This virtual fan con is a reminder of all the live events that could have been

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Comicons remain a distant dream for fans under lockdown. Streaming giant Netflix's first global fan event brought the experience closer. In photo: The "Army of Thieves" panel with Zack & Deborah Snyder, Matthias Schweighöfer, Nathalie Emmanuel, Stuart Martin, Guz Khan and Ruby O. Fee. Photo from NETFLIX/YOUTUBE

The year is 2018, and 17-year-old me is sitting on the floor of my high school lobby with three copies of my thesis and a calculator. “I’m literally never gonna shut up about this until I write it down,” I scribbled in the margins of my review of related literature, followed by a comprehensive rundown of exactly how much petty money each of my thesis groupmates owed me. You see, it was the week before Asia Pop Comicon (APCC), the largest pop culture convention in the country, and there was no way I wasn’t meeting this year’s special guest, “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Ready Player One” star Tye Sheridan, because a classmate forgot to pay me back for an impulsive round of Lucky Me pancit canton.

“We’ll see how the week goes; buy con passes at SATURDAY AM!!” I wrote, underlining “Saturday AM” as if I needed a reminder of the thing I’ve been thinking about every minute of every day since the event was announced. In the end, though, I simply couldn’t afford it; I spent Saturday a.m. in bed attending the con vicariously through Twitter. It was always the same feeling, of the heart caving in — dramatic as it may seem, it was the kind of opportunity that felt one in a million, and I figured, if I couldn’t meet Tye then, it would simply never happen. When I moved to Manila for college a few months later, I vowed I would never let something like that pass me by again.

But that was four years ago, when I could walk around the streets of Ermita mask- and face shield-less, feeling like I could take on the world. I saved up, but APCC postponed the 2019 installment of the convention to the following year due to scheduling conflicts, and we all know what happened in 2020.

The year is 2021, and 21-year-old me is sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom, the walls pastel pink and still laden with One Direction posters. It’s midnight and my laptop is the only light source, Ncuti Gatwa and Kedar Williams-Stirling of “Sex Education” laughing onscreen. I’m watching Tudum, Netflix’s first-ever global fan event, where over 145 of the streaming platform’s biggest stars were (virtually) in attendance. And while I never got to attend APCC in person, I imagine the three-hour stream is the closest I can get to a real con during lockdown. We were treated to first-looks of highly anticipated titles, from the second season of “Bridgerton” to the title sequence of “Cowboy Bebop,” as well as panels from the cast and crew of “Army of Thieves” and Netflix action stars like Charlize Theron and Regina King. The event even tried to replicate the look and feel of an actual comic con, positioning the presenters as if they were standing atop a big stage with massive screens behind them.

Netflix's Tudum even tried to replicate the look and feel of an actual comic con, positioning the presenters as if they were standing atop a big stage with massive screens behind them, as seen during the "Money Heist" segment with Álvaro Morte. Photo from NETFLIX/YOUTUBE

In the stream’s first hour, Brazilian actress and “Maldivas” star Maisa Silva introduced audiences to the first iteration of Tudum, which was held in-person early last year at Sao Paulo. Seeing clips of that event, which had a stage not conjured via green screen, recalled a familiar feeling in me — it was as if I had, yet again, missed my one-in-a-million chance. I can’t help but long for the alternate universe where Tudum this year was held in person; as much as I try to come to terms with the irreversibility of the new normal, my heart caves in, still.

“[Just as] we thought our freedom to attend huge gatherings like concerts and fan meetings [would have no end], the pandemic happened, and it made me realize how lucky I was that I didn’t think twice [about] going to those gatherings before,” says travel and lifestyle blogger Ana Gonzales, who posts about her favorite K-dramas and K-pop artists on her website. When she was younger, she would just watch her favorite artists come and go to Manila since she couldn’t attend their concerts. Now, she’s been to ten different Korean actor fan meetings in three years. “Naisip ko, if not now, when? It might take years ’til our favorite Korean actors visit the Philippines again.” She adds that since she posts her fan experiences on social media, she often gets “sana all” comments, usually from younger fans.

Travel and lifestyle blogger Ana Gonzales has been to ten different Korean actor fanmeetings in three years. Here, she shows off a lightstick at actor Cha Eun Woo's "Just One Minute" fanmeeting in Manila. Photo courtesy of ANA GONZALES

Like Ana, 23-year-old Christel only got to attend fan events when she was older. A big Marvel fan in college, she went to the first-ever APCC in 2015, where she met Paul Bettany, the actor behind MCU’s Vision. She returned the following year, attending “Stranger Things” star Millie Bobby Brown’s autograph signing. APCC was “the culminating moment” for Christel; aside from the opportunity to get to know her favorite actors up close, she especially enjoyed meeting a lot of people who share her interests. She adds, “‘Pag close friends mo lang kasi, not all of them share the same enthusiasm.”

The annual convention only got bigger from there. In 2016, Marvel introduced its own panel, Hall M; Netflix and Disney followed suit in the next two years. Like Tudum, Netflix’s Hall M introduced attendees to binge-worthy shows still to drop on the platform, exclusive looks to new seasons, and panels from show creators. In the rest of the con’s massive floorspace, musical performances and different stage shows happened by the hour, including workshops, Q&As, wrestling shows, and portfolio review sessions with comic book and video game companies. Cosplay Authority Global Challenge or CAGE also held cosplay competitions yearly. Getting exclusive previews of upcoming shows and feature films was the highlight for many — in 2015, Manila fans were the first in the Asia-Pacific region to get a look into the highly anticipated “Captain America: Civil War.” It’s the pop culture aficionado’s dreams come to life.

James, a 20-year-old student from Rizal, says discovering new shows and artists was his favorite part of the con. He cites Hall N, Netflix’s panel, and artwork and comics by local artists as his go-to whenever he attended. He also went to Millie Bobby Brown’s Q&A, who he didn’t know was in attendance until the day of the event. “Every time ire-relate ni Millie sa Filipino fans yung mga sagot niya, nagsisigawan kaming lahat,” he recounts.

For the organizers behind APCC, Manila was a shoo-in for the site of Southeast Asia’s biggest comic convention. Abdulla Mahmood, marketing and business development head of the Al Ahli Holding Group, the company behind the event, said in an interview that they didn’t have to sell the concept of the con because Filipino fans already knew what it was about. He explained, “All we needed to do is give them a platform where they all could come together and celebrate this. That’s exactly what we did last year and we got an overwhelming response.” It was through this overwhelming response that the event got to expand from gaming, movies, and cosplay to now include elements of fashion, lifestyle, and sports.

The success of APCC is not an isolated case. Filipino fans, regardless of who the subject of their admiration is, go all-out in celebration of this admiration. The same year that APCC was launched, the first YouTube Fan Fest (YTFF) in Manila was also in full swing. It featured local and international talent, including creators Bethany Mota and the Jaspoli trio of Thatcher Joe, Caspar Lee, and Oli White; tickets were snapped up in less than an hour. YTFF returned year after year, persisting virtually once the pandemic hit. In 2020, the online fest had a lineup of over 150 creators and artists, from Alex Wassabi to Ben&Ben.

A year after APCC and YTFF’s inaugural events, History Con, the biggest entertainment convention of its kind, also hit Manila. The 50,000 attendees got to see history come alive in a way that transcends their TV screens, with “Ancient Aliens” host Giorgio A. Tsoukalos leading the lineup of local and international celebrities. The event also upsized yearly, with attendance skyrocketing to 68,800 in 2017.

Of course, I’m writing this as someone who has never stepped foot into these events; inasmuch as they sound completely gargantuan and truly a spectacle made to appease any admirer’s heart, I can only imagine thousands of others outside the gates, missing out on what is supposedly their one-in-a-million cultivating moment. Frankly, these events cost a lot of money. VIP Passes for History Con, which only had 100 limited available tickets, went for ₱10,000 each. The APCC three-day pass I was collecting measly change for cost ₱1,150 — relatively smaller, but still an amount that I, as a high school student at the time, did not have lying around. Objectively, I understand that they are expensive for a reason, but I’m realizing now that our celebration of admiration through these fan events is very often also a commodification of it. Why is this three-day pass deemed the ultimate show of fan status; why must other fans get earlier access to trailers, or to the insights of filmmakers and actors, and the rest of us don’t?

I still remember obsessively typing “APCC Tye Sheridan” on the Twitter search bar every half-hour, scavenging for any piece of tiny news I could use to delude myself into thinking I was in attendance. Every thread that ended with, “you just had to be there!!!” invoked a teenaged bitter resentment. Watching Tudum, it was my turn to post ecstatic Tweets, affixing a link to the livestream every time someone asked how I got to attend the event. After all, it wouldn’t have been as fun to find out that “Sex Education” was getting a new season if I couldn’t text all my friends about it after; or to see the actors cast in Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” and not read hundreds of other fans’ reactions in real-time at the livestream chat.

Perhaps this highlights the fact that while star-studded panels are definitely a major selling point for events like APCC, it’s other fans that ultimately draw us into these massive get-togethers. In fact, even before large cons entered the Filipino fan’s social calendar, fan events were already common. No stars were usually in attendance, yet fans still came in droves, donning homemade merch and meeting online friends.

K-pop cupsleeve events are regularly held in various coffee shops across the country every time a K-pop idol celebrates a birthday; when I asked an ARMY friend about it for this piece, she pointed me to elaborate party set-ups and cupsleeve kits that I still can’t believe are not official merch. There was the One Direction/5 Seconds of Summer/The Vamps album launch trifecta of yesteryear, something I personally hold dear — events I found so perfect that I once wrote, “If I could be a professional fangirl, I would” in my eighth-grade journal. It didn’t matter that the people we were celebrating were thousands of miles away; what mattered was that they reached us anyway, and we, the fans, found each other.

That said, the irony is not lost on me. Tudum may be free, but the shows and movies paraded on the stream are still behind a paywall. This reminds me of something a filmmaker friend said when I asked him what changes he wanted to see in the film industry: that he’s looking forward to the day it’s no longer an industry, where film as a medium is available to the masses for them to tell their own stories. And while that may seem way into the future, the existence of fandom — of people who spend upwards of 40 hours creating art in the name of their bias, writers who labor over multi-chapter fanfic for free, people like eighth-grade me who loved something so much they wished they could love them every day, professionally — I’m confident it’s not too far off. Besides, with in-person fan events still an impossibility with the current health crisis, I was grateful for the three-hour escape, for this reclamation of my pop culture dreams, even just from my bedroom.