Report and Notes
There are plenty of videos of the various panels floating around. Please see the links below for a more in-depth view.
Don't let there be any doubt that Dragon*Con does one thing and does it very well. Party hard. Dragon*Con is a success year after year because the convention keeps its focus on what conventions are about: people, meeting people, and having a fun time with people. This isn't to say that the numerous stellar guests and massive programming tracks don't help. Though Dragon*Con is a multi-genre convention it still brings in some of the biggest guests from all sorts of entertainment franchises. But even this is probably done with the fans and people in mind. Bring together the best of the best and attendees can explore and meet all kinds of new fans and fandoms.
Dragon*Con takes over downtown Atlanta over the Labor Day Weekend in more ways than one. With around 35,000 attendees or more and four hotels it is virtually impossible to not see, hear, and often touch and smell Dragon*Con. This is nowhere more evident than for the Saturday morning parade which reaches about ten blocks around the main convention hotels. Streets are closed down and the sidewalks are lined with not only many of the convention attendees but also many members of the public.
Though not officially part of the convention area, the nearby Peachtree Center food court becomes a de-facto meeting place for many people. In fact, the location of Dragon*Con forms a critical element of its formula for success. Though most conventions of even half the size move into larger convention centers, Dragon*Con is held in the convention space of four downtown hotels. Each of the hotels -- the Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, and Sheraton -- has ample convention space which is all used by the con. With all the big tracks, no one single main ballroom would suffice; instead, three hotels' large ballrooms each hold their own "main events" at the same time. There is that much going on. With several thousand people lining up for these events the lines often reach out through lobbies, stairwells, and often even into the streets. And even though most people will eat at the food court several times, many also go out to some of the nicer area restaurants. There is simply no way of not noticing Dragon*Con's influence.
By far the most central location of the convention is the Marriott's Atrium Lobby. it has some of the most wide-open areas of any of the hotels, allowing people to mingle and -- just as importantly -- take photos of the many people in costume. Also of importance are the two bars located on the Atrium Level, Pulse and High Velocity. Let there be no mistake that the expensive but plentifully flowing alcohol is arguably the biggest contributor to the Dragon*Con party atmosphere. The trendy style of the bars is very clearly geared towards the demographic of fandom convention attendees. "Open container" laws either don't exist or are just simply ignored by all sides. Though most programming tracks last well into the evening, most people will forego these events and spend the night at the bars or with liquor and friends in their own rooms. The exception to this of course are the several track-sponsered parties with cash bars hold as official hotel functions. The goal of Dragon*Con is to party. All the guests, all the panels, all the events are geared towards this goal.
Probably the biggest guests of the convention, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy undoubtedly brought in many attendees his year. Both were relatively late additions to the featured guest roster. Their joint panel, first thing Friday morning at 10 am, was perhaps one of the biggest events of the whole convention. Many people lined up many hours in advance despite announcements that line-up would only start at 8 am. The enormous Hyatt Grand Ballroom was filed to capacity and many people who couldn't get in (or couldn't get up in time) watched on the closed-circuit DCTV channel.
Shatner and Nimoy came on stage and set the tone for their whole panel right away. It was a lot of joking around about each other with the occasional Star Trek reference thrown in. Though billed as a panel, the two spent the majority of the time playing off each other. Shatner was slightly antagonistic while Nimoy gave it back to Shatner with his quick, intelligent wit. They covered a lot of Star Trek history as well as a lot of their other work over their long careers. A line was opened for questions and a few lucky people got to speak. Just as with the rest of the panel, though, Shatner and Nimoy went off on tangents and dialogue between the two. This really kept the focus on them, more so than Star Trek. While probably almost every last person in the audience was a Trek fan of some sort none of the questions were particularly original. Over the course of years and the many books, conventions, and interviews they've gone through most every answerable Trek question has been answered. The panel stayed focused on both the actors and kept the whole hour exciting and interesting.
Patrick Stewart's first appearance was part of the Trek Trak Show in the format of late-night show complete with host. Kate Mulgrew was originally scheduled to appear as the second "guest" of the show but was not there due to a delayed flight. So instead the whole hour was focused on Stewart. At first the host, , Trek Trak head of Dragon*Con, played his role of host well and held something of a dialogue with Stewart. After the first few questions Stewart turned the show more towards the audience, speaking more to them than to or Star Trek Phase II actor with whom he'd been having a dialogue.
Stewart's own panel the following day was an even bigger treat. This was done in the very regular panel fashion. Repeating some of his stories and anecdotes from the previous appearance, the focus soon went into a traditional "question and answer" session. One of the things that made the Shatner/Nimoy panel exciting was their tendency to briefly answer a question and then take it in another direction. Audience questions are often bad, in the sense that they are either unoriginal (asked almost identically at other events) or hard to answer (such as the ubiquitous "that episode" question).
Surprisingly, almost all the questions were either fairly original or genuinely interesting. There was one question of the "in such-and-such episode" which Stewart actually started off answering by explaining that it's a hard question to answer, with the filming having occurred years and even decades ago. He also mentioned that he rarely watched episodes on TV; he retold a story of a bellhop (or such) arriving in his hotel room while one of the Next Generation episodes, and then by Stewart's imagination probably going back to tell he coworkers what a sad sight he'd just witnessed. Hence such questions just come almost completely without any frame of reference and thus are hard to satisfyingly answer.
In contrast to the Shatner/Nimoy panel which focused mostly on the two gentlemen themselves, Stewart talked in length about various aspects of his career. The perhaps one most interesting things he said was regarding who he felt he was. Apologizing to his children and grandchildren, he pointed out that he was first and foremost an actor, that he loved his art, and that that was what made him who he is. Another interesting thing he mentioned, at both panels, is that he hopes his best work is still to come, though that he'd be very proud to be best remembered for his work on Next Generation. The most interesting question came at the end. Though some people seemed disappointed, the audience member asked about the making of King of Texas (which is Stewart's idea of setting King Lear in the American West). Stewart told many stories about the various aspects of filming and acting and actually tried to keep the panel going past schedule since it was something he wanted to talk more and more about.
All in all, it seemed he was enjoying himself quite a bit with the opportunity to talk about all his works with so many fans.
If any one panel really showed how much interaction between guests and fans Dragon*Con can provide, it was Garret Wang's. (Again, one of his panels was to be a joint Voyager panel with Kate Mulgrew. Her delayed flight made it his own panel.) Like many guests like to do, they dispense with the standard panel table setup and instead stand in front of it to be literally closer to the fans. Garret, however, really took this even a step farther. He asked all the costumers to stand up, then got down in the audience and got photos of each of them. He clearly both appreciated the fans attendance to his panel and his time at the convention.
He was also very energetic and playful with the audience. Most of his time was spent talking not so much about Voyager or even his own career, but some of the adventures he had going to the many conventions over the years. One of the things he kept mentioning was how often people he met were surprised at how different he was from Ensign Harry Kim. After seven years of Voyager he let his hair grow out and traveled. And part of what he felt were his many travels were the many conventions he had attended, both as a guest and as an attendee himself.
Unlike all the Star Trek guests my stories of Michael Hogan do not come from a panel. However, seeing him was one of the most impressive parts on the convention. First was Friday night, not surprisingly at the bar. The Pulse bar in the Marriott was pretty much the central place to be over the course of the convention. And it gets really crowded. So there I am, standing around with some friends in a tight circle. People of course bump into each other all the time trying to get through, even before any drinking has impeded balance.
So I'm standing there talking and once again get bumped. Always trying to be polite (a virtue Dragon*Con attendees seem to have quite a bit of, actually) I turn to say "oh, pardon me" and who do I see there? Discreetly after a few seconds, I just had to ask, "is that who I think it is?" Being one of the last of my friends to actually meet the Battlestar Galactica cast, one of my friends just smiled and nodded wisely. This being one of my first star encounters at Dragon*Con, I couldn't help but take a second look. So, Michael Hogan is there and talking with some of the attendees. I'd heard plenty of stories how friendly and approachable much of the BSG cast is, and here it was happening in front of me. He gave her a hug and offered to buy the attendees he was talking with all drinks. Everybody was there to have fun.
Adam Savage ran his panel with a list of a 100 things he wished for. All written on cards he read off every last one of them. Some were silly, some were funny, some were nice and heartwarming.
Monday is one of the worst times for panels. Most people are either recovering from the last convention night's parties, packing up to leave on hours-long drives, or both. Nevertheless, it can also be the best day for panels. Precisely because it's the slowest day of all, panels are less packed and less formal. Even many of the guests have been partying for the last few days and are ready to take it a bit easier. Billingsley and Montgomery held a panel that was much more like a "John and Anthony comedy hour." Sure there were audience questions and telling a number of stories from the set of Voyager, but for the most part it was the two of them goofing around on stage.
Much like the very first panel at the convention with Shatner and Nimoy, this panel of two also played off each other quite a bit with personal anecdotes and jokes. Like many guests they took to the front of the stage instead of staying behind the table. But it hardly stopped there; they went out into the audience and even at one point the hallway. Billingsley chased after somebody leaving and asked "please stay! Please stay! Please stay!" And despite the practical adult atmosphere of Dragon*Con, panels are technically supposed to be family friendly. After one "fucking awesome" remark, though, that started to go out the window. One of the last questions was by a young child of perhaps ten or so regarding John Billingsley in True Blood. Billingsley described it as, "well, in this one episode, there's this Christmas tree which is... well..." and the kid just spouts out "sodomized!" That's Dragon*Con for you.
And perhaps the best way to end the convention, both guests stayed around in the hallway to chat and take photos with fans. They seemed to love talking to everybody and taking their time for pictures, autographs, and questions. That's Dragon*Con for you.
The reputation Dragon*Con has is well deserved. Even giants like Anime Expo or San Diego Comic Con don't have the non-stop 144-hour party Dragon*Con does. Even at four in the morning the elevators are still packed. Crowds are everywhere around the convention area and every space that can sport a bar does. With the convention crossing so many different genres, many of which are well established and have a long history, the median age is somewhere between 30 and 40. This makes a lot different from the anime conventions with mostly high school and college students; the atmosphere is also noticeably different. And it's different from the traditional (and sometimes considered stale) science fiction and comic conventions. Dragon*Con has taken the best parts of many different conventions and put them together.
With 35,000 or more attendees and so many different tracks a few problems always arise. It's very crowded; people can be difficult to find, especially when cellular service is spotty and in demand by everybody else at the same time; communication between different parts of the convention is nearly impossible; lines are long. You can spend a lot of time just waiting to get into a panel, and even waiting for hours doesn't mean you'll get a good seat. Autographs and photos are hard to come by and you do need to be lucky. Including Thursday pre-con night and Monday, it's five whole days of convention which drains on both the wallet and the spirit.
These are just smaller gripes amongst a much greater experience. The opportunities are often once-in-a-lifetime. It's five days of meeting amazing people and amazing guests. There is so much to do there that nobody could possibly do it all. Once a year, downtown Atlanta really does become a magical place.