“Con” Jobs12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
by Jamie Painter Young
Backstage.com, May 16, 2003
Actor Rena Owen never imagined she’d be sitting behind a folding table on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon in a Pasadena conventional hall signing autographs for Princess Leia lookalikes and grown men clad in Obi-Wan Kenobi robes at the annual Grand Slam Sci-Fi Summit–all because George Lucas cast her as the voice of computer-generated character Tuan We, a minor character, in Star War: Episode II–Attack of the Clones. Owen didn’t even know such fan conventions existed until she was invited to participate in one last year.
“It’s been totally new territory for me,” said Owen, best known for her acclaimed dramatic performance in the 1994 New Zealand film Once Were Warriors. She’s now based in Los Angeles pursuing her career. “It opened the door to a whole new world, and I’m still blown away by it–that even individuals who play a CG player for five minutes in Star Wars can sit here signing photographs all day. But I enjoy doing it because I don’t do that many and I’ve always had time for my fans–and without an audience I don’t have a job. It’s neat to meet people face to face and communicate with them.”
It can also be lucrative, as actors are either paid by convention promoters for their appearances or, if not paid by organizers, can charge eager fans and collectors for signed headshots, other autographed material, and photo opportunities. Owen charges $20 per autograph, which seems to be the average price most actors place on their John Hancocks at these kinds of conventions. Better-known and more-popular actors, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s James Marsters, garner as much as $35 a pop for an autograph. “It’s very handy pocket money,” as Owen put it.
One well-known actor who frequents the sci-fi/fantasy conventions, or “cons” as insiders refer to them, estimated that he makes anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 per convention appearance. In addition, he said, event promoters almost always provide free airfare and hotel accommodations for participating talent.
As James Leary, who plays the recurring character Clem, Spike’s good-natured demon buddy, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, discovered, becoming a part of a phenomenon like Buffy meant being invited to fan conventions, something he never imagined. Leary has been invited to eight cons since he was cast on the popular series two years ago. He never thought he’d be invited to such places as the San Diego ComiCon, the largest fan convention in the U.S., where devotees of Star Trek, Star Wars, Buffy, Angel, Xena, and all things sci-fi and fantasy congregate each August. Leary never thought he’d do more than one episode of Buffy, let alone become the subject of fans’ adulation.
“I thought I was going to do my day on Buffy and be done,” admitted Leary of his beginnings on the show. “I never knew they were going to start calling me back to do more episodes. After my second or third show aired, one of my friends e-mailed me all these links of fan forums and posting boards. People really loved the character and started creating websites based on my character.”
Like Owen, Leary didn’t realize that when you become a part of a popular franchise like Buffy, you become a part of the fans’ universe, and that often includes participating in cons.
Said Leary, “It was actually one of the producers on the show who said, ‘You’ve done enough episodes now. You can probably start doing conventions.’ I started asking around and got put in touch with a lady who books people for conventions. I ended up talking to James Marsters, who plays Spike [on Buffy], because I know he does a lot. I talked to his booking manager and slowly but surely started going to one and then another, and then people started to call.”
Leary ended up hiring Marsters’ booking manager, Julie Caitlin Brown. Together with Marsters and actor Andy Hallett, who plays the green-skinned character Lorne on Angel, Leary is now a part of “a little package deal” for convention promoters to consider booking. As Leary said, “It sort of helps to have bargaining power.”
Having a booking manager also helps weed out the more shady convention promoters. Said Leary, “It’s very helpful to have someone who knows the ropes so you don’t get screwed at some of these things–to make sure that everything runs smoothly and you don’t get involved in any bad conventions. There are some very reputable ones that have been going on for years, and then there are always new fan conventions popping up everywhere, and you don’t really know which ones are legitimate and which ones aren’t.”
At first, convention organizers weren’t as thrilled about Leary being at their events as his fans were. But thanks to Buffy fans, Leary is now a hot commodity in the con circuit.
“When the booking manager first started to try to get me stuff, the fans knew who I was but a lot of the people running the conventions didn’t. It was a bit harder for her at the beginning, but once more and more fans started to speak up about it, it became easier. Without the support of the fans you really can’t do it,” said Leary, whose recent and upcoming convention appearances include stops in Pasadena, Cleveland, Detroit, Tampa, San Diego, Las Vegas, Atlanta, New Jersey, the Catskills, even Paris and London.
The only drawback to the cons, noted Leary, is that they can be long and tiring.
“Some of these things are from 11 to 6, and you sit there all day, and you shake hands and meet and talk to people,” he said. “Sometimes you’re going to answer a lot of the same questions. So it can be draining in that you’re performing all day, basically. You’re having to be–I don’t want to say on or that you’re faking being nice–but if you’re meeting people all day, the smile muscles hurt at the end of the day, and it definitely feels like you’ve given a little bit of yourself to each and every one of these people.”
As Leary pointed out, if it were not for the fans of Buffy, he wouldn’t have a convention side career. But even as Buffy winds up its final season on May 20, Leary is confident that he’ll continue to be sought after for future cons.
“I plan on doing [cons] for as long as I can,” he said. “Buffy is similar to shows like Star Trek or Star Wars, where it has a fan base that isn’t going anywhere. Just because the show’s off the air, people are still going to watch it in reruns and buy the DVDs. It’s going to continue to garner new fans because the shows air four times a day now on FX. It’s one of those things where I think it will continue.”
Still, as Walter Koenig pointed out, actors should never take their fans for granted. Koenig, who played Starship Enterprise officer Chekov on the original Star Trek series and subsequent seven features, understands the importance of treating fans with respect. In his case, fans are what brought Star Trek back to life after many dormant years for a series of films and series and kept him in the spotlight.
Explained Koenig, “The reason you go to conventions is to strengthen your fan support base and to receive remuneration for your appearance, but I don’t think you should ever lose sight of the fact that this is a very temporal situation and no matter how bright the flame burns, eventually it is extinguished. Particularly if you’re talking about Star Trek. All the shows that have followed us have gone seven years, but seven years goes by rather quickly, and then you still have to maintain a career.”
His recommendation, then, for any actors on the convention track is “first of all, respect the fans–respect how important they are in your life and the fact that they are very loyal if you treat them well. Don’t assume that because you are in the limelight and have this incredible adulation and this extraordinary sense of importance that they invest in you that it’s going to go on forever.”
It’s also important to Koenig that he do more at conventions than simply pose for photo ops, sign autographs, and answer fans’ questions. Sometimes he feels the need to prove to his loyal legion of fans that he’s capable of more than just saying, “Beam me up, Scotty.” With that in mind, Koenig recently presented a performance of David Mamet’s play Duck Variations with fellow Star Trek alum and veteran actor Richard Herd (Admiral Owen Paris on Voyager for two seasons) at the Denver Starfest convention in April.
It’s not the first time Koenig has taken a theatrical production on the road to Star Trek cons. Back in the 1990s, Koenig presented a trio of plays to Trekkies around the country. “Mark Lenard, who played Spock’s father, was my partner. We took a one-act play called Actors on the road. We did another one-act called Cox and Box by Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. And we did a full-length play called The Boys of Autumn, which we mounted in the [San Fernando] Valley and then took on the road,” recalled Koenig, whose partnership with Lenard sadly came to an end when the actor died in 1996.
Koenig has found these experiences, including the recent Mamet show, extremely gratifying, and he hopes to continue them at future cons.
“The thing that Richard and I like so much about performing is that this is what we’re supposed to do,” Koenig said. “Getting out and reminiscing about our experiences on Star Trek–it doesn’t get old for the audience, but it gets a little old for us. Signing autographs, that’s fine–but we’re supposed to be actors and this is an opportunity to ply the craft.”
These theatrical offerings allow Koenig and Herd not only to show off their acting chops but also in a sense to feel worthy of the fans’ attention. “I think the range that [Chekov] afforded was so narrow that my sense was that the compliments, and the adulation that I personally received, were not proportionate to my contribution to the show,” said Koenig. “I always felt like, ‘Thank you, that’s very sweet, but I can do more than this.’ I think that had a lot to do with my motivation for doing something that was more of a test to my talent.”
Koenig wasn’t sure how Trekkies would take to Mamet, but to his and Herd’s delight and surprise, the fans appreciated the language, humor, and intelligence of the play. Said the actor, “Denver was a very positive, reinforcing experience. I think we’ll have an even greater test when we do it in Tulsa, Okla., next month. We’re doing Mamet in Tulsa. I don’t know about that.”
Unlike Koenig, there are certainly actors at these conventions not as concerned with their fans or with their personal growth as artists. At a recent sci-fi convention I attended I could smell the bitterness, shame, and decay some actors reek of. It was clear to me that such actors–whose names I will spare mentioning–were at the event for only one reason: to collect a chunk of cash from the only thing they have going for them, even if it’s a 25-year-old role in which their face wasn’t even recognizable. Still, fans pay good money for their autographs and are willing to wait in long lines for a brief encounter with these actors.
“I think there’s a certain amount of self-loathing in some people. I know because I’ve had it myself,” admitted Wil Wheaton, who starred as Wesley Crusher for four seasons on Star Trek: The Next Generation from the time he was 15 years old. “There are times when you sit there and go, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ But then some father comes over with his two little kids, and the little kids are doing back flips because they love Wesley Crusher, and you give them some free trading cards. In that moment you realize why it’s totally worth it.”
Wheaton confessed that he wasn’t always so appreciative of his fans.
“For a long time I hated Star Trek after I left it. I had a really hard time with it,” admitted the now 30-year-old Wheaton, who had an epiphany two years ago at a con in Vegas: He realized how good those years on Star Trek were and how grateful he is to the fans of the series. Since then, he said, “It’s a lot of fun for me to do these things.”
Like Koenig, Wheaton has learned how important it is to treat fans with the respect they deserve–especially Trekkies, a special breed who want more than just a signature when they sojourn at these conventions.
Said Wheaton, “Over the years, I’ve learned something from this experience: It’s never about the signature. It’s about that brief encounter with a Star Trek cast member that is so important to the fans–that 30 seconds or so of hopefully undivided attention is what fans are really paying for, and I always do my best to make sure that they get their money’s worth.
“Contrary to popular belief, sitting at a table signing autographs for several hours without a break is actually very hard. It’s not just mindlessly scrawling my name. It’s stopping and listening to the always excited, sometimes shrieking, always sweating, sometimes scary dude who wants to know exactly why I did ‘X’ on episode ‘Y’ and would I please sign his picture in silver because Marina signed it in gold, and now he wants the men in silver and the women in gold, and, ‘I hated your character, and here’s 25 reasons why, and I expect an answer for each one of them, and I’m not leaving until I’m satisfied.’
“There are some actors, and I’d like to count myself among them, who understand that these fans are special, and you need to give them an appropriate amount of attention.”
Actor Glenn Shadix, known for his work in Tim Burton’s films Beetlejuice, Planet of the Apes, and The Nightmare Before Christmas (as the voice of the Mayor), agreed that the best reason to go to these conventions is to meet the people who helped make your career possible. Shadix has been to about 10 cons in the past couple of years and has enjoyed talking to fans in these settings.
“It’s that moment of exchange that I love–answering questions about a film that they’ve always wanted to know, sharing details with them–and I get the reward of meeting people that have truly enjoyed something I’ve done,” said Shadix. “That human exchange, I think, is the most gratifying aspect of these conventions.”
“More than anything, you have to remember that you’re there for the fans,” said Leary. “If you want to do these conventions, that has to be your No. 1 priority–putting the fans first. When it stops being fun, you need to stop doing it.”
While Wheaton has appreciated the extra income his appearances at sci-fi conventions have brought, particularly during the slower times in his career, the actor said that money is no longer his primary goal when going to these events.
He said, “There have been times in my life where having the additional income was needed and welcome and really provided breathing room. Several times it has been a real relief to know that if things got really tough, where other actors would and maybe get an exciting and rewarding job in the food service industry, I’m very blessed and very fortunate that I could go to a Star Trek convention. It’s not like that anymore.
“I think that if you desperately need [money], you shouldn’t go–from an actor’s point of view. If it’s like, ‘I have to sell a certain amount of pictures or I have to sell my car,’ you shouldn’t go, because that’s not what it’s about. It’s a lot of fun for me to do these things now. The difference between me and the fans at the conventions is that they put on a spacesuit for free and I got paid to wear it.”
So as long as you’re an actor who enjoys meeting the fans and treats them with the respect they deserve, may you live long and prosper at the cons.