“Are you going to FanX this year?”
For Utah’s geek community — the thousands who obsess over, talk about and cosplay as their favorite movie, TV, video game and comic book characters — the question has been a no-brainer ever since FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention (originally called Salt Lake Comic Con) launched in 2013.
FanX has been the place for Utah’s geeks, some 100,000 strong, to see celebrities, listen to panel discussions and buy cool stuff. More important, it’s where they hang out with their tribe.
“Seeing the straitlaced accountant during the week suddenly dressed as Conan the Barbarian, that’s a great thing,” said Kerry Jackson, a host on X96’s “Radio From Hell” and founder of the popular “Geek Show Podcast.” “We can get together and agree on our fandom. … It’s very important to people.”
This year, with FanX set again to fill the Salt Palace Convention Center from Thursday to Saturday, the tribe is split.
After months of controversy — a sexual-harassment accusation against author Richard Paul Evans at last year’s convention, criticism of how FanX founders Bryan Brandenburg and Dan Farr handled the accusation, the doxxing of author Shannon Hale, and the event’s attempts to repair the damage and institute new policies for safety and inclusiveness — some past attendees are opting to skip it.
When The Salt Lake Tribune posed the “Are you going to FanX?” question recently on Twitter, most who responded said no.
“I’m staying away this year, but I hope things honestly improve so I can feel comfortable going in the future,” wrote Allie May, a fantasy author who recently moved to Lehi.
Cassidy Ward, editor-in-chief of the nerd-friendly website Big Shiny Robot, was more blunt: “Nothing’s changed but optics. The people who created and fostered that environment still run the show. All they learned was to paint a pretty facade. The house is still condemned.”
And Rebecca Frost, from the recently retired female-geek “Hello Sweetie! Podcast,” posted, “I trust the new policies, I don’t trust the showrunners.”
For these members of the geek community, trust — or the lack of it — toward Farr and Brandenburg is the issue.
“I’m not sure at this point that I would trust anything that either Dan or Bryan do,” said Kirsten Caron, who organized a private Facebook group for abuse survivors in the geek community. “Everything has been so mishandled, and there’s a lack of sincere sorrow for that.”
Others are willing to see if FanX’s new policies will foster a safe space free from sexual harassment or bullying.
“I like to think of it more as a family feud, and some folks aren’t coming to the reunion, with very good cause,” said Debra Jenson, a professor of journalism and communications at Utah State University, who is returning as a FanX panelist.
‘Inclusive to everyone’
A new community council, consisting of leading voices in Utah’s fan community, is at the center of FanX’s policy changes. The council, which includes Jackson and Jenson, is tasked with listening to complaints and being available during the convention for anyone wanting to talk.
“My understanding is that FanX and the council have made an attempt to at least get our faces out there, so people know who we are and that we will be approachable,” Jenson said. “I suggested that we all wear really cool hats that identify us, so people could just stop us wherever we walk, but I got voted down on that one.”
The topic of sexual harassment — beyond the usual admonishments that “cosplay is not consent” — will be prominent.
The Utah Domestic Violence Coalition and related groups have been invited to speak at panels and to set up a booth on the vendor floor. And, according to Jenson, moderators at panels were given training and have been urged to address the topic in every session.
“We haven’t been asked to toe any sort of party line,” said Jenson, who is on FanX’s programming committee. “We wanted to really encourage our moderators and panelists to think about representation, diversity and safety, and how they’re portrayed in the media we consume and the things we love, and to start asking questions related to that in the panel. It becomes part of the conversation for everyone.”
Jackson said he and his “Geek Show Podcast” cohort Jay Whittaker signed on to the council “because we love the event because it does bring the community together. What was once a marginalized group is now the majority, and we want it to be inclusive to everyone, and make it bigger and bigger, because there’s so much love there.”
One of the council’s duties, according to a statement from Dan Farr Productions, will be to help field complaints of harassment and abuse called into a new 24-hour hotline the Utah Attorney General’s Office is launching. The hotline, using a model employed this January by the Sundance Film Festival, will route reports of potentially illegal behavior to law enforcement. Complaints that fall short of criminal accusations will be referred to the council.
Farr and Brandenburg, who took a leave of absence at the height of the controversy in May and returned in mid-August, declined a request for an interview. Their publicist invited The Tribune to submit questions by email, and after receiving them, provided a three-paragraph statement from Dan Farr Productions and a recommendation to readers to refer to the FAQ page on FanX’s website.
The policy improvements have assuaged some who signed the Utah authors’ original petition. Author Brandon Sanderson announced Friday he will attend this year. “I feel encouraged by their progress,” Sanderson wrote in a blog post.
Caron and author Robison Wells said they know vendors, authors and artists who would like to boycott FanX, but can’t. “FanX is one of the biggest events of the year,” said Wells, part of an authors' group that had urged more action in the harassment complaint against Evans. “From a business point of view, they can’t just decide to not go.”
In addition to its summer fixing its harassment policies, other problems emerged for FanX in August.
A judge in San Diego, who presided over San Diego Comic-Con’s successful trademark-infringement suit against FanX over the “comic con” name, ruled that Dan Farr Productions — and Farr and Brandenburg as individuals — must pay nearly $4 million in legal bills, largely because of their legal team’s conduct at trial. (Brandenburg has vowed to appeal.)
In a stroke of bad luck, one of this year’s biggest celebrity “gets,” Ben Affleck, dropped out of the event when he entered rehab. The cancellation made FanX’s official poster, mailed widely to fans as a postcard, obsolete before it arrived in mailboxes, because Affleck’s Batman is prominent.
Also, on Thursday, legendary actor Dick Van Dyke announced he would be pulling out of this year’s show, because “something has come up that I can’t get out of.”
On the outside during FanX, Wells said he and other boycotting authors briefly considered staging a rival event at a Salt Lake City bookstore, but “we decided, and the bookstore decided, that it wasn’t in everyone’s best interest,” he said. “But a bunch of authors are going to get together, and we’re going to have a party.”
Caron, as a fun and frisky form of counterprogramming, has organized and co-directed a “nerdlesque” show — combining vaudeville-style burlesque with cosplay — that was scheduled for Friday, Aug. 31, at Club 51 in Salt Lake City.
The 21-and-older event was set to feature some mild striptease — “strategic theatrical stripping, within Utah laws,” she said — with dancers evoking “Star Trek,” “Harry Potter” and other favorite fandoms. All proceeds will go to the Rape Recovery Center.
Jenson acknowledged the event, and Farr and Brandenburg, will be under intense scrutiny.
“People who have a problem with Dan and Bryan are going to be looking and listening for the way they carry themselves during this show,” Jenson said. “If they see a change, they might feel a little bit better. And if they don’t, they will feel vindicated.”
Her advice to Farr and Brandenburg is that “they need to be quiet, and allow conversations to happen without them, and without explanations, without excuses.”
What will it take for Wells to return? “It would just take not another scandal,” he said. “It would take a squeaky-clean convention, where harassment complaints are addressed professionally, where nothing comes out that says, ‘There was a problem that someone had that wasn’t addressed properly.’”
If all that happens, Wells said, “I will be elated, and I will be the first one to forgive.”
The healing in Utah’s geek community will take time, Caron said. “Nobody seems to be super happy with the other side,” she said. “There’s hurt and anger on both sides of this rift.”
Editor’s note • Sean P. Means has been a panelist and moderator at past FanX and Salt Lake Comic Con events, when he was a full-time movie critic.
IF YOU GO: FANX
The FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention, a three-day celebration of pop culture in all its forms — TV, movies, video games, comic books and more — with celebrity appearances, a vendor floor, panel discussions and thousands of cosplayers.
Where • Salt Palace Convention Center, 100 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City.
When • Thursday, 2 to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Tickets • Daily passes are $15 (Thursday), $35 (Friday) and $45 (Saturday); multi-day passes are $60, or $95 (Gold Pass) and $250 (VIP Pass); available at fanxsaltlake.com.