It didn't take many autograph sessions in bland hotel ballrooms for "X-Files" creator Chris Carter to realize that conventions based on his popular TV show were lame.
Or, as fans put it, "interesting but cheesy."
"I was unhappy with how they were done," Carter said. "We work so hard to make this show as good as it can be, so any expression of the spirit of the show--which is what these conventions are all about--needs to follow that attention to detail. The problem is these things can turn into just an opportunity to sell stuff. Philosophically, I'm against that."
Carter envisioned a massive party where fans--self-described X-Philes who meet and dissect each episode over the Internet--could gather in person and satisfy their craving for insider details.
The result went public in San Francisco over the weekend: The "X-Files" Expo, a fan convention draped in the grim, conspiratorial mood of the hit Fox TV series about two FBI agents chipping away at a vast government conspiracy to hide "the truth."
Fox spent $6 million to produce the 10-city tour.
This weekend, the expo comes to the Tustin Marine Corps Air Facility. The road show will set up in a 300,000-square-foot blimp hangar, the kind of building Carter's villainous Cigarette-Smoking Man would love: a dusty, dim military relic big enough to stash several spare spaceships. (Most recently, actor-director Tom Hanks used it to fake moon landings for his HBO series on the Apollo missions.)
The expo will attempt to transform the hangar into a Southern California version of Nevada's top-secret Area 51. The leviathan doors open at 11 a.m. Tickets are $25.
"I lost about 40 quarts of blood producing this thing, but it's fantastic," said Mark Stroman, a senior vice president of marketing and promotions at Fox. "These types of events primarily manifest themselves in the Holiday Inn ballroom in Encino. When you approach these [expo] venues, you'll get the feeling you're going somewhere you shouldn't be."
While fake Men in Black will hassle fans into a maze reminiscent of a vast Pentagon warehouse, real Marines will be strategically placed to keep conspiracy theorists from wandering into genuinely restricted areas. ("There's really not that much classified that we're worried about people getting into," Marine Capt. Matt Morgan said.)
Inside the expo, Fox has assembled a dazzling array of computer monitors, interactive games, a 100-seat movie theater and several photo ops.
Carter's favorite: "I love the chance to get your picture taken in [Special Agent Fox] Mulder's office."
(Expo-goers are not allowed to bring their own cameras, a sore point with many fans. They'll have to settle for getting their photo snapped by a convention employee and being handed a free photo disc to develop at their leisure--and expense.)
The movie theater will show an eight-minute trailer on the "X-Files" movie (including behind-the-scenes stuff). The movie is tentatively scheduled for release on June 19.
Stroman has assembled truckloads of props, including such insider minutiae as a family portrait of the inbred Peacock clan, Pusher's power-boost drink and a Chaco Chicken Bucket. X-Philes know Chaco from the "Our Town" episode, in which folks in a remote Arkansas berg pursue immortality by dining on hapless strangers who are pureed at the local chicken processing plant--Chaco Chicken.
"Gross," Stroman said with a chuckle. "There are some props the fans can't live without."
Still, props alone won't satisfy X-Philes.
Paula Mackey of Riverside rarely misses a chance to chat with her favorite "X" man, actor Mitch Pileggi, who plays Assistant FBI Director Skinner. Still, she almost didn't buy a ticket to the Expo.
"I was at the point of [thinking] 'What else is there? What else can they do?' " she said. In August 1995, she went to Austin, Texas, for a disappointing convention.
Still, she is intrigued and not sure what to expect from the Expo.
"Knowing Chris Carter and his people, who knows? They are keeping it very hush-hush for some reason," she said. "For the money they're charging, it better be good."
Long Beach resident Alicia DiRado, who decided to spring for a ticket, said: "I'm not really into the celebrity stuff. I'm a lot more interested in the writing, the mythology and how they come up with this stuff."
"They're the only fans in the world who want to meet writers," said Carter, sounding like a proud father.
Expo organizers have not scheduled stars David Duchovny (Mulder) or Gillian Anderson (Special Agent Dana Scully) on the tour, which opened in San Francisco and is slated to terminate in Washington, D.C.
Writers and special-effects technicians will join some of the show's more intriguing characters on the expo's center stage. In Tustin, stand-up comic Dean Haglund (the lanky blond Langly of the Lone Gunmen), will do his comedy routine. Other speakers include Pileggi, William B. Davis (Cigarette-Smoking Man), and Steven Williams ("X"). "X-Files" writers Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan and John Shiban are slated to attend, as is Andy Meisler, author of the "X-Files" book "I Want to Believe: The Official Fourth Season Guide to the X-Files" (Harper Prism, 1998, $16).
Despite Carter's objections to mass marketing, the expo is marketing marvel as much as epic convention. X-Philes will get chance to pose in an "X-Files" movie scene behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile Intrigue, a "covert" sponsor of the Expo.
Fox also will distribute a CD-ROM demo of "The X-Files: Unrestricted Access." The handout has a demo of the "Unrestricted Access" CD, which features case files, character dossiers, evidence records and other "top secret" materials. Like it? Buy it at the expo. For $34.98.
(The CD does not contain a demo of the long-awaited "X-Files" computer game, but the game will be previewed on computers at the expo. The game is scheduled for release sometime this year.)
Carter said he has tried to control marketing. You won't find "X-Files" boxer shorts for sale at the expo.
"Anything you can put a logo on, you'll have come across your desk," Carter said. "There are so many weird things, I'm fogging out."
It's enough to make a producer paranoid.
Then again, maybe that's not such a bad thing to the man who made "Trust No One" a national motto.
"If I'm creating paranoia, I think that's a good thing," Carter said. "I think the world is a treacherous place, and you can never be too careful."
The "X-Files" Expo at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Facility, Blimp Hangar No. 2. Go through Main Gate in the 15000 block of Red Hill Avenue. 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. Sunday, $25. (888) 397-6849.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
11 a.m.: Doors open.
11:15 a.m.: Introduction and video presentation.
11:30 a.m.: Steven Williams ("X") speaks.
12:15 p.m.: "Truth or Fiction?" interactive trivia game.
12:45 p.m.: Dean Haglund (Langly of the Lone Gunmen) performs "the comedic truth with Ringo Langly from the Lone Gunmen."
1:30 p.m.: Williams and Haglund sign autographs. Also, "Mulder/Scullyisms video," a compilation of candid moments with the show's main characters.
2 p.m.: Writer's panel. Frank Spotnitz, John Shiban and Vince Gilligan discuss writing and producing the "X-Files."
3 p.m.: "X-Files" auction. Proceeds benefit Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
3:15 p.m.: William B. Davis (Cigarette-Smoking Man) speaks.
4 p.m.: Mitch Pileggi (Assistant Director Skinner) speaks.
5 p.m.: Pileggi and Davis sign autographs; the interactive "X-Files" trivia game.
Noon: Doors open.
12:15 p.m.: Introduction and video presentation.
12:30 p.m.: Writer's panel. Spotnitz, Shiban and Gilligan.
1:30 p.m.: Williams ("X") speaks.
2:15 p.m.: Haglund performs "the comedic truth with Ringo Langly."
2:30 p.m.: Williams signs autographs.
3 p.m.: "X-Files" auction. Proceeds benefit Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
3:15 p.m.: Pileggi speaks.
4 p.m.: Davis speaks.
5 p.m.: "Truth or Fiction?" game. Also, Haglund, Pileggi and Davis sign autographs.
5:30 p.m.: Prize announcements.
6 p.m.: Final run of "Truth of Fiction?"
All times are subject to change.