The Ingrid Pitt Column: saving film conventions

Ingrid looks at how the film conventions of the UK dwindled, and a new venture that may just bring their spirit back...

Ingrid Pitt

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago Film Conventions were in full swing. 20,000 plus patrons shuffling through the turnstiles over the weekend was not unknown. Every weekend, throughout the land, there were shows in all sorts of unlikely places. Entrepreneurs jostled each other in a desperate attempt to book a leisure complex or Sally Army hall to rent out space to memorabilia sellers to satisfy the tastes of the public.

It wasn’t only in Britain that a full house could be virtually guaranteed. Holland, France, Spain, Italy andn of course, the USA, all contributed to the demand for goods relating to the cinema in all its shapes. Sci-Fi, Horror, Thriller, Dr. Who, Star Trek, Star Wars – the list is without end. Festivals are a slightly different beast. These are not just a display of cinema and TV commercialisation, they are more for the ardent buffs, prepared to wear out the seat of their panties as they moved majestically from screening to screening.

By the end of the ’90s the surge was over and the turnout began to dwindle. At the Memorabilia Show at the NEC in Birmingham there was a distinct decline in the length of the queues waiting for early entry on a Saturday morning. As the inflow declined, the organisers tried to revitalise the shows by bringing in more and more celebrities to sign autographs. At first this was reasonably successful. As the number of autograph hunters grew, it disguised the fact that the nature of the exhibits for sale changed. At the peak of this masking operation, at the big shows, there would sometimes be bushels of celebs. It was great for the autograph hunters but once a celebrity has been nabbed the only way to attract the true hunter meant inviting more stars to illuminate the shows.

In the heavens the stars may be countless but on the show circuit the number willing to turn out to satisfy the hunger of the fans is limited. So gradually, week by week, the ‘stars’ became less illuminating. Holders of the Fourth Spear on the Right got star billing and sat forlornly in the halls while the fans lumbered around looking for somebody they recognised. That might sound a bit catty but it is the truth. I know because I was one of the lonesome ones. My answer was to become one of the dealers. Instead of just signing a few autographs, I built up a stock of memorabilia ranging from photographs through books to DVDs. And anything in between that I thought might turn a penny.

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The multiplicity of non-stars was not what was turning away the buyers. The markets were usually filed away under the generic name of Memorabilia. My dictionary states that memorabilia means ‘objects collected as souvenirs of important personal events or experiences’.

Which was fine. To begin with. The items you could pick up at a film fair reflected the industry, not only of the present, but also of the past. The autograph dealers represented this more than most. A collector could buy a photograph signed by their favourite celebrity from reputable dealers like the Robbins Brothers of Autographs Ink, (affectionately known as the Mafia Bros because they always wore black) and be assured that your purchase was pukka by a certificate which guaranteed that if you had second thoughts you would be reimbursed without question. Old books dealing with cinema, TV and related matters were in abundance. Comics? Every comic book ever churned out from the Beano and Dandy to Superman and Batman could be bought for a trifling, or not so trifling, amount. There were even things like old filming equipment for sale as well as artefacts from the sets of memorable and unheard of films.

As the organisers thrashed around to try and inveigle the public through the door they, in my opinion, made a fatal mistake.

In the past the organisers had been careful to have a balance of commodities on sale. Any such sophistication was elbowed out. Now they would sell space to anyone who asked for it. Soon the halls were filled with serried ranks of dealers all selling the same product. And that product was overwhelmingly movie-oriented toys. Or models, as the dealers preferred to call them. There was nothing at all wrong with having dealers selling the merchandised products from popular films. What was wrong was that there were so many stands selling them.

So with so many non-celebrities being non-attractive to autograph hunters and memorabilia now degraded to nothing more than cheap plastic toys sold by stand after stand of competing dealers, the queues at the booking offices dwindled and the real dealers withdrew to appear at specialist shows or sport their wares on eBay.

A sign of the times was when Henry Cook, who started Memorabilia and built it into the largest show in Britain, decided to ‘retire’. He sold off the show and retired a happy and, presumably wealthy, Scotsman. The buyers soon found out, I suspect, that they had bought into a dwindling market and passed the buck to yet new owners. The new owners are well used to the memorabilia market and it will be interesting to see if they can re-energise the buying public. With the trough of the recession getting deeper by the minute, they might find it beyond them.

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The Americans always had a different approach to conventions. One of the oldest and most successful in the States is The Chiller Theatre. The organiser, the hirsute but lovely Kevin Clement, saw the need to entertain the punters while he was collecting the bucks and provided more than just a market. He laced his shows with entertainment. Strolling minstrels, and attendants in suitably scary costumes as well as a fantastic Costumed Ball on the Saturday night.

Kevin put on his first show in a sports pavilion, at the beginning of the Nineties, in Hackensack or Hoboken or wherever Old Blue Eyes was born. I think I was there – or maybe it was the second one I attended. Kevin realised he was onto a good thing and moved a few miles up the pike to smarter environs in the New Jersey Meadowlands. He strictly vets every applicant for space and makes sure that there is a good diversity of commodities on sale. There are plenty of sideshows and attractions with which his customers can interact. Chiller Theatre is still going strong and recording record gates.

That is the general state of the market but there is a growing interest in getting back to basics. Putting on smaller, more controllable shows. Like the one I went to last Sunday in Westminster. It was organised in the Westminster Central Hall by Ed Mason, a showman of long standing. This was a good, old fashioned Memorabilia Show. No toys!

To illustrate the point: when I told my granddaughter I was going to the show she asked me to get her either a photograph or a poster of Meryl Streep from the movie, Mamma Mia. She’s a big fan. I looked around every stall and the best I could come up with was a couple of press photos of Meryl taken at the premiere but not in costume. John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939) – no problem. Metropolis (1927) plenty. Max Shreck’s Nosferatu (1922) – coffin loads. And just about every actor, director or writer who has signed a scrap of paper or a picture was represented.

What’s more the fans loved it. I was lucky to be supported by some of the stalwarts from the fan club. Bob Lee in particular stayed on board all day and helped out. Now that’s what I call a memorabilia show.

Now I’ve heard that another organiser, well known a few years ago for the shows he put on in Watford, is back in business. He is taking over the Camden Film Convention and the Electric Theatre in Camden High Street and wants to bring it back to its roots. I hope he does well with it. If it is seen that the smaller shows with a better grip on reality are doing well, perhaps there will be more of them and collectors will be able to get back to the comradeship of past times when they were able to chat and compare as they bellied up to the table and bought real memorabilia.

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I don’t know if anyone is interested in this but I have just become a professional Match Maker. I’ve always had a bit of a thing about pairing up my friends. I’ve lost a few friends along the way – but I’ve had my successes too. A Lord with a well known actress who met on the sofa in my sitting room. Another actress who’s troth was well and truly plighted at one of my dinner parties with a well known cartoonist, a foreign princess whom I introduced to an Australian film distributor and a few others.

Now I’m working with a big Canadian company bringing succour to the lonely on the Internet. Have a look in at www.ingridpittdateline.com if you are of a Gothic persuasion. If the cut of your jib leans towards the Military try ingridpittblinddate.com. You never know. Hope springs eternal and all that.

Read Ingrid’s column every Tuesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.