Jim McLauchlin's PANEL DISCUSSIONS: The Cost, Concerns and Carpet?! of COMIC CONS
Comic conventions have seen exponential growth in the last few years. Pick a weekend, damn near any weekend, and you’re likely to find not just one, but multiple comic cons going on, many with attendance figures of 50,000 or more. But Matt Solberg thinks cons are more than just giant centers of commerce unto themselves—they’re a main driver for the comic business.
“Comic conventions are the new spinner racks,” Solberg says. “Comics are not in grocery stores or convenience stores anymore, so it’s the conventions that are now bringing in new readers, and lapsed readers. That family with the kid who dresses up as Spider-Man on Halloween…they might not even know that comics are still being published. Some people think Spider-Man was only published, like, 20 years ago.”
Solberg should know. He sees mom, dad, and the kids walk through the door at the Phoenix Comicon every year. Solberg has owned and operated the con since 2002, which he started at a Best Western with a first year attendance of 432. Now, 12 years later, his con takes up all three buildings of the Phoenix Convention Center, with programming spilling into three hotels. The con even closes down 3rd St. for a block for an outdoor stage and car show where fans can gawk at the Ghostbusters’ Ecto-1, Batmobiles, and a Jurassic Park Jeep. Attendance these days? It’s north of 77,000.
The Phoenix Comicon and many others are large-scale operations run by crews of dedicated professionals. On a large scale, the rewards are many. But the costs and concerns can be commensurate.
THE CONVENTION CONCERNS
Multi-day comic cons with 60,000 or 70,000 attendance easily reach over $5 million in ticket sales revenue alone, and that’s before the first booth space or sponsorship has been sold. But the old adage is true—it takes money to make money. And convention costs can get staggering.
Beth Widera is the owner and operator of MegaCon, a prosperous Orlando, Fla. convention that clocked in with an attendance of 69,000 in 2014. When she’s simply renting out the raw space at the convention center for MegaCon, well…she’s scratching out a check for a six-figure amount. And that raw space is indeed “raw.”
At a convention, the “decorator” doesn’t do so much bunting and flowers, but rather the nuts and bolts of the con floor—laying the carpet, and setting up the pipe-and-drape for all the booths. In the last three years, MegaCon’s decorator bill has tripled to the point where that’s now a significant six-figure concern.
“Carpet alone might be $40,000 in a year,” Widera says. “And when we go from 10-foot aisles to 20, as we’ve had to in some places because of the crowds, that’s twice the carpet.”
These kinds of concerns become very real, very quickly.
“I’ve thought, ‘Do we really have to carpet the whole con floor?’ and the answer is no, we don’t have to,” Widera says. “And I’d love to save a few thousand dollars on that. But we’ve decided we want to be more professional, less a garage sale. We want to keep it classy. So we carpet it all, the whole con. Publisher area, dealer area, signing area, artist alley, all of it.”
Over the past five years, MegaCon has also seen its security bill go from $5000 to $40,000 as more attendees have required more security. In 2015, it will increase again. “The convention center is making us get more security, because the crowds last year were greater than anticipated.”
Over in Phoenix, Matt Solberg has many of the same concerns.
“The biggest challenge we face is just how…you…deal…with…this…many…people!” he says. “It’s something I never thought I’d have to worry about. Now we’re concerned with attendance capacity. And it’s not like we’re just concerned about the exhibit hall, it’s that the hallways can only handle so many people at once, and traffic needs to flow in a certain direction at certain times. Suddenly, escalators moving in the right direction have become a big part of my job.”
Traffic concerns at MegaCon, Phoenix Comicon and many other events require coordination both internally, and with local government. “We work much more closely with the city and the police department as we grow larger,” Solberg says. “We’re on the scale of going to a Major League Baseball or an NFL game, certainly. You have to be concerned with how you handle 70,000 people at a time.”
And unexpected external factors can also play a part, and add to the expense, “The Boston Marathon bombing happened just a few weeks before our 2013 show,” Solberg says. “We instituted bag checks at all our entrances and exits. We invested more money in security to facilitate that, but we felt it was worth it.”
Financial decisions have to be made on things like security, and even what you want your convention to be. Artist Alley tables are often low-yield for convention promoters, but a crucial part of the mix.
“With the rate we’re paying for space, we’re losing money on artist alley tables right now,” Widera says. “Between what we pay the convention center for the tables, the chairs and the labor, we take a small hit on every artist table sold. But we’ve decided that we want to remain very comics-focused, and it’s very important for us to have them, even at a loss.”
The artist crowd seems to appreciate it. Artist Alley tables for 2015’s MegaCon, slated for April 10-12, were totally sold out by July 3, 2014.
THE TALENT CONCERNS
It’s certainly been addressed before, but more conventions can equal more complications for comic talent.
“I’m asked by, it seems, six or seven people each week if I can do their show,” says Harley Quinn writer Jimmy Palmiotti. “And thank God for that. It’s nice to be asked. It’s flattering as hell. But Amanda and I have to say ‘no’ to 90% of them. Because…it’s as simple as we have to work!”
Palmiotti is married to Harley Quinn artist Amanda Conner, and notes that what seems like a pleasant weekend for the fan is often a weeklong deadline-killer for the talent.
“When we do a con, it’s not just the three days of the con, but there’s a day before and after for travel, and mentally, you usually lose an additional day after ’cause you’re just exhausted,” he says. “So we look at it as a five-day loss of time, maybe six.”
Still, the swell of cons is raising the tide of fortunes for comic talent.
“The promoters are starting to offer money now,” Palmiotti says. “Promoters look at me and Amanda as a way to get people through the door. And I’m okay with that! The convention knows that if they get me and Amanda to come, that sells a certain amount of tickets. It’s a business. People have to treat it like a business.”
But the business can have a downside.
“I just went to a convention where they charged $150 for a VIP ticket,” Palmiotti says. “They sold 3000 VIPs. Do that math. It’s a lot of money. But did they share that money with us because we came in early for their VIPs and we took care of them and we were part of it? No. It seemed like it was enough to them that they flew us in and gave us a table. So I’m not so sure that I’m going to do these VIP events any more. I have to treat it like a business, too. If I have to be a part of that, I get a part of that. Look, ask anyone—I’m there for the fans all weekend. But when I see promoters making a fortune…I think it’s also fair for them to share with the guys who are stepping up for them. That’s all.”
Professionalism is ramping up among convention promoters, but results are still uneven. Many cons offer the simple amenity of a ride to and from the airport, while many encourage talent to just grab the first cab they see. The talent seems to think…yeah, the former is better.
“If you want me to be a guest, treat me like a guest,” says Futures End writer Dan Jurgens. “When my friends and family come to town, guess what? I pick them up at the airport.”
Jurgens sees the relationship between conventions and talent as a partnership, but the con has to do its part. “I’ve been to conventions where you get there and they say, ‘Go pick a table, it’s yours,’” he says. “Well, I’d like to know I’m at table #800 well in advance, please, so I can let people know in advance, put it on social media. Hey, I will help drive attendance to your con if I know this.”
All in all, Jurgens thinks professionalism has increased among convention promoters, but the sheer number of new cons unfortunately increases the number of the fly-by-night artists and the just plain clueless. Jurgens has a simple sorting procedure.
“Talent charging to go to a convention is a very real part of the business these days, so if they lead off and offer you an appearance fee, that’s a great clue to see who’s real and who isn’t,” he says. “But the quickest way to vet someone is to see how quickly they ‘get’ the little things I’m talking about, like a ride from the airport and table placement. If they call me and run down that list before I can even bring it up, well, you have a reasonable assumption you’re dealing with a professional.”
And at the end of the day, the experience means the world to the talent.
“I’m very loyal to some shows, like MegaCon. Beth Widera does an amazing job there, runs a great show, and she really cares,” Palmiotti says. “San Diego, their handlers are fantastic. They’ll pick you up at the airport. That means a lot! I don’t need to be treated like a VIP, but it’s nice. And really, the treatment is a lot. How the con promoters treat you has a lot to do with if I’ll ever return.”
Dan Jurgens offers another piece of advice to promoters trying to attract talent.
“Don’t be the guy who lies to me about your attendance figures,” he says. “That’s rampant right now.”
AH, THE NUMBERS!
Meet the elephant in the room.
“I hate to publish this, but I feel like I have to, because everyone else seems to inflate their numbers,” Beth Widera says. “I guess ultimately, it’s good business for me. We had 69,187 unique individuals in 2014.”
Widera is one of the few who goes out of her way to be as transparent as possible with attendance. She’s invited journalists to day-after-MegaCon meetings with the convention center, and showed them full spreadsheets on attendance.
Matt Solberg is similar. He’ll gladly show you exactly how Phoenix Comicon got to 55,313 people in 2013, and boomed again to 77,818 in 2014. The key word here being “people.”
It’s industry standard in the consumer show business to express attendance figures as unique paid individuals. But some comic cons play the fuzzy math game, counting a 3-day pass as three people, or lumping complimentary professional passes and the like in with paid attendees.
Alas, there’s an excuse—let’s stop short of calling it a reason—behind those that choose to inflate: The public safety authorities (we’ve all heard that dreaded “it’s up against fire code”) are concerned with how many people, for all purposes, are in the building at any given time. MegaCon’s peak day in 2014 was Saturday, with over 47,000 paid attendees in the door. Throw in what MegaCon and the convention center knows to be staff, hot dog vendors, security and the like, and you can compute a quick capacity count. Some cons will add up each day’s capacity count, and present it as “total attendees.”
All of which leads to a micro-problem fast becoming a major one—the number of free footfalls getting in the door. In 2013, the San Diego Comic-Con did away with a second complimentary badge for Artist Alley tables and severely curtailed press credentials. This year, they reduced complimentary pro badges by 30%. The endgame? Fewer people equals more room to move in a crowded hall, and/or you can move previous freebie attendees to paid attendees. Cons everywhere are clamping down on free rides.
“We look at the pro badges we give away every year; we look at the exhibit badges,” Matt Solberg admits. “Because yes, it is a capacity count. It’s a happy problem to have, and the challenge as an organizer is to communicate the changes and improvements.”
Exhibitors who resell unused exhibit badges for a quick buck are also a problem. Wizard World’s 24 comic cons now have a policy where exhibitors are given wristbands that cannot be exchanged between people, and must be placed on the wrist by a Wizard staffer. MegaCon still has a lanyard system, and allows exhibitors to swap badges between employees who may be covering different days. But MegaCon’s new policy, as clearly stated on their exhibitor paperwork, says “You may not sell additional badges to outside parties and by doing so you are in violation of your contract. Badges are only for vendors working at the show.”
A solution to presenting real numbers is easy: Get an audit. EXHIBITOR, a “trade show for trade shows,” offers audited attendee counts and demographics. It costs a few bucks, but in their business, it’s important. There may be some prestige to be found and ground to be gained by the first comic convention that offers audited attendance to its exhibitors.
THE PAST MEETS THE FUTURE
Comic fans have an almost genetic memory of a simpler day of conventions, where the order of the day was 20 dealers and one pro writer guest in a ballroom at the Route 17 Ramada Inn. But those days are clearly past. Rampant expansion is the order of this day. An example? A year ago, there were no 3-day comic cons in Indianapolis. Now there are four in the 12-month span from February 2014 to February 2015.
Stuart Sayger knows Indy. The Bionicle and Shiver in the Dark artist spent years as a comic retailer in Indianapolis, and now hits about a dozen conventions a year as an artist in Artist Alley. But he still has a keen eye for the retail side of things, and sees amazing movement at the high end of the market.
“The sheer amount of money flying around the room has opened the door for all new possibilities,” he says. “Currently nothing seems off the table as an option for how to run a show, how much to pay for an experience, or how exclusive an experience can be.”
Jimmy Palmiotti spoke of $150 VIP tickets, and that’s not even close to the ceiling. Tickets for a Matt Smith and Karen Gillan Dr. Who Dual VIP Experience are sold out at 2014’s Wizard World Chicago…at $535 a pop.
“We are seeing an unprecedented amount of money being put in to this hobby at the high end,” Sayger says. “Expensive key issues, expensive sketches, expensive autographs, and expensive con experiences with expensive admission fees.”
And Sayger thinks there could be a bust to go along with the boom. “But with that much money and interest being pumped into the high end, all of the low end gets left out,” he says. “Quarter-bin type bookswere always a great place for a fan to get a lot of comics cheap, but that equation changes if a fan has to pay a $60 admission to just to buy 25-cent comics. And how many 25-cent comics must a dealer sell to pay for his booth? This equation just won't work anymore.Catering to the high end makes for a hard entry point to this hobby. It’s going to continue to be a fast-moving landscape for everyone: fans, pros, convention owners, publishers.”
The landscape, in many ways, has already changed, and yes, conventions may be the big driver.
“The comic industry is totally above-ground now,” Matt Solberg says. “Mom, dad and the kids all know about it, at least in the abstract. Awareness of comics has never been higher, and more accepted at the same time.”
With that awareness and acceptance comes money. And with money comes larger players looking to get their piece of the pie. Solberg thinks the convention industry may be paralleling the old movie rental business, where single mom-and-pop shops first thrived, then expanded. Then things regionalized across states, followed by major corporate chains emerging.
“You now have Jim Demonakos out of Seattle doing a Portland,” Solberg says. “As I see it, we now have some very ‘formal,’ traditional companies coming in. Reed Exhibitions has multiple events now. Informa, the Swiss-based trade show company, bought Fan Expo Canada and Dallas Comicon, and Wizard continues to expand. In 5-10 years, will it be just a handful of players who control this business? I don’t know.”
In the here-and-now, comic conventions provide a spark for attendees on any level—exhibitors, fans, pros—that can’t be duplicated elsewhere.
“There’s an energy you get from a really good con that you can’t find anywhere else,” Dan Jurgens says. “You make friends, you have a good time, you have a nice meal. Some of my best experiences as a pro have been convention experiences. I love MegaCon. It's a remarkably well-run show, and both the staffers and attendees are super friendly. Emerald City is another great show, extremely well-organized and the location, in the heart of downtown Seattle is fabulous. There are some cons I’ll return to time and time again, anytime I can, because they treat you so well and I had such a good time there.”
Jimmy Palmiotti tends to agree.
“I used to look at cons…ah, I still do. I look at them as a celebration of our art form; making comics. And that’s great,” he says. “So the cons are still fun for me. It’s the place where I can sit and talk to fans and readers all day, and actually meet the people I might know from Twitter or Facebook. I love that part of it.”
“But,” he cautions, “it’s also a business.”