The comic convention business continues to blow up, and as we tick-tock to San Diego - 26 days, but who’s counting? - a number of issues are coming to the forefront, one of which - read on! - deals with how close you can get to the San Diego Convention Center at all.
Lower Ticket Prices? Lower Ticket Prices!
Wizard World as a massive slate of 14 conventions, some in major markets such as Chicago and Philadelphia, and some in whistle-stops such as Boise, Idaho and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. For many of the smaller and newer ones, Wizard is offering lower ticket prices.
Effective immediately, Wizard is moving to $25 Saturday tickets, $20 Fridays or Sundays, and $40 for weekend passes on new shows, and more.
“This is a pilot program,” says Peter Katz, a vice-president at Wizard World. “And it’s not just new ones. Even Sacramento, where we’re in our fifth year, we had to move locations because they’re renovating the convention center. So we decided to do it there as well. And if it works, we may roll it out to other shows on a case-by-case basis.”
Katz notes the proliferation of cons, and higher expenses for operators, many of which are passed on to consumers.
“Prices are getting higher, and people might start deciding to stay away from cons,” he says. “So we decided to make a commitment to the fans and start lowering some prices.”
Matt Solberg, the owner/operator of Phoenix Fan Fusion (formerly Phoenix Comic Con), had a massive cost increase in 2018. Their 2017 con saw the flashpoint everyone had been dreading - an armed gunman reportedly looking for a “showdown” with police. Solberg had to beef up security, and the cost hurt his 2018 show.
“We knew our expenses were going to go up dramatically, and the security portion was the most significant,” he says. “So we raised our pricing to insure that we’d still be financially viable, along with providing a safe, fun show for our attendees.”
Alas, the higher prices led to a massive attendance hit.
“A number of our attendees made the decision to just stay home,” Solberg says. “After the show, we made the decision to roll prices back to their 2017 levels to re-earn our attendees’ trust again.”
Solberg touts his prices as among the lowest among major shows - and well cheaper than Disneyland.
The March Towards Paid Autographs
Most of your favorite comic creators sign books for free at comic cons. But more creators are putting on restrictions: Some offer one for free, and you pay for more. Some charge only for key books. Many, like legendary New Teen Titans writer Marv Wolfman, are just going to a simple flat rate. Wolfman charges $5 per signature, or $20 for items graded by companies such as CGC and CBCS.
“People were getting signatures and immediately putting them up for sale,” Wolfman says. “It was driving me crazy.”
Wolfman tried the “one for free” routine until just a couple months ago, but too many grifters poisoned that well.
“I’d see kids, little kids, with comics from the ’80s, one after the other after the other,” he says. “And then they’d go and bring them back to dad ’cause dad didn’t want to pay.”
Wolfman sees the ball in motion, driven by signing fees of $100, $200, and more for some of the movie/TV actors frequently found at comic cons.
“The actors have changed the landscape, 100%,” he says. “People now come up and expect to be charged for autographs. When I say $5, they almost always say, ‘That’s it?’ They might pay $100 for a major TV star.”
Fees vs. Guarantees - And What It Means To You
Make no mistake, conventions pay to get Marv Wolfman there, and Jason Momoa, too. Hotels and flights aren’t free, and talent needs to be compensated for their time. Comic creators might get a thousand dollars or two as an appearance fee if they’re lucky, nothing if they’re not. But the big-time movie actors can easily command $250,000 or more - as a guarantee.
The Jason Momoas of the world will typically work on a guarantee against sales. Those $105 photo ops and $75 autographs are pre-sold by the con, and if Momoa’s quote is $250,000 and the con sells at least that much, Momoa pockets the dough, and the con doesn’t have to pay him. But if they only tally up $240,000, a convention has to pony up the extra $10,000.
That’s long been industry standard in the acting world. Matt Solberg saw the same rise with anime voice actors 10 years ago, and feels it’s pushing into comic creators.
“A few anime voice actors charged a fee, $500 to $1000,” Solberg says. “More started asking, and that began the arms race of who could charge more. It simply reaches a point where the convention can’t bring out as much talent, or the key ones they really want.”
Solberg and other convention organizers stated talking to the voice actors, urging them to consider selling autographs.
“There was resistance, because the audience was not used to that at the time,” Solberg remembers. “But some of the higher profile names changed that.”
The result? Pretty much all voice actors now charge for autographs, and many of them are attending on a guarantee.
“In the comic book industry, more talent is asking for appearance fees, which is pushing up the rates of those top-name creators,” Solberg says. “Eventually it will reach a point where conventions say either we can’t bring as much talent, or we can’t pay your fee, so would you consider a guarantee against your sales? It will just take time, and part of it is the fan base getting used to ‘If I want an autograph, I know I’m going to have to pay for it.’ I do believe that eventually comic talent will be charging for autographs. The talent knows that their signatures are being flipped - they’re put on eBay the day after a con.”
Writers vs. Sandwiches
And Marv Wolfman would have a beef, if only he could get some beef.
“Normally comic book guys don’t get into the green rooms,” he says. “But there was one convention where I insisted on it. Half the actors there were playing characters I created, and I can’t have a lunch? So I got in, and they had a chef back there, while the comic book guys had nothing! So I stole a bunch of muffins, and brought them to the comic guys near my table, just so they could have a snack.”
Wolfman sees a separation of levels of talent at many comic cons, and he’s not too crazy about it.
“I find the treatment of comic book guys at comic book conventions often to be awful,” he says. “We’re not just interchangeable fodder for these things. I get that TV people are popular; I’m not denying that. I see it. Their faces are known, and for us, it’s just the work. So I’m in full acknowledgement of the fan interest of those people. But for us to accept being second-class citizens at a comic book convention just seems stupid.”
Wolfman says his treatment varies con by con. There is no industry standard.
“Some cons don’t want to pay the comic guys anything,” he says. “But Las Vegas Comic Con’s initial letter to me was, ‘Here’s what we’ll pay, we’ll get first class tickets for you and your wife,’ and a whole list of things. There was nothing I could think to add to it! Now I’m going to their Hawaii con and they’re bringing my wife again. The fact that they recognize that comic guys are vital is great to see.”
See You In San Diego?
The grand poobah of cons, the one we just call “San Diego,” has long been tough to get into. Now it’s a little tougher.
Harbor Drive, the street the San Diego Convention Center is on, will be closed to both standard motor and pedestrian traffic for the duration of the con. Only people with badges or proof of registration that they’re picking up a badge will be able to cross Harbor or get to the convention sidewalk.
The initiative, which involved the convention, the City of San Diego, the Port of San Diego, and even the Department of Homeland Security, is a crucial security measure which should alleviate some close-in traffic snarls and allow a little more elbow room for attendees. It’s also a hallmark that big comic cons, yes, Virginia, are major civic and cultural events tantamount to a SXSW or even the Super Bowl.
Con Dates Crunch
Ticket prices are going down, autographs may be going up, and the Battle of the Muffins continues. Against this backdrop, more dates populate the landscape. Peter Katz would like to see some cooperation.
“Believe me, I sit there and I stress over this calendar like mad,” he says. “We need to know if talent is going to be doing something, on what dates, and in what market. What I’m trying to do, because I’m so hell-bent on trying not to have a perception that Wizard is trying to roll over the small guy, is talk to other promoters.”
That happened back in 2006, when Wizard World announced an Atlanta show for June 30 through July 2 - the same dates as the long-runnign Heroes Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina - just 245 miles apart from each other. Wizard World capitulated soon after, rescheduling the show for a non-conflictnig weekend.
Wizard World's Katz feels for Kansas City’s Planet Comicon. Unless something changes - and hotel guarantees and convention and visitors bureaus make it unlikely - operator Chris Jackson will be on the same March 29-31 dates in 2019 at ReedPOP's C2E2 and Comic Con International's WonderCon.
“I’ve invited Chris to our last few cons,” Katz says. “He came out to Philadelphia, he came out to Des Moines, I walked him around. One of the Reed guys was coming to our Philadelphia show, and that may seem aggressive to some, he’s coming into the building when we’re having a show, but you know what? I left him tickets. We need cooperation. I’d love to have a summit. I’d love to all sit down, once a year, and figure out our calendars, how the talent figures into that.”
Katz has also been Matt Solberg’s guest in Phoenix, and Katz has brought Solberg to Wizard’s New Orleans show.
“Anything I can do to assist him, I will,” Katz says. “I think we all need to work together. Maybe we all don’t need to love each other, but it’s better if we can work together.”
Katz is hopeful is more cooperative landscape is a better landscape.
“People say ‘There are too many cons!’ I say there’s not enough!,” he says. “Done right, and serving the fan base, there’s not too many. Look, C2E2 comes into Chicago, a market we’ve been in for years, and what? You won’t go to two conventions in a year? I think this is the kind of fan base that would go out every weekend if it makes sense and is priced right.”