See more photos in Shannon Cottrell's gallery, “Transformers Fans Gather for BotCon 2011.”
One thing we can say with certainty after covering conventions for LA Weekly for the past two-and-a-half years is that whether we're at small events like MacrossWorld or something as large as San Diego Comic-Con, most of the people we encounter are from Southern California. BotCon 2011, the Hasbro-sponsored annual event for Transformers fans, is the exception to what we thought was a rule. Inside the Pasadena Convention Center, the groups from Northern California and Arizona had some of the shortest distances to travel. We met a mother and son who traveled from Kingsport, Tennessee, two brothers from Virginia Beach and women from Marlbrough, Massachusetts and Philadelphia.
BotCon began in 1994 and, although this wasn't the first time it's been held at the Pasadena Convention Center, it's not exclusive to the city. The weekend-long event has been held everywhere from Rhode Island to Florida to Texas. It's designed for out-of-towners as well. This year the convention took play from June 2 through June 5. However, those who arrived on the first of the month could take part in a Transformers customization class or head out on a group trip to Universal Studios. The first day of the convention, which seemed to be a registration day, featured a group trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain.
“While the allure of meeting people involved in the creation of Transformers lore, merchandise, and media is a big draw for many, this convention is also a huge social event for a great number of us,” says Chris Ho, aka Vangelus, a Victoria, British Columbia podcaster and video blogger who has been attending BotCon for 12 years. “In my case, I am connected to many circles of friends who span the entire globe, and all try to converge at BotCon to meet and hang out face-to-face. In the long-term view of things, BotCon's greatest draw is its social aspect.”
The “social aspect” of the convention was evident Sunday afternoon, when we attended a Transformers costuming panel. The session was led by Rosemary Ward, who traveled from Philadelphia from the event. Ward, who blogs about '80s pop culture on Retro Screamers, was joined by friends from various cities across the eastern United States. They met online, the friends said, and often meet up at conventions like Otakon in Baltimore and Dragon*Con in Atlanta.
We saw a lot of socializing in BotCon's exhibit hall, where people showed off purchases, autographs and tattoos, while discussing all things Transformers. The crowd was large, ranging from children to those who were children when the toys were first released. The epic battle between Autobots and Decepticons first captured the imagination of children in the 1980s, but Transformers are no relic of a specific era. With animated series, toys, comic books, video games and those blockbuster Michael Bay films, there are a lot of aspects to the Transformers fandom. The BotCon exhibit hall represented all of this.
This was by far the best organized exhibit hall we've seen at a convention. It can be really easy to get lost at conventions and spend far too much time walking in circles trying to find the one booth that's the top destination on your agenda. Here, everything was clearly marked and the aisles were arranged in a way that kept the traffic flow smooth.
Collectible toys seemed to be the biggest draw in the exhibit hall. Every year, BotCon offers a few toys exclusive to that particular convention, which you can buy in the Transformers Club Store. This year, the exclusives were Shattered Glass Galvatron and Thundercracker set, a 2-pack featuring Toxitron and Sideswipe and an Autotroopers 3-pack. By Sunday at noon, there were only ten of the Autotroopers packs left. The others had sold out.
Transformers collectibles weren't only found in the Club Store, though. Booths across the hall offered hard-to-find Transformers merch.
Vendor Keith Smith pointed to an original Fortress Maximus.
“This is the price of a used car,” he said.
His hottest item of the weekend, though, was the original Optimus Prime toy.
Meanwhile, Toy Arena's best sellers were the Masterpiece Optimus Prime toys. By Sunday, they only had one MP-4 Convoy left. The Masterpiece series is from Japan and was not officially released for the U.S. market. We were told that it's often prized for having more die cast pieces and “more detail” than most toys.
The BotCon exhibit hall wasn't just a toy fest. There were t-shirts (the most popular one at the Stylin Online booth featured Optimus Prime with the like, “This is how I roll.”), fan art, a Transformers Hall of Fame and the chance to meet with artists associated with the series.
Mike Syfritt, who had traveled from Arizona for the convention, brought an iPad with him, which served as his sketchbook for the event. He was able to collect artwork from various Transformers artists, including this piece from Hisao Nishimoto below.
There was also a demo booth for the video game Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which will be released on June 14.
On Saturday, we attended the panel for the video game, moderated by Kelvin Liu of Activision and featuring members of the High Moon Studios team behind the game, including Senior Designer Terry Spier, Game Director Sean Miller and Cinematic Director Dave Cravens.
Despite the fact that the video game shares a title with the forthcoming Michael Bay film, which will be release on June 29, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the game, does not share the same plot as the movie.
Instead, Miller said, the game “expands on the universe of the film and supports it.” The game takes place in between the second and third films. Miller went on to add that the story-driven game can help answer some questions that may arise while watching the Dark of the Moon movie. Cravens added that they believe it is “true to the movie that Michael Bay has done,” even in regards to camera angles and, of course, explosions.
Interest in Bay's take on the franchise has gone beyond tie-in video games. Lionel Lum and Saiho Kwan were part of a group that cosplayed the new breed of Transformers, with Lum dressed as Bumblebee and Kwan as Starscream. Their elaborate costumes took several months to make. Lum said during BotCon's costuming panel that he transformed into Bumblebee with the help of craft foam, sticker vinyl, platform shoes and “lots and lots of hot glue.”
The crowd, it appeared, really appreciated their efforts. Just about every time we saw the cosplayers, they were surrounded by photographers.
Throughout the weekend, we kept spotting convention young teenagers and children in the crowd. We couldn't help but wonder if the films were contributing to new fans in the community.
“There have been very noticeable increases in online fan participation and community sizes ever since the films began,” says Ho. However, he points out another reason for the influx of new fans, Transformers Animated, a cartoon series that originally ran from 2007 through 2009.
“Transformers Animated also brought in its own sizable chunk of the current fandom as it offered a very unique and non-movie style for those not interested in Bay's offerings,” he says. “Animated also delivered a lot of clear love for the full history of the franchise, and also brought in very strong storytelling that catered to a lot of folks who have stayed on with Transformers since it finished airing.”
With its mix of retro and modern appeal, Transformers has gathered a huge following of fans. The companies involved, particularly Hasbro, seem to be keeping those fans happy with a constant flow of new material. Transformers can do what so many well-known pop culture franchises can't, it can carry a stand-alone convention, year after year, for over a decade. That's no easy feat.
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