By Bruce Lidl
As the on-going explosion of interest in comics and pop culture conventions continues seemingly unabated, companies like Wizard World are rushing to meet the demand. The first ever Wizard World Sacramento took place this last weekend, making it the first big comic convention in California’s capital city, and likely the biggest show of its kind in Northern California since Wonder-Con moved to Anaheim in 2012. Clearly a success attendance-wise, the show was a sellout for 3-day passes and Saturday passes, and was very crowded when I stopped by on Sunday, with a line to enter that wrapped around two full sides of the Sacramento Convention center. According to Jerry Milani of Wizard, they were a bit cautious when planning this inaugural show, only renting out part of the convention center, but they are confident enough now to already book the entire convention center for their return in June 2015.
To this only slightly jaded con-goer, the show was very consistent with the new culture of comic conventions, with both organizers and attendees clearly influenced by all the recent coverage of the San Diego Comic Con. At one point I overheard Wizard staffers have to explain that they were not in fact the same organization that ran the San Diego convention. The crowd was very diverse in age and demographic background, many families and couples, was heavily sprinkled with cosplayers, and seemed attracted to a wide range of media properties, with strong The Walking Dead, Marvel movie series and Game of Thrones presences. The key marker of this new era of conventions to me, however, was the very large and central role of big-name media celebrities there to explicitly make some money. Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker (The Walking Dead) and William Shatner were featured guests, and they offered all manner of paid opportunities for interaction. VIP fan meetings, paid autographs, paid photo ops, you name it, for a price you could seemingly have any kind of experience with the stars.
Comic books were present, though, with industry legends Stan Lee, Chris Claremont, Chris Golden and Neal Adams appearing. Local comic book vendors were a notable presence on the sales floor, although it must be said, the area set aside for autographs and photo ops with celebrities was probably bigger than the entire area for traditional commerce. There was a small artists alley, with a handful of Big 2 artists and a number of independent and/or specialty artists offering sketches and commissions. I had the opportunity to speak in-depth with Jimmie Robinson of Image (Bomb Queen, Five Weapons) and he thought it had been a “good” show, overall, although not a particularly big money maker for him. (I’ll have more from Robinson in a companion article coming later).
As The Beat has speculated previously, Wizard World is clearly pushing hard to take advantage of the growing interest in pop culture, comics and celebrities, with a number of first time shows this year in cities like Louisville, Richmond, Tulsa, San Antonio, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Reno, in addition to return shows in St. Louis, Nashville, New Orleans, Portland, Columbus, Austin, Columbus, Philadelphia and Chicago. According to Wizard’s Milani, the key attributes that determine their choice of a city include available venues, a market that makes sense for their offerings and their existing show calendar. He admitted that they do pay attention to avoiding conflicts with other comic book conventions (they don’t have any shows at all in July to avoid San Diego issues, and their new Atlanta show will be three months before the long-established Dragon-Con) but it was clear that they consider their shows to be different from more locally organized efforts.
The key element Milani cited was Wizard’s ability to bring a large number of celebrities of a certain level to regional cities. Matt Smith of Dr. Who fame will be a featured guest at their next show in Louisville, Kentucky, and fans can have a VIP experience with him for $349, a photo op with him for $99 ($195 for a dual photo with co-star Karen Gillan) or an autograph for $99. The seem like pretty high prices to me, but they are not too surprising when appearance fees for big stars like Smith and Hemsworth may be as much as $100,000. Milani told me that Sacramento had courted Wizard aggressively, with a great deal of enthusiasm from Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office, and numbers released by the city after the show claim an economic impact of $2 million dollars for the weekend.