WonderCon 2015: On the Move to LA (Talk Back Recap)

Spider-Gwen in the plaza outside WonderCon Anaheim.

Spider-Gwen in the plaza outside WonderCon Anaheim.

It was a great weekend at WonderCon Anaheim, despite complaints that the programming schedule looked a little thin at first glance. But because of all the big news that was dropped at the Talkback panel, let’s recap that first before our general WonderCon recap post later in the week.

For the uninitiated, Comic-Con and WonderCon host annual Talk Back panels that feature Comic-Con International’s president, John Rogers, kindly sits alone on stage and is barraged with questions and complaints (and the occasional compliment) from the attendees present.

This year, though, it was clear they knew some of the answers to the regularly-asked questions would be big, because CCI’s Director of Marketing David Glanzer was also present – and Rogers deferred to him on a few questions whose answers clearly needed a little bit of PR finesse. (Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim was also present, manning the microphone for attendees as he did in 2014.)

Of course, the biggest news:

WonderCon will be moving to the Los Angeles Convention Center for 2016. The show will again be on Easter weekend, March 25 – 27.

You may recall that WonderCon was born in the Bay Area – it began in Oakland before moving over to the Moscone Center in San Francisco in search of more space. When the Moscone was unable (or unwilling) to offer WonderCon dates more than three or six months in advance, WonderCon was forced to either cancel the event entirely or find a new venue. This led them to Anaheim in 2012.

But each year at the Talk Back it’s been asked if WonderCon would return to San Francisco; each year, the answer was that CCI wasn’t sure, and they went where they were offered dates. So when the question of staying in Anaheim was raised again this year, Rogers was ready to call Glanzer forward to deliver the news.

There were several issues with Anaheim for 2016, he explained, including a lack of available dates and meeting room space – remember that any show this size needs additional dates booked for load-in, and this was part of the availability issue with Anaheim. Yet again WonderCon was faced with canceling or moving to a new home.

And so the move to Los Angeles was decided. At the time of the Talk Back, the contract with the LA Convention Center had not been finalized; Glanzer expected the venue to make the announcement Monday, which they did. In the meantime, he requested Talk Back attendees refrain from publicizing that information, although he followed it with acknowledgment that it was probably too late for that request – and it was, since the news had already hit Twitter.

This move has led to speculation about Comic-Con’s future home: their contract with the San Diego Convention Center only runs through 2016, and there have been countless reports and opinion pieces this winter about what they might do next. Both Los Angeles and Anaheim have been courting the show; could WonderCon’s move be an indication of the status for Comic-Con?

The modern WonderCon has always been something of a vagabond. Despite its ability to sell out 60,000 tickets two years in a row, CCI has always had difficulty securing dates (which is why they have become stuck as an Easter weekend show) and space. Regardless of its long tenure in the Bay Area, the show has always been forced to move frequently in an effort simply to survive.

But is a WonderCon in LA a trial run for a Comic-Con in LA? Is CCI pulling WonderCon from Anaheim in anticipation of moving Comic-Con into that venue?

There’s no way to know for certain. But Rogers has always been very honest at these Talk Backs, and I’m inclined to take him and the rest of the CCI staff at their word when they say they don’t know yet where WonderCon or Comic-Con will land in 2017. WonderCon 2017 and beyond are dependent on what venue will offer them dates and space; Comic-Con 2017 and beyond is largely dependent on hotel availability. None of the staffers present at Talk Back sounded thrilled about moving out of Anaheim; rather, it sounded like it’s been as much of a hassle for them as it is for us.

Indeed, we must recall that for every hassle attendees will face in the trek from Anaheim to LA, CCI will have many more. They too are leaving a venue they had only just begun to settle into for one they have never exhibited in. New traffic patterns, new signage, new room layouts and capacities, new security challenges. (Only just this year did WonderCon implement badged-member only areas in front of the Anaheim Convention Center to hold back protesters and flyer distributors.) Fostering relationships with the staff at the LA Convention Center takes work, too. It’s potentially three days of additional traffic headaches and a new learning curve for attendees; it’s a year’s worth of extra work for CCI.

And that’s one of the most important parts of Talk Back: not just the chance to air grievances, but the reminder that the people behind these massive events are no different than us – only human.

Other issues raised:

  • Easter weekend does bring out the best in some cosplayers.

    Easter weekend does bring out the best in some cosplayers.

    Easter dates. This is an annual complaint, and Rogers conceded that they don’t care for having the show on Easter weekend, either – several staffers would prefer not to work on Easter (Rogers pointed to Ibrahim with a laugh), and several invited guests have declined because of the holiday. But as with the location changes, CCI chose to have the show on Easter rather than not have it at all.

  • Hotels. While hotel space around the LA Convention Center has been a topic of conversation in the wake of the announcement, Rogers did promise “good hotel deals” for WonderCon 2016.
  • DC Comics’ absence. DC’s absence did not go unnoticed this year at WonderCon. The explanation given both at the Talk Back and during the Masquerade Saturday night was that DC is in the middle of their big move from their New York offices to their new space in Burbank. As such, DC decided not to exhibit at any conventions during April. Rogers expects DC to return next year (and the new digs in Burbank mean it’s a much shorter trip!).
  • Restricted badged-members only areas in front of the convention center. Rogers explained that this was added to keep attendees from being bombarded with flyers and shouts from religious protestors (the Easter date exacerbates the latter problem). It’s too early to know if something similar will be done in LA next year.
  • Random autograph drawings. These are explicitly done to prevent camping out for first-come, first-serve autographs; CCI prefers the lottery system here, and generally autograph signing tickets that are not done by lottery are ones that WonderCon was not made aware of in advance.
  • Moving full panels to bigger rooms. Rogers had a practical answer to this complaint about a full panel not being moved to a bigger room even though a larger room did not have a panel scheduled at the same time. Not only is it difficult to reshuffle the schedule like that at the last minute, but often times an “empty” room is not actually empty – it’s holding a tech check for a future panel.
  • Vegan food options. Sadly WonderCon is not in charge of the food choices (not even those sweet food trucks), but they can of course pass along requests and recommendations to the food vendors at the convention centers.
  • Expanding the indie film presence. Glanzer and Rogers countered a complaint about the indie film and webseries presence being too small with the reminder that Comic-Con does host an independent film festival (CCI-IFF). “But it’s so hard to get into Comic-Con,” the attendee lamented.
  • Room 300AB at WonderCon 2015.

    Room 300AB at WonderCon 2015.

    Screening questions at panels. One fan complained that his question, which involved character deaths, was deemed inappropriate by a screener at a panel last summer at Comic-Con. Rogers explained that the rule was adopted after a Smallville panel, which brought the entire cast save the two leads, was asked “why didn’t you bring any of the good cast?” Rightfully mortified, CCI began requiring question screening after that. But what qualifies as an acceptable question? That’s sometimes up to the studios.

  • Photos at autograph signings. While photos are often restricted at signings, one complaint detailed an autograph session that prohibited attendees from even having their phones out while in line. The attendee who brought this up said she wasn’t even allowed to have it out to text her daughter.
  • Missing Anaheim. After the Los Angeles news was announced, several attendees came forward to wax poetic about how much they’ve loved the show in Anaheim, and how they hope it can return.
  • Bay Area fans. Rogers specifically asked how many in the audience had traveled from the Bay Area to attend WonderCon this year, and followed up with them on whether they would return next year for the show in LA. The response was largely positive.
  • Anaheim locals. Rogers also took note that nearly every hand in the room was raised when he asked how many had attended WonderCon every year its been in Anaheim.

When Comic-Con was brought up, Glanzer, Rogers, and Ibrahim were wonderfully open about the issues they are facing further south:

  • sdcc14Hotel problems and a venue beyond 2016. As mentioned above, Comic-Con’s contract with San Diego expires in 2016. Glanzer was quite open about the issue: “One of the challenges we’re having is hotel room blocks,” he said. This issue is about hotels making rooms available at a discounted rate, not so much to do with the problems Travel Planners caused last week during the hotel sale. Glanzer said they’re starting to deal with pushback from some hotels this year, although others have still been great about giving up rooms at a discount and allowing SDCC to use their ballrooms. Glanzer said his “personal fear” is that enough hotels stop participating in the discounted room block, charging the astronomical sums we’ve seen on occasion ($500 – $1000 a night), that the compliant hotels start feeling slighted. “And then guess what? Nobody can afford to be in San Diego.” Glanzer says the city and the convention center are on Comic-Con’s side, as are most of the hotels – but there are some who “believe we will never leave San Diego, so they can charge whatever they want.” Glanzer called it “a real problem and something that terrifies me.” He noted that the Board of Directors has spent a lot of time considering this issue and working on contingency plans. “We were born in San Diego, we want to stay in San Diego,” he said. “So if we ever have to move, know that it was not because we wanted to but because we literally had our hands tied behind our backs.”
  • Too many suits. Also mentioned in the hotel discussion was the fear that overpriced hotel rooms would turn the show into an industry-only event, essentially a giant press junket. (Some hotels seem to think there are an endless supply of Hollywood suits who will pay $800 a night for a hotel.) Rogers, Glanzer, and Ibrahim were very clear that they do not want this, that the show is meant to be for the fans. And if fans can’t afford to come, there’s no point in having the show. After all, they’re fans too: “You know those big parties they have? We don’t get invited to those.”
  • Webcasting panels. Rogers dismissed Comic-Con’s potential interest in webcasting or live streaming their panels, arguing that the purpose of the con shouldn’t be just to watch panels – it’s about the people you meet during the show. This emphasis on fostering a community is lovely, but there are also practical issues with live streaming: namely, legal ramifications and the sheer cost of it all. (The bill for running the feed of Hall H and Ballroom 20 into the Playback room in the Omni last year? $40,000.) Of course, you may recall that Comic-Con has filed for trademarks for their name and logo in relation to web video services; but Rogers answer illustrates that even if Comic-Con has a renewed interest in web video, there are a lot of challenges to overcome.

WonderCon Talk Back was scheduled for half an hour but with the Los Angeles news and the talk of San Diego’s hotel troubles, it lasted nearly an hour. And beyond that, Glanzer and Rogers stayed until nearly 6pm – a full hour after the convention had closed – talking with attendees about all kinds of issues. For example, Rogers and other staffers spent time giving advice to one attendee who is in the midst of starting his own convention.

And then, exhausted from the weekend, the remaining staff and the handful of attendees exited a very quiet convention center out into the lively crowd of cosplayers and fans in the plaza outside. Will this kind of post-con gathering have a space to continue in Los Angeles? We’ll have to wait and see.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • If they are forced to leave SD with their hands literally tied behind their backs, they should definitely call the cops.