If you compared the number of comic, horror and media conventions today to the number ten years ago… you’ll see a huge jump. Attendance has soared with more and more fans discovering these events. While it used to be that people were looked at as strange for attending New York Comic Con, in some arenas it’s now strange if you aren’t going. The entire perception of fandom conventions has shifted, especially in certain industries. New cons pop up every year. There are plenty of upsides to this… and a few downsides. So let’s take a look at this explosion of pop culture events.
It’s Not Just The Big Cons
Attendance at the well known cons like San Diego Comic Con, New York Comic Con and Dragon Con continues to increase every year. Many of the Wizard World shows have done extremely well. Newcomers like Walker Stalker Con/Fan Fest and Awesome Con are drawing in loads of attendees.
While these cons have impressive numbers, let’s not forget the smaller conventions. Events that have been around for years have been getting new attention and an influx of attendees. New cons start every year as more and more people decide to take advantage of this pop-culture phenomenon.
Why Is This Happening?
A number of factors are contributing to this expansion. It would be a mistake to think one could narrow it down to just a single reason.
With the popularity of superhero films, more people are becoming interested in the genre. It’s no longer “uncool” to admit you like superheroes when well known actors like Robert Downey Jr, Ryan Reynolds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Pratt and Anthony Hopkins are appearing in them. With the studios giving these movies huge budgets and, with a few exceptions, crafting good stories, the appeal to fans young and old is understandable. With Marvel especially, having an interconnected universe only increases the genre’s popularity. TV Shows like the CW’s Arrow, Flash and Legends of Tomorrow have a huge audience and a growing fan base. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and other genre series have become extremely popular and have large, enthusiastic fan bases. And when fans find out they can actually meet actors from their favorite shows and movies… comic conventions are suddenly a widely acceptable destination and no longer a place just for “geeks.”
Which brings us to another reason for the explosion. The actors themselves. While actors appearing at conventions is nothing new, especially when you look at Star Trek and Science Fiction conventions, more actors are discovering that connecting with fans at cons can help their careers and is also extremely profitable. For their agents, the profitability is a major factor. Actors who receive $5,000 to $10,000 an episode can make $50,000 to $100,000 on a weekend, selling autographs and posing for pictures. While appearing at a fandom convention used to be rare for many actors, some are using it as a major source of income.
Though with the increased demand for celebrity experiences, autograph and photo prices have climbed sharply. While years ago you could get an autograph and a photo for $25, you could be paying $100 or more just for one of those. The increase in costs is not necessarily due to the actor, but often due to the guarantee demanded by the actor’s agency. As long as people are willing to shell out the money, these prices will stay high.
Of course with the availability and draw of celebrity guests, many people decided to start their own conventions. In some cases these new show runners are fans and wanted to bring the guests they want to see to areas that usually don’t see many stars. Or some realized that a certain geographic area that didn’t host many or any conventions would support a new show. In some cases, some have started conventions of their own because they didn’t like the way other cons were run. Then again, some people just decided to jump on the convention bandwagon and wanted to make money. All valid reasons.
New Attendees Bring New Problems
With more and more people attending conventions who are new to the scene, there have been some issues. Coming into an environment like a comic or horror convention can expose people to things they never experienced before. While harassment of cosplayers is nothing new, instances have risen to new heights as more and more newcomers attend. Sexual harassment, body shaming and “creeping” is on the rise. And while the derision that many “geeks” have experienced may have lessened, some of those who still cling to old attitudes are invading the “safe spaces” that geeks once enjoyed. Plus the access to actors has caused some mentally imbalanced people to try to make use of the opportunity conventions afford to confront, stalk or threaten various celebrities.
This is not to say that newcomers to the convention scene are unwelcome and that it’s all bad. Many people have discovered a whole new community and have enriched the experience overall. Unfortunately the positive stories are often ignored when the news reports someone sneaking weapons into Phoenix Comic Con or someone tries to attack an actor.
These are problems, though, that can be overcome. And most convention organizers are handling the situation well.
Many More Choices
While the fan base that wants to attend conventions has exploded in size, the amount of conventions available has grown even faster. This can be helpful as the long established conventions cannot accommodate all the new attendees, but at the same time these conventions may see decreases in attendance with all the new cons available.
On any given weekend there might be three local conventions, not to mention conventions in other areas that bring in attendees from throughout the country. It’s also unheard of to find a weekend where no conventions are scheduled. The choices have increased and so has the competition.
So now fans need to decide which convention they want to attend. Which convention has the guests they want to meet? People only have so much disposable income, so it can come down to a choice of this weekend’s convention or the next… or skipping those to save money for a larger convention a month away. So while in the past the local convention was a sure bet, fans might skip it so they can go to a huge convention several states away.
This is not news to convention organizers. Many of them try to schedule their conventions so they don’t come into conflict with other local shows or huge convention events. But as the amount of conventions increases, it’s getting harder to do that.
As mentioned earlier, a lot of new conventions are popping up. Some of these are well run and enjoyable. Some are not. New show runners don’t always take into account the expenses and requirements of running a convention. They feel they can book a venue, sell tickets and fans will come pouring in.
What many people don’t realize, new show runners and fans alike, is the amount of planning and organizing that goes into a convention. Booking a venue is important, but it’s just the beginning. Getting guests and determining the cost of hosting these guests is important. Marketing and advertising are major factors. Determining how many vendors, artists and other exhibitors you can accommodate, determining pricing for vendors to cover costs. Getting volunteers, staff, and security personnel is time consuming and can have high costs. Event insurance is a surprise to most new show runners- if someone gets hurt at your convention and you don’t have it, you can be personally sued and end up financially ruined. Scheduling panels and events, line control, concessions, parking, hotel arrangements, photo ops… the list is very long. With all that, if you don’t sell enough tickets, you lose money… or if you sell too many tickets, the Fire Marshal restricts entry into your event, fans get mad… it can be a mess. If you are not organized, your convention can be a disaster. Your first con could be your last.
Due to a number of factors, conventions fail. Even if they appear well run, there are cons that lose a great deal of money and fold. Some brand new conventions advertise a date and guests… and then are forced to cancel before they even open their doors. Sometimes ticket holders and vendors who have paid fees are refunded… and sometimes they are not. Some conventions go through as scheduled and provide a less than ideal experience for attendees… and are never scheduled again.
Even conventions that have been around for years have been affected. Some have scrambled to cope with attendance numbers much greater than they ever experienced before. Some learn from these experiences… some we hope will eventually. And some older conventions have seen the reverse as their attendance plummets due to failure to adapt to the new environment. Some new attendees might go to some conventions that have been around for decades and compare them unfavorably to the new wave of conventions. Failure to adapt has managed to close conventions that go back scores of years.
You might think a failed convention would be great news for other conventions that are well run, and to an extent that is true. But it also reflects badly on the convention scene at large. If someone goes to a convention and has a horrible time, they might not want to take a chance on another event. Bad cons hurt the good ones.
This explosion of conventions has had some good effects as well. While the challenges presented to these new events can be daunting, some have met them and provide some of the best shows out there.
Many of the established conventions have been challenged by these new events and have been forced to examine how they do business. It’s getting harder for these conventions to rest on their laurels since they aren’t the only game in town. They’ve had to work hard to provide better guests, better events and better overall incentives for attendees to choose their show over one of the newer ones.
Areas that did not have conventions, forcing fans to travel great distances to enjoy such an experience, now have events and are bringing in people who had written off attending conventions as too expensive or too problematic. The increase in new conventions benefits local economies, particularly in the hospitality industry. Artists, authors and performers now have new venues to share their work and increase or build a fan base.
A New Balance
Right now there is still a boom of new conventions and events. One could say the market is becoming over saturated. But there are signs that this market is beginning to stabilize.
While never a happy event, some conventions are shutting down or scaling back. While in the short term this can hurt those who were involved in those events, in the long term the remaining conventions will be better run events and better experiences. As the mania over celebrity autographs and photos decreases, prices will begin to dip down to more reasonable levels. Awareness of improper behavior at conventions is increasing and most events are clamping down.
Markets tend to stabilize themselves over time. Like natural selection, the strong cons (and by strong I don’t mean big) will survive and thrive.
Yes, right now you might be overwhelmed with the convention scene. So just take a deep breath… and attend the cons you like. Don’t be afraid to try a new one. And if you have a bad experience at a convention, deal with it appropriately, but don’t paint all cons with the same brush.
Conventions are generally fun events where fans can join a community… a con family… and enjoy great experiences. Enter this world at your own pace… but I do encourage you to enter it. It’s an ever evolving world, so explore it. Just like any other place there are perils, but with an appropriate level of caution, you’ll likely enjoy it.
So get out there. You have lots of choices.