7th annual Awesome Con proves that ‘geek culture’ is now mainstream

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Awesome Con (Jason Fraley)

If you see Vulcan or Wookie costumes riding the Metro this weekend, don’t be alarmed.

It’s just the return of the seventh annual Awesome Con, which brings celebrities and their cosplay fans to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center this Friday through Sunday.

“It’s a show that’s really grown year over year, exponential growth,” LeftField Media Vice President Ron Brister told WTOP. “We started off in a much smaller facility and now we basically take over the entire convention center and surrounding bars and hotels, so it’s become a big, citywide event. … The last several years we’ve been hovering right around 80 to 85,000 turnstiles.”

The attendance boom proves that so-called “geek culture” has gone mainstream.

“I watched the G.I. Joe cartoons and He-Man, I read comic books, and I got to be a teenager in the late ’80s and that stuff wasn’t really cool,” Brister said. “Going into the ’90s and early 2000s, things started to really transition with the genesis of some films that came out, ‘X-Men’ being some of the early films that came out from Fox, and people started looking at this saying, ‘This is a cool franchise, these are cool characters,’ and all of us who were into those things were like, ‘Yeah, it’s been interesting since the ’60s. Glad you guys are on board now.'”

That growing acceptance has allowed many fans to come out of the pop-culture closet.

“You had ‘Star Trek’ always in the background … then ‘Star Wars’ pushed geek culture out into the open,” Brister said. “When Marvel came out and started making the movies and Disney put their marketing machine behind it, it’s become a very accepted form of fandom now. … Up until 2007 or 2008, you could walk up any day you wanted at the San Diego Comic Con. Now look at it — it sells out in 45 seconds a year in advance, so it has certainly changed.”

While Comic Con thrives in California, how did Awesome Con bring folks to the East Coast?

“I negotiate a majority of the contracts with the celebrity talent and it’s usually a pretty easy sell to tell them, ‘We’d like to fly you out to D.C., we’d like you to meet fans and, oh by the way, go take a stroll around a museum or go see the Capitol,'” Brister said. “Every year I get calls from agents saying, ‘My talent would really like to do this show. I’ve heard nothing but good things.’ That’s a real testament to the fan base that Hollywood knows about Awesome Con.”

This year’s lineup includes the hit young adult series “Riverdale” on The CW.

“I’m excited about Cole Sprouse and KJ Apa,” Brister said. “It’s the first time these guys will be together in the area. … The male leads Archie and Jughead. We’re fully expecting a tween audience that’s never come out before because we have these two gentlemen.”

Fans of “The Karate Kid” will be able to wax on about the YouTube spinoff “Cobra Kai.”

“I’m really excited about the Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Martin Kove, ‘Cobra Kai’ and ‘Karate Kid’ reunion we’re doing,” Brister said. “The second season drops two days before and the bad sensei is going to have a major role; he’s going to be there. I’m really excited to see those three together. … They couldn’t be nicer and more genuine when these fans meet them.”

You can also have fun storming the castle with the cast of “The Princess Bride.”

“[We’re] having Cary [Elwes], Chris [Sarandon] and Wallace [Shawn] together to talk about ‘The Princess Bride’ and all the other things they’ve done,” Brister said. “Chris was the voice of Jack Skellington in ‘Nightmare Before Christmas,’ Wallace Shawn has a career that’s spanned decades. ‘Inconceivable!’ We’ll hear that a lot this weekend, as well as, ‘As you wish.'”

Fans of NBC’s “The Office” will also meet their favorite Dunder Mifflin employees.

“We’ve got the accountants making a trip down from Scranton to audit our books for the weekend,” Brister said. “We’ve got Creed, Oscar and Meredith. Funny thing: Meredith is the only one who doesn’t use her real name in the show, her name is Kate Flannery, but Oscar and Creed, that’s their names and they’ll be at the show meeting fans and auditing books.”

Sci-fi fans can beam themselves up to meet the cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

“We’ve got the majority of the bridge crew,” Brister said. “If you grew up a ‘Next Generation’ fan, we’ve got some of the key players, including Wil Wheaton … Jonathan Frakes, [Brent] Spiner, Marina Sirtis, Gates McFadden, so we have both the Crushers there, Wesley and his mom. … It’s not often you can get a group photo with that many original cast members.”

Other guests include spoof king Weird Al Yankovic, “Harry Potter” star Jason Isaacs, “The Walking Dead” star Jon Bernthal and pro wrestlers from Sgt. Slaughter to Billy Gunn to Sting.

“[Sting] is a Hall of Famer and I’m being told this is the last time he’s going to wear his face paint for photo ops,” Brister said. “In fact, I got asked by his manager which version, because he has two versions, the red and the black. … It’ll be a surprise for all of the Sting fans.”

In addition to the celebrities, don’t miss a special Batman exhibit by D.C. and Warner Bros.

“They’re going to be putting on a big exhibit … with a plethora of screen-used Batman props and costumes, completely free of charge once you’re in,” Brister said. “Everything from Michael Keaton’s bat suit to Ben Affleck’s bat suit, villains, cowls, original pages from some of the earliest Batman books that are essentially priceless at this point, all kinds of batarangs, props, Mr. Freeze’s ice gun used by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s gonna be great stuff.”

If you want to learn more about the industry, check out panels with video game designers, comic-book artists and indie filmmakers. This includes the annual Awesome Con Short Film Festival, screening work from Joe Carabeo’s “Rough” to Jai Jamison’s “Slave Cry,” and a special “Talk Back to the Critics” with film critics Travis Hopson (News Channel 8, Punch Drunk Critics), Jen Chaney (Vulture), Roxana Hadadi (Pajiba.com) and Matt Razak (Flixist).

“We’ve got 400-plus vendors [and] 227 hours of programming that goes anywhere from fan-submitted content that’s super fun and lighthearted, all the way to STEM-related stuff as part of our partnership with the Smithsonian,” Brister said. “We’ll have astrophysicists [and] the NASA administrator to talk about the future of space travel. I mean what kind of a convention gets the head of NASA to come out and do a panel at a Comic Con? That’s pretty cool.”

All the while, be sure to dress up in your favorite costumes to spark conversation.

“Halloween is only once a year, but Awesome Con is also only once a year,” Brister said. “If you love costumes and you love cosplay and you and your family want to cosplay as a group of people, I’ve seen some amazing cosplay over the years and some of the most amazing is when I see a family unit … all dressing up in a theme. It helps introduce this generation of kids to stuff that we love, that we grew up on, that they’re growing up on that’s socially accepted now. Dressing up is the best way to break the ice, meet new people and have a good time.”

Find out more on the Awesome Con website. Hear our full conversation with Ron Brister below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Ron Brister (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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