On paper, it seemed the surest of sure things. Celebrity meet and greet conventions revolving around two of the hottest TV properties of the day–The Walking Dead and CW’s Arrowverse line of shows. The fact that one of the Arrowverse‘s biggest stars, Stephen Amell, had a profit participation investment in the cons meant that the shows would be guaranteed the best guests from the show and a guaranteed headliner in Amell in every offering in the superhero line. It should have been like printing money.
However, the latest news surrounding Walker Stalkers LLC and their conventions, Walker Stalker and FanFest (formerly known as Heroes & Villains Fan Fest) has painted a different picture. We have seen numerous event cancellations and postponements. Rumors of bankruptcy filings have filled the air. Complaints from guests that refunds from the company have been slow in coming. Major celebrities have broken ties with the conventions, saying they haven’t been paid. And the Better Business Bureau has called the Walker Stalker events a scam and recommended fans to not buy tickets to the shows.
What happened? How could a concept that seemed “can’t miss” miss so badly? Well, I have an opinion about that, an opinion based my attending two Heroes & Villains cons, an additional 19 years of attending conventions all over the country and even more years seeing conventions come and go. And in my opinion, the downward spiral these conventions are in wasn’t caused by just one reason, but many.
Robbing Peter to Pay Paul
If you have ever attended a FanFest event, you should by now have become accustomed to the unending barrage of e-mails from them trying to sell you tickets to their shows. They usually arrive up to 12 months before the show in question. Usually, they offer an extraordinary deal (“TWO VIP TICKETS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE!!!” “FOUR GENERAL ADMISSION TICKETS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE!!!”). Typically, there is a deadline attached to the offer (“TODAY ONLY!!!”). More often than not, the offer gets extended days up to a week more. And not just trolling for customers, the main e-mail list also shills for vendor space too.
There is a certain air of desperation to these offers. It seemed like the organizers were in a critical need for a quick influx of cash.
Perhaps they were.
Savvy congoers already know how the celebrity autograph and photo op industry works. For those of you who are unfamiliar, here is a basic rundown. Celebrities have a price guarantee they are looking for from any convention they attend. Basically, this is sort of a promise from the convention to the celeb that they will make a certain amount of money at the show. If the celebrity makes more than the guarantee, great. They make money and the convention makes money.
If they don’t? Well, the celebrity gets the guarantee regardless. As a matter of fact, many celebrities asked to be paid the guarantee before they ever set foot into the convention center. When you add in that some of the higher level guests also expect luxury accommodations, luxury travel, and other costly pampering, convention organizers are tens of thousands of dollars in debt before the first ticket holder enters the con floor.
This isn’t a problem for the bigger conventions like San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic Con, because most, if not all, of their tickets sell out in minutes after they go on sale. Cash flow is not a problem for them. But the FanFest events, which have to hawk severely discounted ticket packages and still not have many takers, it makes it hard to generate the resources to keep a celebrity meet & greet con going. They appear to be using ticket sales for future shows to pay for their current offerings. The company’s cancellation of events around a month before they were supposed to happen, the complains of non-payment by guests and the glacial pace they issue refunds seem to testify to this fact. It’s hard for someone who bought a ticket for a cancelled event to get his money back because that money went to pay for another show months earlier.
Growing Too Big Too Fast
Crumbs Bake Shop. Borders. Zynga. What do these three companies have in common with Walker Stalkers LLC? All three were incredibly successful brands who expanded aggressively and rapidly. Problem was, they grew too aggressively and too rapidly. The result is them over extending themselves to such an extent that it doomed them. And it appears that Walker Stalkers LLC is headed in the same direction.
At first glance, it seems logical that expanding quickly would be a good thing. More conventions means more fans served, more tickets sold and more money in the coffers. But think about it. More conventions means more money spent in venue rentals, advertising and all those celebrity related expenses I mentioned above. It means either stretching your current employees thin or hiring new employees who might be thrown into the fire without proper training. Without building your company at a natural pace, your product begins to suffer.
Walker Stalkers LLC started in 2013 with an 600 person meet up in Atlanta. By 2017, the company had both Walker Stalker and Heroes and Villains up and running, and each brand put on seven shows according to Rostercon.com. These included trips for each to London, England. The next year, the stronger Walker Stalker expanded to 12 conventions, including adding two dates in Australia, one in Germany, and even adding a cruise. Heroes & Villains shrank to six shows, four of which they shared the venue and dates of Walker Stalker. But the final tally came out close to 80 events in seven years.
Currently, Walker Stalker is listing six forthcoming shows in the works spanning into 2020. The cruise is missing but the event is set to return to Australia. FanFest, as what Heroes & Villains has been renamed, is listing only three upcoming shows–Nashville, Chicago, and London. Frequent stops Portland and New York/New Jersey do not have anything as of yet scheduled.
Dialing back the tours makes fiscal sense. But it might be a case of “too little, too late.”
Stephen Amell’s Irish Goodbye
It is safe to say that Stephen Amell was the rock star of the Heroes & Villains circuit. That is to be expected, that the person who played Green Arrow would be the big draw of convention dedicated to Arrowverse actors. But Amell was a guest that brought people in. His autograph lines were always filled to capacity. His panels were always standing room only. As long as Heroes & Villains had Amell as a guest, they could only go upward and onward.
Then Stephen Amell stopped being a guest at Heroes and Villains FanFests.
The first one he did the fade on was the HVFF on September 8 & 9, 2018. He was one of the first guests announced. I know this because my wife and I bought VIP tickets just to meet him. Our 9-year-old daughter had just started watching Arrow and wanted to meet the man behind the hood, and we bought the cheapest VIP package to try and stay a bit ahead of the crowds (Even the base level VIP packages are supposed to speed you through the line ahead of the general public. Supposed to. More on this later).
Unfortunately, several weeks before the FanFest, it was announced that Amell would not be attending the New Jersey or San Jose FanFests due to “work schedule conflicts.”
An important message from @StephenAmell for New Jersey and San Jose.
— Fan Fest Events (@fanfestevents) June 26, 2018
What these scheduling conflicts are, your guess is as good as mine. Amell’s IMDB page on lists two projects around that time period. One, was Arrow, which considering Amell’s costar on the show, David Ramsey, was at the event, that probably wasn’t the work conflict in question. The other is a film called Code 8, which started filming in June of 2017. That might have been the conflict, considering that reshoots can occur months after principal shooting ends, except that the film costars Amell’s cousin Robbie Amell, and he too was at the September FanFest. His social networking isn’t much help, except him saying he was “back at work” in a tweet dated 9/4/2018.
Back at work. Still thinking about Saturday night. https://t.co/QE6YQFcaTK
— Stephen Amell (@StephenAmell) September 4, 2018
Amell was eventually able to make the San Jose show, but a precedent was set. Even though he was the face and the spirit of the Heroes and Villains FanFest, there will never be any guarantee from that point on that he would ever appear at another. The precedent was reinforced when it came to the May 25, 2019 London show.
— Fan Fest Events (@fanfestevents) February 1, 2019
If you google “Stephen Amell London FanFest 2019” the first response will a website reposting the above tweet. You also find a number of articles from February touting his appearance. A big deal was made about Amell attending the London show, with press releases sent out to all four corners of the globe. And it looked highly likely that he would really show up, as the London premiere of Code 8 was scheduled for the night before the convention:
https://t.co/pjpU9sI6Y1 for details. A limited number of new tickets are available… and if you've already purchased you'll be receiving an email if you'd like to switch your premieres! pic.twitter.com/bhTeRoUqhU
— Stephen Amell (@StephenAmell) February 13, 2019
However, on March 31, Amell’s Twitter followers were treated to this:
Working with #HVFF has been awesome. Our first SJ show and our first London show will always be near and dear to my heart. Sometimes stuff doesn’t work out. I’m bummed… but I can’t be at #HVFF London this year.
— Stephen Amell (@StephenAmell) April 1, 2019
The vagueness of this tweet caused his fans to be concerned that the Code 8 premiere and a Fuck Cancer charity party set for that Friday would be cancelled. They needn’t have worried. He was still coming to London and those events would still happen. He just wasn’t going to HVFF.
Instead, he was going to a rival convention, MCM London, that was being put on on the exact same dates as HVFF London, May 25th & 26th. The announcement that Amell was joining MCM London hit in late April. Less than a week and a half later, FanFest postponed its 2019 London convention, less than a month before it was to be put on.
You can read a lot into that above tweet, but there does seem to be an air of finality about it. It gives the sense that Amell had permanently cut ties with HVFF. The fact that he later hooked up with a rival promotion seemed to back that up. That might strike some as odd, considering Amell has a profit participation interest in the con. But the key word there is PROFIT. According to a September 2016 article from the Hollywood Reporter on celebrity signings, Amell would receive a cut of the gate as well as photo and autograph revenue from those involved in the con once HVFF becomes a success. Considering Walker Stalkers LLC/FanFest has been cancelling shows, stiffing celebrities and dragging its feet issuing refunds, you can safely say it has not yet reached the point where you can call it a success. Perhaps Amell believes it never will make a profit and is cutting his losses.
Not Getting What You Pay For
The above is a listing of the VIP ticket prices for FanFest Nashville. The prices fluctuate from city to city, and the prices have gone down over the years. But even still, this is a good ruler for what Walker Stakers LLC charges for VIP tickets at their events. This is a lot to dole out for the VIP treatment. It gets even more expensive when you compare it to other conventions.
The main competition in the meet & greet market for Walker Stalkers LLC is ACE Comic Cons and Wizard Entertainment. Wizard has been around for going on for almost two decades and has experienced some of the same problems Walker Stalkers is experiencing and has managed to stay afloat. ACE is a relative newcomer, created by the same people that created Wizard many years ago.
Wizard bases its VIP packages on the stars attending the shows. For instance, at their upcoming Chicago event, a no-frills VIP package will set you back $174.99. This offers you pretty much the same thing the FanFest Regular VIP does, but adds a goodie bag and discounts for show vendors and local businesses. Their most expensive VIP package would be the Jason Momoa VIP. That one clocks in at $449.99. You get everything that you get in a base VIP package, but you also get an autograph and photo op with Momoa.
ACE’s next show will also be in Chicago in October. At this time, they have only one VIP package–Brie Larson for $550 dollars. Like Wizard’s celebrity package, it comes with an autograph and a photo op as well. All the packages are listed as being sold out on the website as I write this.
So, on the whole, FanFest’s competitors offer you more bang for your buck when it comes their VIP packages. It wasn’t always like this. FanFest once gave 2 photo ops and autographs with their gold VIP memberships and 4 with their platinum VIP memberships. Now, all you get is a guarantee to be able to buy autographs and photo ops, even if they are already sold out.
But some might find the ability to enter the con floor an hour and a half early to get a jump on your autograph hunting and be fast tracked to the front of the line might be worth the price you pay.
Well, yeah, if it worked out that way. For me, it didn’t. As I said before, my family got Regular VIP tickets for the September 2018 New Jersey Heroes & Villains show. We soon found out that Saturday that the early entry didn’t give you extra access to the celebrities. Why? Because there was maybe 4 or 5 of the 19 advertised celebrities there at that hour. As a matter of fact, most of the celebrities did not arrive until thirty minutes to an hour after the doors opened to the public, well after it opened for VIPs. Fans were left to stand in line and wait, never knowing when or if your celebrity was going to come.
Speaking of waiting, since there were no celebrities we wanted and the sparse amount of vendors took about 10 minutes to walk through, we decided to get in line for the celebrity whose autograph we wanted most. We got in line about a half hour before the doors opened to the general public, and the celebrity arrived around 40 minutes after the doors opened. Irksome, yes, but we figured we just had to wait for the Platinum and Gold VIP’s to get their signatures and we’d be up. Our annoyance would be at an end.
Well, we were wrong. Because a woman in the general admission line started complaining about the celebrity being late. Loudly. Angrily. So when the celebrity arrived, the people manning the booth took one or two people from each VIP line, then took ten or so people from the General Admission line until the complainer was able to get her autograph. Yes, even though most of us VIPs were standing their twice as long as the complainer and and some paid hundreds of dollars more to be fast tracked, the squeaky wheel got greased. The booth people did throw a free autograph our way, but that didn’t quite make up the price of the VIP package.
I’m sure that a lot of you read that above paragraph with the same sense of schadenfreude you had when the trust fund babies were served moldy cheese sandwiches in the Fyre Festival documentary. And, yes, I know other guests might have had different, better experiences with their VIP passes later on in the day. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that, in this certain instance, FanFest failed to deliver on the promise that many guests paid a lot of money to receive. I’m sure that many of the hundred or so VIPs that experienced the same things I did that day might have sworn off buying a VIP package, maybe even tickets to the event, because it just wasn’t worth it. That’s tens of thousands of dollars flushed away in one fell swoop. That would go a long way to explain FanFest’s money woes.
“For Fans, By Fans?”
Here is another batch of my sour grapes about the convention, this time from the 2017 Heroes & Villains FanFest back when it was at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, New Jersey. My daughter wanted to meet Carlos Valdes, her favorite Arrowverse actor. However, she cosplayed as Killer Frost, and wanted to get her autograph from him out of costume. She was 9, and that’s how 9-year-olds work. My wife went with her to the closest restroom, which was against the back wall of the convention, giving me orders to stay where she could see me when they came out.
Now, this restroom opened out into the path convention organizers used to bring celebrities in and out of the building. The security guards were having a hard time keeping the area clear. Knowing this, I went up to one of the guards and asked her where she would like me to stand as I waited so I would be out of the way. She directed me to a corner made by the back wall and the curtained wall which led to the area behind the signing tables.
Feeling confident that I did my part to be a good guest, I stood where I was told to and started looking at my phone. I was there a few minutes before I was yelled at by a man in a suit telling me that I had to move. I asked him who he was and he said he was the head of security. I told him that a security guard told me to stand there. He said he didn’t care and he wanted to move to the other side of a garbage can, about 40 feet down an alley that ran perpendicular to the back wall.
I gathered my things and went over to the trash can. Someone was already standing on the far side, so, because I am more prone to follow the orders of my wife than some security guy and because I thought the width of a trash can wouldn’t make a difference, I stood on the near side of the garbage can so my wife could still see me.
I was wrong.
“What are you? Some Kind of smart ass?” Mr. Head of Security said as he stormed over to me. “Do you want to be kicked out of here?”
Maybe it was because I was sore from walking on the concrete floor the whole morning. Maybe it was because I asked a security guard where to stand so I could avoid this confrontation. Or maybe it was because this employee was barking at me like a prisoner in a maximum security prison and not a guest holding a bag with over $200 of photo ops and art prints, I decided to argue back with him over what difference it made what side of the can I stood on.
The argument went back and forth for a minute and the guy on the other side of the can left. I moved into his spot. The head of security still want to keep the argument going, but I stopped him, pointed out I was standing where he told be to stand, and said the conversation should be over. I shook his hand and wished him a good day.
I fully expected to be kicked out. I was preparing to text my wife and tell her to stay and take our daughter to see Mr. Valdes without me. Luckily, during our argument, a celebrity walked in back by the restrooms. The celebrity was surrounded by fans who were taking selfies with him and shaking his hand. The head of security rushed over, grabbed the celebrity and took him behind the curtains. It was then I realized that I wasn’t being hassled because he thought me a threat to the celebrities, it was because I might have an interaction with one without paying $50 first. The experience made me feel like I was a meat sack with a wallet attached to it.
While we typically don’t like to address rumors and speculation, we feel it’s appropriate to do so at this time. Walker…
“For fans, by fans.” That is the FanFest motto. It is listed in their response to the bankruptcy rumors I posted above. It is part of the touchy-feely, warm and cuddly marking campaign the convention runs to try to make the guests feel like part of one big family with the celebrities. I didn’t feel like part of a family when I was screamed out by someone for standing in the wrong spot. The experience made me feel like that the only reason they wanted me there was to spend as much money as possible, like a walking and talking bank account. That’s just my experience. What about some others? A person who takes time off from work, books a hotel, and arranges travel plans doesn’t feel like part of a family when the celebrity, or the entire event is cancelled. They don’t feel like family when HVFF’s autograph prices turn out to be more expensive than other convention’s prices–and keep going up. Waiting in line for 3 hours for a 5 second photo op doesn’t make them feel like family, nor does getting the runaround from volunteers and employees who don’t have the proper answers to guests questions.
Don’t get me wrong. We did get to see Carlos Valdes, and his kindness to my daughter alone made me willing to take another chance on FanFest. But it didn’t make up for the fact that the show didn’t live up to its “we are family” marketing claims. Maybe they started out that way. But they turned into a worst version of the meet & greet conventions. And I imagine a lot of fans became just as disenchanted as I was.
FanFest’s Very Bad Month and a Half
The bankruptcy rumors and FanFest’s response to them in April of this year put the thought that the organization was near death. But the clanging chimes of doom really started to get louder in June.
It all started on June 7th when The Walking Dead and Shazam! actor Cooper Andrews posted this on Instagram:
View this post on Instagram
Hey guys, I've decided not to attend Fanfest N.J. in a few weeks. I'm also pulling out of ALL Walker Stalker/FanFest shows for the foreseeable future. I LOVE meeting all of you, but as far as I'm concerned, Walker Stalker is not the best place for me to do that. I don't write this easily, but I've been listening to my gut for as long as I remember and I'm not gonna start ignoring it now. I'll see you all in other conventions! And of course, there will be cobbler.
The reason why was confirmed by another The Walking Dead actor, Angel Theory, announcing her break with the con the next day:
angel’s wsc update pic.twitter.com/NxepEE5JtY
— tony (@JVRVlS) June 8, 2019
In case you cannot view the video, here is a partial transcript:
Cooper basically said that he’s done. He’s not the only one that feels some type of way about Walker Stalker…One thing I can say is I genuinely enjoyed my time doing it, I love getting to engage with the fans and talk to you guys and get to meet y’all and take goofy, silly photos, it’s supposed to be a fun thing. It’s supposed to be fun for the both of us — for the fans and for the actors themselves. However, it is not fun when it comes to not getting paid from the Walker Stalker company, what is owed to the actors. Just like you guys, y’all not getting y’all refunds back, the actors are not getting paid.
On June 12, Walker Stalker/FanFest founder James Frazier held a Q&A session with select number of fan group administrators. One of the guidelines of the Q&A was that Frazier would not speak on relationships with any actor and the company, so the actor’s leaving was not properly addressed. Four days later, he lost another The Walking Dead actor, Khary Payton:
View this post on Instagram
After a lot of consideration, I’ve decided to no longer attend Walker Stalker/FanFest conventions. I’m sure we’ll have opportunities to meet each other at different events but at this time, I think it’s best to take a bow and walk away. I have met some great people through WSC and I can’t wait to find you out in the world soon. My unlimited love to you all.
I find it interesting that Payton’s Instagram announcement mirrored Andrews’ announcement so much, right down to the peace sign.
On June 19th, another sign of the company’s financial woes came into being. They announced a one-day flash auction on celebrity banners–the vinyl banners that serve as the backdrop behind the celebrities’ tables at the con–on eBay. Some of these banners were signed by the guests, and garnered prices up to $355, if not higher. However, this sale generated even more controversy for the company, as it was posted on Reddit that the signed banners were meant to be auctioned off for charity. The celebrities in question supposedly never meant for them to be sold to benefit the company.
In addition, the company got a lot of negative feedback from people who won the auctions when the winners were made to use an outside payment service instead of the customary PayPal. Rumors spread that PayPal banned FanFest from receiving any payments through them due to the number of disputed refunds PayPal had to deal with.
This didn’t stop them from selling even more banners this past week, this time through their own website and not eBay.
All of this was fairly damaging and would be more than enough to completely destroy any consumer confidence in FanFest. However, if anybody had any confidence left, what happened next would have likely killed most it.
On July 4th, it was announced that the Better Business Bureau had given Walker Stalkers LLC an “F” rating, the lowest rating they could give a business. In an interview with Nashville’s News 4, Better Business Bureau’s CEO Robin Householder called the FanFest events “a scam,” citing the company’s habits of planning shows, pre-selling tickets, cancelling part or all of the show, and not immediately issuing refunds as reasons for the grade. Householder advised fans not to buy tickets from the convention.
FanFest loyalists online were quick to point out that the BBB isn’t that reliable, citing complaints about unfair ratings and unethical practices. For his part, James Frazier made a statement to News 4 that basically reiterated the “we made mistakes, give us a second chance” company line that he displayed in the above Facebook post and that Q& A session.
Regardless on whether you think the BBB is a valuable asset or a flawed and unethical organization, the reasons they listed for giving Walker Stalkers LLC an F actually did happen. There is a long line of broken promises involving Walker Stalker and Heroes & Villains. There are people still waiting for refunds. And they still appear to paying for current events through tickets for future shows.
However, I wouldn’t go so far as to call the event a scam. A scam is usually done with malicious intent. Walker Stalkers LLC got in the mess they’re in through gross incompetence and poor management. The grew too big too fast and were unable to adjust to changes in the industry. Their rapid expansion caused their customer service to suffer and for them to engage in dubious business practices in order to catch up. They didn’t get to where they are today by being evil bastards. They got to where they are today by being terminally stupid.
The Walking Dead
James Frazier stressed the point of earning the fans’ trust back in his June 12 Q&A. The irony that he made this statement during a closed Q&A with a handful of mostly pro-FanFest fan page administrators who where given a list of questions that could and could not ask was not lost on me. He wants to earn back your trust, but on his terms. Expecting complete transparency is a pipe dream. We only get as big a peek behind the curtain as he will let us.
He says he is issuing two refunds a day, oldest to newest, but doesn’t give any information how far along they are in the process (example: working on refunding payments received on January 13th) or where the money for the refunds was coming from. He wants to assure fans that advertised guests will indeed show up on events yet refuses to comment in detail on issues raised by celebrities who have cut ties with him. He wants fans and vendors to buy into rescheduled conventions when they haven’t received their refunds from the cancelled one yet.
“…if this is really going to turn around, it’s going to take everyone involved to do so. Attendees keep buying tickets. Vendors and artists showing up. Actors keep attending. This has to be a group effort.” That’s what Frazier implored during the Q&A session as a way to save the cons, but he doesn’t offer much changes as to what he’s going to do on his end. When ask what he has planned to improve the VIP passes, he gives a vague response that he is looking into ways to improve the process. When questions arise about FanFest breaking with Celeb Photo Ops and taking the photo taking process internally, he gives vague answers before resorting to sarcasm. When a fan asked if FanFest can go back to pre-sold autographs, the fan gets shot down, being told that it is too hard and the celebrities do not like it.
So, in other words, meet the new FanFest, same as the old FanFest. An organization who wants its fans, vendors and celebrities to help it survive yet doesn’t really care all that much in making the experience all that more appealing to its fans, vendors and celebrities.
That turns FanFest and Walker Stalker into something resembling the ghouls like you’d find on The Walking Dead. The cons will shuffle along, trying to eat up the most cash it can. But all the while, rot sets in and the things that make it what it is will slowly fall away until it has nothing left to lose. Then its undead existence will finally come to an end, and it will fade away into nothingness.