By Sandy Sheehan
It seemed like forever for ACE Comic Con Seattle to arrive, but arrive it did. I drove from Spokane, Washington to this city on Friday morning, unaware that my VIP seat assignment was determined by my check-in time rather than by when I purchased the package or stood in line before the panel. It started on Thursday. Needless to say, I was much further back than I thought. VIP seating was also only good for two of the Marvel Entertainment panels.
I am no stranger to conventions and have been to a variety, from Creation Conventions (Star Trek: The Next Generation and more recently Supernatural), city-specific shows such as Mid South Con in Memphis (where I used to live) and more recently Lilac City Comicon (Spokane) and Anglicon (Seattle). I even went to things that would be hard pressed to be called conventions, such as answering phones for the Arkansas PBS station where Jon Pertwee (3rd Doctor from Doctor Who) spoke to the volunteers as well as Paul Darrow (Blake’s 7). ACE was by far the largest one I have attended.
ACE Conventions got some things right, but sadly more things wrong. Despite being there from open to close all three days, I was still getting confused about my location inside the venue even as I was leaving. That’s due to the size, the lack of points of focus, or the sheer exhaustion from being overly excited. They have comfortable seats easy to sit in for hours on end. The event app was amazing. I made my own schedule and could set reminders. Not that I needed them; I had practically had my main events memorized shortly after the celebrity schedule was announced. The VIP swag bags were great, and I was happy to see that hand sanitizer was included and hoped everyone was using it.
I was amazed at how they could attract so many stars to one weekend. Sadly, I wonder if they will be able to keep that many in the future. It might explain why Chris Evans cancelled due to a “family issue.” The weekend was promising. Every star-calibre celebrity panel started late, and they were busy from open to past closing time.
Tardiness is something I realized from the moment I walked in the door. I arrived shortly before the official general admission starts with the intention of using the VIP only early opening and scooting right in. It was not to be. Frustrations were high in that line. The staff had to routinely call out for people who had Friday autographs or photo ops to come forward first. There was no way the line would move that fast.
Once I finally gained entry, I made a short perusal of the vendor’s area. It was as crowded and I was ready for sitting time. The WWE guests completed their panel and a Dungeons & Dragons panel with Matthew Lillard of Scooby Doo fame was on stage. They were building the bones of a campaign with suggestions from the audience with Lillard handling the microphone in the crowd. A list of suggestions was taken and narrowed down first by panellist selection and later audience vote. The final result was an eclectic mish-mash that was great fun. Lillard closed the panel by saying that D&D is a “lifesaver” for him and great balm in this social media filled world. This panel was also streamed on Facebook live.
The next panel was the incomparable Kevin Smith, better known as Silent Bob from Clerks. It started late, which was surprising considering the short day of programming. I was expecting a comedy show but was pleasantly surprised when he took questions from the audience for the bulk of the time. He was funny and informative. He revealed he is almost done obtaining funding for a new Jay and Silent Bob film. My seat was close enough to see the stagehand try to flash him the time remaining card. I suspect his repartee might have been longer if it had started on time. Since he steadfastly refused to look, it was eventually placed at his feet telling him he had 5 minutes left.
Saturday morning was my big day. My first official photo op was scheduled, and I got in line early. After another bag check and walk through a metal detector (there was one to get in the building and the same again for the photo ops and another for the autographs), I waited. It also started late, which was quite unpleasant considering the fact that I was meeting one of my top favorite actors. Tom Hiddleston is quite the gentleman and the entire duration of the experience was about four seconds. I am pleased that I managed to say both “Hello” and “Thank you” without sounding like a total idiot, but I might have preferred more if I wasn’t so nervous.
Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany‘s panel had guaranteed seating, but I was disappointed to find my spot far from the stage but also on the side of with the camera boom. It also started late and when considering how long it took to get settled, I had ample time to find my row and get into the first available seat.
Sadly, I had to leave part way. I knew I had another line to get through and it was angry. No one was being let back into the autograph area. The scrambling of the staff gave no indication on what the reasoning. The grumbling of the crowd gave no indication either. Ultimately, it was a press of people scrambling to get through.
The handler passed my item to Tom, and he signed it while still talking to the person in front of me. On the other side, another individual tried to get my autograph to me and encouraged me to leave without any interaction with Tom. I stood there until I looked him in the eye and said a fast “Thank you” before turning dejectedly towards the exit. I was wildly disappointed that ACE’s lack of care and overbooking.
I backtracked to find the Hayley Atwell autograph line. I pushed my way to the back where staffers constantly told us to stand clear. I assumed the emergency exit was to have clear access. Instead, it was for Atwell to enter ten minutes later and Grant Gustin afterwards. She was nice but again, I was shoved through by staff. I still had my sticky with my name on it from the previous autograph and added it to the item for her to sign. Her handlers seemed pleased and I could not resist saying, “Efficiency in all things” which I think was lost on them (as they were likely not involved with the lack of preparations).
Finally, I was able to find my way to the main stage area and searched for a decent seat to stay for the duration of the evening. I was lumped in the general admission category for the remainder of the day.
Tom Lenk‘s “Lenk for Less” panel was in progress and I knew him only from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and not his twitter/instagram quick imitations of celebrity fashion. Next was Gustin, and it started very late. Rumor has it due to him still signing autographs. The organizers, sensing unrest among the masses, had someone come out and ask for people dressed as The Flash to come on stage. Despite knowing I was being “handled” as part of the audience, the cosplayers (which included a dog) dressed as the Flash was entertaining to watch.
Finally, Grant came out for a fun panel with Kevin Smith. Since he directed three episodes of The Flash, I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes insight that Smith offered. Despite most of these late start and finish times, the much anticipated Civil War panel with Sebastian Stan (Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (Falcon) and Tom Holland (Spider-Man), all of whom appeared in Captain America Civil War, was up next.
The crowd from the previous panel wasn’t moving and I, like everyone seated on that side, refused to get up and leave. An usher came to try to clear us from our seats using very harsh tones, declaring that bleacher was the “VIP overflow area.” I was confused as to why they needed an overflow area since the ticket sales page said “limited quantity” for VIP packages and their floor seemed adequate for “limited quantities.” Our civil disobedience (or in my case, still too tired from standing in lines all day and I was waiting while sitting) was rewarded by the ushers giving up and turning their attention to getting the VIPs seated.
Kevin Smith, at least, came out to distract us until Sebastian Stan arrived. They had a nice interchange and I encourage you to watch this online, on ACE’s Facebook page. Anthony Mackie gave himself a long, glowing introduction. I had no idea he was so hilarious. Both stars would roast Tom Holland until his arrival and continued even while he was there. The panel ended with a rather stressful tone because of the final fans to ask questions attendees decided to defend Tom vehemently, despite it being all in good fun.
During the panel, I noticed that there were rows and rows of empty seats in the VIP section. Upon my departure, I was shocked to see that the curtain between the main stage and the entrance area had been removed and general admission seating pushed dozens of yards further back. There was a screen to see panels going on. At that distance, what is the point of being in the same room as the stars if you actually aren’t? All the videos are available free on Facebook. A general admission pass was $100.00 for the weekend.
Sunday dawned with a less-populated schedule and hopes of a quick, easy day firmly set aside. I was tempted to skip the Camila Mendes (Veronica from Riverdale) panel but, I was up and ready to go. She was entertaining and teased about the next season (including suggesting a potential crossover with Sabrina, the Teenage Witch) and I was pleased.
I left that panel early to get in line for my “Heroes and Villains” photo op. I knew how long I was going to stand in line and my expectations were met. More delays. Security and organizers were constantly yelling out directions and to stand clear of the security entrance. It became evident that representatives were getting angry. It’s understandable since my line-up time kept getting pushed back. We all paid a large sum of money to attend and had high expectations for what we would get while they were working. Customer service is apparently not ACE’s strong suit.
I used the wait time to reconcile the idea of missing a panel I was eager to see. I also pondered how this group photo op would be staged. I found myself being welcomed by Hiddleston to stand between him and Elizabeth Olsen. I was so entranced and didn’t spare a glance to Holland, Bettany, or Mackie (who was sitting), nor Stan. A very quick “thank you guys” as I was walking away was as good as it got, but at least I had no hopes to dash at that point.
Amazingly, the panel I wanted to see, Hayley Atwell, was starting just as I was picking up my print. I was delighted my plan to get in early was fruitful and the tardiness was favorable to my schedule this time. After Atwell’s panel, the organizers at least came out then to tell the floor to clear for the Tom Hiddleston panel which was almost two hours away.
I was determined not to miss an opportunity to get good photos of the person I really came to see even if I couldn’t interact with him during the autograph or photo op. I was not disappointed. Holland joined in and no time was offered to allow for audience Q&A. The panel ended with only a small bow from Hiddleston and a selfie photo in front of the crowd. I wonder if that was in hopes of the crowd not turning ugly. Perhaps it would have if we had not all stood in excessively long lines all weekend and lacked the energy.
I was rather unsure if I had a good time overall. Sure, I did enjoy meeting most of the Avengers, even if the exorbitant ticket prices yielded only the briefest of interactions. Am I glad I went? That’s a firm “Yes!” each time I look at my photos (or my phone, since my favorites are my wallpaper).
ACE Conventions bit off more than they could chew with the third instalment of their for-profit convention. Perhaps they should have started less ambitiously and tried a handful of stars and fewer tickets sold. Once they had a well-oiled convention machine, then return to this giant scale. They obviously have more to learn on organization and estimating the time it takes to have a signature done. When I got home, I noticed that both autographs are black ink on dark photos (I chose photos that the stars provided) and their signature is difficult to read.
Perhaps if they focused more on the customer experience and less on numbers, no one would have been unhappy.
For more photos of this and past shows Sandy visited, please check out her Flickr page.