The Hugo Awards Are A Danger To Themselves

While everyone is justifiably running around discussing data and faults and responsibilities and fixes, and particularly why “fixes” won’t work, I want to take a look at an issue on a higher level.

The dangers that Worldcon and the Hugo Awards pose to themselves.

The recent reveal of ways in which Worldcon, the awards and its attendees were used by a political-commercial “project” illustrates the problem in a nutshell:  the audience, reputation, attention and import that Worldcon has acquired over the past eighty-five years has now acquired value in markets beyond its own.

We can peg that value at a minimum of 1.1 billion dollars – because that is what corporations have willingly invested in it, hoping to receive a return of even more billions of dollars.

The fact that this effort also represents a large, coordinated investment in attempting to use the genre as a propaganda tool further underscores this:  if it were not perceived as an effective way to accomplish that goal, the Tianwen initiative would never have even been conceived.

We have had past indications that Worldcon/Hugos have a perceived, commercial value beyond its own interests intermittently over the years.

There is the multi-generational history of attempts to establish (and get rid of) WSFS, Inc., though it is arguable that the early episodes of that attempt were more focused on convention-running and fan politics than on efforts to control a market, though some of that was in the mix:  “… the language of the organization’s charter was suspected of concealing crafty legalisms by which the WSFS directors could “take over fandom“”… (Fancyclopedia).

(If you go and read that entry, you might be surprised at some of the names mentioned in some of those past efforts – as many of them are still around and actively involved.  Not saying that’s a bad thing.  Just pointing out that we are still functioning with many of the same players on the board.)

Then there was Scientology’s attempt to “buy” Worldcon through campaigning for an award and sponsorship of portions of the convention.  Scientology was apparently not influential enough on its own, but wanted the “valuable” approval of the science fiction community (an effort that has been on-going since with their Writers of the Future contest) which they apparently hoped would gain them additional recruits, or polish their image, or perhaps both.

In more recent history there is, of course, the multi-year Puppygate.  This was an effort that sought to either accrue the benefits of Hugo Award notoriety to themselves, diminish the perceived value of it (perhaps in favor of an award more easily manipulated) and to tarnish the image of a community whose values it did not respect.

Note that all of these efforts, in one manner or another, illustrate that the award and its associated events have a potential monetary value beyond social cred, political points or personal gain.

Note also that these perceptions are most demonstrably not limited to members of the science fiction community, nor even “western” interests.

Much of that potential economic value is unrealized, and for two perhaps good reasons:  first, the existing (traditional) SF fan community is not really interested in exporting the things it does for wider consumption, because neither it nor Worldcon has the wherewithal to take advantage of such things.  Science Fiction Fandom and its doings are not perceived as things that can and should be “monetized”.  Second, the very structure of WSFS has so far discouraged outside attempts, as there is no easily identifiable lever with which to exert influence.  The only real positions within WSFS (an “unincorporated literary society”) that has direct control over anything of real tangible value is the Mark Protection Committee, who handles WSFS’ intellectual property, including the look and name of the Hugo Award and the names for Worldcon and its occasional North American event (possible held whenever Worldcon is hosted outside of the north American continent) NASFiC.

The MPC has been shaken up following events in China, and may be undergoing further shaking as time progresses.  But the thing to point out here about that is:  intellectual property has become one of the primary focuses of the entertainment industry in the west, and it seems that many of those efforts are conducted in order to obtain properties that might have future value, rather than something that would produce short-term returns.  Surprisingly, at least some people appear to be thinking long term rather than short. (From the Tianwen announcement:  “During the Tianwen Science Fiction Literature Award, there will also be science fiction industry development activities, which provide a bigger stage for the development of the science fiction industry and the conversion of science fiction IP.” (emphasis added.))

Not that we can make direct comparisons, but the Oscars generated some 157 million dollars in revenue this past year, experiencing 4% growth over the previous years and the Golden Globes award presentation has nearly doubled its advertising revenue in less than a decade.

There’s money in award ceremonies.

And the Hugo Awards can look like a very inviting target.  This is pure speculation, but I would imagine that to an outside, business-oriented entity, the Hugo Awards would look like an acquisition target that could be had for little investment, while offering a nearly open-ended revenue stream, not to mention potentials for obtaining influence with publishers, film studios and other entertainment outlets.

Go read the Tianwen announcement (Global Initiative) and then come back here and re-read the preceding paragraph if you have any doubt about what the runes may be auguring.

As we have already seen, outside attempts at efforts closely resembling the above will “come at us sideways”, making it difficult, if not impossible to detect prior to something happening.  Some avenues of approach may be closed off by WSFS’ very structure, or lack thereof, but that doesn’t mean none exist.

And it certainly doesn’t mean that my own inability to identify what they might be means that no one else can.  Money combined with influence is a powerful motivator.  How much of an investment is it worth if the potential is an influential piece of a global effort that’s already worth over a billion dollars of investment?

Ask that question another way:  how much potential revenue justifies a 1.1 billion dollar investment?

This is nothing new, of course.  Over the decades, many have sought to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by cozying up to science fiction (while keeping it at arms length, and also keeping it almost entirely out of the earnings pool).  We’ve got blockbuster films, television shows and toy lines, a handful of cable channels,  to demonstrate that.  (Lucas became very rich by holding out for a large piece of the toy rights for Star Wars.)

What this all boils down to is – there are outside forces already gunning for Worldcon, and the longer they are unable to bring it under their own sway, the more the perceived value will increase, the stronger those efforts will become (unless and until it falls off a cliff because viable work-arounds have been created).

Which also means that, at least for the nonce, Worldcon has acquired leverage, because it “controls” the fate of that potential.

To see what I mean:  how much would Worldcon/The Hugos be worth to those Chinese investors if they had the opportunity to merge their new effort with the only viable, international competitor it has?

This strongly suggests to me one of two things will happen, probably both simultaneously:  Worldcon’s “competitors” will continue to seek ways to obtain it, while at the same time working towards undermining its value (something they have already been at least partially successful at).

Two big questions on the table then:  how do we prevent a “hostile takeover” and how do we turn whatever leverage remains to Worldcon’s advantage?

Woldcon Intellectual Property owns the following marks:  World Science Fiction Society, World Science Fiction Convention, WSFS, NASFIC, The Hugo Award, Lodestar Award, and two graphical representations of the Hugo Award itself.  There are also multiple registrations for some of those, covering different classes of goods and services.

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