RizzlesCon – When TV Failed Us

RizzlesCon – When TV Failed Us

Back in 2012, I worked for a bank and hated my job. When a friend asked if I would help her to run the website for a convention idea she had, I hesitated a little and decided why not. The event? RizzlesCon. A convention for fans of Rizzoli & Isles. It was a time when we all loved the show, the dark humor and the fun plots, and especially the relationship between Jane and Maura.

Many fans volunteered to help, for nothing more than discounted tickets and a free book. We didn’t ask for or expect much, save to meet our friends and have a great time. In part, the events surrounding RizzlesCon helped me decide to quit my job and move on. I met wonderful people and had a marvelous time, including a memorable lunch with Tess Gerritsen and her husband.

But that story has a dark side.

You see, up until the day before the event, some of the stars of the show were expected to come. They were going to be on a panel and talk to us about the show. But… the day prior, the volunteers were told that they would not be coming, that their schedules had changed abruptly, and that was that. It sucked. The organizers scrambled to fill in the slots (bless Tess for jumping in!) and they took a massive social and emotional hit for a ‘failed’ convention. I distinctly recall there were weeks and months where they were blasted over the Internet and accused of everything from lying to embezzlement.

None of the accusations were true.

In light of the shit storm 2015 and 2016 have been, with more dead lesbians on TV than ever, and the recent news of AfterEllen’s demise to the patriarchy, I reached out to one of the organizers, Liv Moreno (perhaps better known as @Adm_Hawthorne) and asked if now, after all this time, would she be willing to tell her story. And to my surprise, she was.

Here, for what I think is the first time ever, is the story of what happened at RizzlesCon, from Liv:

In 2011 and during what I would argue was the height of the fandom frenzy surrounding the TV show “Rizzoli & Isles,” my friend Joy approached me and two other women who were co-running a popular fandom blog for the show and asked us if we would be interested in helping her organize the first convention for the show.

Naturally, we were all for it. R&I was our favorite show, and our favorite pairing was on it, Jane and Maura. Of course, Jane and Maura weren’t really together on the show, but the subtext was so strong that an almost literal cult had risen up supporting the two main character becoming involved in a romantic relationship with each other. Anywhere you looked in media, people were either asking the actors about the chemistry, or you would find advertisements of all kinds playing up the subtext between Jane and Maura and very nicely queerbaiting the lot of us.

In the midst of all of that were the fans who truly adored the characters, the chemistry, and the potential for a romantic relationship. They were the same fans who had supported Olivia Benson and Alex Cabot, Captain Kathryn Janeway and Seven of Nine, and Xena and Gabrielle.

Fandom is a tight knit bunch of people, and we tend to move together from one fandom to the next, and, within fandom, the lesbian and female bisexual fandom is smaller and tighter still. In R&I’s case, it was a strong but very vocal minority with a lot of recognition power online. We were the ones that made the show trend on twitter every Tuesday night, and we were the ones overpowering polls about who should be with who on the show. We were ratings and clickbait power, we were free advertising, we were untapped marketing potential, and no one would have disagreed with that.

There was no secret among TNT’s public relations team that this online fandom, the Rizzles fandom, was their online base. It was also no secret to those of us running the more recognized-by-the-network blogs and websites that, though they liked to toe the line, they drew it at outright giving full credibility to Rizzles, and both sides knew they used each other to keep wheels greased and the online community fed the things that make fangirls swoon. I’m not proud of that fact, but it’s true, and I’m not going to deny it to make myself look better.

So, it was with that knowledge, that ultimately Joy and I went into trying to organize RizzlesCon 2012.

Notice we named it RizzlesCon. We actually discussed naming it something broader, but we settled on the name Rizzles in large part because we didn’t want to tread on potential copyright infringement. We decided to stick with Rizzles because, one, the largest base of those who were interested in attending the convention were part of the LGBTQ+ community and, two, Rizzles was already recognized among the entire fandom base.

The mainstream media had started picking up on it, and, even though they weren’t using it exactly correctly, it was a good start to getting a brand solidified, which is something you need when you’re trying to get a convention off the ground.

We started by reaching out to TNT PR, and, at first, they were very excited and open to the concept, but that didn’t last long. It only took a week or two for them to circle back to us and tell us that they would have to talk to their management more about it.

From there, their management was more reserved on the idea, and told us we would need to work with Warner Brothers, who produces the show. TNT only broadcasts it. Eventually, we managed to get a contact at Warner Brothers PR, and they were helpful though not really interested. Essentially, Warner Brothers told us, “That’s such an interesting idea! It’s great that you’re very, very involved. Let’s work on a contract so we can work out a merchandising agreement.”

We explained the whole thing was nonprofit, and Warner Brothers said, “Fine, but we want nothing to do with it,” and they gave us a list of things we could not do or else risk copyright infringement, which we followed to the letter.

We emailed the PR people back and forth to make certain we didn’t infringe on anything we did because we couldn’t afford the over five thousand dollar price tag to buy the licensing rights to use actual “Rizzoli & Isles” logos and such. We made sure they were aware of what was happening and that everyone was okay with it, and, up until the night before the first day of the convention, they were more or less neutral on it from the outside looking in.

We spoke with then executive produce Janet Tamaro, who was very supportive of the idea. We went through all the proper channels you have to go through to get the talent to come. We spoke with agents. We worked through deals for other people who were in real law enforcement and forensics to come speak to help add to the experience. We even reached out to the production team on the show to invite them to come speak. Joy spent her time, money, and resources working out deals with the hotel and getting people to fly in.

As the convention started to come together, Joy and I quickly realized that this convention was more than about the show. It was about the Rizzles community, and the Rizzles community was LGBTQ+. Period. That was and is the community. Are there heterosexuals who enjoy the concept of Rizzles? Sure, of course. Do they contribute to the Rizzles fandom? Absolutely. However, at the core of the fandom, at the very essence of Rizzles, it was about the LGTBQ+ community, and, specifically, the lesbians and bisexual women who were searching to find a bit of something of ourselves in the media landscape around us.

With that feeling in mind, we geared some of the content toward the community. We had a panel come in to speak about LGBTQ+ representation in the media. It had Sophie B. Hawkins and her partner Gigi Gaston, Adam Bouska who is the photographer for the NO H8 campaign, Kat Brooks, a few others of some renown, and Trish Bendix as the moderator. The No H8 campaign also scheduled a photoshoot at the convention, which was well received.

Joy worked tirelessly to get the talent and to cover issues like liability insurance for the convention and, because the convention was non-profit, she did it because of her love of the fandom and the show. As for my part? Well, I had the pleasure of talking the convention up and helping her plan in any way I could and as she asked me to. If you had asked me at the time, I would have told you I was just the pretty face. Joy was the muscle.

On the day we launched the website promoting the convention, we crashed the hosting server. On the day we launched ticket sales, we crashed that server and sold out almost all of our tickets. We eventually sold them all. Joy and I had guessed we’d be lucky to have 200 people be interested in attending. Imagine our surprise when that 200 sold out and more people were upset they didn’t get a ticket, and it wasn’t just a handful who were disappointed. We had people who had bought tickets who lived as far away England, Holland, Australia… they were coming from all over the world, and Joy herself lived in England at the time.

Needless to say, there was interest in a convention for “Rizzoli & Isles,” especially one geared toward lesbians and bisexual women.

Joy and I were over the moon when Sasha Alexander agreed to appear. The next was Lorraine Bracco. Eventually, we had almost everyone in the ensemble on our roster of attendees as well as some people in production who were willing to come in and talk about their craft and how it applied to the production of the show. All of this, of course, with the understanding that schedule conflicts might prevent them from coming, which is par for the course for any convention. We even had the executive producer, Janet Tamaro, on board to come, and Tess Gerritsen herself was going to be there, which was such a thrill.

Each time someone said yes, we let our fellow fans know.

It was amazing how quickly the news of this little convention spread. Dorothy Snarker mentioned us on her personal blog. It was up on AfterEllen.com, a few actors were asked about it during interviews, and we even had an actual print magazine mention us in a section about pop culture things happening in and around Hollywood. For two people who just wanted to do something neat for fellow fans, Joy and I were blown away by the relatively warm reception to the idea of this convention.

Through the careful, meticulous planning of inviting talent and asking those in real law enforcement fields to come, through talking to fellow fans and dealing with the death threats and hate mail from so called fans, and through website breakups and personal breakdowns we kept both Warner Brothers and TNT fully informed with each step we took.

Then someone at Warner Brothers, by our best understanding it was the head of PR at the time, decided that this was not an event that they were in any way okay with. We had almost all of the main cast with the exception of Angie Harmon, many of the guest stars, and a good number of the production team onboard, and, one by one, each actor had something come up. It took two weeks for all of the actors to find an excuse to bailout, and my heart dropped each time.

The last to drop was Sasha Alexander.

You see, in the land of Hollywood, if you’re an actor and the PR team from the production house who is in charge of your show says no, then you’re not going even if you want to, unless you have some insanely good contract.

Joy and I received an email from the Senior Vice President of PR for Warner Brothers the night before the first day of the convention. I distinctly recall it was 6:30 pm, and Joy, some fellow convention goers, and I were at IHOP when the news dropped. The email was short and sweet. It read, “We regret to inform you that none of the cast and crew from ‘Rizzoli & Isles’ will be able to attend RizzlesCon.”

Liv at iHop
Liv at iHop

None of the actors ever said it outright, of course. They couldn’t afford to, but it was clear based on the conversations had over the course of those two weeks in which they were dropping like flies that they were told not to attend by the powers that be because it would look bad. We were already gearing ourselves to tell the attendees about that portion, but we weren’t ready for the production house to keep even the crew from coming, which meant that Joy and I were left with 200 people who were expecting something we could no longer provide and no way to give them back anything of what they’d put in.

They were already there. They had already spent their money to fly out to Anaheim, California and stay at this hotel in which this so-called convention was supposed to take place.

Joy and I sent a response asking the SVP of PR for Warner Brothers what we should tell the 200 people who were there to show support and love for Warner Brothers’ show about why they regretted to inform us that no one from the production could attend. What do we tell these fans who have come from all over the world to support the show and the fandom?

Unsurprisingly, we received no response.

To be perfectly honest, I had a small breakdown that night. Joy, for her part and because she’s very British, maintained a stiff upper lip, and I seem to recall downed some wine.

What were we going to do?

It was an untenable situation. Yes, we still had people coming to speak, and they were interesting people. We still had celebrities coming. Sophie B. Hawkins and Renee O’Connor were still coming, and, when you have Gabrielle there, how bad could it possibly be?

The morning of that first day, we received a few bits of consolation. Sasha had told us and then did send her personal assistant over with some gifts to hand out, and, because the Rizzles fandom community for the show was so small, her assistant was actually a bit of a celebrity in the crowd in her own right. Lorraine and Sasha sent us personalized video messages, but we were under strict instructions to, under no circumstance whatsoever, play the video online anywhere. Joy had to sign contracts with lawyers to ensure complete confidentiality of the videos. Janet Tamaro sent us a basket of R&I merchandise to raffle off as a way of apologizing, and Tess Gerritsen did come.

Tess Gerritsen saved us, to be perfectly honest, because she stepped up and filled the gap losing everyone from the show had left, and she did so with grace, humility, and real enjoyment.

Tess Gerritsen
Tess Gerritsen

However, that morning, I didn’t know what to expect for the rest of the weekend. What I knew was that I had to face these fellow fans and explain to them why none of the actors or crew were going to be there. I knew that whatever I said would be put online, so whatever truth I spoke had to be carefully constructed to convey exactly what was happening. Fortunately, Joy and I had spent the better part of the night putting those thoughts together.

In hindsight and a few conversations with insiders later, I realize that Warner Brothers was never really going to let this happen. In truth, we never really had a shot.

I keep the recording of me and Joy sitting on stage that morning talking to those convention goers about what had happened. I remember sitting up there next to Joy and feeling physically ill. I had told her the night before that I would be the one to tell everyone. To me, that only seemed fair since I was the one who had spoken to the fandom the most about the convention, and, as I looked out over the sea of excited faces… and Tess Gerritsen’s appreciative and happy face …I internally asked myself why we had tried.

Joy and Liv, explaining what happened
Joy and Liv

The production house who owned the rights to the show had never been friendly to us, especially after they learned our lineup of ‘other’ things at the convention. The network had completely ignored us. We knew both had a history of using the Rizzles fandom to get clicks on their site and ratings every Tuesday in the summer. All the while, half their talent had gone around being dismissive of us as a fan base without ever really having any repercussions from being so flippant about us.

We knew our community wasn’t actually taken seriously, and I think that was our flaw, or, at least, it was my hubris. Deep down, I figured they were ignoring us anyway, so the likelihood that they would bother with a small little convention that wasn’t making any money off of their product wouldn’t cause them to bat an eye, but I was so wrong.

They didn’t just blink; they balked.

I’ll never be able to prove it, of course. Executives are smart enough to never put anything down in writing and actors know how to cover themselves even when they don’t agree with what they’re being told they have to do, but I will never doubt for a moment that our convention was lessened by Warner Brothers and TNT because it was, basically, a lesbian convention.

I say lessened because it was still a great convention, and the 198 people who chose to remain once I made the announcement all said they never regretted going, but it’s not because of anything Joy and I did. It’s because of the community.

As I said earlier, we’re a tight knit group, and we understand that we’re the underdog. We know what it means to be stepped on, ignored, and pushed aside as something not worth mainstream media’s time, and I think it was that understanding that bound us together. If Warner Brothers and TNT didn’t want us, that was fine. We didn’t need them.

Further, I cannot and will never be able to thank Tess and her assistant enough for choosing to remain for more days than she planned so that she could interact and support the fans. Between Tess and other very talented and amazing people who could keep their word, we had a good experience, but I still think about that morning.

I said something that morning that I try to remind myself of when I hear about things happening to other LGBTQ+/lesbian things, such as AfterEllen being effectively shut down, because it’s the only thing that makes me feel better when I watch media use us and throw us away. I said, “We have each other, and we have something in common, a shared interest, which you can’t ask for something better. … We’re a community. We’re a family.”

I will always look back at RizzlesCon as a fun time with a sad ending. Many of the people I met there are still my friends and we talk regularly. But like Liv, I look at how we’re being thrown away and I think that what Liv said is right.

We are a community.

About Mika A. Epstein

Mika has been deep in fandom since she could say 'Trekkie.' With decades experience in running fansites, developing software, and organizing communities, she's taken on the challenge of delving into the recesses of television for queers long forgotten. Making this site with Tracy is nothing short of serendipity. Mika lives with her wife and their cats in Southern California. Of course she has a hybrid, but she'd rather ride her bicycle.
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