Larry D. Curtis, as part of the team at TheOneRing.net, has been comprehensively covering the works and adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien for more than a decade, making the not-for-profit site the leading source about The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings for fans and film makers world wide. Curtis represents the site at conventions and events around the US including the DragonCon in Atlanta. You can read his The Hobbit Countdown here at Movies.com every other week.
As far as I know, we did something that hasn't been done before and really, who doesn't like to feel like a pioneer?
DragonCon happens every Labor Day weekend in Atlanta and for the last eleven years, TheOneRing.net has been part of the production. But in that decade of involvement, never have we attended the con after driving across the country.
But 2011 saw four of us doing exactly that: Pulling a 72-hour road marathon and broadcasing the whole thing on the internet. Three days and nights is a pretty long broadcast by any standard, just ask your local DJ, leaving the four of us stuck together in a truck forced to talk about anything on our minds - at least anything fit for a family audience. With fan-film icon Jason "Grimlock" Thomas, writer, producer and voice actor Clifford Broadway, tech and business manager Justin Sewell and this writer on a quest to meet fans in person and keep our sponsors happy, we were off. (And with new Star Wars Blu-rays hitting shelves, that might have come up a few times too.)
At the end of our 2,500 broadcast miles, a great convention awaited and for those not familiar with the intense weekend of revelry and packed programming schedules, a little introduction is in order. (But it all really does tie into The Hobbit, I promise!)
Originating 25 years ago, DragonCon is meant to be a celebration of what was on the fringe of popular culture: science fiction, fantasy, gaming, comics, film, music art and literature. Much of what was "the fringe" a couple of decades ago is now mainstream entertainment but the context of a convention experience in downtown Atlanta with nearly 40 separate tracks of specialty programming retains its hardcore reputation. And what it ends up being, despite planning for the widest possible appeal, is a celebration of costuming. No matter how popular the star that shows up or how excellent the programming is, the biggest attraction to the event is getting photos of amazing, fan-made costumes.
Held in a network of downtown Atlanta hotels rather than in a convention center, it isn't a challenge to find patrons who never set foot inside an official function but instead plan their participation in lobbies and lounges around public appreciation of cosplay and the chance to have a photo op with well known or obscure characters from the entire pantheon of imaginative story telling. But as much as any TORn staff member can appreciate a costume and on very rare occasions has been known to get into one, for the website, the annual event is much more about movies. Specifically, TORn is there to participate in programming and let fans know the very latest about the production of The Hobbit as it once dished on the in-progress Lord of the Rings films.
Over the Labor Day weekend in 2012, there will be another DragonCon and yet another chance for TORn to talk about the films which will by then be in full-blown promotion mode with trailers and posters and tangable content from Warner Bros. and subsidiary New Line. But along with panel-presenting colleagues Broadway, Kirstin Cairns and Rebecca Perry, we discovered that fans are chomping at the bit — right now. Seemingly, Warners is sitting back, watching the action and getting ready to count the money.
Arriving safely in Atlanta in the middle of the night, crashing in a hotel room and then heading to a stage, it was clear only a few hours later in one of the first few programmed events on the dense schedule, that demand for Hobbit content over the weekend could not be met. Of course, the road crew had already learned this, earning over 150,000 viewers during rounds of trivia and "deep" discussions on the possible tone director Peter Jackson would use on The Hobbit. We know the population is waiting for the two films and not always patiently. But to see hotel ballrooms fill to standing-room-only capacity on an early Friday morning was clear evidence that with over a year to go, fans are eager. CNN even gets the magnitude of the films and the fans behind it.
After Friday's full house, the convention and the Tolkien Track of programming immediately worked to schedule more panels about The Hobbit and to find a bigger room than the one scheduled on Sunday. Another event was set for Saturday but without the advantage of being printed in the schedule or making it online. But, another capacity crowd showed up and by Sunday in the largest of the three rooms, a line snaking around the floor of the hotel greeted the early morning content and after much cramming, another standing only room with many more being turned away.
This isn't meant to trumpet the popularity of TheOneRing.net or the panelists. While TORn has earned some cache in the community for ten years of effort and there are users of the site who support it and would attend events no matter what, this was absolutely about J.R.R. Tolkien, his story and Peter Jackson directing it for a two-part movie. There were a lot of comments about "I can't wait," and declarations of just how much individuals were looking forward to those films.
Our experience was the same on the road trip with calls and texts coming in all hours of the day and night from people who wanted to disscect, speculate and express excitement about the films. And, along the way, we even made stops and had handshakes or dinners along the way with others expressing the same, universal enthusiasm. A stop in Denver was especially celebratory but the enthusiasm coming to us from a grass-roots base nationwide was clear and indisputable.
Some observations from crowd and face-to-face interactions:
A significant majority of fans don't want the film in 3D, will watch in 2D
Ian McKellen consistently earns the biggest cheers for his return as Gandalf
Andy Serkis is nearly as popular as McKellen
Peter Jackson's return, despite his initial reluctance, will sell a lot of tickets
The idea of Orlando Bloom returning doesn't seem to bother many
Jackson's invented characters are getting a "wait and see" from a majority of fans
Taking advantage of the convention's willingness to let TheOneRing have a little free fan table, Cairns and Perry managed the spot, making it easy for TORn staff and fellow Tolkien fans to engage in personal conversations and enjoy an informal chance to meet. We also streamed live much of the convention experience.
TheOneRing also used the road trip and convention to gain more momentum for the fan initiative GandalfWorldTour, allowing Europe and U.S. participants to sign up to show a Gandalf statue around.
As excited as the general population is, Cairns may have summed it up best when she said next year's event would be a lot like Christmas Eve, anticipating the December release of the movies.