A big con?

At big events, has artists’ al­ley be­come an af­ter­thought? We ask the ex­perts if con­ven­tions are a con…

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Can artists still make money at con­ven­tions, or is artists’ al­ley now merely an af­ter­thought?

Dave and Denise Dor­man spent $7,000 to ex­hibit at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. They left the event, the largest of its kind in the world, $1,000 down. This is de­spite Dave’s stand­ing within the comic book in­dus­try – an artist whose work in­cludes con­ven­tion favourites Bat­man, Su­per­man, In­di­ana Jones and Star Wars.

It was the same story at Wizard World, Grand­Con and other events. Denise – who blogs about cons un­der the name Comic Book Wife – wrote a post ex­plain­ing she in­ter­viewed sev­eral sim­i­larly high-pro­file artists and they all said they’re not mak­ing money at cons.

“I have slowly come to re­alise that,” Denise wrote, “in this selfie-ob­sessed In­sta­gram era, cos­play is the new fo­cus of th­ese con­ven­tions – see­ing and be­ing seen, like some gi­ant mas­quer­ade party. Con­ven­tions are no longer shows about com­merce, prod­uct launches and cel­e­brat­ing the peo­ple who cre­ated this genre in the first place.”

Denise says she doesn’t blame cos­play alone for low con­ven­tion sales. She and Dave are honorary mem­bers of the world’s largest cos­play or­gan­i­sa­tion, The 501st Le­gion. The idea be­hind the post was to start a dis­cus­sion about what ex­hibitors and con­ven­tion own­ers could do dif­fer­ently.

Dis­par­ity con­cerns

Cons have a re­spon­si­bil­ity, Denise says, to give artist at least equal billing with ac­tors. Artists’ al­ley shouldn’t be an af­ter­thought. And they need to cut the cost of hir­ing booths and ta­bles. She also points to a shift in the pur­pose of cons: from com­merce-driven so­cial events, to purely so­cial events. Pub­lish­ers are also muscling out artists.

“Con­ven­tion col­lectabil­ity has moved from the artist to the pub­lish­ers them­selves,” Denise says. “But if you fo­cus on the big pic­ture, peo­ple aren’t look­ing to put

some­thing on their walls or col­lect pieces to file in a port­fo­lio some­where. If they can’t view it on their phone screen, their com­puter screen or stream it to their TV, they’re not that in­ter­ested in spend­ing money on it. We live in the post-Nap­ster era where “ev­ery­thing is free” is a mind­set. Col­lect­ing art­work in real life is a di­min­ish­ing pas­time.”

The pas­sion fac­tor

Marc Alan Fish­man from Un­shaven Comics says con­ven­tions weren’t founded for the cre­ators to make money. They’re some­where fans come to­gether over a shared pas­sion.

“The gen­eral pop­u­la­tion – those In­sta­gram-ob­sessed fans – gives more than just a damn for those cre­ators who take the time to reach out and com­mu­ni­cate,” Marc wrote in re­sponse to Denise. “I say this ad­mit­ting freely I’ve never seen Dave Dor­man. And we’ve ex­hib­ited at the same shows more than once. I don’t know specif­i­cally how Dave ex­hibits. But if he’s like oth­ers I’ve seen over the past seven years, he may sit, smil­ing, await­ing those loyal reg­u­lars to come with cash in hand. In short, it’s not enough any more. It hasn’t been that way in a long time.”

Marc’s business re­lies heav­ily on cons. Un­shaven treats th­ese events as, “a straight business ven­ture from the time the floor opens to the time they kick us out.” Mean­while, Kyle Gnep­per – writer and

In this selfie-ob­sessed, In­sta­gram era, cos­play is the new fo­cus – see­ing and be­ing seen, like some gi­ant mas­quer­ade party

sales­man – stands and pitches Un­shaven’s prod­ucts to any­one who’ll lis­ten.

The Chicago-based out­fit – friends Marc, Kyle and artist Matt Wright – col­lects data at cons: they track ev­ery sale, profit, pitch-to-close ra­tio and de­mo­graphic in­for­ma­tion. Marc says the new­est gen­er­a­tion of fans come to con­ven­tions to cel­e­brate their love of the me­dia. In the dig­i­tal age, that love doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily trans­late to sales.

“As much as this is a business of pas­sion, we know the only edge we po­ten­tially have is work­ing harder and smarter. We go to shows be­cause we couldn’t be a stu­dio if we didn’t. The con­ven­tions are our lifeblood. We don’t sell our books in store – too much over­head, no pro­mo­tion, no profit – so the cons are 99.99 per cent of our sales.

“As fans, con­ven­tions are the best place to fully im­merse one­self in the great­est and most cre­ative in­dus­try in the world. Those bil­lions of dol­lars be­ing shared across the mul­ti­plexes? That’s be­cause of comic books, and, in part, the con­tin­ued ex­pan­sion and growth of con­ven­tions.”

A se­lec­tive ap­proach

Over the past 10 years, Peter Mohrbacher has turned a profit at 90 per cent of the con­ven­tions that he’s at­tended. Events are some­where he does business in more ways than one: not only does he profit di­rectly from sales, but he builds his au­di­ence, net­works, finds new clients and part­ners, learns new tech­niques and prac­tices. So much so that next year he’s plan­ning to invest even more in cons. He just picks the events that are right for him.

“Ev­ery­thing costs time and if one type of show or another makes me un­happy,” the il­lus­tra­tor and con­cept artist says. “I’ll do ev­ery­thing I can to invest my time in some­thing I have bet­ter feel­ings about. Even if I were to put a dol­lar value on my time at cons, the money has added up rather nicely over the past year as I’ve in­vested in them fur­ther. The net dol­lar amount from sales alone is almost al­ways equal to or bet­ter than my stan­dard day rate for free­lance work.”

But the real rea­son Peter goes to cons is en­joy­ment: “I love the sense of com­mu­nity. Artists are my tribe and it feels im­por­tant to be a part of a tribe. It can be tir­ing to sell, draw, talk, sign – or even just stand around for 10 or 12 hours straight for sev­eral days in a row. But after, an evening out with friends can re­ally make it feel worth­while.”

Con­ven­tions are our lifeblood. They make up 99.99 per cent of our sales

Peter Mohrbacher ad­mits it was tough to make money at his first cons, but over the past 10 years he’s made profit 90 per cent of the time.

Marc Alan Fish­man, whose Un­shaven Comics make the Dread­nuts pub­li­ca­tions, says con­ven­tions weren’t founded for the cre­ators to make money.

Dragon Spring, by Bob Eg­gle­ton, who thinks artists need to be se­lec­tive about which cons they at­tend.

De­spite be­ing well known for his Bat­man,

Su­per­man and Star Wars art, Dave Dor­man left SDCC with a $1,000 loss.

Re­turn of the Deep One, by Bob Eg­gle­ton. The artist says he dis­likes some of the smaller con­ven­tions. Eis­ner Award-win­ner Dave Dor­man has been guest of hon­our at San Diego Comic-Con three times.

Peter Mohrbacher’s Her­ald of Dawn. He says he goes to cons pri­mar­ily to feel part of the art tribe.

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