About this time last year, downtown regulars may have noticed something odd happening around the city and its environs: a sudden proliferation of predominantly C-list and past-their-sell-by TV and movie actors popping up in all sorts of unexpected places.
There was a well-oiled Anthony Michael Hall—once the feckless ginger in a host of '80s coming-of-age films, later the lead stud in some early-'00s cable sci-fi—bro-ing it up at a Market Square pub, lurching around to the pump and thrum of a local blues outfit. And Billy Dee Williams—blaxploitation icon, Lando Calrissian portrayer, and malt-liquor pitchman—breaking scones at an Old City dining establishment. And Dustin Diamond—"Screech" from the '90s sitcom Saved by the Bell—allegedly skulking around another Old City watering hole.
There was even a reported traffic dust-up, an accident that sent '70s action star Lee The Six Million Dollar Man Majors to a local hospital with a banged-up arm. ("We can rebuild him. We have the technology…")
This invasion of faded stars was due to the city's second annual Fanboy Expo, a fan convention predicated on the notion that people will turn out in some numbers for the express purpose of shaking hands with, shooting a selfie next to, and perhaps purchasing an autograph from cherished celebrities, whatever their vintage or Q score might be.
It's a model that seems to be working. According to Fanboy founder and organizer David Heynen, the inaugural Knoxville Fanboy con in 2012 drew 2,200 visitors. The 2013 event drew around 4,000, he says, and he expects this year's iteration—with the addition of a dozen or so well-known comic-book writers and artists to the roster of 33 celebrity guests—to draw 8,000 to 10,000.
One day, he hopes the con will top 20,000.
The convention has moved up a class or two in venue, too, with the site being moved from aging Chilhowee Park last year to the plusher, better-appointed Knoxville Convention Center. "Knoxville has been great, all the way around," enthuses Heynen, a jovial, heavy-set fellow in his mid-30s. "The city, the businesses, the media have all been more than willing to partner and get the word out, more so than in bigger cities.
"I thought Knoxville would be a great city for Fanboy, that people would be excited about it. And people have been awesome. They've taken ownership, and accepted it as their own, which is what we want to happen."
Heynen says large, longstanding conventions in other cities pull more than 50,000, even 100,000 over the course of a weekend. And with bigger audiences come bigger names—celebrity guest lists that include more than just TV throwbacks and third-stringers from currently popular movies and shows. So what's the ceiling for an ambitious celebrity con in a modest-sized place like Knoxville, Tenn.?
It's difficult to track the history of fan-oriented conventions. Various sources point to one of a handful of gatherings in the 1930s—in Philadelphia, in Great Britain, in New York City—as the first science-fiction conventions, probably the earliest precursors of modern convention culture.
In the decades since, the idea has gathered steam, and diversity, branching into any number of media, topics, formats. The first comic-book conventions happened in the late '60s; the first Star Trek convention happened in either 1968 or 1973, depending on whom you ask.
Now there are conventions for every media form, every media genre, every conceivable media sub-genre: the Seattle-area Anglicon, for fans of Doctor Who and British sci-fi; Pittsburgh's Anthrocon, for fans of fictional furry-animal characters; Pennsylvania's BlobFest, devoted to the sci-fi movie The Blob; SHareCon in Maryland, for gay fans of the '70s police drama Starsky & Hutch.
Beginning in the '70s, celebrity appearances at fan conventions became a way to add juice to convention mainstays like memorabilia and merchandise dealers, film festivals, panel discussions, cosplay, etc. But somewhere in the 2000s, it seems that the celebrity aspect of conventioneering took on a heightened importance.
Writing about the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con International, a San Diego City Times reporter noted that, with the advent of the new millennium, "Hollywood finally began to recognize the power of the convention and of the people who went there."
For big conventions in big metropolises like Comic-Con—one of the oldest and largest comic-book conventions in existence—that means A-list stars, and exclusive previews of blockbuster movies and television shows. The 2013 Comic-Con, among other things, featured a panel with all of the principles from X-Men: Days of Future Past.
For smaller, hinterland conventions—well, it means they're coming along, albeit a bit more slowly. "It used to be that these were conventions of has-beens," says Heynen. "But it's becoming more mainstream. It all hinges on how many people come out and how well the convention does.
"There are shows in Philadelphia and Chicago that get [Thor actor] Chris Hemsworth and people like that, because they have 50,000 people there. But the stereotype that this is what you do when your acting career has ended is no longer true."
A native San Diegan himself, Heynen entered conventioneering via the world of sports, taking a job with a baseball card promoter/entrepreneur at age 18. That led to his own baseball-card shop, which led him into the business of sports collectibles and autographs.
He eventually moved to Las Vegas, in 2005, to work in a friend's sports-collectibles shop, and living in Vegas, he says, "got me introduced to the celebrity side of autographs. Then I started meeting some celebrities, and things took off from there."
Heynen got into celebrity bookings—at nightclubs, at business openings, at a variety of conventions and one-time events. He worked with ex-TV stars, B-movie icons, pro wrestlers, and former models.
And he gradually cut back on his work with athletes and sports collectibles, embracing in full the world of TV/film celebrity culture. "It's so much easier working with celebrities," he says. "If you want to get to these sports figures, there are all these big companies you have to go through to get them to make an appearance. It's a little easier with the celebrities.
"And the appeal is a little wider. If you have a Dallas Cowboy player, you only appeal to Cowboy fans. But if you have someone from The Walking Dead, it's a much wider crowd."
So a few years ago, Heynen decided to parlay his celebrity contacts and booking know-how into a full-fledged convention. And he chose to focus his efforts, for the time being, on two cities. He says he chose Tampa, Fla., based on his own market research. "They had the least number of activities like this," Heynen says. "And the city was willing to partner with us, which was important, too."
As for Knoxville, Heynen had been to the city before, as a booker and vendor during his years working other sports- and celebrity-oriented functions. And he felt the city was big enough to build respectable attendance numbers, yet not so large as to be jaded to the presence of a smaller, up-and-coming fan convention making its bones on the aging backs of short-of-the-A-list stars.
"It usually doesn't do so well to have something like this in L.A.," he says. "They're like, ‘Ehh…' It's like doing a bear convention in Knoxville. People have seen it before. In places like Knoxville, you don't normally get to meet people like this. People are excited."
Which may be as much a reflection of how denizens of top-10 cities view Knoxville—and bear conventions—as it is a statement about the city itself. But it's certainly true that we're not accustomed to seeing reasonably well-known TV former actors wandering around Weigel's or the food court every day.
It isn't entirely clear how, or how well, the business model for cons like Fanboy works. Organizers like Heynen either pay celebrities a reasonable appearance fee (A-listers at huge cons can earn six figures; four- or low-five-figure fees are more common for lesser stars at smaller cons), or provide top-of-the-line travel and hotel accommodations, or more likely do some combination of the two. And unlike, say, the aforementioned San Diego Comic-Con, shows like Fanboy are now banking primarily—if not exclusively—on the celebrity side of the equation. (Though it's worth noting that Fanboy is adding a roster of comic-book creators and vendors to the convention this year.)
On the revenue end, this year's Fanboy admission charges are $20 for a day pass, $40 for the whole weekend, and $99 for the VIP package—which includes a weekend pass, special autograph passes, access to VIP parties, and Fanboy T-shirts. It also includes your choice of either a Batman or Wonder Woman lunchbox.
One of Fanboy's celebrity guests, Barry Bostwick [see sidebar] notes in passing that the admission charge is fairly modest, as conventions go. "This one is reasonably priced," he says. "I've been to some where it's $100 a day. Some you go to and people have to pay so much to get in, they have nothing left to spend once they're inside."
Heynen admits that running a con isn't necessarily an easy way to earn a buck. "It's not as profitable as some might think," he says. "It's an investment. It's like a pizza place. People have to come taste your pizza before they come back. And if they like it, they're hooked."
Another big factor in the economics of conventioneering is celebrity autographs. Because while you might be able to go to a celebrity convention and get your favorite '80s TV sitcom star or B-movie sci-fi hero to sign your T-shirt or your convention program or your collectible lunchbox, you will not get him/her to do it for free.
Heynen says that while all his guests charge—most in the $20-$30 range, maybe a bit more for more contemporary stars, like 2014 guest and former Lord of the Rings hobbit Sean Astin—he tries to keep autograph costs, like admission fees, somewhere in the sphere of affordability.
"One thing we do a little different is we have a few of what we call discount signees," he says. "We pay those stars a little extra, then they only charge $5 or $10 instead of $20. What we don't want is a bunch of $100 autographs. Then nobody can afford it.
"The whole thing is a complex process. You have a budget, and you have a wish list. Then it's a matter of, are these people available? And will they do it? From there, it's price. If it falls within a budget that will work, then we try to get them in. But we have lots of requests for people that just wouldn't be affordable."
And another strange caveat of fan conventions: These are gatherings for people, for entire subcultures, really—sci-fi fans, comic-book nerds, specialty TV and film geeks—who have tastes and interests that are entirely their own. So while top-drawer film stars might have wide appeal, it's not just the obvious A-listers who stir up excitement at fan conventions.
When former TV Batman Adam West, for instance, canceled his appearance at this year's Fanboy (he broke his back, ironically enough), he was replaced by Kevin Conroy, the voice actor who portrayed the Caped Crusader in most of DC Comics' '90s and '00s animated features.
"We posted that online, and people freaked out," Heynen says. "They loved it. They were crapping their pants. Because for a whole other generation of people, Kevin Conroy is Batman."
Conversely, Heynen's attempts to spice up a previous Fanboy with a few Twilight movie series actors was an epic fail. "That did not work out at all," Heynen says. "Not only did the fans not care, but it was like they were mad at us for having those actors there."
Needless to say, working with large panels of weirdly diverse celebrities can make for interesting times. Says Heynen, "You tend to get two different kinds of people. Some are absolutely wonderful people. And there are some who are ugly and nasty and you never want to meet them again. Fortunately, we tend to get more of the first kind than the latter."
And Heynen has a host of amusing recollections concerning the care and feeding of his various charges. Like the time a, er, Hulking fellow—an ex-TV star whom Heynen describes as "a very sweet guy, but sometimes in need of a little extra babying"—called in distress from his hotel in another state, upset that the counter clerk wouldn't let him use the hotel gym after midnight. (After Heynen called management, he says they promptly chastised the employee for not recognizing the obvious upside of having a well-known former Mr. Universe pump iron at their facility.)
Or the time another '80s movie vet showed up at an event, inexplicably accompanied by an outrageously busty model in a Catwoman suit. Or the incident during last year's convention, mentioned earlier, when one of Heynen's assistants had a wreck driving Lee Majors into town from the airport.
"My buddy said, ‘All I could think was that I just killed the Six Million Dollar Man,'" Heynen laughs. "But he [Majors] was absolutely awesome. He still got to the show, with a sling on his arm, and he was in great spirits. I can't say enough good things about him.
"We try to pick people who will be cool. We don't want a bunch of a-holes sitting there being mean to fans."
Fan misbehavior, on the other hand, is rarely an issue, says Heynen. Especially in the South. "The fans are usually good people; they know their boundaries, and they know how this thing works," he says. "I actually had more trouble [with fans] booking shows in Vegas than here. The celebrity guests have said the same thing: ‘Man, everyone was so nice.' I think there really is something to the idea of Southern hospitality."
Beginning this year, Heynen has added a second Knoxville Fanboy show; the next one is slated for November. With his time divided between Fanboys in two cities—he says a single show requires thousands of man-hours in preparation—this is his only gig now. And he says the long-term pay-off requires hefty short-term investment.
"This is your show—that's the message we want to send to the fans," he says. "And so far, I haven't heard a single person say, ‘That show was stupid. I'm never coming back.'
"You have to be in it to win it. You have to be ready to stay and dig in the trenches. We're in it in Knoxville for the long haul."