Todd Allen is the author of "The Economics of Webcomics, 2nd Edition." He consults on media and technology issues and is an adjunct professor with the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. For more information, see www.BusinessOfContent.com. He writes a weekly column for Comic Book Resources called "Comic Book Publishing Follies." You can read his column here.
A Pox on Rosemont - A Semi-Appreciation of Wizard World Chicago '07
Wizard World Chicago '07 was not as dire as the '06 edition, but that's not to say it was a roaring success. What you probably didn't know was that there was a conspiracy of stupidity against the convention this year. Well, OK, two conspiracies of stupidity: we all know how dumb it was to schedule the show so close to the San Diego Comicon. What you probably didn't realize was that the Chicago Transit Authority, a marvel of modern incompetence, had also conspired against the show: a large chunk of the train line to Rosemont was closed over the weekend. If you tried to board the "Blue Line" between the loop and about a third of the way to Rosemont, you found the stations closed and you had to take a bus to the Western Avenue station.
The Chicago transit system has been in freefall for a few years. Time was, living downtown near Water Tower, I could get out to Rosemont in under 45 minutes, no sweat - just take the train. These days, on a good day, if I take a short cut with the bus, and don't wait an egregious amount of time for the bus, I might make it in an hour, but an hour and 15 minutes is more likely.
Friday afternoon, before the train was partially closed for construction, it took me 90 minutes to get to the convention, with a long wait for the bus. Sunday, having to switch buses to even get to a functioning train stop, it took 2 hours. Not only is that ridiculous for a local resident trying to get a local show, but it's a huge inconvenience to a visitor that wants to experience a little of the city... especially when a cab downtown can cost in the neighborhood of $50.
Just to make it harder to get to the show as I experienced possibly the slowest train ride I've ever had on the Blue Line, as it stopped, started, and generally puttered like a jalopy on its last legs, I looked out the window and noticed I-90 had all 4 lanes headed towards Rosemont blocked off for an accident. It's like a higher power wanted to keep people away. And I'm sick and tired of this venue, however, we'll deal with that in a bit. First, the actual show:
Wizard World Chicago, from a retail stand-point is now a liquidation show. Normally, Sunday is the day you bargain shop at a convention. Not so at Wizard World. Well, perhaps some of the single issue bins didn't start out at a quarter each, but they came down pretty fast. Still, starting on sneak peak opening Thursday night, most of the heavily discounted material was already at 35% - 50% off, and the bulk of that didn't drop further. If you wanted trade paperbacks that were 1-2 years old, especially Marvel and DC, you could get them cheap. As low as $5 a pop. If you weren't discounting, well, it sucked to be you. Who's going to be paying retail when there's a fire sale going on? And there continues to be attrition of retailers. A fellow at the Hyatt Bar rattled off 5 or 6 names to me Thursday night, but two names non-locals might recognize that I didn't see were Chicago Comics and Forbidden Planet.
On the exhibitor side of things, there were a few noticeable absences. Slave Labor, Oni, TokyoPop, Viz, IDW, and the non-Top Cow branches of Image were all gone. (Though a few Image creators, including founding father, Jim Valentino, were in Artist's Alley.) Dark Horse has a smaller booth than the Hero Initiative, make of the what you will. Has this been abandoned as a super hero-only show? Perhaps.
As for the programming, and this is where I've heard comparisons being made to Creation conventions, of late, it was once again largely company marketing presentations. Bob Wayne emcees so many panels, they should just break down and buy him a tuxedo.
Talking to locals, nobody who didn't have a free pass or a booth attended more than one day. Just not that much to do, was the common complaint, usually accompanied by a longing for the programming choices from before Wizard bought the show. One fellow who only showed up Sunday, bought a pass off someone in the CTA parking lot for $10 and was glad to have only paid that, since he almost exclusively coming to shop. Can't blame a guy for not wanting to pay at the door for the privilege of spending money. I feel the same way about paying a cover charge at a bar, when I'm going there to drink and all they don't even have a band.
This wasn't a total loser show, despite my general apathy. I wasn't sure attendance was any better than last year on Thursday or Friday, which is to say, pretty quiet, but others have said that it was. Saturday, which I didn't bother attending was decent by all accounts. Now Sunday, was the most interesting to me. When I finally arrived at 2:30pm, the publisher area just inside the main door was a ghost town. Jaw-droppingly empty. Thing was, the further towards the back of the hall I went, the busier it got, and Artist's Alley was as busy as I'd ever seen it. The retailers, at least the ones with deep discounts, seemed to be doing OK, too. A healthy Artist's Alley is good for the show, especially since space there doesn't come cheap. I suspect more people made their table fee back than at the last few shows.
Now back to the subject of Rosemont. I am sick to death of Rosemont. Rosemont is increasingly a pain to get to, owing in a large part to the decline of Chicago's transit system. Moreover, there isn't just a whole lot to do there. You have 2 good, high-end steak joints, Giordano's, McDonald's and some hotel venues. You've got the Hyatt Bar and the dinky bar at Sofitel. At least the Hyatt Bar isn't incredibly overpriced. For the drink I had there, I'd consider $5.50 about right for a glass of Fat Tire in Chicago, but my friend's Blue Moon should have been $5.00, not $5.50. Still, a fifty-cent mark-up at a hotel bar in convention season isn't horrible.
As an aside, it was a little odd sharing the bar with the "Stitching" convention. That Thursday night, a friend of mine and I noticed a couple of 50-something women from that show in the Hyatt Bar gazing around the bar with obvious intent. Our conversation about it went something like this:
"They look hungry.""For you, not me. I have a wedding ring.""I don't think they care about that.""I think you're right.""Should we move over there?""Let's."
And we got out of their line of sight.
Now if you wanted to do something else in the evening, besides the Hyatt or Sofitel, the nearest point I'd recommend to somebody heading into the city would probably be Wicker Park, which I'd guess at around a 45 minute trip with the dilapidated train, except... oops, that section of the track was closed for the weekend. I guess it sucked to be you if you were trying to get to those drink-ups on West Chicago Avenue Saturday... or trying to get back Friday night.
That's why I'm saying its time to move the convention to Navy Pier. There's a little less space, but those aisles are awful wide and empty-looking if you peer down from the Sky-Bridge after the show has closed. It would not be hard to make it work, given the reoccurring theme of exhibitor shrinkage. With Navy Pier, you have a few more food options adjacent to the show and a whole lot more options, period, within a quick cab ride. If you're bringing children to the show, there are alternate activities for them, and/or your spouse, right there on site. You aren't limited to 2 bars, though you probably would still want to hop a few blocks for that, at least there are options. A greater selection of hotels, as well. Plus, if you want to see Chicago when you're at the show, you're actually in Chicago. It just a better setting than convention oasis amidst a suburban wasteland that is Rosemont: that's like holding the New York ComicCon in Jersey City.