Midsummer Scream became just another victim of the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in early May.
The announcement, made May 1, of the July-scheduled convention left a spring and summer devoid of big, fan-stoking live events following the cancelations of Wonder Con, Monsterpalooza, and San Diego Comic-Con. Organizers were quick to announce next year’s dates for July 9-11, 2021, but it nevertheless left plenty of other questions.
Halloween Every Night spoke with Midsummer Scream co-founder and creative director Rick West to help answer some of them.
Halloween Every Night: When was it officially decided that Midsummer Scream 2020 would be cancelled?
Rick West: The executive team met — in person — on the evening of April 29th to make our final decision and lay out how we would roll the announcement out.
What we do is roughly an 18-month process, so as soon as it became apparent to everyone that COVID-19 was going to be an issue for not just the United States, but the world, we began discussions internally. These discussions became more intense the clearer it became that COVID wasn’t going away any time soon.
As other major conventions cancelled, the stress level went up substantially. We still were holding on to hope that our late July and early August dates were far enough out that we could dodge this bullet. The huge turning point came when Comic-Con International cancelled its San Diego show. We struggled for weeks trying to figure out what a scaled-back version of Midsummer Scream would look like, and the reality is, there isn’t one aspect of our show that wouldn’t be significantly impacted by social distancing guidelines.
It was an endless list of really, really serious problems that we faced. And on top of it all, how do you know if people will even show up? Without the numbers, we can’t afford to produce the show that so many have come to love and expect from us. Besides all of the logistics, it boiled down to keeping this community safe and sound while we ride this pandemic out on a global level.
I told the team weeks ago that if we proceeded and one of our partners, team members or fans got COVID and became ill or died from this thing, it would haunt me the rest of my life and no amount of business is worth that. The team agreed, so, we feel we made the right decision. The love and support from everyone has been incredible, and we appreciate it so very much.
HEN: Why was it cancelled instead of postponed for a later date in 2020?
RW: Where Midsummer Scream falls on the calendar each year isn’t by accident. That’s typically when the big theme parks are announcing their mazes and shows for the upcoming Halloween season. We knew we wanted them to use our stage as a platform for that. Haunters also begin work on their own attractions, so we knew that if we were going to have something like Hall of Shadows, it couldn’t be sooner or later in the year – any later, and everyone would be busy working on their own things elsewhere.
We also looked at conventions throughout the year, and are very aware of when other horror cons are slated, and also very cognizant of major shows that create a cross-over conflict for fans and media, such as D23 or Comic-Con. You never want to go up against those shows and make people have to choose, you know? To me, that’s just arrogant and bad business.
As for moving Midsummer Scream to a later date in 2020, you also have to take into account the Long Beach Convention Center is already booked for events for the rest of the year. It’s a popular place and we now take up the whole thing, so even finding a three-day slot for our show can be more challenging than you might think.
And then there’s the unknown. No one knows when all of this will subside. As people flock to beaches here in Southern California and businesses begin defying orders to stay closed, we very likely could have another spike and another shutdown. I think that is a very real possibility. With something the size of Midsummer, it’s not really possible to simply keep kicking it down the road until it does finally work, you know? There is a tremendous amount of preparation and very careful consideration that goes into each year, so it’s not really plug-and-play for us.
HEN: How were the new dates decided? Since it is about a month earlier than usual.
RW: COVID spoiled our surprise!
We were so excited to announce to you everyone that next year, we’re going almost a month early – unfortunately, it became the “silver lining” in our bummer of an announcement as opposed to exciting moment at the end of Midsummer Scream this summer. Midsummer Scream originally started in July, so we’re kind of returning to our roots for the 2021 show, which will now be our big 5th Anniversary milestone.
In all honesty, there was no specific reason except for the fact that the Long Beach Convention Center is already booked for every other weekend for months in either direction from our “usual” dates. It’s surprising, but even though we’re a solid, major convention that’s proven itself, the Convention Center doesn’t hold dates for us; each year, we have to negotiate dates and come to an agreement. For 2021, it was either go right after the 4th of July weekend, or find a new location, since we take up the whole facility.
It’s not juicy or exciting – but that’s the reason.
HEN: Has there been any discussion of the possibility of an online convention for this year instead?
RW: That’s come up multiple times in various discussions. Frankly, the idea is boring to me and I don’t think it would capture even a trace of the togetherness and homecoming we all feel when the community gathers each summer for a weekend in Long Beach. The excitement that you feel in the air at Midsummer – that gets lost when you’re sitting by yourself on the couch at home watching a streaming video of a panel or whatever.
We approach Midsummer very much the same way you design a theme park. At its very core, it is created to be a group experience. If you suddenly take the group away, you’re left with very little emotion or excitement. I think David Markland feels about the same. That’s not to say that we won’t continue to engage the community more than ever via social media and whatever platform we choose in the months ahead. We are absolutely looking at what we can do in that regard. But just porting Midsummer over to a “virtual event” – I personally have no interest in that, because as a fan first, I find that really interesting for maybe the first five minutes and then I am bored and ready to move on. As a producer of the event itself, I take great pride in what we present to the community each year. I feel that a “virtual Midsummer Scream” no matter what we did would fall short in every way, and in turn, possibly damage our brand rather than further it.
In my opinion, Midsummer Scream is all-in or nothing, to live up to the promise we made this community about giving them the show they want and deserve each year. I feel very strongly that due to the COVID situation, this year is a loss and that our energy would be best spent preserving everything we had planned until we could properly pull it off in 2021.
HEN: How do you plan on staying connected with your fans through this difficult time?
RW: I think so far, we have done a great job at staying connected via social media and special merchandise offerings, some of which have already created financial aid to local organizations rallying against COVID-19. Once stay-at-home guidelines are lifted, we anticipate producing small pop-up events, and more gatherings and community interaction than ever both in person and via social media. There isn’t one partner we have that hasn’t expressed interested in coming up with events and ideas with us.
Just what we’re planning, it’s too early to start rattling off ideas, but rest assured that even before meeting to cast our final votes about this year’s show, the executive team has been talking about what comes next. How we are going to remain a positive, strong voice in the community. And of course, our December dark market, Season’s Screamings will be bigger and better than ever. I think we have a huge turnout for that this Holiday Season. More information on that will come in the months ahead, for sure.
HEN: What impact has the pandemic/sheltering-in-place had on the horror community?
RW: Like everyone, the community has been greatly affected by COVID-19. Many folks have lost their jobs, their companies, and business has dried up. Not being able to hang out in groups all but brought the build teams for Hall of Shadows to a grinding halt over the past month and a half. The ramifications have been grim, and had we been able to proceed with Midsummer Scream 2020, the frantic catch-up in the wake of this would have stressed everyone out so badly that I get uneasy thinking about it.
Let’s face it, many of us spooky kids are just fine staying in and watching movies or playing video games with minimal contact with the outside world. But by now, I’m sure the majority of folks out there are getting a bit stir crazy.
We miss our friends, we miss our favorite bars and hangouts, and we miss being able to go to the theme parks just to chill in comforting and fun environments. I look forward to this nightmare ending eventually, and really hope that we don’t get hit with a massive spike that shuts us down all over again. That would be truly crushing.
HEN: Are you hearing of any plans for the Halloween season?
RW: I’m hearing a lot of concern from everyone involved in themed entertainment, from the major theme parks to home haunters. There’s still so much uncertainty from day to day with no clear picture of what life will be like this fall, I think everyone is spooked – and not in a fun way. I’ve heard some prolific home haunters say that they likely won’t do anything this year, and others say that if they do proceed, it will be likely just as a yard display and no attraction. That is really sad to me, since there’s no place in the world that comes close to SoCal when it comes to the truly epic home haunts that we are lucky enough to have right here in our own backyard.
The biggest challenge is what we don’t know. We don’t know what the guidelines will be when fall rolls around. We don’t know if COVID will be a bad memory or back with a vengeance. We don’t know how we’ll handle capacity. How do you create attractions that are inherently close quarters and claustrophobic without putting your talent or guests in harm’s way if the virus is still alive and well? It’s a mess.
Whatever our reality may be this fall, there’s no way COVID-19 wins. We will be back, stronger and closer-knit than ever before as a community. That’s who and what we are.
HEN: How do you hope the community and theme parks like Knott’s might adapt for the upcoming Halloween season?
RW: My hope is that we figure out how to beat this thing and that by the time the parks open for their first nights of Halloween events, that everyone is safe and secure, and that this is all in our rear-view mirror. I think you’ll see folks grouped farther apart to avoid conga lines in haunted houses. I’m sure you’ll see hanging partitions such as plastic or burlap taken out of transitions between scenes in mazes, and I think talent will keep a decent distance from guests this year. Groups such as Just Fix It Productions that produce shows like CREEP that are known for intimacy and one-on-one experiences have a lot on their plate to work through and digest. They are going to be hit the hardest by this new way of life.
In the end, we’re absolutely all in this together, as cliché and worn-out as that phrase has become. But it’s true. We’ve all taken it on the chin in this round. COVID-19 has brought the biggest and best cons out there to their knees, and it threatens live events, theme parks, and large gatherings for the foreseeable future. We may have lost at the moment, but we’re fighting this thing and will win in the end. Then, we will rally and become better and stronger than ever. That’s the community I know and love here in Southern California.