Behind Universal Fan Con, the Latest (and Most Diverse) Convention Around

Mehcad Books_Kim Chi_Billy Dee Williams_Split - Getty - H 2018
Getty Images
The inclusive event takes place in Baltimore this April.

As comic book culture continues to wrestle with the idea of diversification — and as genre media expands its own horizons with TV shows such as Black Lightning, Star Trek: Discovery and movies like Black Panther and the revived Star Wars franchise, a new convention is about to emerge to serve audiences often ignored by fandom at large.

“Universal Fan Con is more than just a new convention, it's the outgrowth of building a community of bloggers, podcasters and influencers over the last seven years who are committed to contributing diverse voices to the fandoms that we love,” executive director Robert Butler tells Heat Vision about the Baltimore-based convention, which launches this April.

Fan Con got its start during a dinner conversation between Butler, his partners in The Black Geeks podcast, and Jamie Broadnax, founder of Black Girl Nerds, during 2016’s Dragon Con in Atlanta, Ga. “As we sat around the kitchen table and talked, it became clear that if we wanted to see the kind of talent, artists and panels at conventions that represented the vibrant diversity of the fan community, we may have to do it ourselves,” Butler remembers. “We set out to create a safe space that celebrated fandom and included the many faces and voices that made up the groups we represented, including women, persons of color and members of the LGBTQIA and disabled communities.”

The convention was announced soon after, and met with immediate excitement. “The response from fans has been incredible,” Butler says. “People really want to see us succeed.” It’s not only fans who’ve been into the idea, however; to date, the show has garnered support from people like LeVar Burton, Orlando Jones, Mahershala Ali, New Girl’s Lamorne Morris, Timeless star Malcolm Barrett and writer Greg Pak. “The love we’ve received from the entertainment community has been overwhelming,” according to Butler.

Much of that support came in regards to the Kickstarter campaign that ran in late 2016 to fund the event; it ended up raising $56,000, more than twice the initial asking amount. It's something that Butler describes as “a greater success than we could have imagined, especially since we launched right in the middle of the Christmas holiday season” but also a sign that there’s a massive audience out there currently underserved by the media that’s available, and that's ready and willing to support media that does address them.

“We're all big geeks, and we realized that persons of color have the same complaints about representation as other groups,” he explains. “Hispanics, African Americans and Asians make up 38 percent of the population, but 49 percent of frequent moviegoers, and are more likely to see a film with characters that they can relate to."

He points to statistics showing that despite high box office receipts for diverse projects such as the Fast and the Furious movies, there is still a long way to go for representation in Hollywood.

"Representation matters, and it translates into tangible returns when you genuinely engage the audience," Butler says. 

For Butler, Fan Con may be only one signifier of a changing entertainment landscape, but it’s an important one.

“People are looking for ways to connect with like-minded groups to share their love for the content, as well as express their relationship to in the actual and not just virtual world through things like industry panels and cosplay,” he says. “Events like Fan Con provide an engaging, inclusive, family-friendly and safe platform for people to interact along those lines. Fan Con is a community that brings people together to celebrate the best of what we love in fandom."

More information about Universal Fan Con can be found here. The show runs April 27-29 at the Baltimore Convention Center.