“This company has to be a hyphenate live-event/media company”
While Wizard World’s return to Philadelphia was met with rain and drizzle for much of the weekend, there was a ray of sunshine in the company’s financial outlook. After a number of rough years, including a $5.75 million loss for 2017, Wizard World showed a net profit of $114,383 for the quarter ending in March, 2018, versus a loss of $1,366,268 for the same period in 2017. Operating income for the quarter was $283,276, up from a previous loss of $1,282,078.
When I met with Wizard World CEO John D. Maatta on the floor of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, he discussed the company’s approach to reducing costs while sustaining revenue.
The former WB Network executive also explained how he intends to diversify the company by supplementing Wizard’s live event business with media production. Maatta sees the company’s recent development deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment as one of several planned moves to grow the company through content development.
An edited version of my conversation with Maatta follows.
Congratulations on the quarter. What steps did you undertake to improve the company’s financial situation?
We cut the corporate overhead. There was an overlay of overhead that wasn’t necessary in my view, so we cut a lot of that.
In what areas? Staffing?
It was staffing and a lot of things. We put a lot of tighter controls in place, much more accountability. We’re producing the shows more effectively.
One of your costs is bringing the talent to the event. I assume many celebrities have a minimum guarantee against other sorts of revenue.
And, the bigger the star, the higher your cost will be in most cases. If you cut back on the star power, you risk reducing attendance. How do you balance the two?
No, we’re not cutting in the talent area at all. It’s more a function of cutting back on how we set up the shows, the logistics. Pipe and drape [dressing for the exhibit hall] is awfully expensive. We’ve basically cut a third of costs out of every show. You just have to be very rigorous in terms of every line item.
It’s not on talent. Entertainment and the experience has to be paramount — bringing music in, bringing acts in.
I used to come to Wizard shows before I had this job. There was no entertainment, there was no music in the hall. I thought it was kind of a sullen experience.
I wanted it to be more entertaining — getting in a lot of families with a kids area; bringing in anime and voice talent. We’re broadening.
It’s all about the fans. Everything emanates from them.
Although the specifics aren’t public, when [Comic-Con International’s ] San Diego Comic-Con features an appearance by, say, Gal Gadot and every member of the Justice League or the complete cast of the new Star Wars film, the majority of the cost of those celebrity appearances is borne by the studio.
And [ReedPop’s] New York Comic Con seems to be crossing into that territory. When Jeph Loeb brings the full cast of a Netflix Marvel series, it appears to be a studio-sponsored event rather than a con-sponsored event.
With the celebrities that appear at your shows, however, you’re bearing a significant portion of the cost of that talent. How do you compete when it’s not a level playing field?
We don’t really compete. San Diego is a non-profit, for example.
ReedPop is not, though.
No, but we’re a traveling comic con. We’re the largest comic con in America if you aggregate all the audience we have. And, although some people will travel across the continent to go to a show, the people we see in Chicago are mostly from the Chicago area. We bring the show out across the country in a way some of the others don’t.
When we spoke last year, you talked about concentrating on mid-tier markets rather than major markets that are served by other cons. Is that still your plan?
Yes. We have a show planned in Boise [Idaho], Montgomery [Alabama], Winston-Salem [North Carolina]. There are markets that don’t have these pop culture comic con events, and we’re giving them a try.
Currently, your biggest two cons are in Chicago and Philadelphia. Both of those markets are also served by ReedPop. Chicago has had C2E2 for quite a while and ReedPop is bringing a new show to Philadelphia this fall. Do you foresee any changes to your appearance in those two markets?
No. This is going to be a very strong show [in Philadelphia] this weekend. And so is Chicago.
When I was at the WB Network, the press would make a rivalry between WB and UPN. On my television, there are a thousand channels. I don’t necessarily see the other shows as competition, any more than any other avenue or venue for entertainment dollars. The shows are at different times of the year, so I don’t think it’s that impactful.
Earlier this year you announced a partnership with Sony Pictures. Yet, Wizard World doesn’t have the intellectual property of, say, a comic book publisher. You expect the fans to bring their pitches — is that how this works?
That’s how it works. There’s a huge amount of creative talent across America that has no avenue to exploit that creativity. There is not access to studios or agents. Because we have a nexus with the creative community in Artist Alley and with very creative fans and cosplayers, we thought it was worth an attempt to see what we can develop.
You’ve done this once or twice already?
We did it in Portland and we’re doing it here [in Philadelphia].
How did it go in Portland?
It was fantastic. We had sixteen pitches, each one about 20 minutes long. There was a screening process. People submitted in writing what they wanted to pitch. From those submissions we picked sixteen.
The rich interior lives of these people was incredible. If you walked down the street, you’d never imagine the ideas and creativity that were in people’s minds.
How does the funding work? If the creator and the studio make a deal, how does Wizard World benefit in terms of the revenue?
We have the option to develop any properties that are found. It would be a co-production deal, co-development.
This is a new area for the company — content development.
Exactly. I think this company has to be a hyphenate live-event/media company.
I was in the television business for about 30 years. In that business, after you do all the work, you own a copyrighted work you can play forever. Here, on Sunday night, we sweep the floor and it’s gone.
I like the idea of a live event. We’re producing great shows. This platform is extraordinary, but I want to grow from the platform.
Beyond the Sony partnership, are there other things you’re thinking about in this space?
The development of motion pictures and television with a major studio like Sony is certainly one thing. We have two networks in China — a linear ad channel and SVOD [subscription video-on-demand] channel.
We have a lot of initiatives to broaden out the company.
We should expect to see more content development in the future, layered on top of your current event business?
Yes, this will continue to grow better and better. [The live events] will never go away. But I want to broaden out the company. I think all the event companies are a little narrow. It’s good to diversify a little bit.
I think the company is on a good trajectory.