Home Conventions Wizard jumps the shark, fires two

Wizard jumps the shark, fires two

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After a week of folks piling on with all their stored-up grievances against Wizard, things took a darker turn last week, as Wizard fired Stewart Morales and Gabe Fieramosco, the two folks most responsible for putting on conventions. Morales and Fieramosco took over the logistics of the shows after Brenda Cook moved to a different part of the company. Although Wizard told Newsarama, â€?It’s normal business cycle stuff. Nothing to do what happened in Chicago and we had a great show there,” that sound byte would seem to have about as much credibility at this point as Wizard’s ever spiraling attendance figures.

Tim Leong’s video post mortem of WIZARD was only the culmination of a very bad week for Wizard, as everyone but them seemed to think the Chicago show had been slower than usual.


ICv2 was frank about Chicago’s down year

With that kind of schedule, it was no wonder that exhibitors from multiple categories were road-weary and cranky. And maybe that’s why we heard from exhibitors and dealers that Wizard World Chicago seemed generally down this year, with both floor traffic and sales on the floor less than 2005’s.

The space on the floor seemed somewhat smaller, although more compact, with everything in the main hall this year; so the general view of down attendance wasn’t a matter of more exhibitors splitting up the available attendees into thinner portions.


In the TalkBack section, retailer John Stangeland of Atlas Comics on Wizard World Chicago was even more brutally frank, calling the show “stagnant and torpid” and suggesting major changes:

As it is now, no one in their right mind who was confronted with a choice of destinations between Rosemont and San Diego would decide to come to the Midwest. San Diego has a wonderful mix of restaurants and watering holes within easy walking distance. It has a beautiful setting on the harbor, and access to most of the amenities of a fine city. The convention center is well managed, clean and modern. On the other hand, Wizard World is held in a glorified barn, and has no outside appeal aside from a few hotel bars and some cheap restaurants.


At the Comics Journal Message Board Russ Maheras was baffled at the utter lack of caring that would improve the show at NO EXTRA COST WHATSOEVER :

I find the apparent apathy of WWC organizers for panels nothing short of irritating. For example, I pitched some panel ideas to WWC last year — panels that I would have organized and made the talent arrangements for — and they did not even bother responding with a simple, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Next year, for example, I’d like to organize a Steve Canyon 60th anniversary panel at WWC. But when I send out my pitch in a few months, I fully expect to hear the crickets chirping all over again.


The Spurge could see the very large and cranky writing on the bathroom wall:

Proclaiming new records for every show doesn’t exactly encourage tinkering. Two, putting out press releases that even mainstream comics fans give the finger to can’t be good for the company’s general relationship with the comics fan and comics pro that are still the heart of such shows. After an LA show that performed under expectations, a Philadelphia show that also released numbers that people who were on the floor did spit takes upon hearing, and last year’s shifty debacle of a proposed Atlanta show to compete with Heroes Con, Wizard is a much less appealing dance partner than at any time in their recent past.


And so the folks responsible supposedly “responsible” for this stagnant and torpid show have been let go. Morales was an industry vet who has been at Harris Comics before a lengthy stint at Wizard. In fact, if he hadn’t been canned, he would be the first person to write in and give us Wizard’s side of the story. Opinionated and not shy, Morales was a fierce spokesman for Wizard policies, publicly and privately. We didn’t know Fieramosco, but most exhibitors spoke highly of him for his hard work.

Of course, that’s besides the point when, according to Wizard VP Rob Felton, their being let go had nothing to do with what happened in Chicago. And what DID happen in Chicago?

Aside from all the reactions above, sales on the floor were down significantly for many exhibitors. the show floor was smaller, as well — no matter what anyone tells you, last year hall B was full of Artist Alley tables — this year it was unused. And the IFL ring — which must have been free or a tradeout since it’s also co-owned by Gareb Shamus — took up significant amounts of space.

More puzzlingly, DC was moved from its traditional spot by the front door, replaced by SPIKE-TV’s multi level booth promoting boy-oriented activities like fighting and blood sucking. DC couldn’t have been too happy about this, especially considering that they pay for their booth, unlike several other exhibitors.

This year’s Wizard shows were clearly in decline. Just going by the buzz, San Diego, WonderCon and the New York Comi-Con were all shut down — nothing even vaguely like that happened at a Wizard show. Even Heroes Con, Which Wizard stupidl;y tried to take on, had its biggest most buzz-wrthy year ever.

But with Chicago now acting as theugly, bleary-eyed hangover to San Diego’s big night out, New York and WonderCon are vying for the #2 spot on the convention schedule. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with putting on a series of shows like Creation and Fangoria — a similar line-up of guests and exhibitors who tour the country — that’s not how the shows are being billed to comics exhibitors. Wizard shows are currently like comics versions of Star Trek cons, with the same seven guests being wheeled out year after year. Even hardcore message boarders were complaining about hearing the same Kevin Smith stories over and over again. Torpid and stagnant.

The irony is that the comics industry and its outlying fiefdoms is anything BUT torpid and stagnant — the Wizard malaise sticks out like a sore thumb in an industry that is on the move. Wizard has had a long and successful run putting out magazines and putting on shows. Even the most successful business needs to freshen things up now and then. Whatever is wrong in Congers, firing two staffers isn’t going to do anything to fix things until they start acknowledging there’s a problem.

24 COMMENTS

  1. Stew is a wonderful guy and a hard, passionate worker. I can’t remember how many times we’d run into each other and he’d floor me with his trademark enthusiam no matter what was gong on around us. It was infectious and a truly rare thing. This is some surprising news.

  2. It’s never nice to see someone lose their job, however, it is nice to see the biggest problem with the industy in a panic. Once comics lose the outdated association with toliet humor and hype over nothing that is exemplified by Wizard, there’s no ceiling to how high the industry can go

  3. Heidi,

    Kudos for actually acknowleding that two living, breathing people lost their means of employment rather than just throwing fuel on the “we hate Wizard” fire the Internet is always so anxious to jump on. This is much more than I can say for the other outlets reporting this “news.”

  4. i think the articles that went up today might be misconstrued as blaming gabe and stew for the perceived sagging of the quality/attendance of the last couple wizard shows, which i don’t think is their goal so much as to hold up 2 pieces of a puzzle that quite fit together… if wizard was hitting it out of the park with their conventions as they claim to be.. why fire the 2 guys responsible for putting on the shows?

    i know that question has gone through my head since i found out last week about the firings. for my part… gabriel fieramosco put together a hell of a setup for all of the image creators in artist’s alley and we did extremely well, despite what honestly seemed like a much slower con floor than last year’s show. i’d have trouble naming anyone who’s more passionate about creating a great environment for creators to exhibit in.

    i’m sad to see him go.

  5. It is all to frequent in the corporate world, when things start going south, the person actually responsible for the problems will find scapegoats to sacrifice. The only good side to this is that the scapegoats learn a lesson about corporate loyalty.

  6. I can’t speak for Stewart so much, but Gabe has been the go-to guy at every Wizard convention I’ve ever attended. For instance, at the Chicago con, the Wizard travel agent had managed to screw up not only my room reservation, but many of the attending writers and artists. Gabe immediately got the whole thing straightened out. My space at Artist’s Alley was well located and I had a more or less constant stream of fans. Personally, I think they’re going to be the poorer for his departure.

    PAD

  7. In what way is firing two people _not_ acknowledging there’s a problem?
    I mean, they will not come out and say “the shows sucked, we think these people are responsible, so we’re firing them”. That simply doesn’t happen.
    The solution may be the wrong one, and one can say so and give reasons, but this sort of parting shot accusing Wizard of not acknowledging the problem is just nonsense in the context of what happened.

  8. Stewart’s a great guy. I’m sure many of us will miss his enthusiasm at next month’s Diamond Retailer Seminar in Baltimore.

    Some company should scoop both these guys up– if the guys want to go on working in comics, that is.

    If not, our loss as an industry, once again.

  9. Is Wondercon really vying for No. 2 right now? I mean, Chicago used to have that title cemented, but it has to be swinging over to NY by now?
    The other notable comic-cons that do deserve some mention in this analysis are the Baltimore half-brothers. Otakon – which was the same weekend as Chicago, hit another sell-out weekend, so that means 25,000 on Saturday alone. And Baltimore Comic-Con, which is now tied to the Harveys and Geppi’s new museum, along with its previous ties to the Retailer summit, is on a huge rise. It’s a show that I’m really looking forward to.

  10. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed Caniff’s work. And think that suggestions/proposals should get at least a brief, courteous, reply. But a Steve Canyon 60th anniversary panel for Wizard World would be somewhere down around the bottom of my ideas for how to reinvigorate the convention. While Caniff was certainly hugely popular in the 40s and 50s, he’s not someone who’s work has stayed significantly in the general public eye since his death (yes, I know about the Checker Canyon reprint volumes) nor was his strip at anywhere near Peanuts level popularity when he died.

    A Steve Canyon panel would be a niche item, even at San Diego (although bolstered by the general amount of strip/Golden/Silver Age programming attracting an audience that’d be interested in a Steve Canyon panel). Unless you boost programming up close to SD levels (and it’s not known to me if the Rosemont building has additional rooms suitable for panels and other programming), niche items won’t revitalize the con.

  11. One thing that I have not seen mentioned is that by starting the show on Thursday night, the local papers don’t do the big articles in their Friday “Weekend” sections. Instead the convention gets a three-line mention in the previous week’s paper and the “Video Games Live” concert on Saturday in the theatre across the street from the convention received a feature.

    Also, there is normally an article highlighting Chicago creators such as Alex Ross or Brian Azzarello. Despite the lack of coverage this year, I don’t think Wizard is going to name Chris Ware guest of honor for 2007 to get better local press.

  12. Tom wrote: “Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed Caniff’s work. And think that suggestions/proposals should get at least a brief, courteous, reply. But a Steve Canyon 60th anniversary panel for Wizard World would be somewhere down around the bottom of my ideas for how to reinvigorate the convention.”

    I never said a Steve Canyon panel would suddenly make WWC robust and invigorating again. But the fact is, if I’m going to volunteer to do all the considerable amount of work to put a panel together, I’m going to do it about something I’m interested in, such as Steve Canyon. There are plenty of other people who can do panels about whatever floats their boat. My point, which I stated in my original post on the Comics Journal Web site, is that San Diego has literally 10 times the number of panels as WWC. Plenty of those panels are “niche” stuff, and it is exactly that sheer variety of what’s available that makes the San Diego panel system great. There is something for everyone. Most of the panels I went to at San Diego were not standing room only — including stuff like the CBLDF auction, the Comics Journal 30th anniversary panel and the Jack Kirby panel. But so what? The folks who did attend those events didn’t care. I’m sure they, like me, were just glad the panels were on the schedule in the first place.

    The bottom line? WWC needs to take a page from San Diego and add some teeth and diversity to its panel program.

  13. The problem is, there are only so many rooms in Chicago for Wizard to put panels into. I think it’s four or five of them. And Wizard is aimed at a specific demographic, most of which probably have never opened a newspaper in their life, let alone sought out the classic adventure strips of a half century ago.

    I didn’t go to WWChicago this year, but I’ve said in the past that they needed more panels just to redirect traffic off the floor a little bit. Diversification would be nice, but I don’t think it’s going quite so far as to talk about Steve Canyon or Dick Tracy or Dennis the Menace, no matter who’s presenting it. WW is about mainstream superheroes. And I doubt they’d want to dilute their brand.

    Of course, if the show is starting to shrink down now, then maybe diverting traffic into panel room isn’t a big problem anymore.

    And I’d also take issue with John Strangeland’s description of the local restaurants as being “cheap.” OK, there’s a McDonalds a mile down the road if you want to take a hike after a long day pacing the con floor, but the immediate area isn’t exactly diner material.

  14. I agree with Augie’s comment regarding panels. I’ll go further to say that there aren’t enough special guests signing autographs, either. I also didn’t go this year, but I’ve been to, I dunno, the last ten or so (I remember when it was just Chicago Comic-con and not WWC) and every WWC I’ve been to you’d hear “Kevin Smith is now signing” over the loudspeaker to be followed in about 90 seconds with “The line for Kevin Smith is now capped”. I remember Sean Astin not long ago being the same way. Basically, you could interchange the celebrity name with whomever you wanted.

    There’s so little to do there, that what there is fills up almost immediately. I eventually quit trying to go to certain panels or meet certain people.

  15. Augie wrote: “WW is about mainstream superheroes. And I doubt they’d want to dilute their brand.”

    Well, WWC shook up the staff for some reason, and my guess is it was because of flat or decreased attendance at a time when the industry is rebounding. I could be wrong, of course, but if I’m not, then perhaps WWC has tapped out the superhero market and NEEDS to start to diversify — at least as far as the convention format goes.

    Face it, Wizard can still use the con as a premier vehicle to push its superhero agenda even if it starts to cater to a wider audience. There’s no conflict there. Every business needs growth to survive, and if San Diego is not a model for convention growth, I don’t know what is.

    As far as “limited room space” is concerned, there are supposed to be up to 28 individual rooms available in the convention hall’s conference center on two levels — including an unstairs and downstairs ballroom. I don’t know the sizes, but my guess is they are sorely underutilized. As I said before, I just don’t think panels are a priority at WWC — except for a few showcase ones. At San Diego, however, the panel rooms are never empty. As soon as one group is done, the next one moves into place.

  16. Augie: Wizard is aimed at a specific demographic

    I suspect that’s WWC’s biggest problem. Judging from what I’ve observed at San Diego and Wondercon (much less so at Wondercon) the growth in attendence comes in the form of a bigger mix of fans, that the overall attendence has grown because the “minority” fandoms (indies, manga) have attended in larger numbers. If Wizard World is going to stick to its specific demographic it doesn’t have as many opportunities for growth as its competitors.

  17. Wizard World doesn’t even begin to use all the space the Rosemont Convention Center has available for panels. According to the convention center’s floor plan, the first floor of the conference area has 26,000 square feet available, and although I don’t have a Wizard World chart in front of me, I’m pretty sure the con has never used all of it. But regardless of whether they have or not, there’s never been any activity whatsoever on the second floor, which has an additional 66,000 square feet. Lack of space has never been the reason for Wizard World’s meager programming schedule. I’ve always assumed it was lack of interest.

  18. There is a HUGE area open upstairs, but last I saw it, it was unfinished. That was two years ago. Maybe Wizard doesn’t want to pay for it, even if it IS finished.

    There are, I believe, additional “ballrooms” available behind the extant ballroms they hold meetings in, but they never use those for panels. One year, I remember they used one for an Alex Ross Gallery. I know they use one as a staging area behind the main ballroom for the Fan Awards and bigger events where people like Kevin Smith need a handy back door to get out of.

    And I think someone else hit on it above — the guest list is stale. It’s always the same big names over and over and over again. Time to shake it up somehow. We’ll see if they do that.

  19. Wizard may not want to pay for more space, and that’s their prerogative. But at that point, the discussion shifts from can’t have more panels to won’t have more panels. The guest list is indeed stale, but a line up of panels more diverse than Big Company Presents Its New Fall Line would be one way to address that.

  20. Everyone has made good points about what has made the show stale (weak guest list, weak panels, lack of stuff to do outside the convention, lack of any post-con activities (remember when the CBLDF auction was a 2-hour party?), etc.

    What I don’t see, however, is anyone but me bringing up the fact that Wizard is somehow allowed to set the industry standard for table fees. Wizard jacked up its fees for a full Artists’ Alley table to $300.00 this year, and now many conventions are raising their prices across the board (Pittsburgh, for one, went up 25 bucks) because they know if people will pay $300 for a table at Wizard World, they’ll pay more elsewhere.

    I was in Artists’ Alley this year, but only because I found a friend to split the cost. The people in Artists’ Alley got nothing new for the increased price: a table, two chairs, and two badges. For many of us indie comics creators, three hundred dollars is a staggering amount of money that could be used to print a book, pay for art, or rent tables at other shows.

    I won’t set up at any Wizard shows unless they drop their tables fees and show us that they’re making it worth our while to set up or attend the show.

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