Tag: comic-con

Wizard World CEO John Maatta: Growth through Media Development

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“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.

Yes.

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.

That’s correct.

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.

Yes.

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.

 

Comics Creators Highlight East Coast Comic Con

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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.

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Famed inker Joe Sinnott.

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.

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Roy Thomas converses with Jim Starlin.

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.

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Metalsouls.

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.

 

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Firecolors and Butterfly Cages

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.

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Garbage Pail Kids artists Jeff Zapata, Joe Simko, and Mark Pingitore.

Garbage Pail Kids artists Jeff Zapata, Joe Simko, and Mark Pingitore held an intimate Q&A session with fans.

 

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Howard Chaykin in conversation with Jon B. Cooke

Editor and writer Jon B. Cooke led a freewheeling conversation with the always candid and entertaining
writer/artist Howard Chaykin.

 

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Moderator Peter Melnick with Aaron Kuder and Keith Giffen.

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.

 

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Lee Meriwether.

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.

 

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Tony Isabella meets Black Lightning.

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.

 

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J.J. Sedelmaier.

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.

 

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The Monkeemobile.

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.

 

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Creature from M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Village’.

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:

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New York Comic Con 2017: Recap and Photo Highlights

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Television, Movies, Comic Books, and Immersive Marketing at NYCC

New York Comic Con, organized by the Relx Goup’s ReedPop, once again featured a rich array of pop culture activities during the four-day fan fest.

A number of outlets reported a record high attendance of 200,000. A change in the way tickets were allocated this year, however, makes comparisons to previous year’s attendance uncertain. [For more, see: “Comic Con Attendance: Numbers, Numbers, and Numbers.”]

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Crowds fill the Javits Center for NYCC 2017.

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.

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The World of Philip K. Dick.

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.

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Netflix Presents Black Mirror.

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.

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Grant Morrison and ‘Happy!’

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.

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Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

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.

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Professor Marson and the Wonder Women.

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“]

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Wyatt Cenac

In addition to television and movie properties, podcasting was also in evidence with Jesse David Fox recording a podcast with actor and comedian Wyatt Cenac in the session, “Good One: A Podcast About Jokes Live! With Special Guest Wyatt Cenac.”

Comic Book Panels

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.

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John Byrne and Walter Simonson celebrate Jack Kirby.

Jack Kirby’s 100th Birthday Celebration with IDW!” included noted writer/artists John Byrne and Wal Simonson, who were joined by IDW President Greg Goldstein and CCO Chris Ryall to honor the work of the famed comics creator.

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Celebrating Jack Kirby’s New York.

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.”

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Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jason Reynolds.

Over at the Hudson Mercantile, authors Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jason Reynolds talked about their influences writing for Marvel’s Black Panther and Miles Morales characters.

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Berger Books comics creators.

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.

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Celebrating Women in comics.

Dr. Sheena Howard, Janice Chiang, Karen Green, and Amy Chu presented the panel “Women in Comics: Celebrating Over 100 Years.”

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The Future is LGBTQ panel.

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.

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Dick DeBartolo and the gang from Mad Magazine.

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.

Marketing Experiences

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).

As in previous years, Chevrolet was a featured sponsor this year, with pop-culture branded vehicles on display at multiple locations in the Javits Center.

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At the controls of The Tick: Dangerboat.

One of the most impressive marketing experiences in the exhibition hall was Amazon Prime Video’s The Tick: Dangerboat, a full-scale reconstruction of the show’s watercraft for fans to explore.

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Jigsaw escape room.

The film Jigsaw brought a creepy looking escape room inside a shipping container. The Ash vs. the Evil Dead installation recreated the show’s Kenward High School.

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Cloak & Dagger bodega.

Across the street from the Javits Center were installations from Freeform television shows, including a Bodega from Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger and the Jade Wolf restaurant from Shadowhunters.

A few blocks away, Campbell’s Star Wars “ComicCan” featured a large Star Wars themed construction made from the brand’s iconic soup cans.

The large, immersive marketing experiences, known in the industry as “activations,” took place outside the convention center.

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Your host greets you upon entering the Delos Westworld offices.

Westworld: The Experience, which debuted at San Diego Comic-Con this past summer, came to New York this year. The exclusive event — open to only 120 participants each day — allowed fans to enter the Westworld universe, interacting with the show’s synthetic “hosts” and enjoying several rounds of drinks at the Mariposa Saloon. Unlike last year’s Westworld Experience at New York Comic Con, which was built around a virtual reality simulation, this year’s event consisted of live actors interacting with fans in detailed physical recreations of settings from the show. [For a more detailed account, see: “The Westworld Experience at New York Comic Con.”]

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Signing up for the Bank of E.

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.

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Lunch at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ truck.

A food truck from the show’s Red Wheelbarrow BBQ appeared at a different location in the city each day, providing Bank of E customers with a complimentary lunch.

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Surprises abound at the Ecoin launch party.

The centerpiece of Mr. Robot‘s presence during New York Comic Con was the Ecoin launch party on Thursday evening at Terminal 5. The event featured drinks, hors d’oeuvres, live music, and a keynote address by E Corp CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer). There were many surprises, some occurring in plain sight and others hidden behind the scenes for those who discovered the clues.

For a detailed write-up of the Mr. Robot experiences, including the immersive alternate reality game at the Ecoin lunch party, see: “Mr. Robot’s Multifaceted Marketing Experience at New York Comic Con.”

Creators and Cosplayers

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A jam-packed Artist Alley.

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.

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Comic book creators.

Nonetheless, the show was brimming with noteworthy comics creators both in Artist Alley and at panel sessions.

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Cosplayers.

And, as at all comic fests, cosplayers were prevalent strolling through the corridors of the Javits Center and posing outside in the parking lot.

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The Javits Center on a rainy Sunday.

As rain drizzled down on the Javits Center on Sunday, another New York Comic Con came to a close.

For the gallery of photos from this year’s New York Comic Con, see: New York Comic Con 2017.

 

Mr. Robot’s Multifaceted Marketing Experience at New York Comic Con

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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

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Bank of E at the Javits Center.

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.

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Signing up for a Bank of E account.

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

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Lunch at the 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.)

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Outside the venue at Terminal 5.

From any vantage point, the launch party — developed by USA Networks along with BBQ Films and Civic Entertainment Group — was an impressive event.

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.)

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Checking in beneath the illuminated E.

The entrance to the venue at New York’s Terminal 5 was arrayed with Bank of E signs and banners. A large E Corp logo was projected in light on an adjacent building.

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.

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The champagne flows.

Upon entering the building, guests were met by servers offering flutes of champagne. E Corp advertising was prevalent throughout.

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Artwork honoring E Corp.

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.

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Above the atrium: a large E.

The venue’s main space was a soaring three-story atrium. At its pinnacle, a large letter E was suspended.

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E Corp SVP of Marketing Debra Heller.

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.

E-Coin-Launch-Vocalist-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Robyn Adele Anderson sings.

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.

Ecoin-Launch-Party-RSVP
RSVP response. [Click to view.]
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

Ecoin-Launch-Silent-Sin-800x267
“Silent Sin.”

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)
6:15pm

ask for benny the bus driver
outside the service entrance.
come alone. wear black pants
and a white-long sleeve dress
shirt.

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.'”

Some collaborators were recruited through a Twitter Direct Message:

E-Coin-Launch-Bus-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
The mysterious white bus.

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.
password:
“are you seeing this, too?”

As the party was underway, the secret missions began.

Joining Fsociety

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:

http://fsociety00.dat.sh/v/CDWNoGOMQSCKeArcAxZk/

Mr-Robot-Mission-Video-FsocietyThat site displayed a brief video that intercuts shots of a hoodie-wearing member of fsociety with a sequence of messages:

HELLO, FRIEND.
WE HAVE A MISSION FOR YOU.

GO TO THE STAIRWALL BEHIND THE BAR.

The final screen shows the fsociety mask with the following message:
Mr-Robot-Mission-Video-Screen-Shot

1. ASK FOR JESSIE

2. SHOW THEM A
SCREEN SHOT OF
THIS MESSAGE

E-Coin-Launch-Corridor-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Down the dimly lit corridor.

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.

E-Coin-Launch-Finally-Awake-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Showing allegience: “I am fsociety.”

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:

E-Coin-Launch-I-Am-Fsociety-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse

I AM FSOCIETY.
WE ARE FSOCIETY.
TOGETHER WE CAN
BUILD A NEW WORLD
WHERE WE ARE
FINALLY FREE.

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.

E-Coin-Launch-Frankie-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Frankie questions potential recruits.

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:

E-Coin-Launch-With-Us-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse.jpg
“Are you with us?”

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

Use #WeArefsociety

Leave the costume
Take your mask but keep it under wraps
You’ll need it later

E-Coin-Launch-Hidden-Mask-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-400x600
“Keep me hidden.”

Other bags containing an fsociety mask included different messages. One newfound friend at the party showed me his mask which included the message:

keep me hidden.
show your allegiance
to the rebellion.
look for an out of the
way corner.
put me on.
take a picture
share that picture
with the world.
#wearefsociety

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.

E-Corp-CEO-Phillip-Price-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
E Corp CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer.)

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.

After showing a promotional E Corp video, CEO Price (actor Michael Cristofer) came to the stage.

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.”

E-Coin-Launch-Fsociety-Screen-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Fsociety takes over.

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.

E-Coin-Launch-Fsociety-Keyboardist-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
The fsociety band.

One by one, band members returned to the stage, each wearing an fsociety mask.

E-Coin-Launch-Fsociety-Masked-Audience-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Everyone is fsociety.

By this time, everyone in the audience had donned their fsociety masks.

E-Coin-Launch-We-Are-Fsociety-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
“We are fsociety.”

The band members lined up on stage and led the crowd in chants of “We are fsociety and we are finally free.”

E-Coin-Launch-E-Lowered-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse--600x400.jpg
The E descends.

The giant illuminated E that had been hanging over the atrium was slowly lowed and carted away.

E-Coin-Launch-Fsociety-Banners-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Fsociety banners unfurl.

Fsociety banners and sheets filled with graffiti were unfurled from the upper floors of the hall.

A message appeared on the screen:E-Coin-Launch-Video-Attention-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400

ATTENTION: WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO SEE  MUST NOT BE SHARED WITH THE WORLD UNTIL THE TIME IS RIGHT.

Clips from Mr. Robot appeared on screen. The audience was then surprised with an unannounced screening of the opening episode of season 3, not scheduled to air until the following week.

When the episode concluded, E Corp’s Heller returned to the stage flanked by a security agent. She apologized for the incident and announced the end of the party.

E-Coin-Launch-Exit-Corridor-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Fsociety posters everywhere.

As people exited the hall, fsociety posters and graffiti covered the corridor.

E-Coin-Launch-Painting-Occupied-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
The painting vandalized

The large E Corp painting had been vandalized with fsociety graffiti.

E-Coin-Launch-Exit-Protests-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Protesters occupy the street outside the venue.

Outside the venue, masked fsociety members were protesting and distributing REMEMBER FIVE/NINE stickers. The large E previously projected on the adjacent building had been replaced by the fsociety logo.

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.

For a photo gallery of the Mr. Robot events at New York Comic Con, see: Mr. Robot Experience: New York Comic Con 2017

 

 


The images from the Mr. Robot video and websites are from potentially copyrighted content, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the program’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. All other photos on this page are copyright © 2017 Kendall Whitehouse.

The Westworld Experience at New York Comic Con

Westworld-Hosts-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-1020x492

Which Hat Will You Wear?

At last year’s New York Comic Con, the HBO Westworld offsite marketing event (known as an “activation” in the industry) consisted of a hybrid physical/virtual experience. [See: “Entering Westworld: VR Marketing at New York Comic Con.”] Visitors who scored one of the coveted appointments entered a reconstruction of the offices of the fictional Delos corporation, where an actor portraying one of the show’s synthetic human hosts greeted you. You were then led into a room to don an HTC Vive VR headset and enter a virtual simulation of Westworld.

Westworld-Delos-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
The secret location of the New York offices of Delos.

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.

Westworld-Map-NYCC-2017-600x400
Online clues for that day’s location to sign up for the experience.

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.

Westworld-Entrance-Host-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Your host greets you upon entering the Delos offices.

Upon entering, guests are greeted by an actor portraying a synthetic human host. You and your five companions are then led into a room displaying weapons and clothing from the show. A wall-sized video screen provides a visual introduction to Westworld.

One-by-one you’re called for your interview. You enter a sparse, dimly lit room where your interrogator greets you. Two hats hang on the wall: one white, one black. Which will you be given?

Westworld-Interview-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Which hat will your interrogator select for you?

The comprehensive interview includes a raft of questions. Some are focused on your psychology, such as: “What percentage of your dreams are nightmares?”

Others are moral conundrums, akin to the Trolley Problem:

“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?

Westworld-Models-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Heads made from life castings.

Once you’ve been given your hat, you’re led into a narrow room displaying eerie life-mask heads.

Westworld-Host-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
The door you do not enter: Samurai World?

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?

From there you enter an elevator and ascend to the centerpiece of the experience: the Mariposa Saloon.

Westworld-Blue-Blazer-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Preparing a Blue Blazer.

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.

Westworld-Bar-Host-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400.jpg
A host at the Mariposa.

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.

For a photo gallery from the event, see: Westworld Experience: New York Comic Con 2017

Comic Con Attendance: Numbers, Numbers, and Numbers

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The Size of a Pop Culture Event Depends on How You Count

This year ReedPop’s New York Comic Con reportedly reached a new record high attendance: 200,000. However, it’s difficult to know the actual size of the event relative to other fan conventions — or even to the previous year’s New York Comic Con — due to vagaries in how attendance is counted.

New York Comic Con is unquestionably huge. Several years ago the annual fan fest outgrew the confines of the Javits Center and now hosts additional programming sessions in the The Manhattan Center’s Hammerstein Ballroom, the Theater at Madison Square Garden, and Hudson Mercantile.

Artist-Alley-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Artist Alley crowded with fans.

The Javits seemed particularly crowded this year due, at least in part, by having less available floor space than in past years. Javits North, traditionally the site of Artist Alley, was closed due to construction, forcing the show’s artists to relocate from the 80,000 square foot hall to the 45,000 sq ft. room 1E on the ground floor, a space used for vendor exhibits in the previous year.

Ways to Count

While fan festivals both large and small routinely report specific attendance numbers, what they mean is less clear. There is no industry standard for attendance calculations at pop culture conventions. In practice, at least three methods are used:

(1) Counting unique individuals, where each person counts as one attendee, regardless of the number of tickets they hold or days they attend.

(2) Counting the number of tickets sold (whether for a single day or multiple days)

(3) Counting the number of people who enter each day and totaling it for all the days of the event.

For example: An individual with two single-day tickets (say, one for Friday and one for Saturday), would count as one attendee using the first approach and two using the second and third. On the other hand, someone with a single four-day ticket would count as one attendee using the first and second methods, but four using the third.

The third method is sometimes referred to as a “turnstile” count, although this term introduces an additional confusion. Most events allow you to leave and return later the same day, so an actual count of the number of turnstile entrances would further inflate the number, making this a potential fourth method of counting attendance  (although I know of no event that actually uses this approach).

Which Con Uses Which Numbers?

When a convention reports attendance figures, it’s often not clear which method is being used. All these approaches are valid, but they’re different, making comparisons fraught with uncertainty.

San Diego Comic-Con reportedly uses the most conservative approach: a count of unique individuals, regardless of the number of days each person attends. Comic-Con International, which hosts the San Diego event, uses a Member ID system that allows them track the number of tickets or passes given to each individual. The attendance at San Diego Comic-Con has been capped by space constraints for several years and is reported to be around 130,000.

When New York Comic Con proclaimed a significantly higher number — 151,000 — in 2014, it sparked a flurry of articles breathlessly reporting that ReedPop’s event had surpassed the Comic-Con International convention. The confusion was compounded by ReedPop’s identifying the number as a “unique attendee” count. Reporting by the SDCC Unofficial Blog, however, clarified that ReedPop was counting tickets sold (using method 2, above) not unique individuals (method 1). Although ReedPop introduced a Fan Verification system linked to RFID badges in 2016 that could allow them to track individual attendance, given the steady increase in the numbers, it seems unlikely they have switched to a more conservative method of reporting attendance.

The key takeaway is that comparing attendance figures from events run by different organizations — Comic-Con International (San Diego Comic-Con and Wondercon), ReedPop (New York Comic Con, Chicago’s C2E2, Emerald City Comic Con), Wizard World (events in dozens of cities) or others — is highly dubious.

Assuming the method for each event remains the same, however, at least year-over-year increases could provide a reasonable proxy for the relative growth of a single event. Alas, this year New York Comic Con — which, remember, tallies the number of tickets sold — changed their ticket sales policy to no longer offer a four-day ticket. People were able to attend all four days only by buying four single-day tickets. Thus, even with the same number of attendees, the number of tickets sold would be expected to increase irrespective of any growth in attendance.

New York Comic Con and Comic-Con International: San Diego are both enormous pop culture events, with an broad array of activities and large numbers of attendees. Until the industry adopts a standard accounting method, however, the relative size of each will remain obscure.

Update: In an interview with ICv2, ReedPOP Global Head Lance Fensterman cited New York Comic Con 2017 attendance as 220,000, as measured by the number of tickets sold (method 2, listed above). He acknowledged that the change from offering multiple-day tickets in previous years to only single-day tickets this year resulted in an increase in the ticket total. “In the old days when we had multi‑day tickets, if you bought a three‑day pass, that counted as one ticket sold,” Fensterman stated. “It was always that one ticket is counted as one whether it’s a three‑day, a four‑day, or a single‑day. It’s one ticket. The increase is really because we don’t have multi‑day tickets anymore so you have single days.”

When asked about comparison’s with the previous year, Fensterman said, “It was really the same number.” In fact, according to Fensterman, “it was slightly less people per day,” due to the change in how tickets were sold and the loss of space in the convention hall due to construction.

For a visual tour of this year’s New York Comic Con, see:  New York Comic Con 2017

The Multilayered Mr. Robot Marketing Experience

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Mr. Robot’s Alternate Reality Game at San Diego Comic-Con

At San Diego Comic-Con last year, the offsite marketing event for USA Network’s Mr. Robot cleverly blended a physical environment with a virtual reality experience. This year, Mr. Robot eschewed the virtual in favor of physical constructions and encounters with live actors. Some aspects of the experience were clearly visible. Other elements were revealed only to fans who participated in a complex alternate reality game (ARG) to solve clues scattered around downtown San Diego.

Clearly Visible: The Bank of E and the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ

While the climax of the experience was cleverly hidden, much of this year’s Mr. Robot activation (as these marketing events are termed) was apparent to anyone strolling around San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.

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The condemned Mr. Robot Repair Shop. Note the small white chicken, upper right.

On Fourth Ave, a short distance from the Convention Center, fans could see the storefront of the Mr. Robot Repair Shop. Last year, the shop was the entrance to an elaborate reconstruction of the fictional retail establishment from the TV show, complete with old mid-1990s computers. Moving down a hallway, fans then entered a recreation of the apartment of Elliot Alderson, the show’s protagonist. From there, participants donned VR headsets and entered a 13-minute virtual reality experience written and directed by showrunner Sam Esmail. [For more on the 2016 marketing experience, see: “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media.”]

Mr-Robot-Notice-to-Vacate-SDCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Mr. Robot Repair Shop Notice to Vacate.

This year, the repair shop was abandoned. The closed storefront displayed a condemned sign and a notice for eviction. An ad for the E Corp Online, the AOL-like online service of the show’s mega-conglomerate E Corp, could also be spotted. (More on this ad later.) Graffiti was splattered over much of the storefront.

Mr-Robot-Bank-of-E-Exterior-SDCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
The Bank of E.

Next door, the Bank of E had a small branch office where fans could sign up for an account from the fictional bank and receive a charge card loaded with 20 Ecoin, the Bank of E’s cryptocurrency. People could also sign up online on the Bank’s website, e-coin.com. While the bank may be fictional, Ecoin worked as an effective pseudo-currency throughout much of the Gaslamp during Comic-Con. Signs declaring “Ecoin Accepted Here,” where fans could use their newly-acquired Ecoin card to purchase souvenirs and snacks, were scattered around downtown San Diego.

Mr-Robot-Red-Wheelbarrow-BBQ-SDCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
The Red Wheelbarrow BBQ.

Next door to the Bank of E was the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, where Bank of E customers could receive a complimentary pulled pork sandwich (supplied by local favorite Phil’s BBQ) along with chips and a shake.

While the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ appears only obliquely in the previous season of the show — appearing briefly as a takeout menu in one episode — it will reportedly play a larger role in the upcoming third season.

These physical recreations of locations from the show allowed many fans at Comic-Con to enter the world of Mr. Robot. There was, however, a mystery hiding in plain sight.

Following the Clues

While many people were blithely enjoying lunch at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, observant fans noticed clues to something deeper behind the Mr. Robot activation. [For many of the details in this section, I’m indebted to the redditors in the /r/MrRobot/ and r/ARGsociety/ subreddits, particularly B-Cipher, Cornelius55555555, and britter2]

At the Bank of E, a video screen running promotional ads for the bank would occasionally glitch and display a black screen with red lettering saying:

SOMETIMES TO SEE CLEARLY, YOU MUST CLOSE YOUR EYES.
ISE IARI CHI EIVE RIY WIH IERE

Removing the Is and unnecessary spaces, gives: SEARCH EVERYWHERE

Some of the Ecoin Accepted Here signs included the following text at the bottom:

Use Ecoin to unlock the mysteries of the universe!
Don’t wait… EVERY SECOND COUNTS!!
EUNSLEIPGRHOTMEONCMOEDNET

The gibberish at the bottom is an anagram for:

USE PROMO CODE ENLIGHTENMENT

Entering ENLIGHTENMENT as a promo code on the Ecoin website showed a black screen with white text that read:

so, you decided to bank with e corp.

good.

you’re on your way.

but first…

you need a job.

ask an employee at red wheelbarrow if they’re hiring

hope to hear back from you soon.

When asked, staff at the Red Wheelbarrow would hand out a job application form to prospective hires. Applicants were told to be observant and look around both inside and outside the Red Wheelbarrow. Staff also pointed out the application number at the top right of the form: 619. This is the area code for San Diego.

A number of letters were missing from words in the application form. Listing the missing letters gives: “find and assemble the pieces enlightenment calls.”

At the top left of the application, above the Red Wheelbarrow logo, were three circles, the first of which was filled with the other two empty.

On a chalkboard at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ was written the William Carlos Williams poem from which the establishment takes its name:

So much depends upon

a red wheelbarrow

glazed with rain water

beside the white chickens

– William Carlos Williams

Underneath was a speech balloon saying “follow us!” above one of a pair of stickers of white chickens.

A white chicken sticker could also be seen on the closed Mr. Robot Repair Shop.

Mr-Robot-E-Online-SDCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-400x600
Clues hidden in the E Corp Online ad.

Looking closely at the shop’s E Corp Online ad revealed additional clues. At the upper left, three circles could again be seen. In this case, the middle circle was filled with the two outside circles empty.

The first sentence of the text read: “A world of  enlightenment is just a click away with E Corp Online!,” with the bold “enlightenment” harking back to the earlier clues.

Elsewhere in the text, a number of words, representing numbers, were in all caps:

The World Wide Web is what’s happening now, and EOL brings it right to your computers. Sports, Shopping, Travel and more… over FOUR categories of content all at your fingertips.

And thanks to E Corp’s cutting edge technology, connecting with the people and things that you love has never been easier. Our new high connection speeds will have you online in less then THREE minutes!

BONUS: Order now, and receive ONE free hour to check out E Corp Online!

This text thus adds to 619 three numbers: 431.

White chicken stickers led down 4th Avenue and across the street. An abandoned building displayed a street art poster with four marionettes on strings. In the upper left were three circles, with the first two empty and the final circle filled.

The text of the poster one day read:

If you pull the right strings,
a puppet will dance any way you desire.

The work was signed “Enlightenment.”

Another day, the poster read:

The real you is not a puppet
which life pushes around.
The real, deep down you
is the whole universe.

A representative from Civic Entertainment Group involved in the production of the activation explained that since the text was key to entering the final stage of the experience, the poster was changed each day to reduce instances of sharing the text with people who had not solved the earlier puzzles.

In one hand, each of the figures was holding an object: a noose, a white rose, a cell phone, and a knife. With the other hand, each of the marionettes displayed a number of fingers. In order they were: 2454

Putting together the three sets of numbers gives a San Diego phone number.

A number of people reportedly had problems calling the number, receiving a busy signal or a recording telling them to call back tomorrow.

When the call was completed, the person on the other end said, “If you pull the right strings…” A wrong response would be answered with “Your journey is not complete. Follow the chickens.” If the caller answered correctly with the correct response for that that, such as “A puppet will dance any way you desire,” they were congratulated on following the correct path, asked their name, and given the time and location at which to appear. (In some accounts, they were told they could bring one friend.)

At the appointed time and place, the participant was met by someone who asked their name and led them to a doorway for the final segment of the experience.

The End of the Journey

Mr-Robot-Door-SDCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-400x600
The secret door opens.

It turned out the entrance to the final chapter of the Mr. Robot Experience was located next to the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ. A glass doorway was covered with newspapers which, in a clever bit of misdirection, appeared to be more relevant to Superman than to Mr. Robot. A Daily Planet newspaper placed in multiple locations on the door trumpeted the headline “Mysterious Crisis Strikes City!” and discussed shocking developments in Superman’s home town of Metropolis.

The newspaper included a crossword puzzle with odd clues:

Across Down
Put First
Things First
Don’t Be
Afraid Switch
Things Up

Although I didn’t see this when I was there, apparently at one point the crossword puzzle on one of the pages was filled in with a series of backward and forward words:

Across:
EHT
TIGHR
OT
THAT
KNLOCU
DEHINDB
DINF

Down:
TNLIGHTENMENE
ROOD
RUMBEN

Unscrambling and rearranging these gives: “Find The Right Number to Unlock Enlightenment Behind That Door.”

Mr-Robot-Hallway-SDCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400
Past the secret door, down the hallway.

The door led to a dimly lit hallway with graffiti on the walls. A woman in a hoodie was standing midway down the corridor. I was told I needed to turn over my cellphone before proceeding. I objected. As a compromise, I turned off my phone and promised to keep it in my pocket.

Mr-Robot-2x11-02c
Angela enters an interrogation room nearly identical to the one at Comic-Con.

The door at the end of the hall led to a darkened room — one that looks virtually identical to the interrogation room encountered by Angela (Portia Doubleday) in the penultimate episode in season 2 of Mr. Robot (titled “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z”).

Mr-Robot-2x11-03c
As in the TV episode (shown), the room at Comic-Con held a Commodore 64 computer and a red phone.

As in the show, the room contained a dimly lit table on which sat an ancient Commodore 64 computer along with a few 5-1/4-inch diskettes. Also on the table was a red telephone. The only other object in the room was an illuminated fish tank, whose glow provided ambient light in the room.

While the physical environment closely matched the room seen in the show, there was one striking difference: While Angela was interrogated by a young blonde girl — looking much like the Angela would have looked at that age — in the room at Comic-Con, you were facing a person wearing the mask of the ominous Dark Army.

After being directed to sit down, the questions began.

“How many times have you lied today?”

“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?”

The series of questions apparently varied somewhat. One account reported being asked “At what age did you realize you are alone?”

The final question was:

“Are you afraid of the dark?”

At that point, the masked figure slid forward a mechanical light switch. When switched on, the lights went off and the room turned . A black UV light revealed graffiti scrolled on the back wall that included the phrase, “What do all those in darkness seek?”

To avoid the obvious I initially answered, “Truth.” The masked figure shook his head. I then responded, “Light.”

At that point, the black light switched off and the dim room lighting returned.

One account reported that the fish tank began to slowly drain, echoing what happens during the similar sequence in show. When I spoke with one of the developers of the activation, he told me the original plan was to drain the tank, but it was taking too long to refill between sessions, so this was dropped.

The red phone then rang. When answered, the distinctive voice of Whiterose (BD Wong) began to speak. “No, no. Please don’t talk. I have allotted precisely one minute and twenty seven seconds for this conversation.” The character then went on to provide hints about the upcoming season of Mr. Robot, the main thrust of which (as well as I can recall) was that things were in motion that were much deeper than E Corp president Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) and others currently realize.

After replacing the receiver at the end of the call, my interlocutor said I had earned the right to see something. He handed me a manila envelope and said I had 30 seconds to review the contents. Inside were a series of photos from season 3 of Mr. Robot.

After viewing the photos, I returned them to the envelope and handed it back. I was then told I could leave and was shown the door.

Once in the hallway, participants who turned over their cellphones had them returned. I exited the hallway to return to the bustle of San Diego’s 4th Avenue and the crowd blissfully dining at the Red Wheelbarrow.

Worlds Within Worlds

The final phase of this elaborate marketing activation was a haunting experience. Being placed into a bizarre situation from the show — not as a digital simulation, but a physical environment interacting with human performers — is an eerie experience.

It’s striking how much effort went into the hidden elements of the marketing experience that would be seen by only a few fans of the show. A representative from Civic Entertainment Group, the company that helped to develop the activation with USA Networks, told me the final act of the experience took about 8 minutes. Allowing for buffer time between each session, this implies that only six or seven people per hour could go through the experience. As mentioned above, draining of the fish tank was dropped in order to decrease the time to cycle between each session. And some people were reportedly told they could bring a friend, which would double the number of participants. Even so, it’s a large effort for a limited audience.

Of course, the Mr. Robot presence at Comic-Con extended beyond the obscure clues that led to the final experience. The closed Mr. Robot Repair Shop, the Bank of E, and Red Wheelbarrow BBQ were readily apparent to anyone who strolled by.

In a way, this echoes the structure of the Mr. Robot TV show itself. Many viewers simply watch each hour-long episode. Others pick up on the obscure references and hidden “Easter eggs” that reveal additional story details or lead to other websites or videos for a deeper experience.

The Comic-Con Mr. Robot Experience was a rich interactive component to the show’s layered, transmedia content.

Related articles:

Updated with additional details on why the posters were changed each day. 

The images from Mr. Robot are from a copyrighted television program, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the program’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. All other photos on this page are copyright © 2017 Kendall Whitehouse.