Comic conventions growing pains


Crowd at San Deigo Comic Con

One of the most noticeable factors about this year’s Emerald City Comicon is the attendance numbers. It was a recorded breaking year of approximately 64,000 attendees, which was the maximum the Washington State Convention Center could handle. For the first time ever, the convention sold out, with all three day passes being gone about two weeks before the show, and only a handful of day passes available at the door, which were sold quickly. I heard people on the floor saying that it is now the third largest comic convention in the country. This is explosive growth for the show, which only drew 20,000 attendees in 2010.

Clearly there are several factors that play into this. As the show grows it is able to attract higher caliber guests. It also benefits from a good reputation amongst pros, with many saying it is their favorite convention of the year.

But I think another factor may be at play, and it involves San Diego Comic Con and its attendance issues.

To explain this theory I first need to explain the parallel that a friend alerted me to.

This came to me by way of my friend Matt. Matt carpools with me to work every day, formed the writers group I belong to, has worked with me for over a decade, and is my proof reader / editor for my articles here. He is also a ten year veteran of Burning Man.

For those not in the know, Burning Man is an annual event that takes place in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. It is an Art/Alternate culture/self-expression-driven event that requires high levels of attendee participation.  It started an explosive growth in the late 1990’s that lead to it reaching a max capacity of approximately 56,000. In 2011, for the first time, it sold out before the event. The 2011 sell out included all discount tier tickets selling out in half a day. This now appears to be the norm. Many feel this is due to it catching the attention of mainstream culture. It has also left many veterans feeling disenfranchised from the event.

What Matt says this has done is caused an increase in what is known as regional Burns. These are smaller Burning Man-style events that take place around the country. This started with an event in Texas called Burning Flipside, organized by Burners (the self-applied name for people who attend Burning Man) completely separate from the main organization. The idea spread, and Burners in other places formed organizations to put on their own, similar event in their area. It has even spread to other countries.

They started as events that allowed Burners to have the Burning Man experience if they couldn’t make it to the main Burning Man event. Now, in the wake of increased difficulty in getting to the main event, some Burners are turning to the regional Burns as their main outlet and forgoing the main event all together.

As Matt explained this too me I saw clear parallels with the comic conventions. In 2008 San Diego sold out before the show for the first time ever. The following year the event sold out months ahead of time. By 2011 the event was selling out within hours of tickets becoming available.

Looking at the timeline of Emerald City, you see that it took a major jump in attendance in 2011. So my theory is that because it is becoming impossible for most fans to get tickets to San Diego they are turning to the other comic conventions. I looked at a few other conventions numbers, and those that I could find generally show attendance jumps around the same time. In the interest of fairness, I want to point out that I have no other data to back up my theory, such as surveys.

One other thing that I have been hearing is that both fans and pros like Emerald City, as it is still focused on comics and related media, where San Diego has branched out to the point where it is really a media con focused on TV and movies, be they genre or not. This gives Emerald City and the other regional shows an advantage in reputation.

If I am correct you are going to see growth at other comic cons continue. This does have another issue that needs to be considered: the fact that Emerald City itself sold out this year. Selling out a week or so before the show isn’t too bad, as it did give fans plenty of opportunity to get tickets. But what happens next year? After all, it took a couple of years before the San Diego sell outs were counted in minutes instead of months.

Part of the answer is expansion. This can take two forms. The first is actual space. Right now both San Diego and Emerald City have maxed out their venues. In the case of San Diego, there is always the option of moving to another city with a bigger venue, but pressure from the city and reluctance by the convention committee has prevented that through at least 2015. Emerald City could still use space in nearby hotels if they can negotiate with them. Other than that, there are not a lot of other options for the Seattle show, as it wouldn’t make sense for them to move.

On the upside, Emerald City is exploring the other expansion option, starting a secondary show. Staff from Emerald City are involved in the promotion of a sister show in Portland Oregon called Rose City Comic Con in September. Originally a separate show, Rose City has teamed up with Emerald City to help the show grow. This is a good move, as Rose City is still small but has potential. It is also far enough away from Emerald City both in distance and time of year, to offer up the convention experience without cannibalizing the Seattle show.

Overall this kind of growth is good for geek culture. It shows that there is enough interest to support multiple shows and that the culture is thriving.

In fact the only downside is for San Diego. As the smaller shows grow, more people will not bother with San Diego. At some point this could result in fan abandonment. While not certain by any means it could damage and even potentially kill off the show.  This is also a danger that Burning man could face.

Clearly the lesson here is to manage growth. A challenge when there is so much demand. I will be very curious to see what happens to all of these shows in the next year.

1 thought on “Comic conventions growing pains

  1. It begins to occur to me that the Con is becoming analogous to the county fair of the prior century. They started as small, regional events, smoldered as a necessity of rural, agrarian life, and the minute that advertisers realized they could turn out their product to the community, they became huge, sponsored events that eventually became the ‘attraction’ themselves. Instead of going to the fair to trade your harvest goods, you went see the best cattle, then you started going to the fair to see the newest and greatest labor savers, and then eventually, you went to the fair because you went to the fair. The county fair had its heyday, with the largest numbers in the late 50s and early 60s. They’ve slowly wound down to small, sleepy affairs whose major purpose is to provide an amusement park and lots of greasy fried food. The agricultural aspects have been relegated to the sidelines, behind the events, the concerts, the advertisers, et al.

    I think we’re seeing a similar set of phenomena here: the cons started out as gatherings of comic book/sci fi/fantasy fans. Eventually, they became popular in the subgroup, in an era before the internet became the main means of vital cross pollination. Once the internet provided faster, more reliable information about conventions, they started to really take off and grow. It got the attention of those who could best make a buck at such a place, and now they’re experiencing the exploded, expanded growth of being an ‘event’. The reason they’re selling out is because they’re an ‘event’, not because they’re the convention. Like the best days of the county fair, they’ve become greater than the sum of their parts…but I think they’re running a serious danger of becoming too popular for their own good, getting loaded down with dead-weight that wasn’t originally part of the whole convention experience, and of course, the logistical nightmares involved.

    I’ll also note that, from my POV…the conventions of today are drastically different in culture than they were 10 years ago! The single minded focus of the fans, the cosplayers, and all the rest, seems to have given way to a sort of status seeking ‘I’m here and you’re not’. The folks going today don’t seem to have the same fervor for the ‘topic’ of the con. They’re going to the con…and all cons seem to be melding and melting into the same. You once could tell the flavors of a sci-fi/fantasy con vs a writers con vs a filking con vs a technology con…now, really, they’re getting to be pretty genericized. The ‘con experience’ is becoming homogeneous.

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