|Participants show off their costumes at Toronto's Fan Expo. (JACK BOLAND/QMI Agency file photo)
Fan Expo Canada - which will host 80,000 "genre" fans at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre this weekend -- hit a wall of sorts in 2010, when it got so big the Fire Marshall stepped in.
"We had an unfortunate incident where we couldn't get the South Building as usual and we were in the North building, a smaller space," says event co-ordinator James Armstrong.
"Once the building is full to capacity, the Fire Marshall can shut your doors, and that did happen a couple of times in 2010. Basically they don't care who has a ticket and who doesn't.
"Last year was our year to recover," Armstrong says. "We took the entire South building, 30% more space. We also put crowd control on the outside."
This wasn't what organizers envisioned in 1995 when Fan Expo debuted for 1,400 at Roy Thomson Hall. Now a monster event combining streams of comic books, gaming, anime, horror and sci-fi, it began low-key.
"For the first few years, we had nothing to offer but comic books," Armstrong says. "We added anime first, and it was supposed to be a one-year-only thing. The next logical step was Star Trek and Star Wars, science fiction. Then Rue Morgue magazine came to us and said, 'We always wanted to do a horror thing,' and that was our biggest increase in attendance and size in any single year."
Fan Expo regular Steve Schnier, a writer and producer of animated series (Freaky Stories, The Magic School Bus) has attended these events going back to the '70s.
"It's an entirely different beast from what it used to be," Schnier says. "It used to be people who got together, and they'd rent a few rooms in a hotel for the love of it.
"What they're doing today at Fan Expo is they're selling real estate. They put up a tent and say, 'We're having Patrick Stewart here,' and 60,000 people show up. And people are selling stuff, so that all works hand-in-hand.
"My very first convention way back when was at Winters College at York University. "There was a man holding court for a small crowd, and he turned out to be Stan Lee." (The Marvel founder is a guest at this year's Fan Expo. Patrick Stewart was scheduled but recently cancelled). Schnier also bought a $3 original lobby card for King Kong, which he sold years later for an amount he won't reveal, "but I financed a project with it."
But bigger isn't necessarily a bad thing, Schnier says. "Today, you'll go to the Fan Expo and there's an exhibition of puppets from (Tim Burton's) Frankenweenie. This is spectacular stuff, which you never ever saw in the old days. Because of the corporate involvement, and the sponsorship, you're seeing the real Hollywood items on display."
Armstrong says there is a smart approach to Fan Expo. "What I advise people is that Friday is the least-crowded day. You can see and interact with all kinds of celebrities and professionals in all sorts of interesting ways.
"On the Friday we have a Lego master builder coming in. There's only about a dozen of these guys in the world.
Fan Expo is also offering a hands-on chance to play the video game Halo 4, months ahead of its release. "That's huge for us," Armstrong says.
"There's a lot of free stuff. The only extra charge inside is that some of the actors charge for their signature. We've posted that on the website so people know that ahead of time." (The X-Files' Gillian Anderson demands $50 each for an autograph and posed photo, LeVar Burton of Star Trek: The Next Generation is a $30 autograph and a $40 photo).
"But most of the professionals sign for free," Armstrong says. "Comic book artists, the anime stars, the gaming guys, voice actors, they all sign for free."