Walker Stalker Con co-founder James Frazier with Melissa McBride and Andrew Lincoln (Photo: Instagram)
It’s billed as “by fans, for fans,” and the origins of The Walking Dead events known as Walker Stalker Conventions do involve a pair of TWD fans — an attorney and a producer who lived next door to each other in Tennessee — and one celebrity-studded road trip to stalk some walkers (or rather, the actors who play them).
Attorney James Frazier and pal Eric Nordhoff turned a “dream” road trip to The Walking Dead set into a popular, cast-studded podcast, and then a multi-city series of fan conventions that, three years later, can draw as many as 70,000 walker stalkers to weekend events that include cast panels, autograph signings, photo ops, and, in a special one-day Orlando event this weekend, a fundraiser for the OneOrlando Fund.
Frazier, whose full-time job is now running the Walker Stalker company, and TWD star Michael Cudlitz, a popular WSC presence who has also turned his appearances at the conventions into an opportunity to raise donations to food banks across the country, talked to Yahoo TV about exactly how it all got started, what makes Walker Stalker events so unique, and why they’re spending the weekend in Florida to raise funds in an extra special event.
Becoming Walker Stalkers
Lots of fans have road tripped to the Atlanta area to check out where Walking Dead is filmed and to try to catch a glimpse of cast members, but Frazier and his pal Nordhoff had a spontaneous fan experience so memorable it inspired a popular podcast, the Walker Stalker Conventions.
James Frazier: Eric and I were neighbors at the time, and always talked television. We were both watching The Walking Dead, and our wives didn’t watch it, so we started watching it together. Then we saw something on Twitter, that it was the final night of filming in Season 3, down in Senoia, Georgia where they film, and we’re about three-and-a-half hours away. I said, “Why don’t we go down and we can check out Senoia,” which was Woodbury, “and maybe we’ll see some of the other places they filmed, and get to see them film. If not, it’ll be a fun day trip.”
At that time, they just put up barricades around the set, and that’s it. You could walk up to the barricades, or you could stand on the opposite corner from filming, and when we got there, we saw about 10 people standing on the corner. We asked what was going on, just trying to get a lay of the land, find out if maybe this was a good place to be to watch filming. They told us this is where everybody walks to set, so they kind of had to cross paths there. We stood there for a little bit, and we met Laurie Holden. No one else came by for a while, and we decided to drive around and check out other places they might be filming. We were really hoping to meet Andrew Lincoln — we were both big Rick fans — and asked one of the women standing there, “Can you give us a call if you hear he’s going to be here, or if there’s a chance we can meet him?” Actually, that’s how we got our name. The woman put us into her phone as “Walker Stalkers.”
So she had Eric’s number, and we were out driving in the countryside at some of the other filming locations when she called and said [Andrew Lincoln] was there, and that he was probably going to be filming that evening. We went back, and got to watch them film the final scene of Season 3, where Rick and Daryl and Michonne come to the gates of Woodbury, and Tyrese and Sasha let them in. We literally sat there, in a coffee shop, and watched them film that probably fifteen, twenty feet away from us. They just kept it wide open. While they were filming, the actors came in and out of the coffee shop. Andrew Lincoln came in, and Norman Reedus came in. Melissa McBride sat with Eric and I at our table. She wasn’t even filming that night, and just hung out and had coffee, just talked to everybody. It was really amazing, because it’s not like now, when you see them out anywhere else, where they’re just, like the Beatles or something, just surrounded by fans. It was a very small gathering, probably 20 people in the coffee shop. Now I think they get 50 to 100 people every day trying to stand on a corner somewhere and watch them film, then they’ve got to move them back a 100 yards and hide it as best they can, but back then it was much more open. On the way home, we were like, “Wow, that’s not what we expected.“ We really did just expect to drive down, walk through downtown Senoia, and drive around a bit. If we saw one actor it would have been a bonus. Even to this day people tell us that that was just the most unusual day.
Eric Nordhoff and James Frazier (Photo: Instagram)
The First Official Walker Stalker Convention
When they returned home, Frazier wrote about the experience on his legal blog, and his readership went from 80 to 800. That pushed the friends to start the Walker Stalker podcast, which included episode recaps and drew guests like TWD producer and director Greg Nicotero and cast member Michael Rooker within the first couple of months. The growing popularity of the podcast led to a couple of fan meetups, and then the friends decided to try to fund a larger, more formal Walking Dead convention, via Kickstarter, to be held in Atlanta in November 2013.
Frazier: We just barely got it funded, which in hindsight is amazing. We needed $15,000, our initial venue deposit. I remember the halfway point, like 15 days into the 30-day window, we weren’t anywhere close. I think we were just one or two thousand dollars in, so it didn’t look good. Looking back, we probably would have pushed through and done an event regardless if the Kickstarter didn’t get funded, because we had this really great momentum, and we were getting the guests we wanted, and starting to get a little bit of press coverage, so I think we would have felt strong enough to push things through, but thankfully the Kickstarter did fund.
With the financials in place, Frasier and Nordhoff went about finalizing the cast appearances at the 2013 WSC Atlanta, and were able to get the entire cast to show up, with a little help from someone they’d met on the set during their trip to Senoia.
Frasier: [Greg Nicotero] was a big part… when it came to the podcast, [his guest appearance] really gave us credibility. We had zero journalistic or podcast credibility before him; to say Greg was on goes a long way with the cast. Then we confirmed Greg and Melissa McBride [for the Walker Stalker Convention]… that really just kind of said to everybody, "Hey, you really should come and do this event, these guys are great. They’re fans.” That gave us the push we needed to really expand the guest list and get everybody involved. We ultimately ended up with every main cast member that first year, and even most of the cast who had, at that point, been killed off, like Sarah Wayne Callies and IronE Singleton, came along, too. It was amazing… I think we had 17 main cast members, and I only remember that because we got them all in one cast photo while they were there.
Frazier (right) with Walking Dead EP Greg Nicotero, before the first Walker Stalker Con (Photo: Instagram)
Atlanta WSC: The First and Still the Biggest
More than a dozen Walker Stalker events have taken place since the 2013 convention that launched the company, in Philadelphia, Charlotte, Nashville, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, the New York City area, and London, where the aim is still to give the devoted Walking Dead fan community the chance for a little more up-close time with cast members.
Frazier: It is still small most of the time. Most of our events have six to eight thousand people a day. That’s nothing in comparison to most of the larger conventions in the U.S. But Atlanta WSC is now this massive event. We’re expecting 65,000-70,000 people this year for Atlanta. The intimacy part that we created and coveted… that part’s gone, but we still try to do so many events within our main event that still give fans those opportunities, be it concerts, or parties, or unique individual experiences, or tours. There are still opportunities to be in smaller groups with celebrities.
The First Post-Negan and Lucille WSC
This year’s Atlanta Walker Stalker event will take place at the Georgia World Congress Center October 28-30, i.e. the weekend after The Walking Dead Season 7 premiere, i.e. the weekend after fans find out who was on the receiving end of fatal Lucille blows delivered by Negan. It not only promises to be an emotional event for fans, but it will be the first time the cast will be gathered together and free to discuss past, present, and future events in the world of Rick Grimes and company, since Negan’s arrival.
Frasier: A lot of the first conversations and panels in regards to this episode will be at the Atlanta event. Andrew Lincoln’s returning, Jeffrey Dean Morgan will be there. Everybody who is on their knees before Negan, they’re all scheduled for Atlanta. I think we literally have every main cast member already announced for Atlanta.
The weirdest [WSC] we’ve put on so far was [last year in Atlanta], the week after Glenn disappeared underneath the Dumpster. Steven [Yeun] was there, and he couldn’t say anything. He couldn’t talk, there were some cast members who asked not to do panels, because they didn’t want to talk about it. So that was the most difficult one just because everybody thought he died, and we always have this character death reaction at our conventions. All these actors have very nice lines (for autographs), they each have great followings, but when somebody dies, their line just explodes. Everybody wants to go tell them how much they miss them, and how terrible their death was. Emily Kinney and Chad Coleman and Lawrence Gilliard Jr., after they died on the show, like four or five times the number of people lined up for them, and that was the case for Steven that weekend. Yeah, there’s going to be a lot of sobbing, a lot of interesting panels, too, I think, because people want to talk about it.
Michael Cudlitz: I’m excited for us to finally premiere so that we can get past this moment in the show, because that’s been the focus of everything lately. What I’m most excited about is what’s coming, that will be able to be talked about because this moment will have passed. We won’t be hung up in Spoilerville. We’ll be able to address what has happened and the exciting stuff that we’re in for the rest of the season.
Walker Stalker’s Most Stalked?
Frazier: Oh, it’s Norman Reedus by far. Andrew Lincoln is, too, but Andrew only comes to the Atlanta event, usually, though he did also come to the London event this year. Of course, that’s his home, but on a consistent basis it’s Norman. Norman has a rabid female following, and it’s like nothing I’ve seen. It brings in a completely different type of fan to our conventions. We say we have Walking Dead fans and then we have Norman Reedus fans.
The One That Keeps Getting Away
Frazier: We’ve had almost everybody from The Walking Dead — [except] Dallas Roberts, who played Milton in Season 3. He’s never attended, and really he’s just about the only real significant character who hasn’t. We’d love to have him. My understanding is it’s just not his thing, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. He’s probably at the top of the wish list, just because I think most people… it’s like collecting baseball cards, they collect autographs. They’ll have these massive Walking Dead posters of every actor that’s attended one of our conventions, and they want to complete it. Dallas Roberts is the one that we get asked about a lot, “Why hasn’t he attended?"
Very Special Moments
Frazier: It was the first one, in Atlanta, and it was with Andrew Lincoln. People come to these things, and they stand in line for hours. But there was this little boy who had stood in line most of the day with his mom, and almost two-thirds of the people who come to our conventions have never been to a convention before, so they have no idea what to expect. It’s not your normal convention crowd. Most people aren’t familiar with the fact that if you buy an autograph from an actor, the actors have 8x10s at their table, so you don’t have to bring anything for them to sign. This little boy had cut out of a magazine a little 3x4 picture of Andrew Lincoln, and had brought that to get it signed by him. And he got up to the table and literally just… he was probably nine or so, and he just started crying. He was so excited, just pure tears of joy, could not believe he was there with [Andrew]. There was not a dry eye in the house. Andrew Lincoln’s publicist was crying, and all our staff was crying. It was just the moment that you want to create and have happen for this little boy. Andy brought him around the table and put his arm around him and hugged him, and took a picture with him, and that was unique, because nobody else could get a picture during the autograph time since we were just trying to get people through. Andy really recognized it, how special it was, and just paused, and took time and spoke to him. It set the tone for what we want to accomplish every convention.
When we do orientation on Saturdays and Sunday morning with volunteers, we tell them to find that moment in the weekend, and make that kind of moment happen, where they just make this experience even better for somebody by introducing them to a celebrity or just moving them up in line. A lot of people don’t like that, but I think, if you can do that, do it. Just find that moment where you can make it extra special for people. That’s the heart of what we really want to do, is just make these events amazing experiences for people.
Cudlitz: I think what is great for the cast of The Walking Dead as well as the fans is when we come to these conventions, we get to see people that we have not seen in a while. We get to see actors that have not been on the show for two or three seasons. They come in, and we get to spend time with them. We are all family. It’s really nice for everyone to get together in that way, to be in a place where there’s 30, 40 actors from the show itself, it’s pretty exciting. We all benefit from all of us being in one place at the same time because it makes it much more of an event. It’s this celebratory sort of atmosphere for both the cast, current, past, and future, and the fans, who see the camaraderie.
Very Special WSC: Orlando
On September 17, Walker Stalker Con and Heroes & Villains are teaming up for a one-day event in Orlando, where dozens of cast and crew from The Walking Dead — including Michael Cudlitz, Greg Nicotero, Lauren Cohan, Melissa McBride, Chandler Riggs, Sonequa Martin-Green, Seth Gilliam, Alana Masterson, Chad Coleman, Ross Marquand, Jordan Woods-Robinson and Lawrence Gilliard Jr. — and other favorite pop culture projects will sign autographs and provide photo ops for fans, and donate 100 percent of their earnings from those signings and photos to OneOrlando Fund to benefit victims of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12. WSC will donate all its earnings above cost of the event, too, and TWD star Michael Cudlitz, another favorite among fans at WSC events, will not only donate all his profits, but will also host The Bisquick Challenge, the food bank drive charity he started in honor of Abraham Ford’s classic line to Glenn in Season 6. During several WSC appearances this summer, Cudlitz’s Bisquick Challenge, which General Mills supports with donations at each event, has resulted in tons of non-perishable donations to food banks across the country.
Frazier: I grew up in Orlando, graduated high school there, got married there, had our first house and kid there. When [the shooting] happened it was just kind of… “What can we do? What can I do? What do I have? What resources can I utilize that can make a difference?” I just started texting everybody the next day and said, "I really want to go do this, are you on board if we do?” Very quickly, everybody was like, “Yes, let’s do this.” At that point it was really just The Walking Dead cast. Then I texted Stephen Amell [a partner in Walker Stalker’s sister event company, Heroes & Villains] and I said, “Hey, I know it’s a trek, especially for a day, but are you on board?” Of course, he was. It’s turned out to have a nice group of celebrity guests. It’s not going to be one of our more massive events, it probably will be 6,000 people, but to be able to give all our profits to the OneOrlando Fund, which is the fund established by the city of Orlando for the families and the victims. The EMF services are volunteering their services, and even the city of Orlando, the [Orange County Convention Center]. I’m so excited that it’s all come together the way it has. To be able to go home and just do something like this, it’s a real honor. I believe we’ll raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In addition to Cudlitz’s Bisquick Challenge, TWD alum Lawrence Gilliard Jr. will be hosting a Bob’s BBQ Challenge food drive, a nod to his character that was obviously inspired by his castmate.
Cudlitz: I really think at some point, this will become basically, “What three non-perishable food items would you take with you in an apocalypse? Choose those three things and donate them to someone who doesn’t have them,” turning it into something that’s not just the Bisquick thing.
Realistically. I think we can realistically raise half a million. It would be all right back on the fans. I say realistically we could do it, because the fans are amazing. We have not been to Orlando for a couple years. James and his team are just really, really amazing people. They really do love the show. [The Walker Stalker Cons] really do focus truly on one theme, and they are massively behind it. They’re massive supporters of the show and they support any other endeavors we want to do that are connected with their convention, like this whole Bisquick thing. When I started, it was just a bit of a joke that someone else had made. I was like, “Bring it. Let’s see what happens.” James and his team really helped me turn it into what it is now. I consider them not just people that I work for at these conventions, but I consider them friends.
Tickets for Fan Fest Orlando: A Charity Event by the Creators of Walker Stalker and Heroes & Villains are still available for purchase online and at the Orange County Convention Center on Sept. 17