Sunday, June 13, 2010

On the Convention Wars taking an interesting turn with an unexpected success

I chose not to attend Wizard World Philadelphia this year, mainly because there was nothing going on there I was interested in. I knew that the few artists I wanted to see would likely also be at Baltimore and/or New York later in the year. Also, I, like a lot of comics fans, have been decidedly turned off by Wizard's bullying tactics against other conventions, particularly against Reed and the NY Comic Con.

This started a few years ago, when Wizard scheduled their show the same weekend at Shelly Drum's Heroes Con, a show with a long history, a stellar reputation and a tremendous amount of good will. The first year it happened, Wizard swore they were at the mercy of the convention center, this was the only weekend available, hands were tied, yadda yadda yadda. When happened a SECOND time, many eyebrows were raised. DC only decided to attend at the very last minute that year, splitting its teams to provide both shows with a fair-to-middling roster of editorial and creative talent. But the next year, with the show safely on another weekend from Heroes, DC still chose not to attend anyway. Marvel had already chosen to stop attending, claiming a desire to cut back on convention appearances altogether.

But this year, with DC and Marvel absent (indeed, I believe Zenescope was the largest comics company to be attending, based on the website), a larger list of media guests than comics, and a general sense of inertia among online comics fans, many artists are reporting that WW Philly was a rousing success, with lots of fans, all with lots of money, all willing to spend. Ethan Van Sciver reports it's his most successful show this year to date.

So...what happened?

I think there's a couple of things going on here. First off, Philadelphia does not have any other comic cons to speak of. Many--bordering on most--comic fans in the area don't have the funds or resources to get to other shows in the area like Baltimore, New York or even strong shows out in Pittsburgh. So to a degree, they're a captive audience. Back in the '90s, the company I was working for chose to run a show in Philly, even though we were based in New York, on the assumption that while Fred Greenberg was doing a good job of providing NYC with shows, no one was doing the same for Philly. And we guessed right - we drew 35,000 fans for our first (and alas, only) show, which is tremendous for the first time out of the gate. I've been saying ever since that Philly is a woefully under-served city convention-wise, and the results Wizard had this year might shine a light on this. It seems to me that like New York and many other major cites, Philly could easily support more than one major show. If a second company chose to bring a show to the town, it could do very well, and not reduce attendance for either Wizard's show or New York. In the words of Daffy Duck, "If they like that mess, they're starvin' for some real hoofin'!"

Also, Wizard has been slowly making a change in its direction with their shows. Each successive convention they run has been less purely comics and more "multi-media". By appealing to fans of TV shows and films, wrestling and MMA fans, as well as comics, they've been able to appeal to a larger range of people, and thus expanding their potential customer base. In a way they're turning into the modern equivalent of Creation Entertainment, who used to dominate the media-con landscape in the '80s and '90s, and is still doing a brisk business with their branded Star Trek, Twilight et al shows across the country. Interestingly, the reaction of science fiction fans who were used to going to fan-run conventions had the same reaction to Creation then that comics fans have of Wizard now. "Mediafen" are somewhat looked down on by other more pure/traditional Sci-Fi fans, and the shows that Wizard are putting on are getting the hairy eyeball from the comics community. But in both cases, their continuing success points to the idea that they must be doing something right, infuriating as that may be.

The other point to consider is that, as much as it galls us, the online fannish community is not neccesarily representative of comics fans in general, and really makes up only a small sliver of it. Bloggers will endlessly bemoan the fact that one book will sell like the proverbial hotcakes while their personal favorite spends most of its time on the bubble. And while the Internetigencia will pooh-pooh the lopsided guest list of the Wizard shows, SOMEBODY is lining up to see Patrick Stewart and the Iron Sheik. While the talkative and verbose upper crust of fandom will cluck their tongues at the Great Unwashed and their tastes, the selfsame Great Unwashed goes through their day blissfully unaware of the very existence of the people who are clucking. It's not that "they don't know any better" as is so often said; it's that they know what they like, and it's not really our place to lambaste them for it. I mean really, they're not putting all those reality shows on just to spite you.

When Reed started the NY Comic Con and started its march West, Wizard went into overdrive. It started buying up conventions left and right, shows of various size and regional reach. This, bear in mind, came after a period of time where they CANCELLED several of their shows for various reasons, be it lack of funds, interest or what have you. Once they started grabbing more shows, most famously Mike Carbonaro's Big Apple Convention, they started counter-programming. First they ran a show in New York that they didn't go out of their way to make clear wasn't the New York Comic Con; Reed had to skip almost a year for its show, going from February in 2009 to October in 2010. Wizard ran a show in October of 2009 to fill that gap. The show was acceptable, according to most reviews, but compared to the size and professionalism of the NYCC, it was a fart in a hurricane. Wizard next set up a convention in LA the same weekend as Reed's first show in Chicago, C2E2. The plan was to draw many of the media stars away from the Chicago show with the allure of a shorter trip. It succeeded, in that both shows had lackluster attendance, compared to what either show could have drawn if it were unopposed. That seems a rather nose-to-spite-face way of scoring a win. Wizard then announced that they'd run their Big Apple Con the SAME weekend as this years NYCC, in a facility only a few blocks up the street. They have since pulled back from that play, moving both the weekend and location, retrating to the Penn Plaza, location of most of Mike C's major shows, a facility that has gotten scathing reviews by many attendees in past years based on its age, cramped quarters and general state of disrepair.

There have been endless reports and rumors of both companies wanting to sign publishers to exclusive deals. Those stories have (AFAIK) never been confirmed, but as time has passed, fewer companies have chosen to work with both companies, the lion's share choosing to go to Reed's side of the playing field. At least as far as the public face of the two companies are concerned, Reed has had the moral high ground. They've gone out of their way to never disparage Wizard, making it very clear that the country and the market is large enough to support two companies, and hopefully more. It's been Wizard who has given the impression that the industry must "choose" between the two. But even though most have chosen Reed, Wizard has still been able to hammer out successes with their shows by basically doing what most of the comics bloggers have maintained needs doing - appealing to a larger audience and drawing in more people. They're the underdog that the smart folks don't want to win...but the majority simply don't care, as long as they get to go to a con.

So Philadelphia is in a rather sad position - filled with people happy and anxious to go to a convention, and currently being served solely by a company that has done a bang-up job of burning bridges. So Philly misses out on its chance to get a "proper" comics convention and attends one that's better than nothing, and the publishers who've decided to stop working with Wizard miss out on a chance to reach a somewhat captive audience. It seems that everyone loses in the scenario loses...except Wizard. They get a perfectly acceptable and (presumably) profitable convention, and may get the impression that they "don't need" the stuff that the publishers can provide. If the market is happy with cheap hamburger, why bother to offer expensive steak?

Philly deserves a better comics show, and I maintain the company that provides one will be richly rewarded. If Wizard can get the publishers to return, they already have a solid reputation in the city, and presumably a contract with the convention center that may preclude another comics show from getting access to it for a good number of weeks in either direction. If Reed chooses to move in, they'll be able to provide a massive show, based on the tool chest it's already assembled, but will place itself in the position that Wizard has been in, stepping into "someone else's territory", similar to the scenario in Chicago this year.

Wizard endlessly argues that there's room for two, drawing comparisons to Coke and Pepsi, Marvel and DC, et al. But what Wizard isn't mentioning is that the aforementioned companies are available all year and the customer has the choice of sampling one at one time and the other at another, or both, or neither. A convention is a static limited event, and if the choice is between two options at a similar time, it's more difficult to choose to do both. It's the reason TV networks program similar shows in the same time slot as their rival stations. They don't want to to watch BOTH shows, they want you to watch THEIR show.

I still maintain that Philly is large enough to support two major shows in a year, and indeed the rest of the country is large enough to support two major convention companies, so long as they maintain a modicum of decorum and avoid direct confrontation whenever possible. But of course, humans are involved, so that outcome is as likely as people taking turns at a hard merge on the highway or choosing to go to the next show where there's only one ticket left for the current one.

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