Studios take careful approach to fan conventions

There’s hardly a nerd Gareb Shamus doesn’t like.

The Wizard Entertainment chief has built a fanboy fiefdom publishing Wizard and Toyfare magazines that cover everything related to pop culture and playthings, as well as the Daily Candy-like email newsletter GeekChicDaily, whose readership has grown to more than 100,000 in less than a year. Over the weekend, Shamus hosted Big Apple Comic Con, one of 12 fanboy gatherings he launched or bought across the country.

Much to the envy of many marketing mavens, Shamus has figured out a way to not only effectively speak to genre fans but also make a profit off them.

“We’ve been doing this for more than 20 years,” Shamus says. “From our magazines to our websites, newsletter and events, we have a 365-day relationship with our audience that has become a massive ongoing dialogue because we have an amazing amount of access.”

When it comes to events, however, Shamus certainly has his rivals.

Next weekend, ReedPop (a division of Reed Business, which owns Variety), kicks off New York Comic-Con at the Jacob K. Javits Center from Oct. 8-10, the second-largest Comic-Con in the U.S., behind San Diego’s big show in July.

In addition to Shamus’ mostly regional events, which take place in cities ranging from Boston and Philadelphia to Toronto and Anaheim and attract from 15,000 to 30,000 attendees, the rest of the calendar has filled up with a yearlong series of fanboy fests whose major gatherings start in April with San Francisco’s WonderCon and Chicago’s C2E2 in April and segue into San Diego Comic-Con in July and New York Comic-Con in October.

The big daddy of them all is still San Diego Comic-Con, the 40-year-old show that started in a hotel basement and has since outgrown its current convention center home with a sell-out crowd of 126,000. San Francisco’s WonderCon is also rapidly expanding and attracted 39,500 in April. Next year marks its 25th anniversary.

All of those domestic attendance figures, though, still pale in comparison to the more than 500,000 that show up twice a year for Tokyo’s Comiket, which solely focuses on self-published comicbooks.

Shamus’ shows are also growing, however, with his Chicago Comic Con, formerly known as Wizard World Chicago, attracting 75,000 attendees over the past several years. He ultimately wants to produce as many as 25 shows each year.

“There’s a lot more coming,” he says.

The goal with each one, of course, is to reach — and sell tickets to — fans who may not be able to make the trek to the more established larger shows.

Whom they will meet depends on whoever Hollywood wants to send, however.

With San Diego and San Francisco practically in the entertainment industry’s backyard, studios have gravitated toward those cities’ gatherings — particularly over the past decade — to tubthump upcoming tentpoles and new TV shows and launch marketing campaigns. The projects they bring each year change, depending on which tentpoles they have coming up.

This summer, studios used San Diego to show off the first footage of “Thor,” “Captain America,” “Green Lantern,” “Cowboys and Aliens,” “Battle: Los Angeles,” “Sucker Punch,” extended looks at “Tron: Legacy,” “Green Hornet,” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” as well as screenings of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”

Jerry Bruckheimer made WonderCon his first appearance at a major fan convention as he was flanked by Jake Gyllenhaal and Nicolas Cage to promote “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

The opportunity to build strong word-of-mouth ahead of a project’s bow is too valuable to pass up. And the ability to reach geeks is the selling point entrepreneurs like Shamus are relying on to garner Hollywood’s approval — and its marketing dollars.

But Hollywood, like many of the high-profile comicbook publishers, is starting to hold back on just how many conventions it supports. Despite the increased exposure of events with Comic-Con in their titles and spinoffs like Atlanta’s Dragon Con (for fantasy fans), BlizzCon (for fans of the “Star Craft” videogame), and newcomer Rock’n Comic-Con (hosted in April in Pasadena) studios skip most of the shows.

So do publishers like DC, Marvel, Image and Dark Horse, many of which opted not to have booths at Chicago Comic Con, for example, although they exhibited at Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) downtown. Similarly, they sat out this weekend’s Big Apple Comic Con, but will have a presence at New York Comic-Con.

That’s taken some of the shine off the smaller shows and turned them into more intimate mockery-free zones for fans to dress up as their favorite characters — or meet the individuals who played them, with celebrities who will forever be fanboy favorites like William Shatner and the cast of “Star Trek” TV shows, “Batman’s” Adam West, Linda Hamilton, Linda Blair and “The Six Million Dollar Man,” Lee Majors, charging attendees for autographs. Even disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich demanded $50 for his signature and $80 for a photo at Chicago Comic Con in August, shortly after his appearance as a contestant on “The Apprentice.” There are still comicbooks, toys and other collectibles for sale, they’re just being sold by individuals, prompting some attendees to describe these lower-profile shows as glorified “swap meets.”

Videogame companies have seized upon the lack of high-profile exhibitors as an opportunity to fill the gap and promote their games. Gamemakers upped their presence this year at New York Comic-Con by 100% vs. last year, with companies like Electronic Arts, Nintendo, Ubisoft, Square Enix, Capcom, Activision, Rockstar and Intel accounting for 25% of all exhibitors on the show floor.

“The videogaming portion of New York Comic-Con has come into its own and represents an enormous part of our overall activity,” says Lance Fensterman, VP for ReedPop and show manager for NYCC. “Gaming is now a recognizable element at our show with a strong fan base.”

So what’s a savvy movie marketer to do?

“The people that go to these shows are really easy to make fun of, but they’re also the people you need to reach,” one studio marketer says. “They buy the tickets and get their friends to do the same. But our marketing budgets are getting cut. We only have so much to spend and talent only wants to appear at certain events. We have to pick and choose where we want them to be. San Diego guarantees us the exposure. The others don’t as much.”

Still the other shows can’t be ignored. Fan frenzy over genre fare isn’t waning. In fact, attendance is growing, not going away, for Comic-Cons across the country. And coverage of those events by the mainstream media as well as bloggers is increasing.

“It’s all supply and demand,” Shamus says. “If people feel they’re going to get the value, they will spend it.”

Shamus compares attending a Comic-Con, and ponying up the $25 per day for a ticket or $45 for a full weekend, to people spending money on good seats at a concert.

“These events are no different,” he says. “If you create a compelling event, people are willing to pay for it.”

The recession didn’t hurt the events business as much as some might have expected.

“It’s not that expensive, and people aren’t going to give up the things that they enjoy,” Shamus says. “They may not buy a new house or a car or a new vacation, but they won’t give up the things that make them happy. Those are the last things that people are going to cut out of their life.”

Fan interest in such events is still so strong that Los Angeles, Anaheim and Las Vegas had hoped to lure San Diego Comic-Con away from that city after 2012 to alleviate its growing pains and pocket the more than $60 million in revenue the event generates for San Diego’s economy each July. Tickets to that confab started selling out nine months before doors opened. But organizers there said last week that SDCC will officially stay put through 2015.

Even Disney got into the Comic-Con business when it launched the D23 Expo last year with a four-day event at the Anaheim Convention Center. That show will now take place every other year, with the next event skedded for Aug. 19-21, also in Disneyland’s hometown.

Separately, Lucasfilm hosted its fifth Celebration event for “Star Wars” fans, this year from Orlando, Fla., in August, where attendees queued up to be the last group to ride “Star Tours” before Disney shuttered the aging ride for a revamp.

The first Celebration event in 1999 was held in an abandoned Air Force base hangar, now the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, in Denver. Celebration’s audience reached a peak of 35,000 in Los Angeles, but also attracted a sizable crowd when it traveled to London and Tokyo.

Don’t expect studios or production companies to start producing their own events, though. Even in the face of an escalating price tag to transport talent to shows and buy advertising or produce an event, the costs to rent a hall, pay for union costs, set-ups and marketing are far more expensive than just attending one of the many existing shows.

For now, Hollywood is leaving the event organizing up to entrepreneuers like Shamus.

“Once you’ve spent the money, the incremental costs are very low,” Shamus says. “You do make money at these events. It just depends on how much you want to spend. The bigger the market the more it’s going to cost.”

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