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Comicpalooza Wrestles With Consolidation In Comic Con Industry

Big event organizers are able to outbid independents to book top celebrities.

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The business of comic and pop culture conventions, or comic cons, has grown dramatically in recent years. That growth has brought new challenges for independently run comic cons like Houston’s Comicpalooza.

Most people gathered on the floor of the George R. Brown know actress Erin Gray from her role as Colonel Wilma Deering in the film and TV series, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.” Gray has been involved in the comic con circuit for years, and not just signing autographs. For more than a decade, she’s run an agency called Heroes for Hire, booking other celebrities for conventions.

“I’m kind of fearless,” Gray says. “I figured everybody’s going to answer my phone call at least once in Hollywood, you know, so I just started saying, ‘Look, if you want this actor, you pay me 10 percent, and I will go hunt for them. I’ll try to make it happen.’”

People will pay to get into a comic con for lots of reasons. They may want to catch a sneak preview of next season’s “Doctor Who.” They may just enjoy the opportunity to dress up as their favorite character from “The X-Men.” But one of the biggest reasons is the chance to meet their favorite celebrities.

Competition for big-name guests is getting fierce. There’s now at least one con somewhere in North America every week. And there’s another problem for independently operated conventions like Comicpalooza: consolidation. Chain operators can afford to run comic cons in multiple cities and book the same stars to all their events.

Last year, Anglo-Swiss event organizer Informa acquired Toronto-based comic con Fan Expo. Informa gave its subsidiary the mandate to expand the chain’s business by buying other cons..

“The way we wanted to approach it was to find like-minded show promoters like ourselves that had produced great events over the years, enable them to sort of continue doing what they do, but to facilitate doing that bigger, better, and hopefully more of,” says Steve Menzie, president of Fan Expo.

Fan Expo’s first big acquisition was Dallas Comic Con, Comicpalooza’s big cross-state rival, which runs a week before the Houston event. The buyout allowed the Dallas show to move into a much larger venue and expand its roster of big-name guests. The payoff: 50,000 attendees, double the convention’s total for last year.

John Simons, Comicpalooza’s chairman, says having Fan Expo in his backyard is worrisome. But he’s convinced he and other independent organizers are up to the challenge.

“This is an industry that was created by independent organizers, not these big companies,” says Simons. “The independent organizers are the ones that have brought all the creativity into it and made it into something that is diverse.”

Several independents are looking to pool their resources to take advantage of the same economies of scale that chains enjoy. The trick will be doing that while keeping their individual characters.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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