Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
I’ve been an avid convention attendee for about as long as I can remember. I started as a kid going to Star Trek conventions all over the country, back in the days when entry cost like $20 and autographs were included in the admission. Things have changed a bit since those glory days. Comic-Cons are now a billion-dollar global industry, ranging from mom-and-pop mini-cons with local celebs to corporate behemoths landing A-list superstars. And as such, the quality of experience varies just as greatly.
For myself, I tend to gauge my enjoyment of a con on several factors, but the “size” of the celebrity attending is not necessarily one of them. If I had to sum up in a word what I hope for, it might be “accessibility”: to the celebrities, to the vendors, to information, to the location, to the products for purchase.
On just about all these counts, Alamo City Comic-Con (ACCC) of San Antonio, Texas, did not have their best year. Not by a longshot.
Let’s step back for a second and look at the lead up. We’ve been attending ACCC since its inaugural con back in 2013. While they had a rough first year, they seemed to be addressing the issues year after year. So much so that by 2016, we had one of the smoothest, most enjoyable con experiences we’ve ever had! Lines flowing freely, passes organized and ready for dissemination, easy access to celebrities and panels, great utilization of the convention center space so as to spread it out across the venue and prevent bottlenecking. . . . It was glorious! No surprise, attendance each year grew exponentially. Then in 2017 they moved from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center across the highway to the Alamodome. And as you might expect, there were some growing pains, but with a year under their belt, they would have surely learned their lesson, right?
Though we had purchased our 3-Day passes (plus a “Flash Pass” which allows us to skip lines) nearly a year in advance, when we arrived on Friday afternoon we were in for a shock before we even got out of the car. Firstly, two lots we regularly use because of their convenient location and $20 parking suddenly announced they would now be charging $60—no thanks. We found a city lot literally across the street for $19.
After the 1-mile walk to the Dome, we went through security no problem, then spent 5 minutes trying to find the end of the overwhelming line of people waiting to get in! None of the wandering staff were directing people where to go. It took another hour or so to get inside, most likely because instead of utilizing the 10 staffed entrances, they herded everyone into one of 4 gates. Once through the door, our tickets were deemed unscannable for some reason, and we were shuttled to a customer service line, who promptly gave us our 3-Day passes, but then directed us to a third, and MUCH-longer line, to get our Flash Pass. Fortunately, some industrious staffer had the bright idea to walk by and ask if anyone was waiting for just a Flash Pass, handing one to us. Who’da thunk? On that same note, the 3-Day pass was now a wrist-band that we were expected to wear for three days straight (thanks), and the Flash Pass was a card meant to be hung on the lanyard they didn’t include (thanks). And as we tried to shrug off the hassles of getting in, we were told only VIPs could use the escalator at the front to go down to the main floor, and everyone else needed to walk to one of the far stairs at each corner of the building. Seriously!
But fine, we’re on the floor. We’re ready to have some fun. We walked through the vendor booths a bit, heading toward the celebrity area at the back. Even given the relatively fewer number of attendees on Friday, the rows were packed, as the organizers seemed to have wanted to shove as many booths in as possible. I greeted many of my vendor friends (knowing them both from purchases over the years and from being an occasional vendor myself). You rarely know exactly what to expect in terms of pricing at these things; you can get great deals or painfully gouged—usually an acceptable mix. But this year seemed to skew especially expensive. Knowing a bit about that world, I wondered if it was because of the rise in booth costs themselves, which I guessed is to cover the bigger names brought in. So as strange as it felt, we bought very little goods this time round, a notable and telling anomaly.
And it’s not for lack of trying. On Saturday, we realized that the upper floors of the Dome also contained vendors, which seemed like a fantastic idea and judicious use of space. But as we walked the long, barren halls we began to realize that while some vendors had been situated, or moved from the previous day, to these levels, they were condensed mostly around the stairwells at each of the four corners. In between, often vast nothingness. And the walk between these corners is exhausting (the Dome is HUGE, they play football games there after all). While some of the vendors here were interesting to visit, the effort was hardly worth it. And on the gaming level, we wandered helplessly nearly the entire floor before we finally found them nested at a single end. There were no volunteers helping direct or explain where anything was. When asked, you received either a shrug or flat out incorrect info (I went to the “Show Info” table to ask about a panel, and was told they didn’t know, and I’d have to go to section 112 and ask someone from the show. Wanna guess what was at Sec 112? Yup, nothing. Thanks for the walk!). And adding insult to injury, the Dome, when hosting a game, provides a bevy of diverse and flavorful food options. Though more people went through this weekend than any single game has ever seen, our only options were $5 hot dogs or $9 cardboard pizza. In the end, as far as proper use of such a venue, it was a massive failure on every count.
When we reached the celeb autograph area that first day, we were shocked to see the placement of the tables. We knew from experience that given the layout, once the lines for the big names started, the arrangement would cause massive and impenetrable stoppage for people trying to get through. We cringed thinking of the inevitable. To the con’s credit, and after hearing an earful both from us and others at the end of the day, they did some overnight reshuffling that prevented much of the worst. But it also created a few new problems. People like Art LaFleur were moved not once, not twice, but at least 3 times that we saw over the course of the weekend. Billy Zane was moved at least twice. Neve Campbell was shoved into a corner where you couldn’t even find her line, next to poor Rachel True who sat lonely and lineless most of the time.
Which leads me to a sad commentary on the disparity between celebrities. When ACCC started announcing guests, they had a steady ensemble of notable names, including stalwarts like William Shatner and Lou Ferrigno. Shatner usually held reign as the most expensive at about $80 per autograph. But now, here comes Jeff Goldblum ($100)! Fresh from retirement, it’s Rick Moranis ($150, or $800 VIP)!! And of course, their greatest coup, Arnold Schwarzenegger at a strictly VIP $1200!!! And as if on cue, everyone started raising their prices. For a few years prices have been high but steady (as low as $30 and usually with reasonable picture prices), but seems that a shift has come. Most of the people at the con, even “lesser-tier” celebs, were charging on average $40-$50 per autograph . . . plus the same for a picture. My own sense is there is a “keeping up with the Joneses” effect, compounded by the often-unreal expectation that people have far more disposable income than we really do and are willing to pay just about anything. This feels like an increasing bubble that will inevitably burst. But the more immediate repercussion is that people are forced to spend far less, meet fewer people, and in short have a much more limited experience. And on the celebrity side, we have to watch as people like Art Lafeur, Rachel True, Masiela Lusha, and Henry Thomas sit forlornly at empty tables before barren lines as people who might otherwise swing by are forced to save their precious dollars for the “big names.”
My fear is that this apparent trend of ever-escalating prices and structures will basically force people like me and my girlfriend—the exact audience for these sorts of events—out of the game. We’d already evolved from Saturday-only tickets into 3-day passes, and then into spending more for the convenience of a Flash Pass . . . and now we have VIP tickets, which seem to give not just upgraded access, but now completely different experiences. Our Flash Pass got us into second-row seats for Jeff Goldblum’s marvelous panel, with a few hundred of the general admission attendees behind us. And as advertised would seemingly do the same for Moranis and Arnold, our only chance to possibly interact with these people without spending an entire paycheck. But after leaving one panel to wait 30 minutes in line for another, we were told Moranis was only allowing VIPs (all twelve of them!) into his panel! WTF?!?!? We later learned (again at the last minute) the same would be true for Arnold. Ok, fine, VIPs get more access, but then make that clear so people don’t waste their time! And even worse, they SHOWED the panels on the giant screens above the show floor. If it’s exclusive to VIPs, then why show it? If not, why not let people in, but just give the VIP’s the better seats (as usually is the case)? None of it made any sense whatsoever, and only added to our frustrations.
But hey, I don’t want to give the impression it was all bad. Massive frustrations aside, there were some genuinely wonderful aspects. All the celebrities we did meet were genuinely lovely and gracious people. Bill Shatner mentioned there might be a new season of Better Late than Never (love that show!). Jonathan Frakes talked Gargoyles with us, even while distracted by the fact the con misspelled his name on the screens. William Zabka and I talked martial arts. Mike Colter, sad as he seemed, expressed a glimmer of hope for a Heroes for Hire revival of Luke Cage and Danny Rand. Daphne Zuniga was as sweet and gracious as you hoped she’d be. And even though our $100 autograph wasn’t personalized, Goldblum was sweet in our short interaction, and after his panel, deservedly deemed a freakin’ national treasure—full stop.
And I have to say something about Arnold. Anyone who really knows me knows he’s practically a god to me. It’s been a dream of mine to meet him, so when I heard he was coming I nearly lost it! I mean, the serendipity was too good to believe—Arnold, in my town, at my con! And then the gut check that access was strictly limited to VIPs, at $1200 each. Well, with recent car trouble and a new roof on the way, that wasn’t likely to happen (though damned if I didn’t consider it!). I even tried to contact ACCC to see if the tickets we’d already bought might apply toward that VIP price: they never even responded. Well, at least there was the panel right? (We know how that went.) Then out of the blue, we were eyeing the list of photo options Friday before we left, and there it was: a randomly announced general photo op! It was still RIDICULOUSLY expensive, but it was there. I got my photo, a handshake, and 3 seconds of interaction with my hero the next day. Was it worth it? In the long run, yes. And I like to think that it was Arnold’s decision, rather than the con’s, realizing that having him there but inaccessible to just about everyone was simply a waste.
And it would have been. Why bring in celebrities we can’t access? The whole point of a con is supposed to be that fans get a chance to interact with their heroes, and sure, the celebs make some money out of it. Win-win. But the excess has now created a purely pay-for-play scenario, and sooner rather than later it won’t be the average janes and joes able to meet current and bygone stars looking to make some cash and greet their fans, but merely the rich meeting a select few of the already mega-rich. But what are fans really GETTING for their money? A panel you can sit in on? A few extra minutes with a celeb? Riding the central escalator? The experience of the con is dwindling. ACCC 2018 could serve as a case study in prioritizing a “get” over what is actually being offered. This isn’t San Diego, and it shouldn’t be. Stop trying to keep up with the neighbors, and make your con a beautiful, care-free, joyous experience. Or wind up on the scrapheap of bankrupt conventions that no longer exist (and I’ve been to many of them!).
Wizard World, one of the premiere convention organizers, came to San Antonio once—once. We don’t really know why it never returned, but it’s more than possible that SA is just not big enough, and its citizens not wealthy enough, to support two major cons a year. If so, we may find out next month, as Celebrity Fan Fest arrives for the first time, sporting a chunk of the DC Justice League and Stargate alumni. But with Ben Affleck charging $250 a signature, and Jason Momoa $100, it seems the bubble hasn’t burst quite yet. We, for two, will likely not be attending; less because we don’t want to, and more because we can’t afford to. I wonder, in fact, if our con-going days are numbered. This is the first year we are seriously considering not attending ACCC next year, regardless of who they bring in.
A great experience can be worth the cost, no doubt. But when the experience isn’t great, where does that leave you? All I can hope is that ACCC, and those ever-increasingly like them, learn from their mistakes and go back to giving the fans an experience worth paying for. If not, prepare to suffer the inevitable POP!