How a YouTube series about a failed convention unexpectedly became a compelling documentary hit in the vein of ‘Making a Murderer’.
Just as 2017 had Fyre Fest, 2018 has TanaCon. Set up by Tana Mongeau — a YouTuber whose channel is largely made up of NSFW “story-time” style videos — TanaCon was intended to be a largely free alternative to VidCon, the US’s largest annual conference during which online video “creators” perform, take part in panel sessions, and meet fans. In response to receiving a lifetime ban from VidCon for life – you can hear her account of why here – Mongeau announced the launch of a rival event that would offer the kind of inclusivity, youthful focus and fan-creator intimacy that Mongeau felt was missing from VidCon. Scheduled to take place on the same weekend and in an Anaheim hotel within walking distance of VidCon’s convention center venue, TanaCon promised easy access to big-name creators with thousands of free tickets and a limited number of $65 queue-skipping VIP passes. Mongeau’s announcement came just two months before the event was scheduled to take place.
Unsurprisingly, TanaCon was a clusterfuck. Mongeau’s utopian dream of a convention was abruptly cancelled not even halfway through its first day after the venue became dangerously overcrowded; over five thousand ticket-holders had attempted to gain entry into the hotel ballroom venue, which had the capacity to hold just over one thousand. Five hour-long lines in the hot sun left attendees with sunburns, and a complete lack of access to refreshments led to their dehydration. It was, in a word, shambolic.
TanaCon quickly became the topic du jour amongst viewers and creators invested in YouTube-themed gossip, spawning countless videos from big-name YouTubers and cultural commentary channels like PewDiePie, Philip DeFranco, and DramaAlert. But curiously, interest in TanaCon’s Icarian collapse has extended beyond the confines of YouTube drama addicts after Shane Dawson (an OG as far as YouTube celebrity goes) debuted a three-part docu-series that attempts to work out who should ultimately be held responsible for TanaCon’s catastrophic failure.
Everyone loves a fuck-up, but as the above tweets indicate, Dawson’s series offers a deeper appeal than mere schadenfreude. More than simply presenting his opinion on what went wrong and who should be considered responsible (the chief culprits being either Mongeau or Michael Weist, the impossibly young CEO of the event planning company that organised TanaCon), Dawson conducts an in-depth investigation into TanaCon with all the dramatic heft and aesthetic hallmarks of the kind of true crime shows that have been captivating audiences ever since Sarah Koenig first introduced herself on Serial.
Dawson cannily latches on to the applicability of the true crime framework for the TanaCon debacle from the very outset of his series. “The Truth about TanaCon”, the first part to the trilogy, opens on a black screen while an excerpt from Mongeau’s original TanaCon announcement – “fuck VidCon!” — plays. The tone of the entire series is foreshadowed in the eerie echo effect applied to her words before Dawson inserts footage of TanaCon’s disastrous reality: rioting attendees, irate parents, and a sobbing girl being wheeled into an ambulance.
For the uninitiated, the first episode of Dawson’s series (which was uploaded just five days after TanaCon imploded) includes a helpful précis of the situation which Dawson delivers in a cinema verité style. Used in documentaries like Citizenfour and Serial, cinema verité’s mode of filmmaking intentionally draws viewers’ attention to the artifice of the whole documentary endeavor and to the inherent subjectivity in the director’s interpretation of their subject. It’s a way of recognizing Dawson’s own involvement with TanaCon: as part of the event’s scheduled talent and as a close friend of Mongeau’s, he could not have hoped to front an investigation into what went wrong with the convention without acknowledging his own connection to it. In doing so, Dawson is also tacitly foreshadowing the kind of open ending to the series that many of the best true crime shows opt for. Any conclusions he will come to during the series are his, he is effectively saying; audiences are encouraged to come to their own.
Not long into that first installment, Dawson teases another staple of the true crime genre: conspiracy theories. For his part, Dawson’s channel is well-known for videos on conspiracy theories, but they tend to be about such well-treaded topics as staged political protests and Apple products, and are fairly light in tone. Here, though, the suggestion that TanaCon was “planned to fail” – in other words, that it stayed true to the “con” of its title by scamming money out of attendees – is given serious consideration, as Dawson documents the substantial financial and physical cost the day’s chaos left on its (largely young) attendees. Having stirred up viewers by presenting dramatic allegations of misleading marketing, deliberate over-selling of tickets, and dangerously lax security (a major concern in light of both Christina Grimmie’s murder and recent mass shootings), Dawson announces his intention to get to the bottom of things by arranging a three-way interview with the only two people who would know the truth: Mongeau and Weist.
Weist, in particular, plays what is perhaps the most crucial role in the series’ true crime set-up and, concomitantly, in its appeal to viewers. In spite of its self-proclaimed mission to uncover the “truth”, true crime relies on sensational characterization to make for compelling viewing. For the genre to work, there needs to be someone who can play the same sort of role Sheela does in Wild Wild Country: a figure whose morality is called into question during the bulk of the series, but who is kept as remote and blurrily-defined as is necessary to allow for the interpretation, at the end of the series, that they could simply be misunderstood.
Weist, who only appears in Dawson’s series via FaceTime, fits this profile. First presented as a mysterious “man on a Segway” zooming through fan footage of the event, he quickly emerges as the series’ resident shady figure, especially as far as those conspiracy theories go: one fan interviewed in the series, for example, is convinced that TanaCon’s spectacular failure was nothing more than a publicity grab by Weist for his company, Good Times. Peppered throughout the series are tantalizing tidbits that feed into this narrative: in the second episode, titled “The Truth about Tana Mongeau”, it transpires that Good Times was developing their own documentary based on the footage they had taken during TanaCon’s planning and calamitous first day. Dawson immediately links this new information to the conspiracy theory floated in the first episode – did Weist mastermind TanaCon’s failure for a Netflix deal of his own? – heightening the intrigue around his character.
To the casual observer, it might strike as obvious that both Weist and Mongeau are simply over-ambitious young people who took on a project that outsized their capabilities. Most true crime subjects can be viewed as equally as matter-of-factly. But by using near-imperceptible audio-visual techniques, directors like Dawson can plant tantalizing misgivings in audiences’ minds, effectively leading them part-way down paths that the directors themselves might not be fully sure of. Scoring a scene with unnerving music is a common tool in this respect, and it’s one that Dawson employs often to build up suspense for his interviews with Weist (in the series’ second episode) and for the climactic confrontation between Weist and Mongeau in the finale.
The usage of sound “stings” – short, dramatic bursts of music or sound – is another deft way to introduce an air of mystery or drama into a scene, too. In the TanaCon trilogy, they’re used to signal the arrival at a significant point in the narrative and to underscore the magnitude of a sudden revelation, as evidenced in the scene from 4:15 in the video below.
Dawson clearly has a knack for good storytelling, and he knows how to supplement that with drama-heightening filmmaking techniques. But it’s also worth noting that part of the appeal of Dawson’s series is that, like Making a Murderer and every other true crime series worth its salt, it has the added advantage of source exclusivity. Although his position within YouTube culture and his closeness to Mongeau does add several ethical problems to the mix (the last twelve minutes of the series are particularly problematic in this respect), it does mean that he was able to offer what other videos about TanaCon couldn’t: access to behind-the-scenes footage and in-depth interviews with the organisers.
Dawson is also aware that, even with intimate access to the key parties, there remains an element of he said/she said around the whole thing. Attempting to address this weak point in the series, he includes a brief prologue that lays down some of the hard facts that Mongeau and Weist spent much of their respective interview time squabbling over: things like the availability of free tickets in relation to VIP passes, the number of security guards working the event, and, significantly, who is legally liable for providing refunds to attendees.
The presentation of this information during the closing moments of the series is an infuriating choice; wouldn’t Dawson have been able to get much closer to the truth if he had presented Mongeau and Weist with the indisputable facts and then grilled them further? Nevertheless, while the TanaCon trilogy falls slightly short in comparison to studio-produced true crime docu-series like The Jinx, it remains a remarkable testament to the ability of shrewd digital media creators like Dawson to create compelling pop-culture content that rivals Netflix, NPR and HBO’s in a fraction of the time.