UB Insider #1 – Salt Lake Comic Con Flies Up, Up and Away
About this episode:
In this inaugural episode of UB Insider, Utah Business’ online editor Lisa Christensen chats with Salt Lake Comic Con co-founder Bryan Brandenburg about Fan Xperience 2016, Buzz Aldrin, the future of Salt Lake Comic Con and how Utah and geekery go together like jello and carrots. Subscribe or download this episode via Stitcher and iTunes.
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider, brought to you by Utah Business’ annual who’s who for women business leaders – 30 Women to Watch, this year on May 11th. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine and today we’re talking about Comic Con.
As you may have noticed, Salt Lake has had more than its usual share of capes and spandex this week as fans of countless television shows, movies, comic book series, books, internet shows and other draws have flocked to the Salt Palace Convention Center for the third annual Salt Lake Comic Con FanXperience.
Since its first event in September 2013, Salt Lake Comic Con and its secondary FanXperience event have drawn hundreds of thousands of people from across the state and the country. Its explosive success has claimed it the title of the third largest comic con in the country and it shows no signs of slowing. Here with me today is Salt Lake Comic Con Co-Founder Bryan Brandenburg,
Bryan Brandenburg: Hi Lisa, thanks for having me on.
Lisa Christensen: Thank you for coming. This is the sixth event you and the other co-founder, Dan Farr, have organized. How has the event changed since that first convention?
Bryan Brandenburg: Well, probably the most noticeable thing is it’s a lot easier to get guests like Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans. Our reputation is getting out there and so we’re able to attract better and better guests every single event.
Lisa Christensen: I was at the first comic con. I remember being incredibly excited about some of those guests then, but it does seem like you’re getting bigger and bigger stars every year. At that first comic con, I remember seeing lines of people spilling out the doors of the convention center. You know, they were all in Superman shirts and anime costumes and everything and they had to be turned away that last Saturday because there were just too many people. You guys just didn’t anticipate that many people coming. What lessons did you take away from that first one?
Bryan Brandenburg: Well, you know, it’s interesting. It was our first event. Our first comic con event and it was actually our first event of any kind like that. We come from software development and high technology, so, but we wanted to do a comic con. And so we really didn’t know until Thursday and Friday if we were going to be successful at that level or not. We knew that ticket sales were strong enough to go in. Stan Lee heard about where we were and decided to come at that last minute and that announcement really created a lot of excitement that brought in that extra push. And so we did have to turn some people away. And we learned that, to be able to track things better. And over several events we incorporated the RFID wristbands and pre-shipping badges and so on to take away the congestion coming into the event.
Lisa Christensen: I’ve noticed that it’s gotten pretty slick going in over the last couple of years.
Bryan Brandenburg: Yeah. The RFID technology has made a huge difference and so now, over half of the credentials are mailed before people come. And so they don’t even have to go through pre-registration, they can just walk in and scanning is very very quickly.
Lisa Christensen: That must really help the volunteers as well as they’re trying to keep everything organized.
Bryan Brandenburg: Yeah. We have 900 volunteers to help us, and you know, the whole process of bringing technology to the registration process has made a big difference.
Lisa Christensen: That’s great. So the first one, as you mentioned, was a huge success. And then that April you had the first FanXperience. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that drew enough people to make Salt Lake the third largest comic con in the country.
Bryan Brandenburg: Right.
Lisa Christensen: That’s almost immediate. Why do you think that you did so well? Why do you think that Salt Lake is such a great place for this kind of event?
Bryan Brandenburg: Well, you know, we have some statistical data that kind of validate why we’re successful. I think we did have a social media strategy that’s not often employed with comic cons. You know, where Dan and I come from a world where we did online marketing to a million artists on the internet. We had skills in that area. And you know, so, we were able to make a connection with pop culture and social media and comic con to create a perfect storm, marketing wise.
What we learned along the way using tools like Google Trends is Utah is the geekiest state in the country and it’s validated by things like, more people search for Star Wars than any other state. And that’s not per capita. We’re talking about more searches compared to California or New York or Texas. More searches for Avengers. We’re number one for people like Robert Downey Jr. and Doctor Who and so on. And so, you know, it’s prevalent in the culture to embrace science fiction and fantasy.
Lisa Christensen: I was actually thinking about that too. It seems like, in a lot of ways, the kinds of material that usually draw people to comic con, you know, you’ve got movie franchises, television shows, comic books, those things do tend to kind of be on the nerdy end of the spectrum. But in the last several years, you know, you’ve had hugely successful and across the board franchises. I mean, nobody can say that a handful of geeks are making the Avengers franchise blow up, or the Guardians of the Galaxy, or any of these other massive, massive franchises. So, it’s obviously gaining more cultural traction across the board. What effect, do you think, this cultural acceptance of geekery has had on comic cons and Salt Lake in particular?
Bryan Brandenburg: Yeah. Well, like I said, I think that there was a foundation to have this kind of successful event. But through social media we’ve literally touched, unless you’re under a rock, you’ve heard about comic con in Utah. And what has happened is when people start seeing the governor coming in to hang out with Shatner and picking up Stan Lee at the airport, they’re starting to realize that what we’re doing is mass culture. And the Star Wars, the biggest franchise in history, the biggest movie opening in history, and we’ve had Star Wars people. We had Carrie Fisher here last January and things like that.
It’s obvious from the kind of recognition we’ve gotten from the Attorney General’s office and the Mayor and the Governor, recognizing that comic con is a good way to encourage people to be heroes in their own neighborhood and their own state. And it’s not a bad thing to be obsessed with somebody like Superman or, you know, Captain America. We knew Captain America would do well and he was, an American, apple pie kind of hero that we wanted for our event.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. I noticed that you had Chris Evans in September for comic con, and Sebastian Stan was there as well and Haley Atwell, so those were his Captain America costars. And in the past you’ve also had, I guess, collections of stars from different franchises – Doctor Who, Firefly, this year it’s The Walking Dead, I’ve noticed. In April 2014, one that had me really excited was Star Trek: The Next Generation. Do you try to group these so there’s sort of a theme that emerges? Or is it somewhat accidental?
Bryan Brandenburg: Well, it’s more luck than accidental. We, somebody like, assembling the Star Trek group which was just a phenomenal event and panel, you know, we were able to secure bookings with like four of them, and then once they saw what was happening and we talked to their agent and the agents of the others and saw that we could bring in a really nice panel like that, you know, but that panel was like, well we really need Patrick Stewart because we’ve got everybody else except LeVar Burton. And LeVar Burton had to cancel and is coming this time. But, you know, a lot of that was just synergistic luck.
The way we got Patrick Stewart is like, he was on the fence, he was getting ready to promote a movie and his agent called up and he said, hey, you know, Patrick’s got, Patrick and Ian McKellen, you know, who played Gandalf, they have this play on Broadway, and the sales are not what they expected, is there anything you can do on social media to help them out? So Dan and I talked, and we put together a little plan, and we were able to influence the sales and actually create a 25% bump. And so, you know, after all the dust settled, his agent came back and said that Patrick felt sort of obligated to come after what you did for him on his Broadway play.
Lisa Christensen: Wow. That’s fascinating. I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes.
Bryan Brandenburg: Yeah, and then at the panel we, were able to say, hey Patrick Stewart is coming in tomorrow.
Lisa Christensen: Oh, and that’s a very exciting announcement. So one of the things we were really excited about when we were looking at the announcements for the guests coming in this year, it was the addition of Buzz Aldrin coming to FanX. And that was also interesting to us because it was a little bit outside the normal lineup. You know, you’ve got a lot of pop culture icons, you’ve got a lot of authors, you’ve got a lot of comic book artists, you’ve got a lot of creators and stars of these movies and shows and books and comic books and internet series and all these kinds of things. But to bring in a real American hero seemed like somewhat of a departure. What were your reasons for bringing in Buzz Aldrin?
Bryan Brandenburg: Sure, well part of my background is, you know, I come from a background in physics and science and when Dan and I were involved with the 3D software companies, my team actually built a solar system in 3D and the international space station and moon landers and lunar bases and you know, astronaut uniforms and things like that. And it was driven by my personal interest in that because I witnessed him walking on the moon, way back, as many people didn’t that are younger.
We were looking at the FanX brand, and said, what is the fan experience? Because we chose to do FanX to complement comic con because we had the ability to go outside of what is traditionally at comic con. And so we looked around, and I said, you know, I don’t know if you realize this Dan, but Buzz Aldrin is available for engagements, and in the science community, he’s royalty. And you know, with Utah’s obsession with fandoms and heroes, somebody like Buzz Aldrin, who is actually a real hero, would be just the right thing to really solidify how we’re going to expand the fan experience. And at first he was hesitant, and said, you know, I trust your instincts. And you know, we didn’t know until the last minute, with Buzz, how he really was going to do until we put his tickets on sale and then we sold out, the majority of his experience and covered his fee in 24 hours, which we hadn’t done with any of our other guests. And so he became a big believer. And now, people from the governor to senators are wanting to come to meet Buzz. And it sort of solidified, yeah, this is somebody really important in culture.
Lisa Christensen: So you mentioned looking for ways to expand the fan experience. Could you expand on that?
Bryan Brandenburg: Well, a comic con is a comic convention and certainly all of the comic cons in the country have gone outside, Buzz Aldrin has gone to San Diego and talked about going to Mars as part of that convention. So it’s not unheard that he would go to that. But what our plan is, is that we think that with, you know, the right synergistic, we’d love to have Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson come to our event because the reason people are interested and fascinated with things like science fiction is because they are interested in science, and science fiction is an entertaining way to engage in that kind of science, so we think this is the right move for us.
We expanded a bit out from the comic book realm with key band members from N’SYNC and the Backstreet Boys. And that was the same kind of strategy, we got Buzz Aldrin and that’s expanding the brand out and so is two members from the Backstreet Boys. And they have a zombie movie coming out so, you know, there is a tie in to the popular culture that is traditionally comic con. But you know, we thought, there’s a lot of people that grew up in the 90s that would love to come and meet Nick Carter and Joey Fatone and so on.
Lisa Christensen: I noticed on Facebook, when Nick Carter from the Backstreet Boys was announced, someone asked, well this isn’t really a nerdy thing. And someone from the official Salt Lake Comic Con page said, we want to appeal to all kinds of fandoms, not just comic book.
Bryan Brandenburg: Right, and you know, there are certain bounds and limits. Buzz Aldrin was a nice fit because of science and heroes, and Nick Carter and AJ McLean they were a nice fit because they’re pop culture celebrities and they’re doing a zombie movie for the SyFy channel. So whether we’re going to bring in Richard Simmons, that might be too far out of the realm, but we want to play around with this because, you know, certainly, based on the astonishing success of Buzz Aldrin’s panel and the kind of people that are contacting us at the highest level, you know, it’s the right thing to do.
Lisa Christensen: You’ve had a lot of success with Salt Lake Comic Con, but one of the no doubt more frustrating issues you’ve had to deal with is the lawsuit brought against Salt Lake Comic Con from San Diego Comic Con over alleged name infringement. I’ve noticed that you have since gotten a trademark on Salt Lake Comic Con, but the lawsuit is still active. Can you speak just a little bit about the stage of that lawsuit and what’s going to happen next?
Bryan Brandenburg: Sure. It’s a frustration, but the thing you learn after starting multiple companies is that a lot of this stuff comes with the territory. Everything’s not a rose garden when you’re doing things and growing fast and so on. We’ve dealt with things like this in our career. We’re dealing with this and you know, we’re not victims. This happens when you’re in a business.
We researched this before even starting and we felt comfortable that there were comic cons all over the country and that we knew about the trademark with San Diego but felt strongly based on legal advice that we were just fine to come out with Salt Lake Comic Con. Turns out they did get upset with us taking the car down to San Diego, which wasn’t a legal violation of any sort, but it sort of bruised their ego or something. And, you know, we took action and they threatened us with a legal letter during the event and we decided to do a press release which got picked up by AP and another 200,000 news sites around the world. So, where we are now is a couple hundred thousand dollars later in legal fees, and we think we’re pretty close to settling.
The people over San Diego, they’re businessmen, they’re actually more non-profit people that we’re dealing with. They have their reasons. We’re not making them out into evil villains or anything, but they did what they felt they needed to do. And I think we’re pretty close to settling. And there are some other issues that are influencing our ability to settle this pretty quickly, I can’t talk about that, but it’s going to be good for the lawsuit and good for Salt Lake City.
Lisa Christensen: Oh good. I hope that turns out alright and quickly. You mentioned getting excited over Buzz Aldrin coming. You’ve had some of the biggest starts in the world. What kinds of things get you excited? Are there any guests you’ve had that the fan boy in you kind of wanted to get excited about? What kinds of draws at Salt Lake Comic Con would draw you?
Bryan Brandenburg: Right, well I’m certainly excited about Buzz Aldrin because you know, my interest in space, and visualization of space and science of space exploration. As a kid I read science fiction novels about space exploration and you know, I was a big fan of Star Wars and Star Trek and I think it all fits hand in hand. My dad was a rocket engineer, so he, when we were kids he said you’ve got to watch this, there’s going to be a man that lands on the moon and walks on the moon. I didn’t quite understand it, I was ten years old at the time. But, you know, I can see how it really influenced me over my life. So I’m super excited about Buzz Aldrin.
You know, meeting Patrick Stewart, what a wonderful gentleman he was and Chris Evans was a fantastic experience because he was such a gracious man. A lot of people don’t realize this but, they were complaining because his panel had been delayed and what we were seeing behind the scenes was that some Make-A-Wish kids came in and he was playing with them and taking pictures with them. And our photographers and the press were specifically prohibited from being there because he’s like this is not about a PR thing, I just want to spend some time with these kids. Which was just beautiful and so, having somebody like that, where he has lots of options of what he can do with his time and to witness that was a cherished moment.
Lisa Christensen: That’s amazing. Yeah. He sounds like a really great guy. So what is next for Salt Lake Comic Con and FanXperience?
Bryan Brandenburg: Well, you know, we’re certainly big enough, so getting bigger is not the strategy. We want to continue to focus on the experience. The reason we called our semi-annual event FanXperience is because we really want to focus on the fan experience. And we want to focus on, you know, how fast we get people in and is it the right balance of crowds that can make sure that we’re profitable but also have an experience where even on Saturday at our busiest time, people aren’t going to feel crowded and they can still have a great time and they can have their kids there and not worry about being trampled and so on. And so, we’re going to take that to the next level and the things that more and more people are realizing about Salt Lake Comic Con and the FanXperience is that the panels are probably the most underrated part of the event.
Anybody that has been to a panel where you’re with 45 hundred other people and you’re cheering on, you’re all from the same fandom and somebody uses a cultural reference from the fandom that people on the inside are going to get. To share that moment with people is just, something we want to continue to take to the next level.
Lisa Christensen: That’s great. Well thanks so much Bryan for joining us today, we really appreciate that and I’ve really enjoyed today’s discussion.
Bryan Brandenburg: Thanks for having me.
Lisa Christensen: Be sure to check out Salt Lake FanXperience this week if you haven’t already. Thanks for production help from Pat Parkinson with additional help from Adva Biton and Chris Sasich. Have any thoughts or comments about today’s episode? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org or through our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages. Thanks for listening and have a great day.