Desperate Measures: Sony’s Deal With WIZARD WORLD

Rank desperation makes for strange bedfellows. How else would you explain the deal made last week between Sony Pictures Entertainment and Wizard World Comic Conventions.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the studio is partnering with the convention company to search for IP amongst the artist that attend the convention with an eye on developing and ushering their stories to the big screen.

On the surface, this seems like a fairy tale come true. There are small-time creators in places like Boise and Oklahoma City and Peoria who think they are sitting on comics that can be turned into billion dollar movie ideas.  However, these aspiring creators do not have the ways and means to get to either San Diego or New York City in order to get their concepts seen by the Hollywood elite. Now, they  have a major movie studio partnering with a comic convention in their home town actively looking for properties to adapt to the big screen. They’re dreams are about to come true.

Well, fairy tales aren’t real and dreams are hard to come by. Those creators will be lucky if Wizard World doesn’t cancel the show in the area… Or if the company even exists by the end of the year.

The Rise of Wizard World

In 1996, Wizard Entertainment, flush from the monstrous success if its industry magazine, Wizard, decided to expand their business into the world of comic book conventions. They did so by buying Chicago Comicon, at the time a show almost as influential as the San Diego Comic Con. Two years later, they renamed it Wizard World Chicago and an empire was born.

I went to Wizard World Chicago in 2002. It holds a special place in my heart as it was not only the first big convention I attended, but also the first convention I attended with my future wife. It was a huge extravaganza. Top name creators were there and all the major publishers had exhibits at the con. This was Wizard’s heyday, when it could make or break a creator, comic book or company overnight, so everybody wanted to play ball.

In 2002. Wizard World expanded to Philadelphia, a whole lot close to where I lived. It too was a great experience. Wizard used its influence to set up a VIP mixer where fans could meet up with stars such as Smallville‘s Allison Mack and comic artists like Joe Kubert, Alex Ross and Jim Lee.

The next year, Wizard World expanded to Dallas Texas with Wizard World Texas. The year after that, they expanded to California with Wizard World Los Angeles. Wizard Entertainment was expanding at an alarming rate, fully attempting to dominate the comic book convention market in the United States. But the risks they took backfired and started the company’s decline.

The Start of the Slow, Sad Decline of Wizard World

In 2005, Wizard World’s expansion reached Boston. My wife and I made the trip up to check that one out. In a way I was glad I did. I was able to see the start of the decline of Wizard World with my own two eyes.

When we got there the first day, the line to get in wrapped around the building. My wife and I didn’t really think this to be odd, being a new convention in a big city. Not wanting to deal with the line, we waited it our, bracing ourselves to prepare the shoulder to shoulder crowds inside.

When we got inside, we were surprised by the crowds…or lack thereof. There was hardly anyone there. At least, not at the levels of other Wizard World cons we attended. To this day, I have no idea why the line was so long. But the final attendance was only 8,800 attendees, thousands less than other Wizard World cons.

There are a lot of reasons why the count was so low. The only major comic book company there was DC–no Marvel, no Image. The headline guests, Kevin Smith and Jay Mewes, cancelled at the last minute due to “scheduling difficulties.” And the New York Yankees were town to play their arch-rival Boson Red Sox, which might have kept some locals away. But the lack of people was just another sign that the convention had gotten worse from the last Wizard World con. It had the appearance of an organization that was spreading itself too thin.

I don’t believe we went to every day of the con that year. We spent time exploring Boston. But I felt that that after a lackluster Boston con, what Wizard World needed to do was regroup until they could put out a stronger product. They did the exact opposite.

Bringing A Knife to a Gun Fight

Wizard World cancelled a planned 2006 Wizard World Boston, but it wasn’t done expanding. It made plans to put on a show in Atlanta from June 30 to July 2nd of 2006. That was the same dates as the long running  Heroes Convention in North Carolina. It seems unlikely that Wizard did not know that Heroes was going on for those dates, so this new convention seems like an opening salvo in a war for comic con supremacy. I imagine Wizard World thought that their influence in the comic book community would bring the top name creators to their door, crippling Heroes. What they found out was that their influence wasn’t as strong as it once was as comic creators pledged their allegiance to Heroes in droves. A long simmering resentment by some on the comic industry towards Wizard came boiling to the surface. The industry no longer had Wizard’s back.

The Atlanta show was moved to 2007 then, later, removed from the schedule for the immediate future. The next year, Wizard World scheduled their Philadelphia show the same weekend as Heroes. Both shows seemed to survive. Wizard World’s expansion plans went on hold for the next few years, but the comic companies started to leave, even the flagship Wizard World Chicago. But that’s okay. The cons would be moving away from comics anyway.

Shopping Spree

Wizard World started out 2009 by cancelling its Los Angeles and Texas shows. Both were losing money and dropping attendees. But, almost at the same time, they started buying up established conventions and rebranding them as their own. The bought the North Coast Comic Con which became Wizard World Cleveland. They bought Marc Ballard’s Comic & Horror Festival and rechristened it Wizard World Nashville. They bought the Mid Ohio Con and renamed it Wizard World Columbus. And they bought other established conventions in the U.S. and Canada to fold under its umbrella.

In 2009, Wizard World bought Big Apple Con. Well, technically they bought the name. The Big Apple Con was less an actual comic book convention and more of a swap meet/flea market. If you wanted back issues, it was your place. If you wanted Hollywood stars pitching their projects, it wasn’t for you.

Wizard World put on their first Big Apple Con that year at Pier 94. By this point, New York was a NYCC town, as that con had three years to work out the kinks and win people over. As an enticement to get people to buy VIP packages for this first show, they offered a overstuffed bag of valuable signed and graded comic books. That was the best part of that year for me.

But that first Wizard World Big Apple Con was an early sign of what the brand would become. The emphasis was on celebrities. It wasn’t the caliber nor the magnitude of the stars future Wizard World cons would become. That year, we got Loretta Swit and Linda Hamilton, Adam West and William Shatner. And outside vendor brought in the biggest star power with Pete Rose, Ric Flair and Dwight Gooden. The autograph section was placed front and center on the con floor and from what I can remember took up most of the available area there. It became clear that the focus was on celebrity autographs, a trend that would only get bigger as the years went on.

False Bravado or Deluded View of its Own Importance?

Before the 2009 convention ended, Wizard World announced dates for their 2010 Big Apple show–October 7-10, 2010–the exact same weekend that New York Comic Con had already staked out for their con. Yes, stop me if this sounds familiar, Wizard World put its convention up at the very same time as an older, more established convention, this time, it would be in the same city.

One has to admire for Wizard World’s bravado. Even at only three years of age, NYCC was a juggernaut. If Wizard World put up show like the ones it put up early in its existence, then it might have had a chance. But the Wizard World as it existed in 2010? It would have been squashed like a bug.

Wizard World knew this as well because the two cons remained head to head on the schedule until May of 2010 when Wizard World blinked and moved the Big Apple back a week to October 1-3. The date change also necessitated a change of venue. The Big Apple moved back to the Penn Plaza Pavilion, the structure that was home to the pre-Wizard World Big Apple.

In retrospect, it probably would have been better to cancel the Big Apple or move it farther away from NYCC, because the former looked bad in my comparison. Being forced to house the convention in a venue that has all the charm of a dilapidated warehouse where bad guys in a B-movie take the hero to beat some information out of him doesn’t help. But seeing it go up against a real comic con, we could tell Wizard World was trying to present a champagne comic con on a beer budget. It made itself out to be a big deal, but it was really low rent.

Wizard World would return to New York twice more to try and gain a foot hold–in 2011 at Penn Plaza Pavilion with a Big Apple Spring Edition and in 2013 with a rebranded NYC Experience at Basketball City. It has not been back with a full-sized con since.

Expand – Contract – Repeat

In 2010, Wizard World vowed to double its then 12 conventions in 25. By 2011, they had 16 scheduled for late 2011–Mid-Ohio Comic Con, Austin Comic Con, New Orleans Comic Con, Los Angeles Comic Con, Toronto Comic Con, Big Apple Comic Con, Philadelphia Comic Con, Chicago Comic Con, Miami Comic Con, Atlanta Comic Con, Central Canada Comic Con (C4), New Jersey Comic Con, Cincinnati Comic Con, Cleveland Comic Con, and Nashville Comic Con.

However, in August, that list was culled to just seven shows. New Jersey, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Nashville were removed from the schedule without ever getting official dates. Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Central Canada had official dates on the schedule cancelled. The 2011 Los Angeles Convention was cancelled just five weeks before it was supposed to open, surprising a number of creators and exhibitors. Even the long running magazine whose success made Wizard Entertainment’s able to gobble up all those conventions was gone at the begin of 2011. Financial woes were to blame.

Gareb Shamus, the man who created the magazine that spawned an empire, was forced out as CEO at the end of 2011, replaced by John Macaluso the next year. Macaluso started rebuilding the brand and started expanding the number of cons again, focusing on smaller big cities like Minneapolis, Sacramento and Richmond. The convention leaned more and more into a celebrity meet and greet model. The number of conventions went back up to 16. Convention revenue for the year ended December 31, 2014 was $23,060,178, an increase of $11,874,044 (or 106%) from $11,186,134 reported in the comparable year ended December 31, 2013. Net income for the year was $995, 617. Plans were made to expand the number of cons in 2015 to 22, once again to smaller, underserved markets like Indianapolis, Las Vegas and Fort Lauderdale. They also started ComicConBox subscription box service and a streaming service called CONtv. Things were looking up for Wizard.

Then Wizard World hit the wall. Again.

Reaching for the Stars Without Keeping Your Feet on the Ground

In 2015, Wizard World went from almost a $1 million profit to a loss in the amount of $4.25 million. Part of the reason was that CONtv was a $1.3 million failure. But another part was that the comic convention market was beginning to saturate. Conventions all over the country began to close and cancel as a correction to the rapid expansion of the market. And Wizard World with its limited identity as an autograph show was feeling the pain the most.

A course correction was called for. And while Wizard World did course correct, it didn’t do it smartly. Macaluso stepped down as CEO, replaced by John Matta. Instead of retracting to a 9 or 10 convention tour, it shrank from 25 shows to 19 in 2016. But it went all out for the big markets. In Philadelphia, they had not only a Back to the Future reunion (Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson) but, as seen above, a boatload of Marvel Cinematic Universe Actors.  They set up a one day boutique meet and greet in NYC with Doctor Whos David Tennant and Matt Smith. The cast of Netflix’s Daredevil TV show was united at Wizard World Chicago, along with the Back to the Future gang and Carrie Fisher.

Picture from Wizard World Las Vegas 2016 Geekadores.com

But these attempts to generate more cash from their proven moneymakers left their other conventions to suffer. I attended Wizard World Las Vegas 2016 with my family. It was a while since I hit a Wizard World convention, so I was shocked to see what going all in on big name celebrities wrought. The floor was sparsely packed, both in the number of people but also in number of vendors. Most cons are so packed with vendors that the aisles become nigh impassable. WWLV’s aisles were so wide you could comfortably drive a subcompact car through the area.

And the vendors? There were only three vendors selling comic books at the comic con. The biggest comic book presence was from the many no-name artists who sell bootleg prints of licensed characters. And there were a lot of them.

What took their place?  The biggest booth in the whole con was for the local cable company. Second? A trailer for Sprout by HP. The Cirque Du Soleil show at the MGM Grand had a primo spot by the front door. There were also  a large nail art booth, a vendor selling heating pads, and a booth featuring people taking blood to do genetic markups. You know, typical comic con stuff.

We were able to fit the entire con into one day. The bad news is we bought three-day tickets. The good news? More time to visit friends and explore Las Vegas!

My friends who attended Wizard World Las Vegas 2015 said there were more vendors and artist at that con. A similar situation was reported regarding Wizard World Pittsburgh from 2015 to 2016–that the quality was considerably less.  The pattern is clear. Wizard World focused on the bigger cons, left the smaller ones to twist in the wind, and took whatever money they could and ran. Wizard World would not return to either Pittsburgh or Las Vegas in 2017.

But throwing all their money at the big cons and leaving the smaller ones flailing worked to improve their bottom line, didn’t it? No. They posted a $8.52 Million loss in 2016 and were in danger of running out of money for 2017. The decline was only staved off by an infusion of cash via death spiral financing from Wizard World Execuitve Chairman Paul Kessler.

The cash influx didn’t help and the downward  trend continued into 2017.  In January, the company announced that it would no longer accept credit cards for booth payments, insisting on cash or check, a move seen as a way to avoid hefty credit card fees and drum up a quick cash reserve. They cancelled its Orlando and Albuquerque shows in June 2017, And postponed the rest of their slate for 2017 in September of that year. By the time of the third quarter report, the possibility of Wizard World lasting all the way through 2018 seemed slim.

This is who Sony Entertainment decided to partner with.

An Unsustainable System

You could put the failure of Wizard World on a lot of things. Shoddy customer service, delivering a second rate product, expanding at a time when the market was contracting. But none of these reasons would cause such a freefall without their reliance on the celebrity autograph model. Many conventions establish themselves with celebrity guests, using Jason Momoa to bring them in and having enough of the rest of the con to keep them there. Wizard can’t afford for much of anything outside of the celebrities.

The way the celebrity autograph market works is this. A con makes an agreement with a celebrity. The celebrity asks for a guarantee for however much they will make from the show, anywhere from $5,000 up to $500,000. The con usually pays this up front. If the amount of autographs and photo ops is more than the guarantee, the con gets their money back and a portion of every other autograph and photo op sold. The celebrity gets to keep the rest. If they don’t make the guaranteed money? Well, that’s how you end up $8.25 million in debt.

Take that All-star Wizard World Philly from 2016 I mentioned above. This article states that Chris Evans commands $500,000 in guaranteed money. I don’t know if its true or not, but lets say it is. You’d have to figure that Chris Hemsworth, as a big a star as Evans, and Hiddleston, who doesn’t do many cons, probably get the same amount. That would mean for three stars for one convention in 2016, they were $1.5 million in hole. And you’ll have to also add all the other celebrities in too and that gets expensive.

Worse than that, Wizard often hires celebrities for more than one con. This year, they seem to be going big into Justice League actors (Well, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller and Ray Fisher, the actors they can afford. No Batfleck, no Henry Cavill, no Gal Gadot). If you flip through the schedule of Wizard World cons, you’ll see those actors appearing at three or four conventions each. Now, I can’t imagine that any of the three are in the six digit range, but certainly with the popularity of the film they are probably in the $50,000 guarantee range. That means that the convention that complained about not having enough money to last the year spent half a million dollars on three actors for three or four of their conventions. That doesn’t make much sense.

Wizard World – Quality is Job #5,257,693 (or “Artist Alley, what Artist Alley?”)

You don’t have to take my word for it, just type “Wizard World complaints” into Google and you’ll get a number of them from the last five years. Their rating with the Better Business Bureau is a C-. But certain customers might have given them a lower grade.

How about the blogger who in 2013 got denied a press pass to Wizard World Chicago—after being listed in the press section of the website. She blogged about the issue and got an invite to write articles that would plug the convention. Then there’s the ever popular last minute guest cancellations married to Wizard’s no refund policy. Then there’s the security, slow to let people in, too aggressive near celebrities, and just all around rude. And there are always complaints with poor return from your investment compared to what you have to pay to get in. Not to say there are a lot of complaints, but you don’t get a “Boycott Wizard” Facebook page if you are doing things right.

But what is troubling for this new Sony/Wizard World partnership are the complaints coming out of their artist alleys. Some complained about an unhelpful staff. Others having to deal with drunk patrons or being lied to about the potential customers.  But the most damning complaint to come out of artist alley should have been one that raised red flags to Sony if the did their due diligence when making the deal–the artists have a hard time making money at the Wizard World cons.

Case in point, Fabrice Sapolsky. He is not a huge name in comics yet, but he did co-create a character for Marvel (Spider-Man Noir), and has done a number of creator-owned books. He is the type of creator Wizard World needs for its deal with Sony (Sapolsky’s One Hit Wonder, about a former child-star who becomes an assassin, screams out to be made into a film). But Wizard World might have poisoned the well with him for future shows after his experience at 2017’s Wizard World Philadelphia.

The only way Sapolsky could have come close to breaking even was to cancel his budget hotel in the city to stay at his tablemate’s home 90 minutes away. A perfect storm of Wizard World foibles conspired to keep foot traffic away from his table. The high ticket prices took away con-goers dispensable income. The con-goers were there for the celebrities and not interested in the artists. Artist Alley was hidden away in the vendor area with no signage leading people to it.  But Wizard World does have a section of its website devoted to “How to make Artist Alley work for you” so, that’s nice.

Oh! There you are, Artist Alley! I’ve been looking for you!

All signs in Sapolsky’s story point to how Wizard World has minimized the Artist Alley over the last few years. The area in their cons have gotten progressively smaller and smaller until they have become a virtual afterthought. Seldom will you find a big name writer or artist there. Mostly you’ll find older, minor creators from the big two or ones who worked briefly for smaller publishers. The rest of the space is filled with artists who do prints of licensed characters they do not own, or, in some cases, prints they just copy from other artists. Or there will be T-shirt makers, Or craft jewelers. Or another artisan who does non-comic book work for the geek crowd. But IP creators? Few and far between.

I’d bet that Wizard World expects this to change. As a matter of fact, I bet they are counting on it. Because I’d imagine that this sudden attention for the Artist Alley after years of neglect is a way for Wizard World to bring more revenue in.

A table at a Wizard World Artist Alley costs between $250 and $525, depending on which convention you are going to and how many bells and whistles you want with your booth. Small Press booths range from $500 to $850 per booth. I’d bet these prices will go up now that Wizard World can say Sony will be looking at the artist’s stuff. The promise of a movie deal, no matter how unlikely or remote, is a great motivator for aspiring Robert Kirkmans to hand over money like it was going out of style. And if a artist alley guest gets a development deal for his IP? Wizard World gets a piece of that too. Win-win.

Does This Even Make Sense For Sony?

On paper, an agreement with just about any other convention in the country would benefit Sony more. There’s probably more original IP in North Carolina’s once-a-year Heroes Convention that there is in all of the Wizard Worlds across the country.

But Sony is in desperate need of tentpole franchises. It lags behind just about every other studio with exploitable IP. Disney is the king with the MCU, Star Wars, Pixar and its live-action fairy tale franchises going strong. If their purchase of Fox goes through, they’ll add Avatar, the X-films, Aliens, Predators, Die Hard, and Ice Age franchises to their stable. Warner Brothers is next with the Harry Potter, LEGO, and DCEU franchises, among others. Universal has the Fast and Furious, Despicable Me and Jurassic World to fall back on if their Dark Universe shared universe doesn’t take off. And Paramount has the seemingly evergreen Transformers and Mission Impossible franchise in their pocket.

And Sony? Well, they had James Bond but that looks to be out the door. Their attempt to start a Ghostbusters franchise was crippled when fans violently rejected the 2016 all-female version. They’re still insisting on pairing Men in Black with 21 Jump Street. They do have the Spider-Man characters, but that only seems to work for them when Marvel Studios is in charge of the creative. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo bombed so badly that it had to be rebooted just 7 years after it was released. So, yeah, Sony is at the ‘let’s throw it up on the wall and see if it will stick” mode now, with the added bonus of an executive shake up to make finding a success a big priority.

This of course begs the question whether it would be better for Sony to scour a artist alley for little known IP to develop into film franchise or to invest the same amount of time, money and energy into developing an original property into a film franchise. Or, just buy a copy of the Previews catalog and have an assistant go through it for film ready properties. Or by a ticket to any convention, walking through the artist alley and small press area themselves, and make a deal on their own, cutting out the middle man.

Why didn’t they do that? Well, veteran comics journalist Heidi MacDonald might be onto something with this theorem:

Having covered a pact or two in my day, I can say that about 99.8% of them never amount to anything, and this smelled strongly of “guy at Wizard knew guy at Sony and they cooked something up over lunch.” In fact if you read all the quotes in the pr that’s kind of what it says. The tell is in the part in THR where they say “oh we haven’t figured out what this actually means yet.” I read it as Wizard World, a publicly traded company trying to drum up something that looks like progress, announcing a nebulous “deal” that gives the look of activity for very little investment.

In other words, this is a showy non-event that Wizard World hopes will bump up stock prices and increase their bottom line through Artist Alley buy-ins but in the end will amount to very little if anything productive. Considering this is Wizard World we are talking about, that makes sense.

Chicanery of the Highest Order

MacDonald’s theory might seem like a victimless crime, a easy way for both companies too look good to investors. But there is a victim. The victim is the comic book fan who believes he has a great idea for a comic book that could be made into a movie. A fan who has probably already gone into debt trying to make copies of his story to sell at conventions like Wizard World. A fan who will pay money he doesn’t really have to buy a table at Wizard World where he will never earn his money back in the hopes that Sony will reward him with lucrative film contract to make it all worth while. But odds are that all he will get is less money in his bank account or higher debt on his credit cards.

Because, realistically, even if Sony is serious in this IP hunt, there’s a limit to the amount of films they can put on production. Even in the best case scenario, there will be at best 3 or 4 projects that come out of this venture, total. And that’s an apple pie in the sky estimate.

But Wizard World doesn’t care. It will be happy to use the dream writers and artists have of walking the red carpet at the movie premiere of the film based on their comic to increase their revenues. After all, they’ve already been taking money from vendors under the promise of big crowds when the vendors end up lucky to break even. All this new venture is is a way to bring a new batch of suckers to the table.

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About William Gatevackes 1933 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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