Every comic con is different. Events run by Comic-Con International (San Diego Comic-Con, WonderCon), ReedPop (New York Comic Con, C2E2, Emerald City Comic Con), Wizard World, or dozens of independent producers all have unique characteristics. While last month’s independently-run East Coast Comic Con focused on comics creators and 1960s popular culture, this past weekend’s Philadelphia Wizard World Comic Con spotlighted celebrity appearances and musical entertainment.
Upon first entering the exhibition hall, attendees encountered the show’s entertainment stage. Throughout the show, Kato Kaelin served as the master of ceremonies for musical performers and other acts. The live entertainment was the brainchild of Wizard World CEO John Maatta. “I used to come to Wizard shows before I had this job,” Maatta told me at the show. “There was no entertainment, there was no music in the hall. I thought it was kind of a sullen experience.” Maatta believes “Entertainment and the experience has to be paramount — bringing music in, bringing acts in.” [For my full interview with Maatta, see “Wizard World CEO John Maatta: Growth through Media Development.”]
Elsewhere on the show floor attendees could peruse vendor booths related to comic books, gaming,cosplay, and other pop culture activities. As is common at Wizard World cons, there was also a smattering of booths unrelated to popular culture: insurance and telecom companies, a home improvement firm, and even a fortune teller.
The show’s Artist Alley included artists, authors, and illustrators, most notably Jim Steranko and Greg Capullo. Steranko, alas, eschews having his photo taken, so I have no pictures of him from the show. He does, however, gladly engage in extended conversations with fans. When Capullo arrived at his booth on Saturday to find fans already queued up, he went down the line and greeted everyone before beginning the signing.
Much of remainder of the show floor was occupied by booths set aside for what is the major focus of the show for many fans: celebrity autograph signings and photo ops.
Most of the show’s celebrities also participated in an audience Q&A as part of the show’s programming. An exception was Jason Momoa, who was only available for fan signings and photo ops.
Featured programming sessions at Wizard World Philadelphia included the following:
Henry Winkler gave a funny and honest talk about his life and career, from his first major role as Arthur Fonzarelli on Happy Days to his current role co-starring with Bill Hader on Barry. Winkler candidly discussed his childhood learning difficulties and his desire, from the age of seven, to become an actor.
Stephen Amell, in conversation with Victor Dandridge, answered questions from fans about the Arrowverse television programs.
Charisma Carpenter and Holly Marie Combs talked about their roles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed. In response to a question from a fan, both seemed open to the notion of revisiting their characters from Charmed, but only if it carried on the tradition of the original series. Carpenter expressed little interest in the reboot currently in development at the CW.
Jewel Staite spoke with fans in a session moderated by RealBreakingNate. In one highlight, cosplayer @CatsimileCosplay came up on stage attired as Catalina from Space Cases to take a selfie with Staite.
RealBreakingNate also led the Q&A with the Justice League’s Ezra Miller and Ray Fisher. A fan came on stage to teach Miller and Haddon Heights High School alumnus Fisher the school’s newest dance moves, the Garnet Shuffle.
Sean Bean made a rare comic con appearance in conversation with Mike Gregorek.
Three cast members from the Lord of the Rings films — Elijah Wood, Sean Astin and Billy Boyd — appeared in a panel moderated by Mike Gregorek. Boyd told a story about hanging out with Dominic Monaghan in rented house during a break in the production. The pair passed the time drinking wine, watching DVDs, and making videos with just the two of them. One morning, Boyd came downstairs to find Monaghan at the fireplace smoking a pipe naked. “Where could the tapes be?” Wood asked, doubled over with laughter. Boyd said he has them somewhere and hinted at eventually releasing them as a documentary.
And, of course, there were fans in costume throughout the event.
“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.
Annual New Jersey Fest Features Silver and Bronze Age Comic Book Icons
East Coast Comic Con (or Comicon as it is often listed) returned to the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, New Jersey, this past weekend. Started in 2012 as a small show in Asbury Park with only 32 vendor tables, the show has expanded to become a medium-sized three-day pop culture festival. The event features guests from the worlds of both comic books and pop culture movies and television.
This year’s show offered a particularly strong lineup of comics creators, including several storied writers and artists whose careers reach back to comic books’ Silver Age.
Among the latter were famed inker Joe Sinnott, still going strong at 91 years, who greeted fans and autographed copies of the comics on which he worked.
Also in attendance were Marvel writer and artist Larry Lieber, who co-created Iron Man, Thor, and Ant-Man; longtime Marvel writer and editor Roy Thomas; and Jim Starlin, co-creator of a number of major DC Comics characters including Thanos, currently featured in the blockbuster film Avengers: Infinity War.
While most of the attention of comics creators is directed toward the fans, comic conventions are also valuable for networking among creative professionals. It’s exciting to witness comics legends coming together to share thoughts. Industry icons Roy Thomas and Jim Starlin engaged in an extended conversation before posing for photos and signing autographs for fans. Featured panelists writer/artist Howard Chaykin and animator J.J. Sedelmaier met for the first time at the former’s panel session.
On the broader pop culture front, media guests included Lee Meriwether, who played Catwoman in the 1966 Batman film, David Soul, Paul Michael Glaser, and Antonio Fargas from Starsky & Hutch, and several members of the 1979 film, The Warriors.
The show floor featured vendors of comic books and other pop culture items such as Funko Pop figures, scary masks, and movie posters. Other than a few outliers (mostly telecom companies), the exhibit hall was mercifully free of the booths unrelated to pop culture frequently seen at many of the larger comic cons.
Among the more interesting booths were Metalsouls, with sculptures cleverly constructed from miscellaneous metal parts, and Firecolors and Butterfly Cages, showing illuminated illustrations rendered in wax. The vendor with the longest line was grading company CGC (Certified Guaranty Company) with a steady stream of customers eager to have their comics graded and encased in protective plastic slabs.
Panel sessions on Saturday included the following.
Editor and writer Jon B. Cooke led a freewheeling conversation with the always candid and entertaining
writer/artist Howard Chaykin.
Artist Keith Giffen, co-creator of Rocket Raccoon, and Guardians of the Galaxy artist Aaron Kuder discussed their work on the Guardians and how the characters have evolved over time, in a panel led by moderator Peter Melnick.
Lee Meriwether spoke with 13th Dimension’s Dan Greenfield about her long career in acting, from her early role in 4D Man through her iconic portrayal of Catwoman in the 1966 Batman movie and her roles on The Time Tunnel, Star Trek, Barnaby Jones, and many other programs. One interesting tidbit from the conversation: Meriwether mentioned she was originally offered a role in 1958’s The Blob, but had to turn it down because of her commitment to The Today Show. When the same team went on to their next film, Meriwether was then available and made her feature film debut in 4D Man.
Black Lightning co-creator Tony Isabella was interview by Back Issue writer John Trumbull. Following the panel, Isabella posed with an audience member arrayed as Black Lightning.
Illustrator and film director/producer J.J. Sedelmaier, in conversation with editor Dan Greenfield, showed an extended demo reel of his work, including his Saturday Night Live segments done with Robert Smigel and years of his inventive — and, at times, rather subversive — advertising spots.
East Coast Comic Con also featured an array of pop culture vehicles: several versions of Starsky & Hutch‘s two-door Ford Gran Torino, including two screen-used vehicles; two cars built by George Barris for The Munsters television program; the Monkeemobile, the Pontiac GTO built by Dean Jeffries for The Monkees television program; and the Batmobile and the original sidecar version of the Batcycle from the Batman television series.
Cosplay highlights seen roaming the show floor on Saturday included a striking implementation of one of “Those We Don’t Speak Of” — the creature from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. Also spotted were a full 7-foot version of Chewbacca, a homemade Black Manta, and a charming Princess Leia.
For the full 100-plus image photo gallery from East Coast Comic Con see the Flickr gallery:
Near the beginning Barry Levinson’s film Paterno, which debuted on HBO this past Saturday, is a scene in which reporters from Harrisburg Pennsylvania’s Patriot-News huddle around a computer monitor to read the criminal charges filed against retired football coach Jerry Sandusky. As the camera shows the team glued to the screen, the back of the computer display shows the logo of E Corp, the fictional mega-conglomerate in USA Network’s Mr. Robot. Wait… what?
In a wider shot, it’s clear the monitors are from Dell Computer, whose rotated E in the company’s logo bears a casual resemblance to the E Corp logo, but the visual identities of the two are distinct. The logo in the close-up is E Corp.
It’s not clear why the original logo was swapped out for that of E Corp. Perhaps it was a clearance issue. Or, more likely, the production team felt that a shot that features the logo so prominently would look like a product placement or would otherwise detract from the drama of the moment. So some clever person — perhaps a Mr. Robot fan — must have dropped in the E Corp logo (likely in post production).
This approach might come in handy for other productions. Just as movie phone numbers are typically from the non-existent KL5 (555) exchange, there are instances in which substituting a fictional logo for an actual one solves problems of clearances or audience focus. E Corp could become the KLondike-5 of corporate branding in movies and television, the Alan Smithee of corporate identity.
Is Elliot Alderson the New Tommy Westphall?
Were E Corp to appear more broadly across movie and TV properties it would, no doubt, give rise to marvelous fan theories about how it all ties together within the universe of Mr. Robot.
It may be time to update the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis to realize that most of what we see on television is, in fact, all in the mind of Mr. Robot’s Elliot Alderson.
The image from Paterno is from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the film’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.
Thanks to Brian Jason Ford for suggesting the Tommy Westphall reference.
Yet, by any measure, New York Comic Con is an enormous enterprise. The event outgrew the confines of the Javits Center several years ago and now holds sessions at a number of additional venues around the city, including the Hammerstein Ballroom, the Theater at Madison Square Garden, and Hudson Mercantile.
The event sold out, although not instantly. While tickets for the popular weekend days sold briskly, the announcement that tickets for Thursday were sold out didn’t appear until just one day prior.
Here is an overview of New York Comic Con from my perspective, with links to additional photo galleries. [Click on the thumbnail images to view.]
TV, Movie, and Podcast Panels
In recent years New York Comic has excelled in presenting high-profile television panels. This year was no exception.
The Amazon Prime Video panel for The Man in the High Castle and a new anthology series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, brought together actors and creators from the two series, including producers Michael Dinner, Ronald D. Moore, David Kanter, Isa Dick Hackett, and Eric Overmyer; director Dan Percival; and actors Liam Cunningham, Rufus Sewell, Alexa Davalos, and Jason O’Mara; in a session moderated by Deadline‘s Dominic Patten.
The “Netflix Presents Black Mirror” panel featured the show’s producers, Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, who talked about their inspiration for the series and plans for the upcoming season. The lively session was moderated by actor/director Jodie Foster, who directed one of the episodes in the new season.
Writer Grant Morrison was featured on the panel for SYFY’s upcoming adaptation of his comic book Happy! along with actor Christopher Meloni, writer/director Brian Taylor, writer Patrick MacManus, and moderator Brian Truitt from USA Today.
The panel for Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan featured showrunner Carlton Cuse, actors John Krasinski and Abbie Cornish, and producer Graham Roland, moderated by IGN’s Terri Schwartz.
While many panels featured television properties, other sessions focused on forthcoming movies.
The upcoming film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women explores Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and his relationship with the two main women in his life: his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and his romantic partner Olive Byrne. Fandango’s Tiffany Smith moderated the panel with the film’s writer/director Angela Robinson and actors Rebecca Hall and Luke Evans.
There was a moment of drama during the Q&A session when pop culture writer Dr. Travis Langley questioned the evidence of the film’s portrayal of a romantic relationship between Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne. Robinson responded that, in light of facts that she viewed as open to interpretation, she chose to tell her interpretation of the story. [For more details on the exchange, see Langley’s Psychology Today article “‘The True Story’ of Wonder Woman’s Marston Ménage à Trois“]
In addition to the television and motion picture panels, New York Comic Con also included a broad selection of comic book panels, including several celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of artist and writer Jack Kirby.
Marvel Editor Tom Brevoort, was joined by historian and podcaster Greg Young, comics journalist Meg Downey, and comics writer Brandon Montclare for a discussion on how Kirby’s work was influenced by the city of his birth in the panel “Celebrating 100 Years of Jack Kirby: The King’s New York.”
The panel session on Dark Horse Comics’ imprint Berger Books, headed by the noted former Vertigo editor Karen Berger, featured images and conversation on the publisher’s upcoming titles. On the panel were Karen Berger, Richard Bruning, Ann Nocenti, Anthony Bourdain, Joel Rose, José Villarrubia, and Dave Gibbons.
BOOM! Studios and GLAAD presented “The Future is LGBTQ” panel with creators
Brooke Allen, Mariko Tamaki, Gabby Rivera, James Tynion IV, Shadi Petosky, and Steve Orlando; and GLAAD’s Megan Townsend; moderated by Vulture.com’s Abraham Riesman.
A large contingent from Mad Magazine’s “usual gang of idiots” celebrated the history of the popular humor magazine in the “Mad about MAD” panel. The session included moderator John Ficarra with Sam Viviano, Al Jaffee, Nick Meglin, Dick DeBartolo, Mark Fredrickson, Teresa Burns Parkhurst, Joe Raiola, and Charlie Kadau.
It can be argued that most of what takes place at a comics fest is, at its core, marketing. From the comics publishers and studios hosting panels to the creators in Artist Alley, much of the focus is on raising awareness for a product. This is particularly true of the booths on the exhibition hall floor and, increasingly, the large-scale “offsite” events happening outside the convention hall (and, in many cases, not officially affiliated with the convention).
USA Network’s Mr. Robot brought an extensive marketing campaign to New York Comic Con, with a presence in the Javits Center and multiple offsite events. Inside the Javits Center, fans who signed up for an account with the show’s Bank of E received small gifts including Bank of E branded sunglasses, key ring, and credit card holder, along with an fsociety pin. Once a Bank of E member, additional opportunities for perks are available online.
New York Comic Con has historically had an outstanding assemblage of comics creators in the show’s Artist Alley. That was true once again this year although, due to construction in the Javits North Hall, Artist Alley was moved from its traditional location to a smaller, more crowded space with less photography-friendly lighting.
Nonetheless, the show was brimming with noteworthy comics creators both in Artist Alley and at panel sessions.
And, as at all comic fests, cosplayers were prevalent strolling through the corridors of the Javits Center and posing outside in the parking lot.
As rain drizzled down on the Javits Center on Sunday, another New York Comic Con came to a close.
Fsociety Brings an Alternate Reality Game to the Party
USA Network’s Mr. Robot brought a series of interactive marketing experiences to New York Comic Con earlier this month. Like the show’s presence at last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, the events provided a multilayered experience that combined conspicuous activities with a hidden alternate reality game (ARG) for those who were able to follow the clues. [See: “The Multilayered Mr. Robot Marketing Experience.”] The activities at New York, however, added an additional wrinkle. Whereas San Diego presented a single secret path for players to follow, the New York experience was multi-threaded, providing multiple parallel paths of varying depths for players to explore. At the conclusion of the main event, all the attendees were brought together for a group capstone experience.
Although there was no panel session for Mr. Robot at New York Comic Con this year, elements of the TV series appeared in multiple locations in and near the Javits Center. The program’s fictional narrative blended with the real world through three elements: Bank of E sign-up opportunities, the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ truck, and — most notably — the Ecoin launch party.
Bank of E
The only official Mr. Robot presence at New York Comic Con was a desk at the Javits Center where people could sign up for an account with the show’s fictional Bank of E. In San Diego, new Bank of E customers received a Bank of E card loaded with 20 Ecoin, the show’s fictional cryptocurrency, that could be used to buy items all around the city’s Gaslamp Quarter. At New York Comic Con, signing up for an account merely rewarded fans a few tchotchkes, such as Bank of E branded sunglasses and a key ring.
There are, however, ongoing perks for Bank of E customers. Since New York Comic Con, Bank of E members have been offered a free Ecoin Power Bank and an Amazon Echo Dot. During New York Comic Con, members could also grab a free lunch at a Red Wheelbarrow BBQ food truck.
Red Wheelbarrow BBQ
At San Diego Comic-Con, the Mr. Robot activation (as these marketing events are termed) included a full reconstruction of the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, the eatery that plays a role in season 3 of the series. At New York, in contrast, a Red Wheelbarrow food truck was available at a different location each day. Bank of E members could enjoy a complimentary lunch of pulled pork (supplied by Starr Catering), chips, and water. Folks who weren’t Bank of E customers could sign up on the spot.
Ecoin Launch Party
The centerpiece of the Mr. Robot Experience at NYCC was the launch party for Ecoin. Due to all the concurrent activities taking place, many of which were hidden, it’s difficult to fully document the experience. This account is based on my own experience and information gleaned from other accounts (most notably the excellent write up at GameDetectives.net, along with additional accounts from TV Guide, MTV, and Nerdophiles.)
Although Ecoin was prominently featured at San Diego Comic-Con, in the show’s extended real-world narrative, that was merely a pilot project. The official launch of the cryptocurrency took place at New York Comic Con.
Invitations to the event went out over Twitter and elsewhere. Fans who responded quickly received a confirmation message. (More on this RSVP response later.)
After checking in, party guests received a badge with the Ecoin logo and slogan: “A new currency for a new era.” The badge was marked “BACKSTAGE,” implying you would have access to more than the events occurring in plain sight at the party. And, indeed, many attendees participated in activities behind the scenes.
An artist was putting the final touches on a large painting of E Corp’s dominance of the Manhattan skyline. A small side stage was set up for the live broadcast of the event.
The venue’s main space was a soaring three-story atrium. At its pinnacle, a large letter E was suspended.
On the main stage, an actor portraying Debra Heller, E Corp Senior Vice President of Marketing, welcomed the crowd and introduced the band, the Keystrokes, fronted by vocalist Robyn Adele Anderson.
Hors d’oeuvre were served and drinks flowed leading up to the keynote presentation by E Corp CEO Phillip Price.
More Than Meets the Eye: Behind the Scenes
While these celebrations were underway, covert activities were taking place at various locations throughout the venue.
Confederates for some of these endeavors were recruited before the night of the event.
Observant fans noted something intriguing about the RSVP notification they received: some of the bubbles above the champagne flutes were more prominent than the others. Beneath the phrase CELEBRATE IN STYLE WHILE YOUR SENSES WE BEGUILE! these larger bubbles appeared under the letters BITLYSEWGI. This implied a bit.ly url: http://bit.ly/sewgi
Following this link sent you to an RSVP page for the event. (Subsequent to New York Comic Con, the link redirected to the Bank of E’s Ecoin site.) At the bottom of the page was an image with celebratory confetti and ribbons. The central set of ribbons were variations of the letters SILENT SIN.
Entering “Silent Sin” on the RSVP page returned the message:
Congratulations, your eyes have been opened and we now call on you to join our resistance. On October 5th, while EvilCorp is blinded by its own opulence, we will seize control of this Ecoin bacchanal and embarrass them on a global stage. These bourgeois oppressors have fashioned themselves a golden throne and placed the legs squarely on our backs. Together,we will rise up and burn that throne to the ground. Stand with us as we fight for a new tomorrow.
If, and only if, you will be attending the Ecoin Launch Party in person, leave us your email below and you will be contacted by one of our operatives with your directive soon. You must enter the same email used to RSVP to the Ecoin Launch Party. Do not share this page or this message.
People who submitted their email address received the message:
the war wages on.
the sins of evil corp must be
exposed. fsociety needs you at
the Ecoin Launch Event.
terminal 5 (605 West 55th
Street between 11th and 12th)
ask for benny the bus driver
outside the service entrance.
come alone. wear black pants
and a white-long sleeve dress
the revolution won’t go down without a fight.
we are fsociety.
Other clues were distributed over Twitter before the event to selected fans who had tweeted using the #wearefsociety hashtag, advising them to “Go to the champagne station and find Charles. Tell him, ‘I am the 99%.'” or “Go to the serving station on Floor 2 and ask for the Chef. Tell her ‘I am a one, not a zero.'”
You’ve proven yourself worthy of our cause. Go to the champagne station and find Charles. Tell him, “I am the 99%.”
Parked beside the rear entrance to the venue on the night of the event was a white school bus with the windows covered with newspaper where a group of invited confederates assembled.
Inside the bus, participants were given cloth Ecoin swag bags containing an fsociety mask and were assigned secret missions.
Some of this group were appointed to sneak into the green room for E Corp CEO Phillip Price and hack his presentation. Others were disguised as waiters and waitresses to mingle with the crowd and distribute clues to other attendees.
Some bags contained notes for different assignments, such as:
we are about to reveal
the sins of evil corp.
blend in. be ready.
before 8:15 find alex
with the white rose
on the 1 st floor.
“are you seeing this, too?”
As the party was underway, the secret missions began.
A number of participants — both those inside the bus and elsewhere at the party — were given a card with a Snapchat Snapcode. Scanning the Snapcode led to the web address:
That site displayed a brief video that intercuts shots of a hoodie-wearing member of fsociety with a sequence of messages:
WE HAVE A MISSION FOR YOU.
GO TO THE STAIRWALL BEHIND THE BAR.
The final screen shows the fsociety mask with the following message:
1. ASK FOR JESSIE
2. SHOW THEM A
SCREEN SHOT OF
Once Jessie was located and shown the image from the video, some people reportedly received a 5/9 button. Others, like the group I was with, were further interrogated about our actions that evening and were then led down a series of dimly lit corridors.
During this journey, other groups were being led through the hallways to different locations, indicating that different missions (such as, perhaps, the green room hack) were simultaneously underway.
In my case, the group of three of us were eventually escorted into a small room illuminated with an orange light. There each of us was told to don the full costume of fsociety’s iconic figure — mask, gloves, top hat, jacket, and cane. One by one we then sat in front of a mirror to record our message of allegiance to fsociety. Speaking through the voice-altering microphone, we read from the prepared text on the sign in front of us:
I AM FSOCIETY.
WE ARE FSOCIETY.
TOGETHER WE CAN
BUILD A NEW WORLD
WHERE WE ARE
After removing the costume, we left the room and returned to the party.
This was but one of several sequences of similar activities taking place.
Some people were handed a small fsociety 5/9 flag and told to keep it until the right time. Others received stickers advising them to go to the coat check room and say to the person there, “Are you seeing this, too?” Those who did were handed the cloth bag with the Ecoin logo containing an fsociety mask with, at least in some cases, a note attached. My note said:
keep me hidden
find the bathrooms
on the 3rd fl
for further instructions.
say “hello friend” to frankie.
Once Frankie was located and the pass phrase given, individuals were led to another corridor facing a row of doors to small bathrooms lit with either a blue or orange light.
Inside each room, as before, was the attire of the fsociety figure with instructions on the wall to take a photo and post it to social platforms with the #Wearefsociety hashtag:
THE REVOLUTION WON’T
GO DOWN WITHOUT A FIGHT.
ARE YOU WITH US?
Put on your mask
Choose your disguise
Turn your flash off
Capture evidence of your
allegiance for the world to see
Leave the costume
Take your mask but keep it under wraps
You’ll need it later
keep me hidden.
show your allegiance
to the rebellion.
look for an out of the
put me on.
take a picture
share that picture
with the world.
The Capstone Event: E Corp Hacked and Fsociety Triumphant
Meanwhile, in the main hall, the party continued. As the band finished the set with a rendition of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, E Corp Marketing SVP Heller returned to the stage to introduce the evening’s keynote speaker: E Corp CEO Phillip Price.
After the audience was seated, staff members made sure participants who had not previously followed the clues to receive an fsociety mask were given a bag containing the mask.
Declaring that we live in “dark times” where “dangerous anarchists” are out to destroy the world, Price then assured the audience, “with the right leadership, order and stability will be restored,” touting Ecoin as the new currency to “unite the world.”
During his speech, the screen started to glitch. The E Corp logo flickered. As Price continued, the glitching got more severe. The on-screen E Corp logo was then replaced by the fsociety mask. A pair of security agents safely whisked Price off the stage.
By providing various concurrent levels of experience during the four-hour event, each participant felt they had a singular experience. Hardcore fans who cracked the online clues received an invitation to serve in a key role in the experience. Others uncovered clues on site that led them to other secretive missions. And all attendees joined together for the event’s final act.
It was a massively coordinated immersive marketing experience and alternate reality game that blended the TV show’s fictional narrative with the real world and let everyone play a role.
According to Steve Coulson, a Partner at Campfire who worked with HBO to develop this year’s activation, people who went through the 2016 experience were particularly excited about interacting with the live actors in the physical environment. When planning for this year, HBO and Campfire decided to forego the virtual in favor the actual. This follows a recent trend favoring real-world experiences over virtual simulations in these large scale marketing experiences. [See: “Marketing at Comic-Con Gets Real (Again)“] This updated version of Westworld: The Experience debuted at Comic-Con International’s San Diego event over the summer and came to ReedPop’s New York Comic Con earlier this month.
As at San Diego, it was an exclusive event. The experience accommodated only six people at a time for each 30-minute appointment. The activation was open for ten hours a day, allowing only 120 guests to visit Westworld each of the four days of the convention.
The location to sign up for an appointment changed each day, with clues hinting at the spot appearing in tweets each morning.
The lucky few who obtained a slot were told the location of the installation, several blocks from the convention’s home at the Javits Center.
“If someone invented a device that would bring happiness to everyone in the world, but would also eliminate half the population, would you: (1) use it or (2) destroy the device and its creator?”
“A band of criminals comes into a bar and shoots everyone. You have a gun. Do you: (1) kill them, (2) join them, or (3) do nothing?”
The interrogation is oddly effective. If you answer the questions honestly, you inevitably begin to think about which hat you’re likely to receive. Are you, truly, a white hat person or a black hat person?
Once you’ve been given your hat, you’re led into a narrow room displaying eerie life-mask heads.
As you move through the corridors of the Westworld Experience, there are details worth noting. One door — through which you do not go — is identified by a circular SW logo. Samurai World, perhaps?
The saloon, dimly lit in a soft yellow light, is a small but credible reconstruction of the establishment seen in the HBO series. The show’s iconic player piano is positioned on a wall opposite the bar. Working behind the bar are two bartenders — one male, one female — who prepare you a series of three drinks. And, yes, they are real drinks. A post by Michael Leventhal on Hi-Def Ninja includes the recipe for each of the three rounds. The flaming Blue Blazer is particularly striking to see being prepared.
As you enjoy your beverage, women portraying hosts working in the bar alluringly converse with you.
Even though we entered as a group of six, after being interviewed and escorted to the Mariposa, I realized there were only three of us in attendance. By carefully timing the introductory segments — the initial exhibits and the interview — the experience moves the initial group of six through the saloon in two cohorts, making for a very intimate experience.
Other groups that attended the experience reported that it ended with a flurry of drama. An alarm sounds, guests are told there is a problem with the system, and the hosts show signs of glitching. Attendees are then briskly escorted to the elevators to escape. Alas, when I was there, the experience ended more sedately, with the hosts simply telling us it was time to leave.
One final note: The hat. You get to keep the cowboy hat you were assigned, which I knew going into the experience. I had assumed, however, that it would be an inexpensive costume hat. It’s not. It’s a high quality hat made by Serratelli, a company that traces its roots back to 1878 and has been manufacturing Western hats since 1997. This unexpected bit of quality is emblematic of the attention to detail of the entire Westworld Experience, and is a prime example of how to recruit brand advocates by delighting fans.