Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Nature of the Pop Culture Convention

There’s been some discussion regarding an article in The Hollywood Reporter about the amount of money TV stars can and have been making at conventions. At first glance, you might read it and say “wow, what a racket!,” but as a comic creator who’s been doing cons for the better half of a decade, this kind of story isn’t news to me. In fact, most comic creators will tell you that we already knew that celebrities make a decent amount of money at cons. It's really not that big a deal.

Still a lot of creators and commentators have been debating the article, so I thought I'd add a little perspective from the standpoint of a small press/independent creator. With that said, I felt compelled to do this post for a couple of reasons.

I've previously detailed the reality of my status of an independent creator here: The Reality of Indie Comics,  so I'll try not to rehash too much.

There are a couple of things about that article that I felt were lacking - one of them being the state of the con business in general. There are a lot of conventions. I mean, it's at the point where it's almost over-saturated. It's still lucrative for many, but I've always felt when you get the point where cosplayers are considered guests, we've got a real problem.

To really understand conventions and the abundance of comic conventions, you first have to break them down into categories. I'll do my best to run down the way many of my creator friends classify them.

There are the big pop-culture cons: San Diego and New York, and to a lesser extent, WonderCon, Emerald City and MegaCon. There are big comic-centric shows/traditional comic cons: Baltimore, HeroesCon, Long Beach and Boston, among others. Regional shows are moderate sized: East Coast Comic Con, Vermont, GraniteCon (these examples are primarily to give you a size idea). And small shows are the one run at the library or local gym.

Comic creators will attend and sell their wares at a variety of these shows throughout any given year. Sometimes they do well, sometimes not so much.

The big pop-culture shows are huge gambles for people like me and we will likely not recoup costs... but they are a hell of a lot of fun and that experience is worth it.

Creators will frequent the other types of shows, but as I mentioned in my previous post, it can be tough to cover table cost, hotel, food and transport when you are just an independent creator and not a “guest." A "guest" is typically someone with more of a reputation or history in comics (or media) and will often have a table or accommodations comp-ed.

What shows do creators typically shy away from?

What some have colorfully adopted as "star fucker" shows. These are typically conventions that have "Wizard World" in front of them. Now, this is not to disparage any celebrities, creators or fans who attend these cons, not at all. But comics and creators - especially independent and small press - are an afterthought at these shows. There are some exceptions for sure, but Wizard World is more focused on the celebrity and PR stunt market that I’m not going to spend $250 on a table to compete with the cast of The Walking Dead or Ryan Lochte for a sale. 

Don't get me wrong, kudos to Wizard for cornering that market. They’ve also made it much easier for fans to get an autograph, photo or both from their favorite stars. If fans are willing to pay for a little facetime with their favorite star and the celebrities pocket some good change while doing it — good for them. Additionally, if it does help subsidize their earnings because of any residual cuts as THR suggests, I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t try to take advantage.

Also consider this for a second. These celebrities are human. Often times, they are working insane schedules during the week, especially on TV shows, and the weekends may be their only reprieve. They also may not be paid as much as you think on their shows or movies. A common misconception about Hollywood jobs is that everyone is just raking in millions of dollars. That's far from the truth. So at the very least, you've got to give them credit for making themselves accessible.

It's interesting to see the article make mention of some of the Wizard shows and other conventions struggling to make a profit, while having potentially lucrative results for celebrities. As I mentioned, there are an over-abundance of these conventions. Between overhead, trying to get artists/vendors/creators to gamble on high table costs multiple times throughout the year and trying to draw in attendees who possibly just attended a show is tough. I'm not surprised some of these shows struggle. On top of that, a lot of celebrities and other guests will likely get a guarantee and will have travel, lodging and other expenses covered (that's normal for these things). So yeah, it should surprise no one that the results are less profitable for organizers, more so for guests.

Now, with my description of Wizard World shows, you might think I’d put Heroes & Villains in that category too. I don't.

I remember the first advertisements for Heroes & Villains. They made it very clear that it wasn't a "comic convention," it was more of a meet and greet show. They actually did something kind of brilliant. They took Wizard's formula, cut the pork and made it celebrity-centric. There are of course vendors and what have you, but the attraction isn't pop culture, it's the stars. That colorful term used for Wizard World doesn't apply because Heroes & Villains doesn't try to pretend to be something it's ultimately not.

I actually feel that the article did a disservice to Heroes & Villains - and while this is speculation - I think that might be why Stephen Amell was less than thrilled about the article.

Oddly enough, I've yet to attend a Heroes & Villains show mostly because a giant blizzard and a scheduling conflict, respectively, kept me from the two that have been held in New Jersey. But I know enough about them to be able to confidently describe what sets them apart. Back to that blizzard in a minute.

In the interest of full disclosure, I've met Amell a few times. It's also no secret if Patriot-1 ever got optioned for a movie, he'd be my first choice. He's a nice guy and he's really driven to - basically - do cool stuff. Whether its business ventures, charity T-shirt campaigns, his impressive social media presence or wrestling in a match at SummerSlam – Amell has built a solid brand that breaks from the mold of many of the pre-conceived norms of a television star.

So judging by his reaction to the article – he did a Facebook Live video wearing one of his charity T-shirts – it was easy to tell that he was bothered by the idea that he and other TV stars had taken over the celebrity con-circuit purely for monetary gain.

The reason I would counter that notion has everything to do with that blizzard in 2015 that canceled one day of the first New Jersey Heroes & Villains Fan Fest. I was supposed to go for a work thing, but the blizzard was coming in hard and I would have absolutely been stranded an hour from home in New Jersey for at least a day. Much to my wife's relief, the cancellation of the first day left me snowed in at home with the kids.

However, I followed the event on social media throughout the blizzard day. Amell, John Barrowman, Katrina Law and the other stars attending the show not only made themselves accessible to the fans that were also stranded, but they provided live updates on the show's status as well as interacted with fans making the best of their situation.

It was an interesting situation to see unfold. When you look at coverage of these Heroes & Villains events, they have all sorts of activities to go along with the signings and photo ops. Even though I've admittedly been unable to attend, I get the sense that there is less a convention feel and more of a community-like feel to the show and that's something unique. Baltimore and Boston comic-cons often have that feel.

This is important because The Hollywood Reporter article doesn't make mention of this. It doesn't mention how accessible these celebrities are willing to be at a show like Heroes & Villains. Instead it focuses heavily on the profit margins as opposed the brand-building and genuine appreciation for fans. With that in mind, it's easy to see how the "inside baseball" rundown in THR could upset someone like Amell, who is actively working to build Heroes & Villains as a more friendly, accessible and welcoming show that feels more like a big fandom family than a typical Wizard World.

I can’t speak to the idea that Amell is irking traditional booking agents by wanting to control his part of his operations, but as a guy who decided to just go ahead and start my own comic publisher to make my comics, it makes business sense. If it makes financial sense for someone to take control of their own business ventures and destiny – while at the same time building a viable brand – why the hell wouldn’t you? That’s just simple, smart business and it allows him to manage his own brand which is something I admire.

The article also makes mention of stars like Mark Hamill who support a California law requiring a certificate of authenticity for autographs. This too is nothing new to comic creators and fans. At most comic cons, if a fan wants to get a certain key issue signed and graded, often times there will be a CGC (comics grading service) witness to verify the certificate of authenticity. I’ve also seen artists charge a small autograph fee for issues they have done that could end up on eBay or CGC’ed. It’s an understandable practice if an autograph-seeker intends to turn a profit.

Next year, Heroes & Villains: New Jersey will most likely run against New York Comic Con. On the surface, this may be a fool’s errand and a few years ago, it would be. But the con landscape has changed, and I’m actually really interested to see how Heroes & Villains does across the river from the biggest comic con in the country. I personally think they will do fine, and perhaps perform even better than normal with NYCC in town.

As a comic creator, it's easier to determine Heroes & Villains isn't a space for what I do right now, but they don't pretend that it is as opposed to Wizard.

If nothing else, that article in The Hollywood Reporter just leaves out a lot of details about fandom, the con business and the accessibility of the celebrities in favor of trying to shock people with the amount of money they make. If a person is willing to pay a few bucks for an autograph, photo and some facetime with a celebrity and the celebrity is willing to meet that demand in a manageable way, that’s their prerogative, after all, that’s supply and demand economics.


  1. When I read that original article, I said "Good for them!". and Here is why:

    I had the pleasure of going to Heroes and Villains: Chicago in March of 2016. That weekend happened to fall on both St. Patrick's Day and Daylight Savings Time. On top of that, I'm pretty sure the stars flew in the night before the show and only had a few hours of sleep. That was on a Friday night/Saturday morning. The first day of the show they all showed up and gave it their all. I took photo ops with several celebrities and every single one of them were friendly and endearing. I especially remember Katie Cassidy, who looked like MAYBE she had an hour of sleep the night before, but instantly perked up for the camera. Then that night there was the Knocking Point Party, where a wild time was had by all; and several others went out on the town for St. Patrick's Day. The next morning, NONE of the celebrities showed up on time. I waited in Katie Cassidy's autograph line for about 2.5 hours and she still hadn't shown. But every single one of the celebs made it on time for the panels, made it for their photograph sessions. I got to talk to Willa Holland about photography for a bit which was a treat. Katie did show up, and she looked even more tired than the day before. But she was still friendly, and courteous, and had a smile and a few minutes to talk to each person. As for Stephen Amell, I got to his autograph line near the end of the second day (as a VIP ticket holder, I got to cut in front of the line- which was wrapped all around the holding area and out onto the main floor) and I heard his handler say that he only had fifteen minutes to sign. That was at about 4:15 p.m. He was STILL SIGNING at 5 p.m., and he finished his line before he left.

    That one show gave me so much more respect for all of the actors who do these shows. Sure, they make a pretty penny. But they are taking time away from their families and fitting these shows in between grueling shoots just to give us all a chance to meet them. So I don't begrudge them this one bit, and I can't wait to go to my next convention.

  2. We were at that H&V show "Blizzardcon" we called it. Had a VERY nice time despite the obvious disappointments due to the weather.

    Some of the celebs didn't make it due to travel restrictions and Saturday was a complete cancellation, all of which was understandable. But the Knocking Point party was in an adjacent hotel and they basically let anyone who showed up get in and we had a great time. Katrina, Steven, John B were especially available to those of us who were also stranded in our hotels. Lord Mesa (great artist) took over the breakfast room at our hotel and was drawing for people all day long. I don't know if he made a dollar that day, but he made fans out of all of us who were there.

    No one was thrilled with how the weekend turned out (all weather issues) but the celebs did everything they could do to make sure we had as much fun as possible (including snow angel contests in the parking lot) The H&V management did everything they could to accommodate their disappointed customers, including crediting a portion of our ticket price to another show.

    Of course there is money involved, no one doesn't think so. I hope the celebrities find the H&V shows to be profitable AND enjoyable simply because we have been to two already and will be in Atlanta in November for the next one.

    Your opinion on this particular event matches mine. They aren't "Comic Cons" they are "Fan Festivals" and the fandom IS more like a family and Steven and his people have hit a niche in a bloated Con market and are successful. I hope their events continue for many more years, I will be there with my money as long as they do

    Mike and Kelley

  3. I went to HVFF in Chicago in March and it was my (and my husband's) first con, and it was the perfect entry-level con. Sure, it was crowded, but it was so much fun. The panels were amazing (we got great seats for all of Amell's panels), and we got autographs and selfies from a bunch of the actors and they were all super friendly and talked to us. We met Robbie Amell as he was walking across the floor and he stopped to say hello.

    I was astounded by the friendliness of them all. I always expect celebrities to be a bit stuck up, but none of the people we met were.

    We went to the Nocking Point Party as well and we met Stephen and only got to chat with him for about a minute or so, but he was super nice and so down to earth as were David, Echo, and Paul. Best part of the night: seeing Neal McDonough crowd surf.

    We can't wait until HVFF next year!