Monday, August 25, 2014

On Business: Wizard World Chicago

I was only able to attend one day of Wizard World Chicago this past weekend, but I made a number of observations that, when compiled together, make for a very interesting study of what the show has become and where it's headed. Let me start off with an assorted collection of observations...
  • The internal layout/traffic issues I noted last year were, by and large, fairly well-addressed. It still doesn't seem ideally suited for the size of the show, but that struck me more as a limitation of the venue itself.
  • Similarly, street traffic outside was (as always) a mess. The Rosemont Convention Center is really just not a good venue for this show because of its location and problems with incoming traffic.
  • I spoke to one artist who was given a table gratis from the Wizard World folks. She was contacted independently and told that they'd offer her table space at any one of their conventions this year. I think she'd tabled at the show in prior years but had skipped at least last year.
  • One comics veteran I know has something of a side gig with Wizard now, where he's asked to come up with and host panels at many of their shows. As I understand it, he's being paid for this and they seem to give him carte blanche to do what he wants to with the panels. I presume he's getting free travel and lodging, and I know he's getting free table space.
  • Though they still drew in some big name comics guests like Stan Lee and Neal Adams, the largest comic publisher I saw at the show was Zenescope.
  • I didn't do an actual count, but it seemed to me like there were more comics retailers with tables and tables of long boxes than at C2E2 earlier this year. Further, there seemed to be a higher percentage of comics retailers to other retailers at Wizard World than at C2E2, though it's possible it only seemed that way by virtue of how the floor space was organized. (I'll be making numerous comparisons to C2E2 since both shows are comparably sized, hit pretty similar demographics, and are in the Chicago area.)
  • The number of creators in Artists Alley who were actually producing comics seemed lower than in years past, and also lower than what I saw C2E2 this year. Plenty of artists there, but there seemed to be a predominance of art prints and craft items over actual comics.
  • There was only one panel on the whole weekend schedule talking about sexism and gender issues in comics/pop culture. Compare that against the five inclusion-focused panels at C2E2. On the plus side, it was "promoted" to a more prominent room this year instead of being tucked far away from the rest of the con like last year.
  • Also worth noting, the equality panel at Wizard World was reasonably well-attended, but ALL of the ones at C2E2 wound up being standing-room only, and not because they were in small rooms.
  • I don't have attendance numbers but there seemed to be a generally pretty good sized crowd. I spoke to some of the folks in Artists Alley, and there seemed to be a general disappointment at the traffic they were seeing, but they also generally acknowledged that it was still early enough in the day (at least when I spoke with them) that many attendees simply hadn't worked their way back that far yet. I did talk to one person tabling who sold out of everything she had by the end of the day Saturday, though.
Now, what to make of these observations.

One gent I talked to, who had set up booths at Wizard World shows in the past but choose not to this year, noted that the show felt very much like a flea market. That the old guys selling books from long boxes and the folks with their crafts weren't really the point of the show, and were merely part of a large "holding pen" where people were kept occupied while they were waiting between autograph lines for the B-list celebrities. Without the large publishers and upscale retailers, it looked like a tent city on the outskirts of Mos Eisley.

Then you look at Artists Alley, with their more craft-focused/less indie comic creator approach. It's been noted by myself and others that the Wizard World shows, in general, don't draw on a large comic fan base so much as a pop culture fan base. There's overlap, sure, but there's more interest in single image Doctor Who/Star Wars mashups done as prints than fully-fledged comic stories. And with Wizard World expanding so much in recent years -- with a U.S. show somewhere almost every other weekend -- they have to do more to draw in tablers. Hence, giving a free table to someone who's tabled in the past. They're not worth it for an indie comics creator to pay money to table, but it might be viable if you didn't have to travel and/or pay tabling fees. Just a weekend's worth of time and effort, you could sell enough to maybe make it worth your while. Wizard World gets to keep some comics credibility, and fills out their holding pens, so they look less like holding pens.

As I noted, the sexism panel wasn't particularly crowded and the two panels I attended from the comic veteran I noted were a bit on the sparse side as well. Not surprisingly, the panels that did seem packed were the ones with popular actors. This seems to piggy-back on the "holding pen" notion. They can't have these actor panels running the whole show, so they try to fill the time/space up with other panels to make things look more full and interesting. But that those other panels are so sparsely attended (relatively speaking) suggests that the crowd has little interest in any of them that don't feature their favorite actors.

This all points to a show that is squarely focused on the autographs/actors aspect of things in view of attendees; however, Wizard itself seems to be working hard (though not entirely successfully) against that perception. They've managed to attract a good number of comics retailers, and are giving up income for both tabling and panels. But I think they've stretched themselves too thin. A creator might be able to make a small profit at one Wizard World show, but not multiple all-kind-of-local ones. By that I mean that tabling at Wizard World Chicago might be fine if you're local, but you can't sell the same indie comic to the same folks who might also attend Wizard World Indianpolis, only a couple hours drive away. In fact, of the creators selling comics I saw at Artists Alley, I passed on nearly half of them because I'd picked up their books at C2E2 and/or prior Wizard Worlds.

So, ultimately, their shows can't have much of a comics focus, despite their attempts to throw money at the "problem." They're grown too large for anything but this seemingly endless list of celebrities selling autographs. The only way to make their shows financially feasible is to have something new and different at each show. Retailers at least have a stream of new comics and trades coming from publishers to work with, and creators just making prints can spend a few days on a single design and run off a bunch of copies at Kinkos, but comics creators generally can't put that much time into new material for each show. Certainly not of any real quality. Which dooms Wizard World to continuing their reputation as not very comics friendly, and really more of a pop culture festival of actors.

When they were still publishing Wizard Magazine, it seemed that to me that they filled their pages with a lot of fluff and little of substance. They were slow to adapt to the rise of the internet, and wound up folding that part of the business because they tried to make the magazine larger than it was. (With special preview books, and a seemingly more-than-monthly schedule.) Quantity over quality. I'm left wondering now if they're doing something similar with their shows. Trying to make it too big, filling it with more fluff than substance, and coming out too frequently. I'm not privvy to their financials, but I don't see that as viable in the long-term.

Don't get me wrong on all this, I found some interesting items as the show this weekend, and the panels I went to were interesting, but I think the one not-quite-a-full-day I attended was plenty.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

no, the holding pen for autograph collectors was an elephant's graveyard of toys and comics, like a gift shop at a museum you cant leave and don't want to buy anything from...