Day one and two of ATX Season 4 featured some fantastic programming and only minor line issues. Both sides of the festival were heightened in day three, which brought some great programs and events for attendees, but also the mess that was the Gilmore Girls Reunion panel line. The best and worst of the festival were on display and if ATX is going to continue to grow, it needs to learn from its many mistakes with the Gilmore Girls panel, and quickly.
The day started for me with Rectify, with a screening of the season three premiere and afterward, a Q&A moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman and featuring cast members Abigail Spencer, J. Smith-Cameron, and Aden Young, and executive producer Mark Johnson. It was lovely to watch the series, which benefits tremendously from its cinematic direction, in a theater, surrounded by an engaged audience. A show like Rectify has a tiny viewership—even finding people to discuss the series with online can be challenging at times—so to see it featured at ATX, where it can hopefully find a few more passionate fans, is satisfying. I was seated next to an attendee completely unaware of the series and getting to experience this person being exposed to the show, one we’ve been championing at Sound on Sight for the past two years, was a treat.
The Q&A was thoughtful and engaging, with interesting questions from Goodman and meaningful responses from the panel. Unfortunately, it also went at least 15 minutes long, a far from promising start to the day. With such short windows between panels and events, extended runtimes for panels, even when they’re due to excellent content, quickly become problematic—with the lines for select events filling up quickly, attendees get antsy, knowing that the poor time management of the festival (Rectify, like Bunheads on day two, started late) could easily affect their plans for the entire day. On day two, the late end of Bunheads voided the Fast Pass I’d intended to use at the following panel. With Rectify, fortunately I had a freer schedule afterwards, but that was not necessarily the case for most of the people in the room.
With some downtime after Rectify, and a hunch that the Google Fiber space would be easier to sneak into than the other venues, I headed over and ducked into the last half hour of a panel about network testing. Moderated by Kyle Killen and featuring Dina Hiller, Chad Hodge, Julie Plec, and Ben Wexler, the “Turn Down for What??” panel was an entertaining follow up to the more introspective Rectify. The creatives on the panel responded to questions about focus groups and what does and doesn’t prompt network interference in the pilot process, giving them a chance to vent frustration at misguided marketing ploys and attempts to pivot the genre of their shows. It wasn’t all snark, though—they were also respectful of the good the process can do, giving showrunners a sense of where the audience is at emotionally with their series at a given point, and ensuring that they’re on track.
After a bite to eat and the opportunity to interview the Rectify cast—look for this in the next week at SoS—I was glad, but simultaneously disappointed, to discover I could sneak in to the screening of the first two episodes of Hannibal season three. The programming for day three at 3-5pm was some of the most cutthroat of the festival, with panels for Hannibal, Journeyman, Dawson’s Creek, The Simpsons, and Justified happening concurrently, along with a separate discussion panel exploring the change in the TV season model. As quite the Fannibal, the choice was pretty easy for me, but between a screening—no matter how gorgeous Hannibal looks on the big screen—and discussion panels, it’s understandable that fans opted for the experience they couldn’t replicate at home. Afterward, Erik Adams of The A.V. Club moderated a Q&A with creator Bryan Fuller, with some delightful tidbits coming out about Fuller’s dream casting (he’d love to get David Bowie on the series) and motivations for what makes the show and what doesn’t (blame an unfitted coat and a bad hat for a Gillian Anderson scene getting cut from episode two of season three).
With Hannibal getting out shortly after 5pm, it was time to make the big call: Do I head to the Gilmore Girls line or take the night off? Fans of Gilmore Girls had likely been lining up for hours, but the venue does hold 1270 people. Feeling duty-bound to at least try to experience what for so many was their reason for attending ATX at all, I got in line at 5:15pm, standing mercifully in the shade three bends of the line away from the entrance. Unfortunately, mere minutes after getting in line, myself and my cohorts in line were backed up by ATX volunteers around the corner of the building, placing us in direct and unrelenting sunlight for the duration. Spirits were high at the start, people talking to their neighbors in line and catching up on the events of the day. Not long after being backed around the corner, someone in an ATX shirt came down the line, clicking away on a counter to get a headcount: we were around 430th in the non-Fast Pass line. There were rumored to be 400 Fast Passers, so even with VIP seating and individual ticket sales, for a venue of 1270, we should be golden. Spirits lifted. 10 minutes or so later, ATX security came down the line, giving away Pop Tarts, a cute tie-in to the series and a welcome boost to my sugar stores—lunch had been a long time ago. The sugar was nice, but already, the sun was becoming an issue.
Imagine my enthusiasm, then, when someone else came down the line a bit later, telling us the ATX volunteers were handing out water. I’m not an athlete, but I have run marathons, and I could tell I was getting dehydrated. The water never came—apparently there was water that made it at least to the delightfully shaded back wall of the venue, but none of it made it around the corner to those of us baking in the sun. The Fast Pass line started stretching over by us, giving some more attendees the joy of our experience, and then eventually moved forward around 6:15pm, prompting excitement that the Fast Passers were finally being let into the venue. Any alum of SDCC knows that it takes a while to fill a space this large: the Fast Pass line was supposed to be cut off at 6:30pm, but with hundreds of people in that line already, there’s no good reason they shouldn’t have started to be filed in at 6pm. The thrill that finally, *finally* the line was moving—at least we’d be out of the sun soon—evaporated when the Fast Pass line was moved right back to where it had been. They did eventually start heading into the venue before 7pm, but at 7:15pm (the Gilmore Girls panel was scheduled to start at 7pm), even the Fast Pass line wasn’t all the way inside.
We did eventually move forward, out of the sun, at 7:09pm. When we finally started moving, I was lightheaded enough that I grabbed the wall of the building to steady myself. This is when I moved from annoyed to angry. Word had moved through the line that two women had already fainted waiting in line—I was not looking forward to being the third. I’m a fan of Gilmore Girls and I’m covering ATX as press; I was there to hopefully get in and enjoy the panel, but also to work, and because of the incompetence and lack of planning shown by the ATX organizers, I was legitimately concerned about passing out from the heat. I didn’t make it in. At 7:40pm (the panel actually started at 7:30pm), we were told the venue was full. There’s no reason the people running the festival shouldn’t have had firm numbers for how many weekend badges they sold, how many Fast Passes they released, how many individual tickets they sold, how many press (fancier press than me, that is) they would let in, and how many VIPs they were reserving seats for. And they knew the capacity of the theater. I’m not upset that I didn’t get in to Gilmore Girls, I’m upset ATX let myself and hundreds of more fans bake in the sun for 90 minutes when there was no chance we were ever going to.
The buzz around the Gilmore Girls reunion has been enormous and pointed to time and again in pre-fest write-ups as the reason for the increased interest in ATX this year. To think a majority of the weekend badge holders wouldn’t want to attend, that there wouldn’t be an insane line, is just plain foolish. ATX announced that the line would only start two hours ahead of the event. I spoke with someone who got in line at 5pm; they were one wall ahead of me in line, at the back of the building. That means hundreds of fans were in line before 5pm, and this is completely unsurprising to me. This is what fandom is. And yet ATX was utterly unprepared for it. There should have been shade, there should have been a better count of the line, the line should have been cut off before 5:30pm, let alone 6pm, and there should have been information freely available to those waiting in line.
And that’s not even getting in to the priorities from ATX that allow someone around 430th in line to not make it into a venue that holds 1270. Add in the Fast Passers (assuming the 400 count is correct), and that makes it 830th. By selling individual tickets to the event, ATX prioritized cash over their fans. There was never a chance the venue wouldn’t fill just with badge holders, but the money and interest from badge holders apparently wasn’t enough. One friend who was at the front of the Fast Pass line beelined for the closest available seat to the front when he made it into the venue. He sat in the 12th row. Despite being in the first 50 Fast Passers (he counted), there were enough reserved VIP seats in the venue that the closest he could get was row 12. No wonder 830th in the ATX Fast Pass/badge holder line wasn’t enough to get into a venue of 1270.
For those of us left in the lurch, unable to get in, there was no backup plan. There was no secondary site streaming the event, as happens at SDCC. There was no counter programming. Those who had expected to spend their evening indulging their love of Gilmore Girls with fellow fans, who had travelled from around the country to do so, were left with, “Well, at least you’re in Austin.” Austin is great, don’t get me wrong, but that’s cold comfort to someone forking out the grand at least that it cost (between the badge, airfare, and hotel) to attend this festival, primarily for an event they could only have gotten in to if they’d ignored the instructions of ATX organizers and lined up ahead of the designated time. ATX has been disorganized from the start and has placed little premium on their attendees’ time—look no further than the Fast Pass registration fiasco—but the experience of the Gilmore Girls line and the attitude that allowed it to happen are a new low. I can’t recommend, without significant caveats and warnings, that anyone attend a festival that treats its attendees this way.
Maybe the Gilmore Girls reunion was amazing. Maybe those who waited in line for more than my 2+ hours, including some sitting in direct sun much longer than I did, would say it was worth it. I can’t respond to that. All I know is that after a fun first half of day three, I ended the day tired, concerned for my health, and ready to go home.