Marc Alan Fishman: The Responsibilities of a Show Promoter
Having concluded an exhausting round of conventions (with one more to go in November, baby!), I find myself in awe of those brave soldiers who put on the shows themselves. From the giant conglomerate-hedge-fund-corporations with deep pockets, to the lonely islands that build their shows in small hotel ballrooms (like Days Inn… screw those who can afford the Embassy Suites!), VFW halls, and auditoria that double as bingo halls on off-nights. Simply put, a comic con is equal parts conference, summit, trade show, and flea market. Balancing these elements into a single entity is like throwing your kid’s birthday during your wedding with a Bar Mitzvah taking place in the adjacent ballroom. So, what makes a good show… from the eyes of an artist?
When I made the transition from fan to creator, my expectations for a show runner where slim to none. I honestly figured buying a table granted you… the table. Maybe a few chairs. But over time, those wants have shifted decidedly towards needs. Not that Unshaven Comics is in much (if any) position to have desired expectations, the glut of shows that exist now pull for our attention – and table fees – and word travels fast when it comes to which shows are must attend and which are must give a crap.
The Cost of the Table or Space
First and foremost, the cost of the table must be in proper ratio to the number of butts in the building. Wizard charges artists upwards of $350 – $450 for an Artist Alley table. In Chicago though, the stream of traffic typically matches the price – allowing most Bohemians behind their buffets to earn back the cost of said countertop in advance of the show coming to a close. I imagine much is the same for a vendor seeking exhibition booth space. And where applicable (see: ReedPop!) finding ways to nickel and dime us at every opportunity – want another chair for that booth? $85! – isn’t the best way to earn our love. We know we’re a captive audience… but that never means we have to like it. And for those vendors who aren’t being backed by marketing budgets, the added cost to power a booth for four days may not be worth it after a while.
The Fans in Attendance
Table price aside, I’d mentioned traffic. Here, the correlation between happy fans and happy artists are one in the same: if one group ain’t happy, the other won’t be far behind. I can’t count how many shows we saw fan after fan in a slump because of any number of reasons: perhaps waiting on line for hours at a time for a ticket for the voucher for the opportunity to look at the door outside of the hall where they are letting that one guy sign autographs for 20 minutes before his handlers whisk him off for a two-hour lunch. And when that fan is just three people in line after they set the cut off? Guess who he’s going to take it out on? Us. A lot. He’ll listen to the pitch for our book. In another world where he got that ticket, he may even give us a shot (he needs something to read during the hour long queue to sit down). But when the day started with a four hour wait for that McGuffin pass, followed by a half hour waiting to pee in a bathroom that Cthulu would be appalled by, followed by dropping over ten bucks for a hot dog, chips, and a soda… multiplied by the thousands who felt the same pains? Doesn’t make for a buy-happy experience. But I digress.
Traffic Needs Roads
The show floor (and corresponding venue) must be a planner’s nightmare. Organizing the fan areas (for photos and the like), gaming zones, autograph areas, the Artist Alley, vendor space, and panel rooms is a dance most choreographers would shy away from. The key to it all from the artists’ perspective? Flow. We want a stream of traffic to mill about the aisles in a steady queue that keeps our hands busy. When the only draw of a show during a given day takes place (“See Patrick Stewart high five Billy Shatner in Hall H!”), the monsoon of militant attendees makes for an awkward hour. Suddenly free-wheeling loiterers are collapsing in a heap to find a seat elsewhere, and you hawking your wares becomes plain insulting to them.
Fans Need Incentive to Become Fans
Simply put, a convention show runner is responsible to entice their attendees to explore every nook and cranny of their convention hall. I can’t count how many times we’ve heard how someone stumbled across us never expecting to purchase. While a decidedly pious few announce their love of shows specifically to seek out the new and odd… most are there to snag that deal on back issues or trades, get the autograph of that now-B-Lister from the Show-They-Love(d)-So-Much, and maybe waste some time at a panel or two. Artist Alley is always feels seemingly like an afterthought from show runner’s perspective. We pay the least to be on the floor, and our DIY table-scapes are rarely seen as a draw large enough to bolster attendance.
But consider my hypothesis: the Artist Alley is the lifeblood of a show. Yes, celebrities and razzle-dazzle gets people in the door. But those precious minutes spent on line, and then snapping that quick photo are only a small percentage of the opportunities that exist in a given con. If I’m to be bold, more often than not, fans discover in the alley. They have the chance to meet face to face with creators and pick their brain (while conducting business, mind you), as well as see the past, present, and future of the industry that spawned the cons in the first place.
I’d put the onus on the show runner’s to push the artists (and dealers to an extent) just as much an attraction for their conventions. Introduce attendees to the notion of making a sketchbook filled by artists in attendance. Consider “con bingo” where fans are rewarded for making purchases from every zone on a given floor (or even just for listening to the pitch). In essence: reward the fan who chooses to enjoy the entirety of their admission. At the end of it all… no one can complain (within reason) if they felt that they saw every fan have the opportunity to converse. That is to say (ahem, Mrs. Dorman), the biggest responsibility of the show runner is get butts in the hall, and get them mingling. The responsibility of we who man the tables… is to make it worth their while.