Comic book conventions have grown quite a bit over the last 10 years, and no one knows that better than the folks at ReedPOP. Founded in 2006 to launch the inaugural New York Comic Con, ReedPop now runs more than 30 fan events around the world -- all the while pushing NYCC to overtake Comic-Con International: San Diego to become the largest comic convention in North America.
As most fans know, comic conventions today are about much more than just comic books, but they've changed in other ways too. According to Lance Fensterman, the global senior vice president of ReedPOP, comic conventions are more global — and more gender-balanced — than ever before.
The 20016 North American convention season gets into full gear with with ReedPOP's Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (or C2E2, as it's best known) on March 18-20. As Fensterman prepares for the event, as well as other shows like Emerald City Comicon and the ever-expanding New York Comic Con, Newsarama talked with the organizer to find out more about the changing face of fan conventions.
Newsarama: Lance, what have been the biggest changes for Reed in 2015 and heading into the 2016 convention season?
Lance Fensterman: It seems like constant change is the norm, but we kind of like it that way. Really, the biggest change has been the global growth of the business. This past year, we put events into Shanghai, Paris, Vienna and Indonesia. So that alone, adding that many events outside the U.S., was a pretty significant move for us, and building teams in those countries and developing those concepts, and getting to know new tribes of fans. That's been a pretty massive change for us, and really exciting, actually.
Nrama: Yeah, I looked at a few different descriptions of your company online, and there were three different numbers for how many events you have. But according to your website, counting the events listed there, it looks like 30 events in 10 countries?
Fensterman: Yeah, as of yesterday, it was 30 events, and I'm pretty sure we're at 10 countries right now. It's pretty crazy.
Nrama: The first big comic book-focused show of the year in the United States is C2E2. How would you define the identity of C2E2?
Fensterman: Yeah, for the con calendar, C2E2 is coming up. And we've always viewed C2E2 as a Chicago show. When we launched it — this will be the sixth year, I believe — it was really about having a show in Chicago, having a big con literally on the shores of Lake Michigan. So we've always tried to make it a Chicago show — a plethora of Chicago creators, partnering with a local brewery, working with local restaurants, getting creators together with chefs to talk about being artists, basically. Everything has been really, really Chicago-centric.
That's how we try to define it, bringing a big show to America's second city.
Nrama: I've seen you say something similar about New York Comic Con, about it being a uniquely New York show. But that convention has gotten so big. It seems like it's almost maxed out.
Fensterman: It has physically, within the confines of the Javits Center, it has maxed out. We can't get any bigger.
So… to your point about it being a New York show, the real next stage is to build that show all over the city of New York and really spill out, taking over other venues around the city and programming content that our fans really wants, outside of the convention center, so it can be inter-meshed, if that's a word, in the city of New York itself.
Nrama: As much as you've expanded, it's noticeable that you have no California comic book convention. Is that something on purpose? You're avoiding that area because somebody else is there?
Fensterman: Well, wherever we go, we try to go where it's an open market, which is increasingly difficult these days. It's a community here, and we're not in the business of competing with big shows. That's not interesting to us.
And also, if fans are being served and they're getting what they really want and crave, there's no reason to build an event there.
So I guess that's a part of it. San Diego's an amazing event. It just doesn't seem logical to build a show where there's already an amazing show.
That's one example. You know, we do Star Wars Celebration in Southern California. That's an instance where, you know, it's a different fan community, it's a different style of event with a very different brand. So doing it in Anaheim was appropriate, and it didn't feel competitive in any way. It was a very unique kind of event and community.
Nrama: I'd like to get back to the specialized shows you're doing, like the Star Wars event, in a minute. But talking about comic book conventions, when you call something a "comic con," there are fans that are concerned whether there will actually be comic book. Do you have a conscious mix for comic book conventions, and do you worry at all that you're going to have too little or too much comics?
Fensterman: We're always cognizant of it. And if you look at Emerald City Comic Con, C2E2, New York Comic Con — they all are firmly rooted in comics. You know, you look at the guest lists and they are very predominantly artists and writers in the comic book space.
We always say a show like that, like a comic con, you build around comics. Right?
But we also know "comic con" is really a general pop culture show. So you kind of have your core of comic books, which we never try to stray from, but the you move outward into other areas, whether it's toys or video games or Japanese pop culture, or film and television. And you add those elements as well, around that core.
So yeah, we're cognizant of it, because that's the original content. That's where it comes from.
Nrama: You talked earlier about how one of the biggest recent changes for your company was the launching of global conventions. I'm curious if the make-up of convention-goers in general — and in particular in the U.S. — has also changed recently. We've heard a lot of talk about how there are more female readers. Is that reflected in the demographics of your attendees as well? Have you guys been around long enough to see that change?
Fensterman: ReedPOP's been around for 10 years. It started in 2006 with New York Comic Con. And we do, actually, do very detailed demographic studies. We ask a lot of questions of our fans, but we're also aware of gender mix, income, age — we track all of that.
And we have seen a change in the comics space, and also in the gaming space with our PAX events, where you have an increasing participation from female fans.
I think some of that is the changing face of fandom, the mainstreaming of pop culture. But I also think it's a reflection of the industries. There are more and more female creators and video game designers and developers, who are doing exceptional work and are increasing their presence.
I think, then, it's our job, as an organizer, to create content and feature content that's reflective of the industry and the audience. And I think we do that well. I think we can always do better. But it's certainly something we're aware of, sensitive to, and work on.
Nrama: Over the last couple of years, we've see a lot of attention among online fans being given to the harassment of women at comic conventions, particularly cosplayers. Do you take measures toward discouraging that? What can do as a comic convention organizer, and are you aware of the problem?
Fensterman: Yeah, yeah, we're extremely aware of it. And I actually would say there's a lot we can do, and I think we do.
We really jumped onto the "Cosplay Is Not Consent" campaign. Over the last two or three years, we have have invested a lot of time and resources into making an environment that's safe and fun for everybody.
The "Cosplay Is Not Consent" is our sort of campaign, and within that, there are extremely specific rules and behaviors that are expected. We have signage all over the show. We have program books. We have a section in our app where you can actually report harassment directly, in the mobile app when you're at the show. We have a pretty specific protocol on how we follow up and take action on that.
We are aware. We take it seriously. And I actually think we have a really important role in making the environment safe and fun for everybody.
Nrama: I spoke earlier about the specialization of the comic convention industry, and I know Star Wars is really big right now, but you also have a Star Trek convention. Is that where you see things going, toward conventions aimed as specific fandoms? Or are comic conventions always going to be kind of a catch-all event?
Fensterman: I think you're onto something — I think more and more brands themselves are going to start building out their own sort of events to connect with their communities. You can see great examples in Star Trek and Star Wars — particularly those brands have been doing that forever, right? I mean, Star Trek essentially created what a fan convention is. They invented it, or rather their fans invented it for themselves. So those have been around forever.
It's other brands that I think you'll start to see doing their own stuff. For example, Riot with League of Legends and doing their own eSports tournaments, not participating in other eSports tournaments, and selling out the Staples Center for a massive tournament. That is an engagement of their fan community in a meaningful way. Sony Playstation has done a few events around the world in a similar fashion. Twitch, the streaming provider — they have their own convention. We happen to run it for them. UFC, the big fight brand, they do something.
I think more and more, you'll start to see these brands saying, why am I going to somebody else's show to access the fan community? Do I have enough content and a big enough fan following that I build it myself?
I think you'll see more and more of that, because brands crave that meaningful face-to-face, physical celebration of fandom. So I think you'll see more of that.
But the concept of a comic con is not going away by any stretch. I think fans will always want to gather and be with other fans to celebrate what it is they love. And there are more and more of those shows out there, because they're wanted, they're needed, they're loved.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell people about 2016?
Fensterman: Just more stuff on the horizon. Emerald City is going to four days this year, so that show is growing by a quarter, essentially. I think we'll have some more interesting global expansion happening. We're launching a show in Beijing this year. There's just going to be more cool opportunities for fans to celebrate what it is they love. And we'll be very much in the thick of that, providing those great happenings and events.