiddie was loving the attention, getting the audience to shriek when she did a little dance*. I’ve walked out of parties like that in the past.
I’ve been to a lot of conventions in my time. I’ve done Star Trek conventions and Fangoria Weekends of Horror. I’ve been to a whole bunch of Comic Cons - both San Diego and various regional Comic Cons. I love doing Monsterpalooza, an annual convention dedicated to monsters and make-up. I regularly attend The Hollywood Show, a bizarre autograph-seekers convention that unites people from B-movies with bit players in Hollywood Golden Age films. I like the enthusiasm at conventions; sometimes I enjoy it ironically, sometimes it gets me a little energized. I like the dealer rooms, filled with weird, often overpriced items you don’t need to have but want to have. I like seeing the celebrities, especially the fading or faded stars - getting a picture with Rip Taylor beats any Hollywood A-list celeb.
But of all the conventions I’ve been to, none made me as sad as the Supernatural one. The fans were enthusiastic - they giggled and squealed at anything that could have been seen as mildly suggestive from Jensen and Jared, and they even emitted a kind of jealous sigh when Jared ran from the stage to give a little girl a hug. The stars were gracious beyond belief, and they treated the fans with kindness and appreciation. But everything else was tragic, and it soon became clear that this convention was about one thing and one thing only - taking money from fans.
Which isn’t to say that other conventions are non-profit enterprises. But the Supernatural convention - as are many other fandom-specific Creation conventions, I’ve learned - was organized in a way where the only real activity to be had was to give money to Creation in order to gain some small measure of access to the stars.
There’s literally nothing else to do. The convention, which is held in the basement of a Marriott next to LAX, has three areas: The main ballroom is where Q&As happen. If you pay for the 550 dollar Gold Pass you get an assigned seat in that ballroom. Most people were sitting in the assigned seats, so I imagine a lot of those passes were sold. Across the hall from that ballroom was the dealer room; I was excited to get in there, to see what was being sold. The dealer room ended up holding about six tables. Some were selling glossy 8x10s, which you would need to have should you pay the money (up to a hundred dollars) for an autograph opportunity with one of the stars. Other tables held pre-autographed memorabilia. There was a guy who makes the convention circuit selling movie posters and overpriced soundtrack albums. There was a table selling rotten Supernatural t-shirts and not rotten mugs and shot glasses. Then there was a table selling faerie jewelry.
It was the sparsest dealer room I’ve ever seen. Usually in a convention that’s where all the activity is, but at the Supernatural con it was completely dead. The question I couldn’t quite answer for myself was whether it was because Creation didn’t bother trying to fill it or if it was because the Supernatural fandom doesn’t cross over into other fandoms; usually at a con you’ll see people letting their fandom flags fly, but the buttons and shirts worn here seemed to be almost all Supernatural-oriented. There were Torchwood items for sale in the dealer room, and some Big Bang Theory stuff, but otherwise it was pretty much just Supernatural.
The other room was the autograph/photo room. For a price you could line up and take a picture with the stars in front of a school photo-esque backdrop. You could also get things signed, but there was a no-personalization policy - they just put their signature on it and you moved on.
What was amazing were the prices for some of the photo ops. It cost 60 to 70 bucks to get pictures with actors who I had never heard of before, and who, even after IMDBing them, I was shaky on. You could buy packages as well - photos with actors in groups - and that actually was a savings when you compared it to the cost of posing with the individual actors. I don’t know what the actors made at the Supernatural con - I know that they get an appearance fee and then get a cut of the proceeds - but I do know that some top Creation convention draws can clear 20 grand in a weekend.
Anyway, that was just about it. There was nothing else. No screening room showing episodes of the show or blooper reels. I had recently been to the Vancouver FX house that does the monsters and gore for the show, and they have amazing displays of models and suits and prosthetics, but Creation didn’t bother flying any of that down to LA. There was nothing to look at but actors standing on stage, and nothing to do but pay money to interact with them.
If you paid the right money you could interact in interesting ways. There was a karaoke party, where some of the actors hung out and sang with the fans. That cost more than a regular admittance, of course. Ten fans who paid 200 extra bucks got a meet and greet with the actors who played the younger versions of the leads’ parents in two or three episodes. The coolest thing at the convention was a performance by The Brian Buckley Band, which seems to be just a group that Jared Padalecki likes - he introed them and it cost a rock bottom 15 bucks to get into that.
The weirdest interaction was the breakfast with Jared and Jensen. Available to Gold pass holders (the 550$ passes), it allowed you to attend a continental breakfast, and ‘the boys’ (everyone calls them that, even the announcers) would drop by at approximately 8:30am and leave at 9am. This happens at all Creation cons, I guess, and I was told what occurs is that the stars walk around the tables, introduce themselves, say thanks, and leave.
What’s truly revealing about the con is this: there were no writers, creators or directors on stage. Ever. I really wanted to hear what Sera Gamble, the show runner, or Eric Kripke, the creator, had to say about keeping the show going after season five, which was where the planned story ended. To me the best part of Supernatural is the writing; it’s a truly smart and funny show, and the characters are incredibly well-drawn. But this convention wasn’t about that at all - it was just about getting fans close to the people who appear on screen. For a price.
I’ve talked to people who have been to other Creation cons as fans and as talent, and they say it’s always the same. I know a filmmaker who doesn’t like charging for their autograph, which pisses off the rest of the talent who are asking 40 to 60 bucks a pop (rumor has it that Danny Trejo wants you to pay in full for each item he signs). I don’t begrudge anyone the ability to make some money doing this, but walking around the Supernatural con (or what little of it there was) it all felt exploitative. Everything was about nickel and diming the fans, some of whom had flown in from across the country.
This wasn’t a “Salute to Supernatural,” as the con’s official title had it. It was a salute to Creation getting your credit card info.
A note: I still remain a huge fan of the show, and I think the way the actors politely and warmly interacted with the fans was sweet. I just find the way that the organizers create a blatant cash-grab atmosphere to be revolting and against anything that resembles ‘fandom.’
* She also engaged in some shameless efforts to get the audience to agitate for her to play Wonder Woman in David E Kelley’s new TV show. It’s pretty obvious that she hasn’t even read the script, but she knew the name of the casting director. Which she wouldn’t tell us, but she said that we could Google it to find her and send her emails.