You can’t cancel community

Celebration 2020 in Anaheim was going to be my first Star Wars convention. I bought tickets over a year in advance, booked a hotel, and started to plan my themed outfits for 4 days of geeky bliss. COVID-19 has led to a lot of cancelled events and plenty worse. I was disappointed but not surprised when it was announced that Celebration wasn’t happening this year – and wouldn’t return until 2022. 

The lack of an official virtual replacement led to a group of fans creating their own convention: ForceFest. It was announced within days and took place the same weekend, all fan content and all online. And now Celebration will have to live up to the incredibly high bar ForceFest has set. I could go to every panel without waiting in line. I watched from bed, from my air conditioned living room, even from a kiddie pool in my yard. We can rewatch any panel, any time on YouTube.

I did more than just watch panels. I hosted two over the course of the weekend, at least one of which certainly wouldn’t have happened at Celebration. I had pitched a fan panel to the official convention and will never know if it would have been accepted.

My passion, an overlap between wildlife and Star Wars, culminates in “Wildlife in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.” I had three other scientists lined up to chat about those animals we see in the background (or often foreground during scene changes) and what we can learn about them by studying real critters here on Earth. Angela Zoumplis, Frank Santana, and Traci Degerman were as eager as I was to bring this panel to Celebration and all agreed to present it virtually instead.

My panel was accepted at ForceFest and, due to it being virtual, two extra panelists could be added who previously had to decline my invitation since they wouldn’t be in Anaheim for Celebration: Terryl Whitlatch, concept and creature designer for Episode I and author of the field guide “The Wildlife of Star Wars,” and Jake Lunt Davies, concept artist for the Disney Star Wars movies (Episodes 7-9, Solo, and Rogue One).

It wasn’t easy to stay in the moment as I juggled hosting and moderating duties (for Celebration I had planned to delegate that and be on the panel myself) with wanting to just be a fan getting to listen to the behind the scenes tidbits and fun science facts being woven together. Thank you to all my panelists for their time and enthusiasm!

A few short hours later, I hosted my second panel – “Thank You, Grant Imahara” – a tribute to the man who passed away only a few weeks prior. The panel never would have happened at Celebration. Perhaps there would have been a meetup, some last minute event where fans came together to share stories. And so that’s what I wanted to create space for. 

When I pitched this idea to the ForceFest team, I wrote, “I think this panel should exist. I don’t even need to be on it, but would love to be. I welcome other panelists who could speak to what Grant’s enthusiasm and kindness meant to them, and to Star Wars.” The admin team replied, “We all really felt strongly about your idea…We’ll hold a spot if you need a few days to put something together. It’s a great idea that many fans will appreciate.”

So I got started. I emailed everyone I knew who ever met anyone who worked at ILM. I reached out to strangers on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. I got only a few replies, most saying that they didn’t feel qualified to be on such an important panel. Others who knew him well weren’t ready to talk about it yet. I’m so grateful people felt comfortable telling me no. I felt like an imposter – who was I to host this panel about Grant?

It was weeks before I got my first yes, with only 6 days to go before the panel. Helen Keier, author of the Star Wars book “New Essential Guide to Alien Species,” wanted to share her story. And then Sean Fields, a droid builder, said the same. Gynnie Lindquist of the Golden Gate Garrison of the 501st Legion, who inducted Grant into their ranks at WonderCon 2011, offered to put together a video. And so the hour-long panel began to take shape. If nothing else, I had created a space for fans to talk about what Grant meant to them. 

Things changed again when Don Bies, head of the droid department for Episodes 2 and 3, responded to one of my posts soliciting panelists. He quickly connected me with Nelson Hall, former ILM model maker and LucasFilm archivist. Both had known Grant for 27 years and had a treasure trove of photos and memories to share. A few hours later, Don sent me an email, “Adam Savage has tentatively agreed to join us, but I’m awaiting final confirmation.”

Suddenly the prospect of the panel was enormous, with the literal millions of followers Adam has on social media. I felt a rush of doubt – certainly, with only three selfies with Grant to my name, I wasn’t qualified to host a panel of some of his oldest friends and most noteworthy colleagues. I decided to ignore that fear – reminding myself this wasn’t about me – and press forward. 

Again, the panel itself passed in a blur. This time I was curating a photo slideshow, organizing onscreen panelists, trusting the fans to be kind in the live chat, and trying not to cry while also asking the occasional question. 

Over 40,000 people have watched the panel. Adam promoted and shared it, as did Grant’s official Facebook page, now run by his mom. Don announced the creation of The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation. Nelson shared ways we can all “live like Grant.”

I had been ready to cancel the panel a week in advance, not wanting to disappoint anyone who showed up. Instead, we got 90 minutes of happy memories and lessons for how to honor this wonderful man.

Many wonderful things came out of ForceFest. I met amazing fans and connected to a community I didn’t know existed. If you are “the Star Wars fan” of your family or friend group, you don’t stand out in this crowd. There was no sign of the toxic fandom I’ve heard so much about. There were panels about the role that mental health, humor, lawyers, and even moms play in Star Wars stories and fandoms. I subscribe to a whole new slate of podcasts now, other nerds who intersect Star Wars with any and all of their own interests.

Of course I held on to my Celebration passes, I will be there in 2022. And I know the ForceFest people will have a meetup, we’ll wear our swag. We’ll get to see each other in person, perhaps for the first time ever. I’ll stand in lines, be denied entry to a popular panel, and have aching feet. It will be worth it and it will be wonderful – but it won’t be ForceFest.