This past weekend, the sixteenth Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con presented a four-day festival of pop culture entertainment. Traditionally the second largest event hosted by Wizard World (second only to the one in Chicago), this year’s Philadelphia event featured panel sessions and autograph opportunities with a roster of celebrities from popular movies and television shows.
Wizard World CEO: “Amping it Up”
It’s been a challenging year for Wizard World, Inc. After showing a profit of $995,000 in 2014, the company lost $4.25 million in 2015. This past April, Wizard World Entertainment president and CEO John Macaluso stepped down and was replaced by John Maatta as president and CEO, with Paul Kessler appointed as chairman of the board.
After expanding from 17 shows in 2014 to 25 in 2015, the company’s revenue per show fell from $1.36 million per show in 2014 to $916,000 per show in 2015. Wizard World recently trimmed its investment in streaming platform CONtv, a costly joint venture with Cinedigm, and appears to be cutting back on the number of events it plans to hold this year.
Newly appointed chief executive Maatta, however, appears more focused on doubling down than retrenching. When I asked about his plans to return the company to profitability, Maatta rejected the idea that the business required a course correction, stating he intends to “amp it up” with “better marketing and more content creation.”
The programming during the four days of the Philadelphia event showed no signs of scaling back.
Exhibitors: Artists and Autographs, Comics and Telecom
Thursday is the shortest of the four days of Wizard World Philadelphia, running from 3 PM to 8 PM. Unlike Preview Night at San Diego Comic-Con, during which there are no panel sessions, Wizard World Philadelphia provided a full slate of programming content on the show’s opening day. Nonetheless, Thursday’s relative calm before the arrival of the weekend crowds presented an ideal time to explore the exhibition hall.
As in past years, the show floor included the usual assortment of vendors of comic books, action figures, and pop culture goodies. In previous years, it was jarring to see vendors unaffiliated with popular culture exhibiting at a comic con. [See Knowledge@Wharton, “Consumer Brands Go Geek at Comic Con” and “Philadelphia Comic Con: Batman, Buffy and … Bath Fitter?“] This is now a common sight at Wizard World shows and, to a lesser extent, at ReedPop’s New York Comic Con as well. Comic-Con International’s San Diego event is an outlier among the larger conventions in keeping the show floor focused exclusively on products related to pop culture.
Telecom companies were in abundance at this year’s Wizard World, with booths by Comcast Xfinity, T-Mobile, and Sprint looking to connect with the pop culture audience. Insurance companies, including State Farm and Geico, and home improvement firms, such as Power Home Remodeling and Bath Fitter, were also anxious to attract the attention of the large crowds attending the show.
The exhibition hall also included rows of comic book artists and writers available to chat with fans, sign autographs, or create commissioned illustrations. The Philadelphia show included a number of noteworthy comics creators including writer/artist Howard Chaykin, artist Dean Haspiel, and artist J.G. Jones. A row of tables featuring animation illustrators included Bob Camp, Mike Toth, and Tom Cook.
Throughout all four days of the show, a series of live demos by artists provided mini-lessons for aspiring comic book creators.
Friday’s line-up of programming sessions featured panels on everything from comic books and movies to literature and professional wrestling.
For a panel on “Two Generations of Upstarts” Danny Fingeroth ably attempted to contain Howard Chaykin and Dean Haspiel during a freewheeling conversation filled with colorful anecdotes (often stated in colorful language). The pair spoke about their long working relationship (Haspiel began his career as an assistant to Chaykin) and regaled the audience with tales of working with storied creators such as Gil Kane and Walt Simonson.
Other panels Friday afternoon included the following:
Tony B. Kim moderated “I’m Not a sidekick: A Discussion on Diversity in Pop Culture,” with panelists Craig Liggeons, Chelsea St. Juniors, Janice Lai, and Victor Dandridge.
Mo Lightning led a conversation with WWE wrestler Sheamus.
Anthony Bueno and Claire Bueno discussed their efforts to produce the documentary, Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters.
In “(Almost) Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Back to the Future,” author Michael Klastorin spoke with Back to the Future co-writer and co-producer Bob Gale about the long road his story took from conception to completion. The initial impetus for the film, Gale explained, arose from the observation that predictions of the future unfailingly miss the mark. Gale showed a series of wildly fabulous — and hugely impractical — images of previous extrapolations of the world of tomorrow. The film’s plot didn’t gel, however, until Gale saw a picture of his father in an old high school yearbook and began to wonder what his father was like as a teenager. What would it have been like to have met him back then, he wondered? Gale and director Robert Zemeckis then began to speculate on what their mothers might have been like in high school, and the basic outline of the screenplay was formed.
Tony Miello and Bill Pulkovski from Rocket Ink Studios led a discussion on the continuing influence of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.
Friday concluded with a panel by the “Honest Trailers” team from ScreenJunkies, Andy Signore, Spencer Gilbert, and Dan Murrell. The session featured screenings of a couple of yet-to-be released trailers. The team also discussed their coup in getting Ryan Reynolds to perform in their Honest Trailer for Deadpool.
Saturday brought out the big-name talent at a series of celebrity panels, many of which filled the Philadelphia Convention Center’s 4,300-seat Terrace Ballroom. The day offered interviews and audience Q&A sessions for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, several popular television shows, and one classic film from the 1980s.
Stephen Amell spoke with Pure Fandom’s Lindi Smith and answered audience questions about his role as Oliver Queen in Arrow, including what to expect in season 5 of the show. Amell also half-jokingly (yet half seriously) encouraged everyone in the audience to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, in which he plays Casey Jones.
Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston spoke with Mo Lightning about their roles as warring brothers Thor and Loki. Hemsworth also described playing the quite different and “completely wacky” role of Kevin in the upcoming Ghostbusters film. In response to a question from Hiddleston, Hemsworth admitted that while Thor was one of his greatest acting roles, Kevin was much closer to his actual personality. Hiddleston, for this part, was anxious to downplay rumors that he might be cast as the next James Bond, telling the crowd, “I don’t think that announcement is coming, but I am very gratified to hear the enthusiasm. Your guess is as good as mine, to be honest.”
The Back to the Future panel featured Bob Gale, the co-writer and co-producer of the popular 1985 film, along with actors Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, and Christopher Lloyd in conversation with Michael Klastorin, author of Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History. Gale described a number of details about the genesis of the film, including the difficulties getting Michael J. Fox for the role of Marty because of his prior commitment to the television show Family Ties.
For fans of The X-Files, actors David Duchovny, Mitch Pileggi, and William B. Davis spoke with moderator Tony B. Kim about the original television program and the recent six-episode revival series.
Closing out the day, Pure Fandom’s Liz Prugh hosted the panel with Agent Carter actors Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper. While both actors are attached to new series — Cooper’s Preacher and Atwell’s forthcoming Conviction — much of the conversation centered around the recently canceled Marvel’s Agent Carter, with fans expressing the hope that the show might be revived on a platform such as Netflix.
No con would be complete without seeing costumed characters roaming the hall. Wizard World hosts number of professional cosplayers including Jackie Craft and Brit Bliss. Most of the costumed characters strolling around the venue, however, were fan creations.
Some clever costumes were mashups from different cultural contexts. A pair of cosplayers who could perhaps be described as Ronald McJoker and Hamburiddler showed a version of McDonald’s characters who might be found stalking Gotham City. Time-shifted Marvel superheroes on the show floor included Elizabethan versions of Captain America, the Winter Soldier, Thor, and Loki.
For a complete photographic overview of this year’s event, see the Flickr album: Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con 2016