Peter G writes from C2E2 for Bleeding Cool,
Mike Armstrong is the event director for ReedPop, having worked his way up through sales. With C2E2 kicking off this weekend, he graciously agreed to answer a few questions for Bleeding Cool.
G: My main concern is basically the convention space and what it has turned into. We’re seeing Wizard somehow surviving despite getting smaller and smaller (they said they were going to have 44 shows this year, they have 13 left this year), the Shamus brothers are getting back into it, the guy who left as CEO of Wizard is starting his own traveling convention thing…how do you see C2E2 and ReedPop in general surviving in this world that everybody seems to be rushing into?
ARMSTRONG: Well, my biggest concern in general is making our shows the best possible shows that they can be. The other events that exist certainly fill a need. My biggest interests with C2E2 and New York Comic Con and Keystone Comic Con is, How do I strike a balance between all of the different content tentpoles that people want? Whether it’s entertainment guests, whether it’s comic book publishing, whether it’s a really robust Artist Alley, anime and manga, that sort of stuff, I want to make sure that there’s truly something for everybody at a ReedPop event. One of the big selling points in my mind for our events is just the participation from the comic book publishers. If you look at C2E2, we have every major comic book publisher with the exception of one – DC, Marvel, Image, IDW, Boom, they’re all there, and having their support and content there is what I think is what sets C2E2 and ReedPop shows in general apart.
G: How do you see the indie field moving into this? The indie field has been getting smaller and smaller — I’m not talking the second tier publishers like Dynamite and IDW and them, I’m talking about the people just trying to put out a comic book and trying to get it out there. Do you see them as the way of the future, or do you see some way to help them get their work out and help expand the audience more?
ARMSTRONG: I think shows are a wonderful opportunity for publishers like that. Our events are all about discovery – people come to a show knowing what they like, but when they have the opportunity to walk the show floor or to step into panels that they might not have normally had on their schedule, there’s so much opportunity for discovery at an event. I think that’s what makes cons so exciting and so perfect for this fanbase. I’ve been doing this for eight years now, and there are artists and there are publishers that I remember having to fight to get into Artist Alley or get on the show floor. And now, seeing them take larger spaces, or drawing or writing books for the Big Three, that’s the kind of stuff that gives me so much joy in this position that I’m in. But I think it also speaks to the ability of people to be discovered and for people to discover other creators at an event like this.
G: I’ve been going to C2E2 literally since the year it started. And I’ve seen a shift in the public reaction. I was there when you had the bomb-sniffing dogs going around because of the Boston Marathon bombing. There have been all the things about Cosplay Is Not Consent. What is the biggest challenge with keeping the crowd safe but still allowing them to do the things they want to do like cosplay or have weapons that, you know, aren’t real but helps complete the look? How do you find that balance between enabling the crowd to have a good time and protecting the public safety and the public interest?
ARMSTRONG: My Number One Priority once we get on site, and even leading up to the show, is the safety and security of our fans. So, it’s not a pleasant conversation with a fan if we tell them we need to take away their foam sword because it could potentially hurt somebody or take away their bow and arrow that completes their Green Arrow costume. Those aren’t fun conversations. But, ultimately, at the end of the day, I’m responsible for the tens of thousands of people that are on the show floor at any given moment. And if that unfortunately causes some mental pain because I need to do something that disrupts their costume, that’s a trade-off I’m willing to take.
G: Where do you see ReedPop going next with the shows in general and C2E2 in particular? We have the entertainment guests with the folks from Guardians Of The Galaxy turning up, We have the comic book industry. We have cosplay shows and everything. Do you see new areas being incorporated into geek culture and, if so, where do you see ReedPop going to help promote and celebrate this?
ARMSTRONG: I think, for C2E2 specifically, the things I’m most focused on are maintaining the comic publishing community – I’m so happy with their support for the last couple of years. And I think that we have a real opportunity with tabletop gaming. I think that’s something that we haven’t overlooked, but it’s not something we’ve done enough service to. I’m excited that the Critical Roll cast announced they were going to be at C2E2, which is something we’ve been working on for quite a while, and I think that’s going to set up a good foundation for tabletop gaming going forward. I’m also interested in filling out our Japanese content like anime and manga – those are two things that are really high on my list. For ReedPop in general, I think continuing to make the shows the best that we can. Clearly, we have a big opportunity with Keystone, which we’re launching in Philadelphia this September. If you look at shows like New York Comic Con and Emerald City Comic Con, we still have opportunity there, but in both instances, we’re venue-bound – we can’t sell another booth, we can’t sell another ticket, so I have my eyes set on shows we can still grow, and that’s obviously Keystone because that’s a launch, and C2E2. We have so much space at McCormick Place, the biggest convention center in the country, so we can keep growing that show as much as the fans want us to grow it. If we continue to get support from the publishers and from TV and movie studios in future years, then that’s just going to give us an opportunity to have more great content that the fans are going to want to see, and I can keep selling tickets to C2E2 forever. There’s no end in sight. So building up C2E2 and Keystone are also very very high on my list.
G: With this year, we’ve seen an explosion in Major League Gaming. Are you thinking of bringing some sort of tournament to C2E2, or is that something where the logistics are just too daunting at the moment?
ARMSTRONG: It’s definitely something we’ve talked about. The issue we run into is, this year, C2E2 and PAX East are on the same dates. So, PAX East, being another show that we run which is in Boston this weekend, so if somebody’s interested in esport, they tend to gravitate more towards PAX East. So if we ever have a situation where we’re not on the same dates, I think that’s going to open us up to the esports opportunity. Tabletop might be the easier win here, so that’s why that’s my focus for this year, hence Critical Roll. But, yeah, I think esports, going forward, can be something we definitely take a look at. Like I said, we’ve got the space, and it’s something our fans want, and our goal is to have things our fans want, so that seems like a pretty easy marriage right there.
G: Indy PopCon has a lot of YouTubers, especially lets players. You guys have had Rooster Teeth a couple of times by now. Last year, Wizard tried expanding into bringing in YouTubers and social bloggers, and it apparently didn’t go over too well because it only lasted for a handful of shows. Are you considering something like the YouTube community or the blogosphere for featuring at the shows?
ARMSTRONG: Well, it’s not something that we’ve placed a huge focus on. I think the biggest opportunity for us is when those YouTubers get a little more mainstream, specifically if they’ve written a book or they’ve land some sort of TV show that gives them a broader national profile. So it’s not something we focus on a ton, we do have some of it there. It’s something that fans are interested in. I think, when they make the connection between that and C2E2, the connection is not always a natural one because they think of C2E2 very much as a comic con. “Entertainment” is in the name of C2E2, so if something falls into that realm, we’re more than happy to look at it. But sometimes, that stuff just doesn’t come out when we do our research with fans.
G: Usually, you guys don’t start populating the guest list until around November or something like that. How difficult is it for you to determine who you’re going to try and feature, who you’re going to try to bring in, and how difficult is it to actually bring them in?
ARMSTRONG: We do very robust research, we do a lot of research during the year as well, to determine who’s hot, who our fans want to see, and we do everything in our power to get them. There’s a lot of shows out there, and C2E2 happens to fall on a very popular weekend, so all of us are competing for the same talent. And sometimes, talent just doesn’t want to do a show. There are plenty of people who are at the top of my list, and at the top of a lot of fans’ lists, that just don’t want to do conventions right now for whatever reason. We reach out to a lot of people, we do our best to mix it up every year so we aren’t repeating guests, so people can come in and have that discovery moment at C2E2, so they aren’t seeing the same people they’ve seen for the past five years. So we do whatever we can to get who people want. It’s not always easy, clearly, but we do what we can.
G: What do you see as the state of the industry? Like, the company that puts on Amazing Arizona Comic Con? They have four shows, and last year, they canceled two of them because of decreased attendance. Do you see the crowds getting bigger, do you see them getting smaller, or are C2E2 and your other shows holding steady?
ARMSTRONG: I’ve been doing this for eight years, and I’ve never worked on a show that’s decreased in attendance year over year. So my theory in this is the good shows will survive. There’s a lot of good shows out there, there’s a lot of good shows that aren’t ReedPop shows, so I love it when a show is well-run and people go there and have a good experience, because that means that you might be activating someone into the community now. If someone goes to a show in whatever city and decides that they had a good experience and they want to go to another show and it just happens to be one of my shows, then that’s awesome. The more people that are coming into the community, the better, because if we’re not activating new fans into comic cons or comic book retailers, then that’s when I start to see us having issues as an industry. But for now? People are coming into shows for the first time, they’re having a good time, and they’re coming back. The most exciting thing for me is when somebody comes to a comic con because, say, they love The Walking Dead, and as a result of coming to a comic book show, they start coming to a comic book store every week or every month? That’s exciting for me, because that means publishers are doing well, that means retailers are doing well, and that just makes a rising tide that lifts all boats kind of thing.
G: Wizard, for a while, experimented with doing an off-season show, one in March to compliment the one they put on in August. There’s a couple of anime shows in the area that have their main show and then they have a smaller one or a sampler show during the off-season during the winter or something (Anime Midwest and Con-Alt-Del). Do you see C2E2 and ReedPop doing that with any of their shows, a big show and then a small one just to keep the fans excited during the off-season?
ARMSTRONG: As for C2E2 specifically? We’ve talked about it, but I don’t think that’s an option right now. The thing I’m most concerned about with C2E2 and the off-season months is, the team that works on C2E2 works on it all year round. So I’d rather see them do community events, table at other events, be at retailers, be at broader Chicago events like concerts or music festivals or whatever. I’d rather see them do that so that we can make C2E2 in April the best it can be, so I’m not really into that sort of dilution at this point.
G: Tell me about some of what’s happening at C2E2 this year. You got a really big get when you got Mark Millar. Give me some of the big things you’ve got, the kinds of things you say you have and fans’ eyes just pop out of their heads and they say, “I GOTTA GO!!!”
ARMSTRONG: We announced Millar, and the day before that, we got Bendis locked in. So you’ve got two of the titans of the industry, and we’ve got them on a panel together, which is going to be really really exciting for fans of the old Ultimates Universe. And then the Critical Roll thing is going to be really big for us when it comes to just establishing a presence with tabletop gaming. And I think we’ve got a great guest list. There’s a huge fan base for This Is Us, so we got Milo Ventimiglia and Justin Hartley, they’ll be participating at the show and I think that panel’s going to be huge. Crown Championships Of Cosplay – this is the culmination of a year-long circuit at ReedPop events, and we’re bringing in winners from India, Australia, the UK, Paris, Vienna – we bring them all into Chicago to compete on an international level. And that event is the one that consistent fills up the main stage and has the most traffic on our online stream. And for the fans who can’t make it to C2E2, I’m really excited about the partnership we’re doing with SyFy. They’ve committed to stream content from all of our comic events this year — they just finished up Emerald City, and they said the traffic was through the roof, which is really encouraging to hear. So even if you can’t make it to the show, there’s still ways to take part in the content that’s going to be there. And I think the unspoken hidden gem of C2E2 is the Artist Alley. It’s the second or third biggest Artist Alley in the country, and every year, I’m amazed at the talent that shows up and the quality of people that, walking into the show, I’d never heard of. So if anyone’s going to C2E2, I would encourage them to take half a day to walk up and down those Artist Alley aisles and look at sketches, get prints – that, to me, is what makes C2E2 so special.