Troubled Elan Awards for video games leave Vancouver for San Diego

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      Judging by the luminosity of its hosts, the Elan Awards show would appear to have been a hit. William Shatner, Seth MacFarlane (the creator of Family Guy), and Tom Kenny (the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants) have all served as master of ceremonies for the formerly Vancouver-based awards ceremony that recognizes outstanding achievement in video-game development and animation.

      However, after a reasonably flashy first event in 2006, the production declined dramatically in the second and third editions. Producer Holly Carinci plans to hold the fourth annual Elan Awards in San Diego in July, a shift she characterizes in publicity materials as being driven by growth.

      A Georgia Straight investigation shows the move to the U.S. may be more of an escape.

      Carinci declined repeated requests for an interview, but the Straight spoke with a number of people who were involved with the first three productions. All of those interviewed said they will have nothing to do with subsequent events. Criticisms levelled against Carinci and the Elans include poor planning and organization, dismal personnel management, and alleged unpaid debts. Representatives of major video-game companies have expressed concern to the Straight about previous shows.

      While Carinci calls herself the founder of the Elans, Vancouver actor Ross Tweedale is the person who came up with the idea to stage a video-game awards ceremony in Vancouver. This fact was acknowledged by Carinci in an e-mail to the Straight on July 15, 2006.

      Back then, Tweedale was doing some contract work—“writing PR pieces and stuff like that”—for HollyWords Publicity (Carinci’s public-relations agency, which no longer has a listed telephone number or a Web site) as a way of supplementing his “meagre income as an actor”, he explained in a phone interview with the Straight. He was also writing and doing voice-over work for video-game giant Electronic Arts. Tweedale realized that Canada was “a huge epicentre for video games” but that there was no means of recognizing achievement within the domestic industry.

      Having no event-production experience himself, Tweedale said he took the idea to Carinci, knowing that she had staged a few small events and private competitions centred around beauty make-overs—“little, cheese-ball stuff”.

      The first event, held on September 14, 2006, at the River Rock Show Theatre in Richmond, was called the Canadian Awards for the Electronic and Animated Arts. Dozens of industry members showed up to see awards handed out in 36 categories. Shatner was the host of the black-tie affair, but Tweedale, an associate producer of the show, said the actor’s participation nearly didn’t happen because there wasn’t enough money to pay him. “I basically tapped out my credit cards for as much as I could,” Tweedale said.

      It wasn’t enough. Two days before the event, Shatner still hadn’t received his full fee, and his assistant made it clear that he wouldn’t appear until he had. “We needed a Hail Mary, a magical investor to bail us out,” Tweedale said, “and I had nothing left.” He isn’t sure who came through with the money that saved the show, but he said Carinci told him it was a client of her publicity agency.

      “Considering none of us knew what the hell we were doing, and that we somehow managed to pull off a show and have Captain Kirk there, I thought it was all right for a first year,” Tweedale recalled. “It came to the point where we just needed to get the show on—with all its problems, with all its issues.”

      That first event took its toll. In addition to using his credit cards to pay for expenses, Tweedale said he agreed to temporarily forgo a salary. Carinci, he said, promised to pay him later. Tweedale has an agreement stipulating this that was signed by Carinci on February 15, 2006. He said that when he asked to be reimbursed after the event was over, he was told there wasn’t any money available. According to Tweedale, money came in from sponsorships and submission fees, but he doesn’t know where that money went. “All I know is that I wasn’t seeing any of it,” he said.

      In 2009, Tweedale filed a suit in small claims court for $25,000, the maximum amount allowed. Carinci, Tweedale said, didn’t show up for the mediation hearing. “I won by default, really.” With a “verification of non-attendance” in hand, his next step would be to have a judgment issued for the collection of the money, but he doesn’t want to spend any more money on the case because he’s not optimistic that he’ll get paid.

      Tweedale was listed as an honorary associate producer for the second awards show, which was originally scheduled for November 2, 2007, and was finally staged on February 15, 2008, at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts. By now, Carinci was referring to the event as the Elan Awards, or the Elans, with the original title relegated to subtitle status. Tweedale had nothing to do with the second show, and guesses he was given the credit “because they weren’t paying me any money and they wanted to keep me quiet”. Not that he cared. Tweedale confessed to being embarrassed to have been associated with Carinci and the Elans. “At that point, I didn’t want to have anything to do with them,” he said.

      Tami Quiring, who now runs the Aldergrove-based blog Village Gamer and was a volunteer for the second event, described the production as disorganized. “Everything was left until the last minute,” Quiring explained to the Straight by phone. “They didn’t have a volunteer meeting until five days before the show.” She said her son, Michael Porcher, was appointed security coordinator on the day of the ceremony. According to Quiring, he was 16 at the time.

      The rehearsal started two hours late because a payment hadn’t been made. Quiring said she doesn’t know who made the payment that got the theatre doors opened to the production, but she said she witnessed a “very large, very unprofessional argument backstage” between Carinci and theatre staff.

      Carinci had signed MacFarlane as master of ceremonies. “It was mayhem,” said Quiring, who was Carinci’s assistant during the event, noting that she spent most of the night trying to manage producers and staff who had been drinking to excess. “Those who were drunk during the show proceeded to get further drunk. By the end of the evening, it was horrendous.”

      After making inquiries to MacFarlane’s publicist about whether he had been compensated for his appearance, the Straight was contacted by a representative of the actor’s accountant, who mistakenly thought this journalist wanted to make a payment.

      Even after the second production, Anthony Brown was so committed to the idea of an awards show for the Canadian digital-media industry that he stepped up his involvement with the Elans. Brown is the managing director of business development for Seven Group, a Burnaby-based company that provides information-technology integration services to digital-media companies and was a major sponsor of the 2008 show.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Brown said that he was disappointed with the second event. “So, we offered to help produce the third show,” he said. That was, according to him, a big mistake.

      The third Elan Awards were originally scheduled for February 28, 2009, but were pushed back to April 25, 2009. The ceremony took place in a ballroom at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.

      Kenny was the MC for the show. Brown said that when the actor arrived in Vancouver, he hadn’t yet seen a script. That’s because there wasn’t one, according to Brown. He said Kenny was displeased but handled things like a professional. Brown and Kenny wrote the script that day with two of Brown’s friends, game designer Ian Verchere and comedian Rick Green.

      Brown said that the day before the show, Carinci told him there wasn’t enough money to stage it. He sank about $16,000 into the event to ensure that it happened. “I ended up having to come up with cash out of my own pocket to run the event,” he said.

      According to Brown, he had little choice. He had assembled an advisory board of “friends of mine” from the digital-media industry and “brought in a large sum of money through our partners for sponsorship”. He explained, “I was responsible for the investment that they made.”

      Brown wasn’t privy to how the sponsorship money was used. Vancouver resident Rodney Georgison, who described himself as a former friend of Carinci’s, alleges that some of the money was used to pay for her daily living expenses. “She was putting huge pressure on sponsors,” Georgison told the Straight by phone, “because this is what they [Carinci and her partner] were living off of.”

      Georgison said he loaned money to Carinci so she could pay rent in August 2007. “I was [going to be] paid back in two or three days from cheques coming in from the Elans,” he said. Instead, he ended up filing a small-claims suit in December 2008. On the day of the hearing, Georgison said, Carinci was a no-show. He doesn’t believe that the Elan Awards have been as successful as press releases issued by Carinci indicate. “If it’s been so successful,” he said, “then pay your creditors.”

      In December 2009, Carinci sent out a press release announcing that the fourth edition of the Elan Awards will be held July 17 to 19 of this year at the Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel in San Diego. The three-day affair, according to the awards site and several releases issued by Carinci, will feature a pool party at the hotel, a nomination celebration street party in the Gaslamp Quarter, and a champagne gala reception, an awards dinner, and an awards ceremony at the hotel. An after-party at the On Broadway Event Center will wrap up the ambitious schedule of events.

      According to documents on the site, top-level sponsorships for the 2010 Elan Awards are available for between $25,000 and $200,000. The submission fee for the awards is $350 per entry. Tickets to the various parties start at $250 and there’s a cost of $495 to attend the whole celebration. All payments are to be mailed to the Elan Awards, care of Vernon-based NSC Holdings Inc., a company formed by mortgage broker Neil Chester. Carinci was born Holly Chester.

      But it’s questionable whether Carinci has secured many sponsorships or submissions from the video-game industry’s main players, because a number of companies that have had experience with the Elans say they have no interest in participating again.

      Cédric Orvoine, director of communications for Ubisoft Montreal, told the Straight his company had disagreements with Elan organizers about its sponsorship agreement for the first event. “We decided not to participate in subsequent editions,” Orvoine said by phone from his Montreal office.

      Colin Macrae, the Burnaby-based communications director for Electronic Arts, said that EA’s relationship with the Elans was “disappointing”. According to him, organizers “failed to deliver on an event that reflected the quality and prominence of the Canadian industry”. (This year, EA is sponsoring a new awards show, the Canadian Video Game and Digital Arts Awards, which Seven Group is helping present and which will take place on May 5 in Vancouver.)

      Orvoine and Macrae said they have briefed their colleagues in the U.S., and neither Ubisoft nor Electronic Arts will be participating in the San Diego awards. As for other developers and publishers, Macrae said that, despite the competitiveness of the business, “We recognize that, as an industry, we often need to work together and share information for the betterment of the industry and our craft.”

      Members of the Canadian video-game sector aren’t sad to see the departure of Carinci and the Elan Awards, but they are concerned about people and organizations in the U.S. Seven Group’s Brown asserted that anyone who gets involved with the event is in for a surprise. “They may not know it yet,” he said, “but”¦”