Lance Fensterman might just be the busiest man in comics. As the Senior Global Vice President of ReedPOP, he oversees a diverse portfolio of fan events spread over four continents and ten countries, including New York Comic Con, Penny Arcade Expo, and Star Wars Celebration.
Mr. Fensterman graciously agreed to an email interview, finding time to answer my questions during his frequent travels around the globe. It will be structured similar to a radio interview, although a bit like talking with an astronaut on his way to Jupiter. This interview will take multiple
days weeks to complete, then formatted for readability.
Torsten Adair: Lance, before we get to the interesting world of fan events, I’d like to know your secret origin. What sort of childhood did you have? What geeky passions did you have as a child, and did they help you later in your professional careers?
Lance Fensterman: Man, this is serious journalism, you are going way back. You don’t plan to speak with my high school guidance counselor for background, do you? I’m not certain he would have much good to say about me…….
I was born in Fargo, which immediately explains a lot of my quirk. More generally though I was a child of the 80’s with all the usual toy obsessions; GI Joe, Transformers, model rockets, baseball cards, Star Wars, comics and most of all, LEGO’s. The first LEGO kit I really remember going nuts over was #497, the Galaxy Explorer. I got it for Christmas and still have it, complete with the instructions. Every few years I rebuild it. I really got into comics when Todd McFarlane started working on Spider Man and eventually did that reboot. I remember getting caught tearing open a corner of a Christmas present that I hoped was the Star Wars Ewok Village – it was. I got much craftier about sneaking peeks at my presents after that…….
TA: The Galaxy Explorer was an awesome set, alas, I had to settle for the Alpha-1 Rocket Base, and the Starfleet Voyager. [Yes, LEGO had that name ten years before Star Trek!] One can always tell a Christmas present is LEGO just by the unique sound the bricks make when shaken.
Since you mention Ewoks, what was your “hero’s journey” from the agricultural metropolis of Fargo to the metropolis of New York City and trade exhibitions? What’s the career path for that young fan currently dreaming of one day becoming a pop culture impresario?
LF: That my friend is a twisting path filled with plenty of adventures…….
I moved to DC for kicks when I was 18 and shortly thereafter started a couple of businesses in Ohio (don’t ask) the first being a dot com alternative news source and web marketing business and the other a restaurant. Mind you I’d never worked in a restaurant prior to actually buying one, but how hard could it be? I ran those business for some years before selling them and moving back to the Twin Cities where I grew up looking for the next adventure. I saw a job running the largest independent bookstore in the state and thought it sounded like fun. So I talked my way into running a bookstore even though I’d never worked in one before (see a theme?). It was during that time that I got very involved with the American Booksellers Association, the trade group representing indy bookstores all over the US. From there I was recruited to move back east, to Connecticut to run a venerable indy bookstore and help the owner expand with an acquisition of another. Someone I knew in publishing told me about a job with a company called Reed running BookExpo America, the big B2B publishing event, so I talked my way into that job running a big conventions after only attending one convention in my life (the trend continues). Two years year later my eventual coconspirator at Reed, Greg Topalian launched New York Comic Con and asked me to come run it, we then launched the New York Anime Festival, negotiated the Star Wars Celebration deal with LucasFilm and were on the cusp of forging our deal with Penny Arcade, that was when ReedPOP was born. Creating that brand and building it into what it has become is by far my career highlight (which is easy to say when you look back on what else I’ve done!)………
TA: “You didn’t know it couldn’t be done, so you went and did it?”
As we approach the tenth annual New York Comic Con, in retrospect, what has surprised you the most? Has the Javits Center space thwarted any of your mad plans, or presented interesting challenges? How has running NYCC contrasted with running BookExpo America in the same space?
LF: The entire event is a surprise. It’s amazing and humbling the way the fans have embraced the show. Because ReedPOP was a total invention and all of our shows have been total inventions, it is all fresh, surprising and exciting. We’ve never run a ten year old comic show, so we continue to learn, create, adapt and I hope most off all listen to our fans and customers. I think what overall surprises me are how much we’ve learned as a team and yet how much we still don’t know. ReedPOP is comprised of an exceptional group of people that really, really care about our shows and our fans and they are constantly asking why and why not and how do we do it better…
As for the Javits, that is a long, long conversation with lots of colorful stories that I will never put in writing! It is come a long way since I did my first event there in 2007. It was BEA and the air conditioning wasn’t working. I can’t tell you how many people in publishing still give me shit for that! In the last 5 years that have truly overhauled the building in every way and with the 7 line now extending to the building and the high line terminus being right outside the building it is really starting to feel like the building is connecting to the neighborhood.
TA: Last year, the attendance hit 151,000. How many more fans can you fit inside? Will Thursday go to a full day, similar to Friday’s evolution? Are there reasons why Columbus Day remains untapped?
LF: Not to be a stickler, but I think the number was 153,000. I don’t want to be difficult, but I bet those 2,000 people would want to be acknowledged!
The only way more people per day will come into the Javits Center is if our Super Week concept really takes off and we are able to spread events, content and happenings all of NYC. If that happens then it might allow us to raise the daily capacity just a bit knowing people will be spread out around the city. That said, you will see our unique number of fan number continue to rise as we convert some multi day passes to single day passes. So if I take a 4 day pass and convert it to single days, that means 3 more fans got to buy a single day pass and come to the show. Does that make sense? Damn, this is starting to feel like algebra.
Will Thursday become a full day? Where have you been? George Clooney came on Thursday in 2014, I think that was your announcement that Thursday is a full on con day! Columbus Day is an opportunity for sure, but at this point, I am much more interested in establishing Super Week and making NYCC an event that happens all over NYC for a full week. That gives so many more fans the opportunity to access so much more amazing geek content. That’s the vision.
TA: I attended the Auto Show this year, and I realized that their large attendance and smaller crowds were due to the fact that many visitors only spent a few hours at Javits.
The Tomorrowland panel started at 1 PM (I was near the front of the line!) which is why I assumed it wasn’t a full day.
The show floor opened at Noon, not at Ten, but I won’t belabor the point. I’m sure it feels like a full day!
Let’s talk about the many other ReedPOP events happening this year. What I find most interesting is how ReedPOP is partnering with the worldwide offices of Reed Exhibitions to stage events in foreign countries.
The first Shanghai Comic Convention was held last May. What inspired ReedPOP to stage a show in China, and were you pleased with the results?
LF: For several years now, a huge part of my personal focus has been building ReedPOP into a global business. That has meant finding fan communities all over the world. A pretty cool learning for me personally has been seeing that fans are fans, no matter where in the world they reside. There is a common thread within the geek community that is is not at all governed by geographic boundaries.
ReedPOP now has shows in Singapore, Indonesia, India, Australia, France, Vienna and indeed China. Our first Chinese event was in Shanghai and was pretty amazing to see. We pulled the event together in about 6 months and that included building a local ReedPOP team. It was a pretty exceptional event and next year we will also add a show in Beijing. Our main man in China is an awesome guy named Michael Chen and he’s really got the needs and wants of the fans at the front of his mind. He’s massive geek himself and thus is really plugged into the Chinese geek community and that showed in the event we built in Shanghai.
I predict more global events from ReedPOP in the coming months.
TA: WOW! Beijing! An exclusive!
In Paris, ReedPOP is partnering with four other companies to promote a show which seems a bit unusual for French comics culture. Partner JTS is known for their hugely popular Japan Expo manga festivals, and French comics shows seem to be of the Angoulême variety: small, city-sponsored comics festivals.
Do you see a challenge staging such a show in a country with such a different “geek culture” than that of the United States? Or do you just identify the fandoms, and program guests and panels to meet that demand? (Nice guest list, so far! Miller, Palmiotti, Sfar, Bendis…) Are the local licensees familiar with ReedPOP’s type of show, and how much of a learning curve has it been for you and your U.S. staff?
LF: In Paris, it is really just ReedPOP and JTS working together. I’ve known Jean Francois and Thomas at JTS for many, many years and really admire the business they have built. We were looking for a while for a project to do together and this one just kind of made the most sense. And this is no licensing arrangement, we really don’t believe it that model, this is my US ReedPOP team, working to build the event and a skilled local ReedPOP team. Our first hire was an amazing guy name Pierre-Yves, that I’ve known for some years to head up the team.
As far as format, within Paris that “festival” style event model you refer to is really not the norm at all. They have several really strong pop culture events that would look very familiar, format wise to what we do in the US or anywhere else in the world we have shows.
I am particularly excited about this launch, I think over the next few years this could grow to be something really, really special and significant for the fans in Paris.
TA: One month after Paris, right before Thanksgiving, ReedPOP will also inaugurate Vienna Comic Con.
As I perused the convention center website, I noticed the Vienna convention center is managed by Reed Exhibitions. Is it easier to work with your corporate siblings, or do you have to be more cognizant of office diplomacy?
When bringing such a unique consumer show to sites which might not have experience either with consumer shows or fan frenzies, how do you communicate expectations to site management? Are there common misconceptions? Errors in translation? Or is American pop culture so pervasive that you find staff who “grok Spock”?
LF: The global mission for ReedPOP is to work with the local Reed Exhibitions office to help them build a ReedPOP team. We know that having the right people that are a part of the geek community is the most critical element to building cool, credible exciting shows. So my team works hand in hand with the local guys to build a team and build each show. I’ve spent years now traveling the world, building a network of geeks, evangelizing within Reed about ReedPOP and now after so many years and so many flights it’s exciting to see it take hold and take off. But yes, we have lots of moments where what ReedPOP does gets lost in translation. We were talking with our French team about the concept of paid autographing – a segment of our shows that we are not crazy about but there is a segment of fandom that wants it and likes it, so we create the experience for them. This is so foreign (pardon the pun) to our partners around the world running traditional businesses. They thought of it as walking up to someone on the street and asking for an autograph and then charging them, not an organized piece of content at the show that includes photo ops and meet and greets. Trying to explain it was so strange.
TA: It’s that time of year when people wonder about the San Diego Comic-Con moving elsewhere for more space. They’re staying put until 2018, and this year seemed to generate less grumbling among attendees.
ReedPOP hosts the lesser-known (to pop-culture geeks) UFC Fan Expo at the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas, as well as the Singapore Toy, Game & Comic Convention at the Marina Bay Sands casino resort. What are the challenges of staging a fan event in Vegas? What lessons can be learned from other big events in Vegas, such as the Electric Daisy Carnival which draws 135,000 music fans per day in June?
LF: It’s a paradigm in that traditional trade shows (business to business) always perform better in Vegas. Because, look, if your company is making you go to some tradeshow, who wouldn’t want to have a few days in Vegas, right? However, shows like those that ReedPOP run are based on people wanting to go, not having to go, so not having a large native population to draw off of can make it challenging. For super established shows though that problem can be overcome and what an awesome place to run a show, right? The lesson is you’ve got to truly make it a destination…..I think it would be a blast to build a show there some time…….
TA: … and finally, what advice do you have for that entrepreneurial fan in Middle America who gets a crazy idea to hold a local fan fest? What advice do you have for her? What mistakes should neophyte organizers avoid, and if you could be the King of Conventions for a day, what edict would you proclaim for all festivals to follow?
LF: Build the kind of show they would love to attend. Reach but don’t overreach. Don’t put yourself in financial peril or over promise to your fans. Remember, these events are supposed to be fun and the more fun they have the more fun fans will have. This community is about passion and when you have passion about what you are building, it will come through in a genuine and real way. I’m thinking of a guy like Jim Demonakos, who built Emerald City Comic Con into an amazing show based almost solely on his name, his passion, his credibility. And then hey, maybe ReedPOP will want to acquire or partner the event some day!