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Pop Culture Conventions

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The last decade has seen an enormous boom and demographic shift in pop culture conventions.

Take a stroll through this month’s Supanova Pop Culture Expo in Sydney or Perth, and you’ll encounter a vast cross-section of people. Where once this crowd would have represented a niche of hardcore geeks, now you might meet your grandma, your teenage neighbour, your co-worker and her school-age child all under the one roof. And it’s likely some will be in costume, channelling their favourite superhero or fantasy character.

In recent years, all around the world, pop culture conventions have become a hugely popular mainstream phenomenon, while also retaining their diehard audience.

Events such as the New York and San Diego Comic-Cons, America’s largest pop culture conventions, attract attendances of more than 150,000. Here in Australia, Supanova drew 187,770 across its six events last year. There are more than 20 pop culture conventions taking place in Australia alone during 2016, including Supanova, Oz Comic-Con, SMASH! and AVCON. Their ever-expanding universe encompasses the worlds of sci-fi, anime, manga, video games, comic books and fantasy across various mediums including TV, books and movies, and the biggest events feature guest appearances from major international and local stars of these genres.

Pop culture conventions have grown in popularity as ‘geek culture’ has moved into the mainstream, bringing a shift in attitudes towards elves, witches, superheroes, vampires and aliens. As online design and tech journal Gizmodo recently reported, “we are living in a golden age of sci-fi and fantasy TV and movies,” which has seen shows such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones top TV ratings while movie franchises based on comic books (Batman, X-Men) and fantasy/supernatural stories (The Twilight Saga, Lord of the Rings) mine box office gold. Everything geeky is not only cool, but lucrative, too.

“It’s become much more socially acceptable to wear that part of your life on your sleeve,” says Daniel Zachariou, Supanova’s founder and director. “Along with that public acceptance, the commercial world has embraced fans of these genres too.”

With the rise in popularity has come a demographic shift. More women are flocking to pop culture conventions, whereas a decade ago they would have been largely dominated by males.

Female attendees, says Daniel Zachariou, contribute heavily to one of the main convention attractions, Cosplay. Participants dress and act as a pop culture character, and Supanova features performance competitions. Sydney Cosplayer Rebecca Borkman has discovered to her delight that her hobby has led to a fulltime career. After a lifelong love of dressing as characters from Jessica Rabbit to DC Comics’ Black Canary, the 23-year-old now works fulltime for Supanova, in industry outreach and social media. That alone, she says, is a sign of how far pop culture conventions have come. “Ten years ago there’s no way someone like me could have found full time work in this area,” she says. 

“There were no genuine career paths available for people with ‘geeky’ interests. But now we’re living in a time when you can have a career with Facebook, for example.”

When Borkman attended her first convention (Supanova) in 2006, “these events were mainly inhabited by Trekkies and people who lived in their mother’s basement,” she says with a laugh.

“My friends at school thought it was a bit strange and weird; they never really viewed it in a positive light. Being seen as a geek was not a good thing, but now it’s cool to be a smart, nerdy person.”

Conventions and expos are also loved by fans for a physical, face-to-face aspect that contrasts with much of their subject matter.

“We allow fans to enter the world they’ve been reading about or playing and watching on screen,” says Zachariou. “But at the same the internet has helped us grow. Communities of fans have been able to locate each other and the physical manifestation of their pop culture passions are our events.”

He looks forward to Supanova’s continued rise. “I think we’re only at 35 percent of what we can be. There is so much potential still.”

By Amy Cooper