Houston’s largest geek culture convention, Comicpalooza, is having a rather rough year. Though the main convention itself was again a success, bringing in tens of thousands of attendees, the organizers' smaller follow-up FanFair drew a lackluster crowd and many celebrity guests canceled their appearances. Now costume contest winners are saying they've never received the cash prizes they were promised.
Teresa Nguyen, a high school orchestra teacher from San Antonio, attended the convention this year along with her six-year-old daughter. Nguyen was awarded first prize in the craftsmanship competition for her elaborate re-creation of Cinderella’s blue dress from the 2015 film starring Lily James. The dress was a massive affair containing more than 600 yards of chiffon in the petticoat alone.
“This was the biggest project I had ever taken on,” says Nguyen. “I’d only been sewing for a year, and my daughter wanted all these costumes so I started making it. It was a lot of trial and error. Mostly error.”
After the contest, Nguyen handed Comicpalooza staff her contact information, but the $400 cash prize was never sent. The last response she received from the convention was from the program director on May 29. Since then, she has emailed or Facebook messaged every person connected with Comicpalooza that she could find but has received nothing but silence and runaround. Frustrated, she penned an open letter to the convention on her blog asking for her money.
“An apology would be nice,” says Nguyen. “We all make mistakes and I know they have a big organization, so things fall through the cracks. I just want to write another blog post that has a happy ending.”
Nguyen’s public airing of her grievances brought her into contact with other unhappy cosplayers. Grace Amyx from Houston competed for a prize at the 2014 convention, winning third place in the skit competition by lip-syncing “Let It Go” from Frozen dressed as Queen Elsa. Her $200 prize turned out to be a golden Tentacle Kitty stuffed animal and a gift card to Frankel’s. An archived version of the 2014 Comicpalooza website describes the prizes in the following manner:
So you ask, what’s in it for you? Why should you prance around on stage, or let judges examine your every whipstitch up close? Well, for starters, how about some cold hard cash? We’ll be throwing in some other prizes from our sponsors as well so keep checking back to see what else you could possibly win!
Despite her experience, Amyx participated in the cosplay competition again in 2015. She wasn’t impressed by Comicpalooza’s organization.
“It was an absolute train wreck,” says Amyx. “All the judges that were supposed to be there that were cosplay guests didn’t show up, so they picked people from the audience. One of the girls who won was friends with the judges. They’d come together. It was a mess. They didn’t even bring the winners up onstage. They just called names, then told people to get out because there was a concert next.”
Both Amyx and Nguyen say that cosplay prize payouts can vary widely on the convention scene, and unpaid winners are not uncommon. Nguyen spoke glowingly of the San Japan convention, where a prize for the same Cinderella dress was paid immediately backstage, but said she was still waiting on the $25 prize from Texas Comic Con that her daughter had won.
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When reached for comment about Nguyen and others’ concerns regarding contest prizes, Comicpalooza head John Simons told us via email that the convention’s growth had necessitated a financial restructuring that placed a number of transactions on hold. The paperwork for this restructuring was finalized on October 8, according to Simons, and he plans to move forward settling those transactions.
“The number of people affected by this delay is small compared to the total volume of business that we conduct, and I apologize to them for the inconvenience this has caused them,” says Simons. “You may all consider this an error in my foresight if you wish; I hold myself personally responsible. “
In a follow-up interview by phone, Simons told us that checks had now been mailed to all the winners who had not received their prizes.
“I was tied up with other things much more than I expected to be,” says Simon. “Usually we do gift cards for prizes, and this year I was just so busy I never got around to getting them before the con. It was so chaotic. But the checks have now been sent. They will be taken care of. “