|DragonCon 2000: Magic for Moderns|
The magic of DragonCon sneaks up on you like the overture to a summer sleeper.
A young woman's voice pierces the white noise surrounding the Hyatt Regency registration desk. "I didn't know I could sleep with 12 other people in the room," she trills as high and sharp as some exotic tropical bird.
Salvation Army officials in crisp black and white uniforms ogle small groups of men and women toting coolers and trailing more baggage than the Imperial Roman Army. Gray-haired and sheltered in the bureaucracy of their organization, the mostly older Salvation Army guests share their unease in side-of-the-mouth conversations. Their gazes flicker over a prodigious number of shaved heads, body piercings and lethal-looking armaments.
"What genius booked a Salvation Army convention into the Hyatt the same week as DragonCon?" Crescent Blues staffer Teri Dohmen mutters. Plainly, the Salvation Army representatives wanted an answer to that question too.
It's not as if the city didn't know they were coming. Roughly 20,000-strong, the peaceable armies of America's top convention for fans of science fiction, comics, games, film and television invade downtown Atlanta every summer. Unlike many large "vacation" conventions, DragonCon enjoys a good reputation among Atlanta hotels and convention facilities.
DragonCon fans don't trash accommodations or hotel personnel. They party hard and wild, generally in costume. But everyone works very hard to live their personal fantasies -- fantasies which would suffer greatly if real police with real arrest warrants appeared on the premises. Of course, fur-covered handcuffs in a party room qualify as something else entirely.
For DragonCon 2000,
the Hyatt Regency Atlanta served as the con hotel, hosting concerts, panels,
tabletop and live-action games, elves, Storm Troopers, messiahs and a
host of creatures defying categorization from June 29 through July 2.
A large Dealers Room featuring artist booths, displays for movies and
game companies, autograph lines and even a preview of this fall’s Netherworld
After four years of serving as ground zero, Hyatt staff greets the event with almost as much excitement as the guests. The urban legends of DragonCon abound and act as a rite of passage for new hotel employees.
"Last year, did you see the guy with the girl in the dog collar? They walked into the bar. He said 'Sit,' and she sat down. He said 'Roll Over,' and she rolled over," the man behind the bell captain's desk says. He shakes his head as if he can't believe his own memory. "I'm on the staff, so I'm not supposed to bother the guests. But I had to ask the guy: 'Does she have a sister?'"
As soon as the Dealers Room opens Thursday afternoon, pedestrian traffic heavy on the eye shadow and Dramatically Dead make-up heats up along West Peachtree and Harris Streets to the Apparel Mart, a.k.a. "Lemming Lane." The trail gained its nickname in 1998 when the Apparel Mart housed the live action role-playing (LARP), tabletop and card games that form one of the key elements of DragonCon.
Goths and vampires playing The Masquerade® trooped between the Hyatt and the Apparel Mart several times a day, amazing locals and diurnal congoers alike with the infinite variety to be found in shades of black. A management decision to move the gaming to the sublevels of the Hyatt for 1999 and 2000 thinned the herd. But the rich mix of exotic jewelry, exquisite masks, corsets, costumes and swords, books, games and posters sold in the Dealers Room inspires the magpie in every would-be raven's breast.
The Dealers Room also boasts the "Walk of Fame," where fans can buy or cadge autographs from stars old, new and never-were. But this year's mix of Babylon 5, Xena and Battlestar Galactica celebrities and authors like Terry Brooks proves a larger attraction to the "family audience" than those rapt in the creation of their own fantasies.
Back at the Hyatt, TV, print and electronic journalists follow the rolling refreshment tray to the Regency Ballroom and the 4 p.m. press conference for Dungeons and Dragons, the Movie. A blue-shirted contingent from Wizards of the Coast, the gaming company which owns the rights to the Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) game, files into a block of seats in the center of the room ready to provide moral support to their sister venture.
The company needn't have worried. If ever a story was tailor-made for DragonCon, the story behind Dungeons and Dragons, the Movie was it. Avid 19-year-old D&D player Courtney (Corey) Solomon buys the movie rights to the wildly popular role-playing game. After ten years of playing David to the Goliath of Hollywood and its heavy-handed marketing machine, Solomon realizes his vision in a $35 million, full-length feature movie starring Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons, Lois and Clark favorite Justin Whalin and Waterworld veteran Lee Arenberg. Think Horatio Alger…with dragons!
Of course, Solomon brought a bit more to the table than your average D&D player. The son of a Canadian film production coordinator, Solomon worked on over 20 films and television shows before he made his bid for the game's movie rights. He formed his production company, Sweatpea Entertainment at 21, and put together the funding and distribution packages himself in addition to directing the D&D movie.
The movie, currently in the final stages of post-production, will be released in late 2000 or Memorial Day 2001 depending on the final distribution deal. Either way, it will mark the first major live-action fantasy film release in over ten years. (Current plans call for a December 2001 release of the live-action Lord of the Rings, at earliest.)
"Dungeons and Dragons will do for fantasy movies what Star Wars did for science fiction movies," Solomon says, undeterred by fantasy's traditionally soft box office appeal. He knows from personal experience the size and passion of the game's audience. He also knows how to deliver the effects needed to lure jaded audiences into the theater.
"The ending is an 11-minute scene of red and gold dragons fighting over a 3-D city. That's 280 shots of the movie. As a sequence, it's taking six to eight weeks to complete the effects, and the movie won't be out until the final effects are done," Solomon says.
"We want you to make this movie big, so we can make more of them," Arenberg enthuses. The acknowledged wild man of the cast and crew, Arenberg quickly established himself as the point man for any crazy stunt Solomon wanted. He would do anything for a shot, including slide head-first into the ancient underground sewers of Prague.
The attitude fits Arenberg's character, Elwood the Fire Dwarf, who audiences will first meet passed out drunk in a pile of garbage underneath a tavern sign that reads: "No dwarves allowed." Initially reluctant to play a dwarf, Arenberg soon changed his mind. "All my life I've wanted to be this character," he says. "As an actor, you get this vibe -- you just have to be this guy."
"One of the things that really got to me was that this is largely an untapped market," Whalin says. "We've never had a fantasy movie that did for fantasy what Star Wars did for science fiction. It's time this genre had its time in the sun. There are a trillion movies to be made in this genre."
For Whalin, who portrays Ridley the Thief, the movie provided his first real introduction to the close-knit world of gamers and their rituals -- but not to fantasy. After years on Lois and Clark, the New Adventures of Superman and a featured role in an as-yet unreleased Dean Cain science fiction film, Whalin's firsthand experience in the genre approaches Solomon's.
Yet Whalin still nurtures a few fantasies of his own. When asked about future projects, Whalin replies softly, "Well, I'd really like to play Spiderman." One wonders if fellow DragonCon guest Ted Raimi knows who will act out that particular dream.
The doors to the press conference open on a local television camera crew interviewing Karen Black, star of Day of the Locust, Nashville, Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot and many other films. Most recently, Black starred with TV's original Kung Fu fighter, David Carradine, in Lightspeed. A science fiction thriller shown at Cannes three years ago, Lightspeed waited until DragonCon 2000 to make its U.S. debut.
DragonCon 2000 boasts enough premieres, movie promotions and sneak previews of new films and upcoming television series to qualify as a film festival. The con's Pocket Program touts three midnight screenings of the soon-to-be released The Crow: Salvation, the third film in the series based on James O'Barr's illustrated novels. Locally produced horror films Terror at Tate Manor and Dumpster Baby, a new Troma Films parody (Terror Firmer) and Joe Christ's My Struggle also compete for congoers attention. Not to mention advance information on everything from Andromeda (the latest legacy of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry), Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings.
In the press room, the publicity brigade for Battlefield Earth tries to drum up press interest in the flagging film and an "interview opportunity" with director Roger Christian. Despite many longstanding friendships with DragonCon media staff and promises of free food, the reporters scatter like cockroaches in the light.
The studio schedules multiple screenings of Battlefield Earth at the same theater hosting The Crow: Salvation. But few of the folks who catch the free shuttle buses to the theater admit to viewing anything but The Crow. Perhaps the studio should've offered food to the fans.
Even if you take advantage of the munchies provided in the con hospitality suite, you don't eat cheap at DragonCon. Fans trade horror stories about the high prices of hotel food the same way Hyatt staffers share outré costume encounters. A diverse mix of restaurants, including Atlanta landmark Pittypat's Porch, line the streets surrounding the hotel, but sampling their delights could run a body's daily food bill as high as $50-100.
Instead, most fans survive on the contents of their coolers supplemented by breakfast or lunch from the Corner Bakery across the street and the food court of the Peachtree Center mall. Unfortunately, both staples keep business hours. The Corner Bakery closes Saturday and Sunday. Food court hours mirror the mall's. Vendors roll down the shutters early in the evenings and keep them locked all day Sunday.
The arrival of Good Day Atlanta stars and camera crew in the wee hours of Friday morning interrupts the first big cycle of LARPs. A large contingent of Star Wars Storm Troopers and the drawn survivors of various vampire nests converge on the Hyatt's main concourse area outside the Centennial Ballroom for the 6-8 a.m. live broadcast.
For Salvation Army conferees, the broadcast serves as the first real taste of DragonCon things to come. "Elevator Hell," the annual slowdown of the Hyatt's atrium elevators begins around 11 a.m. with the first wave of costume addicts, revived LARPers and fans. Moving at speeds that would embarrass a snail, these elevators will remain packed until Sunday morning.
Reporters and fans of a sardonic bent treasure Elevator Hell as a kind of celebrity lottery. The strange elbow sticking out of your armpit could belong to Bill Mumy. You too could trade zingers with Andreas Katsulas, and neither one of you will recognize each other in the morning.
At the same time, the convention's more than twenty programming tracks and special events -- covering everything from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer to professional wrestling -- make the jump into hyper-drive. You quickly realize you can't cover everything. If you want to pursue the Pern Track (the worlds of writer Anne McCaffrey) you will miss the panel on on-line comics led by some of the new medium's fastest rising stars. But if you arrange your schedule carefully, you might be able to take in a reading by Laurell K. Hamilton or some late night filk singing.
The con becomes inescapable. A Salvation Army official leading a group of Filipino delegates on a tour of the Merchandise Mart accidentally turns into the hallway leading to the DragonCon Art Show. Through the glass doorways glow brightly colored abstractions of lovers united, a dreaming mermaid and several pegboard panels of completely respectable alien landscapes.
The official flings herself across the open doorway to the Art Show, arms outstretched. "You can't go there!" she yelps at her charges.
"Why not?" asks one of the women in the group….