The Amazing Multihyphenate
If anybody from comics has “made it” in TV, it’s Robert Kirkman. The writer of Ultimate X-Men, Marvel Zombies and his own series Invincible, Kirkman started the creator-owned series The Walking Dead in 2003, and the rest is history. The 34-year-old is one of five principals in charge of Image Comics, the fourth-largest serial comics publisher, and he’s also a producer on AMC’s adaptation of The Walking Dead (the most popular show on TV). It would be understating the case considerably to say that fans are interested in meeting him. But he’s got a lot else going on, too.
“I love being able to meet everyone in the food chain,” says Kirkman. “I meet with distributors and retailers and fans and everyone along the way. Everyone comes together in the same place, and I’m able to strategize for the new year. It’s a business meeting for the new year, and that excites me.”
Kirkman makes great use of his Comic-Con time to keep an eye on what’s up and coming in the industry, and connect in the same room with everyone who has an opinion or a dollar in every aspect of The Walking Dead. “I have a retailer breakfast and I can talk to the companies about what they’d like to see from us shipping-wise, and what kinds of products and what kinds of release schedules,” Kirkman continues. “You hang out at the bar with people who’ve been doing comics for 20 years, and people say, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done a book this way?’”
Ultimately, it’s an exhausting time. “I do dread it, a little bit,” he says ruefully. “It’s a rough week.” Kirkman keeps an eye on everything from the publication of the comic book (which he still writes) to new talent for the TV series to the hilariously gruesome action figures his partner at Image, Todd McFarlane, makes through McFarlane Toys.
For retailers and manufacturers attending Comic-Con, it’s not just about talking to the fans; it’s about using the fans as a bargaining chip. “The manufacturers will go, ‘Hey, we sculpted this awesome toy, and we might make it if we can sell enough to keep the line going,’” says one consumer products exec. Just like in the television world, this group keeps close watch on what catches on when images make it out on social media and on fan sites. When a toy is “talked about at panels [and] reblogged, retailers see this happening and expand their orders like crazy,” he adds.
Brick-and-mortar retailers have to do plenty of heavy lifting, sometimes literally. As prices rise and interest in old superhero comics wanes, businesses like Chuck Rozan-ski’s Mile High Comics have had to adapt their business tactics. Like many comics stores, Mile High has morphed into primarily an e-tailing business, but conventions offer that rare opportunity to meet prospective customers through means other than banner ads and email blasts. “I have created an entirely mobile and modular 700-square-foot comic book store that can be reassembled in any spot in about four hours,” Rozanski boasts in his newsletter. “This entire comics shop fits on only 18 pallets, weighs only 25,000 pounds and can be moved anywhere in the nation in a single semitrailer.”
“This is one of the best places to get honest fan feedback,” adds Mike Drake, who runs figurine maker Mezco Toyz. “You don’t know online if it’s coming from a 5-year-old kid or an 80-year-old woman. Many people make fun of the passionate fans, but it’s the passionate fans that are really helpful with the minutiae of the product when you’re developing something.”
Video game companies have been coming to Comic-Con for years, but they’ve become behemoths in the post-Twilight world (the film oldsters used to date the Comic-Con Explosion in ’08; video games only started making blockbuster movie money in late ’07 with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare). So newly huge game companies find themselves warring, Call of Duty-style, for floor space. “Everybody’s on a years-long waiting list,” says Cara Scharf, who handles all the marketing efforts for Bethesda Softworks, which puts out Skyrim and Dishonored. Prices for the booths are surging. At the top end, Marvel Entertainment pays about $1.5 million for its space, one source estimates.
Neither Activision nor Electronic Arts, two of the biggest gamers, is at the Con this year, though the latter’s svp of global marketing Laura Miele says she’s “certain we will be attending again in the future.” (EA has just scored the rights to make new Star Wars games.) “Historically [we] have enjoyed attending the show because our consumer crossover is so high with the fans that attend the show,” says Miele.
Bethesda is attending but not on the convention floor. It will market via a food truck branded with upcoming game The Elder Scrolls online—a swords-and-sorcery title that admittedly doesn’t exactly scream “grilled cheese.” “We did a college tour last year, and it really caught on,” Scharf explains. “And everybody likes free food.”
For her part, Scharf is there also to see the other companies’ activations to get an idea of what’s buzzy and what’s not.
Of course, the concept of buzzy remains somewhat subjective and will always be hit or miss, notes Francois Lee, group client director at SMG and a veteran of advertising to gamers. “If you figure out a secret formula for what’s going to hit and what’s going to flop, tell me, OK?” he laughs. “Even social is hard-pressed to prove that the more conversations there are around a show, the more successful it will be.”
The better metric is engagement—the reason so many more media outlets, marketers and retailers have flocked to Comic-Con. It’s ever more important as old measurements of reach become progressively more suspect. And it’s in abundant supply in San Diego.
Attendees are “lining up in these packed rooms for some of these press conferences and events,” says Lee, “and some people can’t even get in!”
These, Lee believes, are fans not just willing to buy, but also to help sell.
Illustrations: Stanley Chow