Rise Of The Cons: SoCal's Three Cons

The Los Angeles/Southern California area is a region that has never held a single major comics convention for any prolonged length of time. With San Diego a minimum of a two-hour drive from LA, most SoCal residents split their time between Comic-Con International in San Diego and smaller local conventions, as well as organizations such as LA's Comic Book Sunday, which straddles the line between club and convention.

But with the launch of two new LA.-based conventions, Wizard World's Los Angeles Comic Con and brand new contender Comikaze Expo (both slated to use the Los Angeles Convention Center) as well as the return of Long Beach Comic Con, SoCal suddenly finds itself hosting three potentially major shows. And hosting them in a relatively short amount of time -- Wizard's convention takes place in September, followed by Long Beach in October and Comikaze in November. While many are wondering how SoCal can possibly sustain three new and returning conventions, others are openly asking what the rise of these cons means for the Los Angeles area. Is the West Coast primed for a Con War?

"I know everyone was already pitting us against each other saying, 'There's going to be this war!' But no, there's not," laughed Comikaze Expo Co-Founder Regina Carpinelli when CBR News asked for a her take on the situation. Comikaze Expo, created by Carpinelli and her brother Mario, will run November 5 and 6 at the Los Angeles Convention Center and is the newest of the three cons. Labeling Comikaze a "pop culture convention," Carpinelli said the Expo's motto was "No Geek Left Behind," and explained that the Expo will place equal focus on comics, anime, science fiction, fantasy, genre literature, genre television and film, and even hosting some live performances. Carpinelli went on to declare that rather than see each other as competitors, Long Beach Comic Con and Comikaze have formed a con "alliance."

"Long Beach is our friend, we have an alliance with them -- we're going to help each other out. We're not going to combine our conventions, but we're going to do some stuff together," said Carpinelli, laying out plans for cross promotions as well as possible double weekend convention ticket sales.

Long Beach Comic Con Founder and MAD Events Management President Martha Donato was similarly enthusiastic. "I've talked to Regina; she's nice and she's planning to do something different. We're trying to really make sure it's not the same offering. Ours is really a comic book show; theirs is a pop culture show," said Donato. Long Beach Comic Con will host its third-ever convention October 29 and 30 at the Long Beach Convention Center; created by Donato and her business partner Phil Lawrence in 2009, LBCC is a traditional comic book convention, complete with appearances by industry guests, comic book panel programming and an artist's alley. LBCC has big plans to expand its offerings, however, debuting a masquerade ball this year, as well as workshop seminars on how to create comics with industry professionals and a brand new horror film festival, the Might And Fright Film Festival, run with partner Comic Book Sunday. With all this expansion, Donato dismissed the idea that three conventions occurring within a span of months would negatively affect her business.

"I think Long Beach is a different market than downtown LA. This is a big, big city; we have tracked our attendees and where they come from, and they really do come from LA County, Long Beach and a little from Orange County," said Donato. "Long Beach is still a city, but the people who don't want to go downtown to an event come to our show. And if you're a really hard-core comics fan, you'll go to all three."

Carpinelli also emphasized the differences between the two cons, spelling out plans to donate part of Comikaze ticket proceeds to charities such as Gamers United, a partnership with LA.'s Haunted Hayride and emphasis on promoting local businesses as what sets the Expo apart from LBCC and Wizard. "Everything Comikaze stands for is about Los Angeles; I live in Los Angeles, my partners live here, we're really involved with our community and we want to create a positive event for our city," said Carpinelli. Starting small, Comikaze is signed to a three-year contract with the Los Angeles Convention Center, a contract which sees the Expo expand to half the convention center in 2012 and then the entire convention center in 2013. According to Carpinelli, as soon as Comikaze was announced, she went out of her way to contact LBCC.

"I wanted to [reach out] because they are in Long Beach, they are our next door neighbors -- I didn't know how far it would go, because you never know how people react, but Martha is awesome," said Carpinelli. "It doesn't hurt me to promote people; judging by our ticket sales I don't think we're going to have a problem."

Of course, the elephant in the room is Wizard World's LA Comic Con. Announced directly on the heels of its April Anaheim Comic Con, the move took everyone by surprise -- including Donato and Carpinelli.

"We had everything booked and as far as our knowledge, the only conventions in Los Angeles was us and then the show in Long Beach. It was a shock," said Carpinelli.

Judging by the April announcement, Wizard has given itself just five months to pull their LA convention together, an ambitious task in light of Wizard's prior failure hosting a Los Angeles convention. Originating their show in Long Beach, Wizard moved to the LA Convention Center in 2005, only to cancel the event altogether in 2009 (though it was officially listed as "postponed," not cancelled). Wizard has also been known in the past to schedule their events weeks before or at the same time as their competitors, the most recent example taking place in 2009 when Wizard announced its Big Apple Con as running week prior to New York Comic Con while scheduling their 2010 Big Apple Con on the same weekend as NYCC (eventually Wizard rescheduled and the two avoided further conflict). There have also been persistent rumors that before the LA Comic Con announcement, Wizard tried to book rooms at the Long Beach Convention Center in a move that would have brought them in direct competition with LBCC, though representatives from Long Beach Convention Center stated that they have no bookings for Wizard at this time. But while the timing and place is a surprise, Wizard's goal to expand into new cities is not groundbreaking news -- at least not to Donato.

"Wizard's plan is very obvious. They have it stated in all their paperwork that they plan to add shows in all the markets. I guess in that regard I wasn't surprised, because they have made it very public they plan to expand; that it was so close to our show was the surprise. But I understand there's only a limited amount of space on each convention center's calendar, and sometimes you have to take what you're given," said Donato.

Wizard declined to comment for this article, but forwarded a PR statement from CEO Gareb Shamus, saying, "We are ecstatic to come to the rejuvenated downtown area of Los Angeles to celebrate the best of pop culture -- graphic novels, TV, movies, toys, games, genre properties and of course, comic books. You can always trust Wizard World to bring the most diverse and robust collection of artists, writers, creators and celebrities anywhere."

Yet no matter how friendly the three conventions are with each other, outside observers remain skeptical of fan willingness or ability to attend each one. Bruce Schwartz, founder of the local Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention, is one of the doubtful.

"Last year multiple conventions started up and they were not successful, so it's doubtful that there can be support for so many new shows as area exhibitors and collectors probably won't be able to attend all of them," Schwartz told CBR. As the Comic Book and Science Fiction convention is one of the many smaller shows in LA (commonly referred to as "dirt" cons by attendees), one might be inclined to dismiss Schwartz's opinion if not for the fact that his convention has been a regular fixture in SoCal for over 30 years, regularly boasting big name special guests from Jackie Chan to Christian Bale. And while Comic Book Sunday founder Benjamin Jackendoff was enthusiastic about the group's role in Long Beach's Might And Fright Festival, he too expressed doubts about the vitality of the convention scene.

"We have three conventions right now, and it's like, do we have to go three weekends in a row?" said Jackendoff. "I'll be honest, I was quite happy with Long Beach this year as an alternative to San Diego. The bottom line is people don't have a lot of money to spend -- when they have one convention, it makes it a lot easier." He laughed and added, "And while everyone is saying there is no competition, it feels like there might be!"

Measuring the true success of a convention is equally difficult. After all, these are essentially small businesses that for the most part judge their success by internal measures, not by external competition with other shows. While moves to host conventions close together has resulted in bad PR, since shows are able to release biased or inflated attendance numbers, the actual impact on ticket sales cannot be readily judged. As well, though increased attendance at San Diego's Comic-Con International has grabbed national headlines, Long Beach has yet to see increased convention attendance for itself or other conventions. "The economy has been a very hard struggle to overcome," admitted Donato.

Amidst all the market tension exists another pressing question that no one seems able to address: how can comic book conventions continue to grow and stay afloat while comic readership drops? While the past three to four years has seen an explosion in conventions and unprecedented growth, specifically for San Diego's Comic-Con International, this new mainstream love of comic book conventions has not translated into comic book sales. In fact, as comic book conventions grow more popular, comic books appear to grow less so. According to analysis blog ICv2 comic book sales in 2010 were down 4.64 percent year-over-year and sales overall have been declining since the 2000s. Even the previously vibrant graphic novel market for manga is down, with Tokyopop closing its North American branch earlier this year. As for the explosion in conventions, attendance size is something both Donato and Carpinelli attributed to social marketing tools and San Diego Comic-Con's successful mainstreaming of convention culture rather than a boom in readership.

"You've got TV shows like 'Big Bang Theory' where they talk about comics and it becomes more culturally acceptable. It's so much easier for live events to promote than it used to be with Facebook and Twitter and Yelp; it's so easy for us to list an event and have people say, 'I've heard of Comic Con before, I'll go check it out.' And they're not hardcore fans," said Donato, adding, "I don't know why it doesn't translate into buying the comics, though. I really don't know what the disconnect is."

In many regards, whether the conventions get along or tear each other apart is beside the point. While the current growth in Southern California should not be labeled as a Con War, it is very well could be labeled a Con Bubble. Wizard has already failed to gain traction once in Los Angeles. Comikaze's goals are ambitious for a brand new business, and it may suffer from marketing itself as a pop culture convention as this will inevitably bring it into comparison with pop-culture mega-cons such as CCI. Even LBCC is in the midst of diversifying its offerings, seeking to draw in film and horror buffs with Might and Fright. No matter how you slice it, only time will tell whether fans will care to attend any of the 2011 SoCal shows.

"I know that what our Long Beach show does and what the Wizard World show does is different -- it's a different city and, historically, we have different audiences," concluded Donato, asserting once again that the success of LBCC would not be minimized by competition. Suddenly she laughed and added, "I hope that holds true; I'll let you know in November!"

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