Here are some of the biggest stories and trends of the year:
SDCC is losing its exclusive grip on the top spot. For the last several decades, the San Diego Comic-Con has been to pop culture conventions what Xerox was to copiers: so dominant in the market that it became nearly synonymous with the idea of any comic convention in the public imagination. But this year, New York Comic Con may have surpassed the West Coast show in attendance (depending on how you count the numbers) and shows in Salt Lake City, Denver and elsewhere pushing over the 100,000 mark. SDCC still has the Hollywood connection, but this year showed some fading of the star power with some top franchises missing from Hall H and no big headlines generated elsewhere. The emergence of a world where no US fan event commands the entire spotlight or defines the momentum of popular culture is a significant shift from the past 20 years, and could pose a real challenge to the economic structure that has emerged around the San Diego con.
Exhibitors are struggling to adapt to the changing nature of cons. The evolution of conventions from giant collectors’ flea-markets to some combination of arts festival and Mardi Gras has been going on for a while but we may be approaching a tipping point. This year we heard Mile High Comics Chuck Rozanski speak up about the rising competition that comics dealers are facing from publisher exclusives, and from Denise Dorman speaking on behalf of artists like her husband Dave, who find their fan base significantly diluted at today’s big shows. These are pressing issues. It’s not yet clear how fandom shows can (or want to) evolve beyond the legacy "dealer’s room" or if there is anything organizers can do to make the new style shows economically viable for the old-school artists and exhibitors whose presence differentiates fan cons from ordinary consumer events.
Fan events are spawning an entire pop-up economy. The last several years of the San Diego Comic-Con have seen the rise of a whole constellation of fan-oriented events outside the convention center (and open to attendees who don’t have badges). This amplified the already-huge economic impact that SDCC has on the city of San Diego, now estimated at $178 million. Now other cities are looking to get in on the action. This year NYCC was accompanied by "Super Week," a schedule of fan-themed activities and events around New York City, orchestrated in part by NYCC organizer ReedPOP. This will only increase as cities become more cognizant of the economic clout of fan events and start providing the civic and institutional support that other large, non-costume-wearing conventions enjoy.
Con attendance is approaching gender parity. Both Brent Schenker’s Facebook-based demographic research and the Eventbrite survey from last June agree that women constitute a much larger component of comic, anime and gaming fandom than most people suspect--and more than some people can deal with, apparently. The biggest headline from the Eventbrite survey? Even though overall fandom divides about 55% male/45% female, among fans under the age of 30, that number ratio is almost exactly 50/50.
Rising expectations are putting the spotlight on the occasional failed show. Every boiling pot produces its share of froth and scum, and the booming convention economy is no exception. Amid the success stories are occasional warning signs: oversold shows, facilities that can’t accommodate the crowds, disputes between organizers, ticketing glitches, guests not being paid, and even a couple of cons that managed to fail for the old fashioned reason of not getting enough attendees. This is largely unavoidable, and magnified because social media and blogs get the word out immediately if cons fail to deliver. The problem is, the "cons are booming" narrative naturally gives rise to a counter-narrative of “is it sustainable?” where every failure is a supporting data point. That’s putting further pressure on organizers to not be that guy.
What’s next? As the convention season goes into its ever-briefer winter hibernation, look for a few new trends to emerge next year:
- More and better-targeted niche shows. The last couple of years have shown that cons can be viable at any size, from one-day small press expos to collector swap meets to arts festivals to specially-focused events like GeekGirlCon, as long as they are marketed correctly and differentiated from the gigantic costume and celebrity extravaganzas. This model will mature at scale next year.
- Bigger international footprint. Already we’re seeing more shows in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America embrace the American fan convention model. The big players are already trying to figure out how to deliver these shows at scale, all over the world.
- Professionally-organized shows distance themselves from mom-and-pop operations. The fandom con economy has the full attention of the events and entertainment industry. The investments and resources those players can bring will create a wide(r) gulf between the slick, professional conventions and the "let’s have a show in the barn!" style of fan-produced shows that used to be the norm.
--Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.