Recently, popular convention chain Wizard World announced their 2015 profits, revealing millions of lost revenue for the year. Attendance was down, overall spending was down, yet, the quest to make conventions bigger and bigger still got the better of them. The effects were so devastating that the Wizard World CEO stepped down. Now, why in the world would one of the few incorporated convention chains be suffering such high financial loss when nerd culture is at its highest peak ever? Clearly, you can’t be a huge failure if you’re getting currently working celebrities to appear at your cons. Well, there are many reasons why this could be.
Conventions used to be a once, maybe twice, a year event for most major cities. You’d spend all year making your costumes, or working on your comic checklist, or saving up for the insane amount of stuff you’re going to buy. However, now, if your city is anything like mine, there’s a convention every week between the months of April through October with more and more popping up every year. It’s not difficult to throw a convention anymore. Small time con goers have figured out the proper formula of how to put on one of their own, so they do. While I applaud their efforts, ultimately the small cons hurt the big cons in the end. I know that sounds ridiculous considering in most other fields the opposite is most likely the truth. However, imagine going to a convention every week for 6 months straight. Most of them are just one or two days out of your schedule. Not a big deal, right? Well, if you spend a minimum of $20 at each of these cons, you’re spending a minimum of $480 at the conventions, without food and travel factored in. Your con budget gets stretched thinner and thinner each year and you spend less and less at each convention, making the overall convention less successful. It would actually be more beneficial to each convention to have a lower attendance rate if it meant a higher spending budget for each attendee.
Another issue with this? Conventions are incorrectly labeled as “Comic Cons” more often than not. When I say, “I’m going to Comic Con,” it comes with a certain stigma that might deter others from attending. San Diego no longer has the comic presence it did in the past, so why not call it a media convention? Well, it’s because San Diego believes they invented the comic convention. They even tried to trademark the words ‘Comic Con’ a few years back. They have the name recognition to attempt something so crazy, even if they were legally unable to. So while SDCC can’t change their name now, there’s honestly no reason the smaller conventions that popped up within the last year can’t be more creative. Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, or C2E2, describes the convention more accurately and appeals to a wider audience based on name alone.
Aside from conventions popping up, nerds of all kinds have begun turning their passions into businesses, that involves using conventions as large ways to sell your product. Conventions as we know it, are large money-makers for businesses of all kinds, not just of nerd fandom. When your attendees start becoming your attractions, or your staff, you lose out on a chunk of your business. It’s the Syndrome from The Incredibles predicament: when everyone is special, no one is. While the internet has room for everyone to emerge from their cocoons and become beautiful butterflies, not every convention can accommodate every artist, cosplayer, celebrity, business. Now, you can’t tell people with genuine talent and product that they’re not welcome at your show, but there has to be some sort of exclusivity. If you have local guest A and local podcast B this year, switch it out next year. This helps with the bigger issue of losing the most loyal clientele without waiting years for a new generation of attendees to pop up.
The Con Business Model
What once was a chance for people of like mind and interest to come together is now a full blown incorporated business. Once people realized they could make quite a bit off of con attendees, they took advantage of it. Autographs run from $40 (cheapest I’ve ever seen) to $130 (Stan Lee’s current going rate). They have to be purchased ahead of time now, weeks before the con, instead of there. San Diego Comic Con, or SDCC, is arguably the biggest convention every year and they make their money by what can only be described as taking advantage of the attendees. If you don’t know the process, then let me inform you: First, previous attendees are given priority over people who have never attended before. They are offered pre-sale tickets well in advance to the general population. When general admission goes on sale to everyone, tickets for the four day convention sell out within 10 minutes, never failing. Their policy of “click click click until you get in,” is largely biased. While it is THE con to attend every year, there are many fans who are dying to spend their money there but will never be able to.
Then there are all the accessories to the con experience on top of your ticket price, organized by the convention. You can pay extra for early admittance (usually 1/2 hour to 1 full hour before doors open) or you can pay more to have dinner with a famous guest (always wanted to see that extra from Dr. Who eat spaghetti). You can upgrade for a swag bag or special con exclusive action figures that no one else will ever have unless they check eBay in ten minutes. You can pay for a special fast pass to skip ahead of all those terrible lines and get front row seating at that Firefly reunion panel! All of this factors in to what exactly fans enjoy about each show and con professionals know it. If they have a complaint, they’ll solve it, but they’ll charge you an arm for it. My point is simply: conventions are much more about the money they produce than the people they please.
So What Happens Now?
That’s a damn good question. I wish I knew. I want conventions to continue. I want to be apart of them. The first time I was working at one was a dream come true. I like attending them, working them, and traveling to them. I imagine that Wizard World scaling down is incredibly telling of convention profits as a whole. In the next five years, the same conventions won’t be around. The small ones have a life of about 3-5 years before people get bored with seeing the same Star Wars extra every year. But new ones will pop up and take their place. The medium sized cons with regional popularity may, unfortunately, die off if they can’t make the numbers to become one of the few giant cons. There will be some cons that are able to adapt and change with the times, but the con bubble will burst. The fad will fade and the convention world will be forever changed.