So Pensacon 2014 is behind us with the upper limits of organizers' predictions being reached, the Pensacola Bay Center floor reaching capacity several times Saturday, and downtown nightlife establishments reporting a busy weekend.
Later this week Visit Pensacola, who collected data during the convention, will have hard numbers to put on this impact but as the memories of Pensacon start to fade I chatted with Manda Manning, part of the Pensacon team, about the challenges and successes of the weekend and what we can look forward to next year.
If you see Jerrod Vunovich on TV, chances are he won't look anything like his picture here. That picture was taken this weekend at Pensacon where Jerrod sat on a panel with other actors from the AMC series The Walking Dead. Vunovich has a recurring role as one of the zombies, or walkers on the show.
The 6' 3" actor from Pensacola says he got on the show by answering an internet casting call looking for actors who were "deathly skinny". He was contacted the next day and invited to attend AMC's "Zombie School" which led to being cast as a recurring role as a walker.
In this week’s Economic Report, Dr. Rick Harper discusses the economics of the inaugural Pensacon convention. Organizers projected between 5,000 and 10,000 people would attend the event, which quickly filled the Crown Plaza Hotel and Pensacola Bay Center. “It is big, and it’s rare that in February you have a downtown hotel reporting that it’s fully booked,” Harper says.
To further make the point on the significance of the event during the “winter visitation trough,” he says that there are just a few big weekends during the height of the tourist season that beach hotels fill up.
Lindsay Myers speaks with Star Wars novelist Timothy Zahn. (5 minute broadcast version)
It’s been 30 years since the original Star Wars trilogy wrapped up with the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983- that’s before I was even born. But recently I was able to speak with the man whose universe so enthralled me that I eventually became a huge fan of the franchise and I don’t mean George Lucas. Other Star Wars fans probably know who I’m talking about: Timothy Zahn.
In 1991 the first of a trilogy of Star Wars novels was published- set five years after the Return of the Jedi film, the Thrawn Trilogy: Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command became New York Times bestsellers and, combined, have sold over 15 million copies.
This was before the internet or the popularization of conventions like Pensacon and, Timothy Zahn shares, they didn’t even know if the novels would be successful.
“Nobody knew whether these books were even gonna sell. I remember sitting around one day trying to figure out how many libraries there are in the U.S.- and if they all buy two copies how many can we sell? Can we earn out this book? And as we now know Star Wars fans were simmering there below the surface and just boiled up as soon as there was something to grab onto. And they’ve been going strong ever since.”
Zahn took a universe circumscribed by three films and made it feel truly vast with a cast of new characters and places- new villains and some unlikely new heroes. If you’re not already you might be confused even by the idea of the Star Wars expanded universe- that is, the universe beyond the films made of comic books, video and role playing games, and yes novels: several hundred novels. And although Zahn has written just ten of those novels it is safe to say that many fans revere him second only to George Lucas. Probably because he took an exciting universe and then, as he says, intentionally went in a different direction.
“When I was first asked to write these books, or offered the original Thrawn Trilogy, part of my goal was to make a story that was not was George Lucas had already done but what felt like Star Wars. Part of that was coming up with a new type of villain. And I thought a villain who can inspire loyalty is far more dangerous because even when he’s not in the room his people will fight and die for him.”
For Zahn it was important that the villains be more nuanced, the heroes more subtle and the interplay between the two complex. His original characters bring out dimensions of the universe that just aren’t covered in the film “canon” of Star Wars. Probably the best representative of this idea is my favorite character: Mara Jade.
He explains, “Not only is her character somewhat morally ambiguous what she believes has been designed to be morally ambiguous. It makes for a complex and interesting character. If you start from the premise that the Empire is good and it just needs this stuff rooted out- what she’s been carefully trained to believe- then she is on the side of right and justice. She has never through that time believed she was part of an evil Empire.”
Timothy Zahn is a convention veteran. As we gear up for a weekend when downtown Pensacola will be transformed into a playground for zombies, wizards, Jedi, and superheroes I had to round it out by hearing what it’s like to see people dressed as his characters and celebrating his work.
“I’m just impressed at how good, how excited, how clearly interested and excited the cosplayers are and it’s an immense kick for me to see one of my characters walking around. Whenever I see one, somebody in that, in one of the costumes I will always go up and get my picture taken."
And what should we expect from Pensacon?
“Expect a lot of fun, a lot of guests, there should be interesting panels, a lot of actors, writers, comic book people. IT’s a great palce to meet some of your favorite genre types, have a chance to chat, buy a picture, you get a book autographed, as questions at panels. Just basically a lot of fun hanging out with people who like the same sort of stuff that you do. It’s surrealistic on some level.”
There's a good chance you're going to see a lot of people in interesting costumes roaming the streets of Pensacola this weekend as Pensacon takes over the Bay Center and the Crown Plaza Hotel. The multi-genre fan convention is the brain child of chairman Mike Ensley, who sat down with WUWF's Bob Barrett to talk about this first time event.