This past weekend’s FanFair, presented by Comicpalooza, was supposed to be the first in a new series of smaller geek events aimed at drawing a more casual crowd, but by all accounts, it ended up being a disappointment. Guests canceled left and right, including Doctor Who’s Michelle Gomez, who left after her first autograph session because of scheduling conflicts. Jesse L. Martin (The Flash) and Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural) also canceled.
They weren’t the only people who failed to appear. Guests were sparse and lines for autographs were small. Many of the vendors we spoke to referred to the flow of customers as slow even by Saturday afternoon, typically the busiest time for a convention.
Nothing spelled out the low turnout like Comicpalooza’s head, John Simons, tracking us down for an interview. Normally, during the massive convention held in May, Simons is nearly impossible to speak to because of sheer business, but he sat down and discussed the disappointing event in detail.
“When Comicpalooza started, it was $35,” Simons said. “Now it’s $70, which is still comparable to similar-size events. But you have a lot of people who say they’d like to go to Comicpalooza but they don’t want to pay that. They need more entry-level events. There’s no ecology of entry-level events in Houston. I hate small events. I hated the idea of it, but I really thought I had to do it. But if they are going to turn out like this, I’m not going to do it.”
According to Simons, the cost of being an independent convention promoter has become more and more prohibitive. Guests who used to cost just $4,000 a few years ago to bring in now demand twice that, plus better rooms, first-class plane tickets, room for spouses and agents, and higher per diems. Competition among the conventions has worked like baseball players’ salaries, the demand driving up the cost.
“The expenses involved with bringing in the guests you must have to be a success keep going up,” said Simons. “It’s not supportable. We’ve been talking in the industry for a couple of years now when the bubble is going to burst.”
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It’s hard to tell what exactly failed to bring people out to FanFair. It’s been a busy summer for conventions. Delta H Con was just a couple of weeks ago, and Amazing Houston Comic Con a few weeks before that, and Space City Comic Con not long before that, and Comicpalooza itself two months before that. It’s possible that the region is just con'ed out and fan fatigue is the reason.
There’s also the problem of the name. It was weird to attend anything associated with Comicpalooza and not have it be, well, massive. That’s what made Comicpalooza the powerhouse it became. It pulled off the “go big or go home” ethic and it suceeded. So the idea of a small Comicpalooza might have confused people.
Which is a shame because honestly? FanFair was actually pretty fun. Twenty-five dollars at the door was a perfectly reasonable price to spend for an afternoon basking in geekdom. I met friends from out of town I don’t see very often, as I always do. I stood in front of the Game Over booth and debated spending $30 on Parasite Eve, as I always do. I peeked in several Tardises just in case one was real, as I always do.
There were still panels with stars and plenty of interesting stuff to shop around for. I managed to pick up the first zine of Crackers and White Wine comics from Isaiah Broussard, which alone was worth the trip. Smaller, fan appreciation events at an affordable entry-level price should be a good idea, but it looks like getting the paying customers out to make them sustainable just wasn’t something that Houston was ready for yet.