For years, entertainment conventions have been a thrilling right-of-passage for die-hard enthusiasts to celebrate all things comics, art, film, television, pop culture and more. Whether it gives someone an occasion to dress up in their favorite cosplay character, meet their most admired celebrity or interact with creative artists selling unique merchandise, the demand is overwhelming for these annual events in cities all across the U.S. and beyond. Where else can you find The Joker, Darth Vader and Thanos walking a convention floor? One villain, however, that these successfully proven businesses did not see coming showed up unannounced earlier this year in the form of coronavirus.
Just as other businesses and society in general have found ways to adapt in their communication skills during this pandemic, these entertainment groups have also had to adapt, in order to continue in some capacity. With a majority of convention spaces unavailable due to social distancing measures, the future of these companies seem to be focusing heavily on the internet for their method of interaction.
Wizard World, a company that has been putting on in-person conventions nationwide since 1998, seems to be using technology to its advantage to continue to give its fans a similarly personalized experience. “It’s a 40-to-45 minute panel that’s free and open to everyone to watch, anywhere across the world. Fans can interact with each other, they can ask questions and our moderator pulls the best ones. We have done 128 panels since March 31 that are unique, different and all live,” says Jerry Milani, Public Relations Manager for Wizard World, about the new feel of their celebrity Q&A panel discussions.
Milani continued about the additional fan options with virtual experiences saying, “There’s a one-on-one live chat through Zoom with almost all the celebrities. We also have autographs that are personalized, that’s a mail-in service. The third element to that is the live video recording. You put in what you want the celebrity to say. So there’s still an event that happens that people are coming together for.”
The San Diego Comic Convention (Comic-Con) has also been able to convert their popular experiences for fans on a virtual level. “It’s been a challenge, but we were able to pivot to an online version we call [email protected]. It’s certainly not the same as being at an in-person show, but we were able to gather as a community and share programs and events, and that was important,” says David Glanzer, Chief Communications and Strategy Officer for Comic-Con International. Like Wizard World, Glanzer says that Comic-Con’s biggest hurdle was trying to find the best way to convert in-person engagements to ones that would be online. “We were given a crash course in producing a total online event. I think there were a lot of lessons learned, and if we have an online component in the future, I think we’ll be that much ahead of the game.”
These businesses are not the only groups being forced to make sacrifices during this time. Featured artists and celebrities are also feeling the weight of these changes. Actress and filmmaker Amy Jo Johnson, arguably best known for her role as “The Pink Ranger/Kimberly Hart” on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers ‘90s television series, understands how some celebrities might depend on these in-person conventions for more than just the fun interaction with fans. “It was more than just a lifestyle, it was a livelihood for a couple years for me, as I transitioned from acting to writing and directing,” Johnson recalls about her early convention attending days. “It has been incredibly helpful, my ‘bread and butter’ while getting my career off the ground as a director. It has been really hard having to figure out different ways in how to make money.”
Johnson continued to share that she loves to travel, missing that aspect of these conventions, believing no virtual experience can match the public enjoyment that an in-person experience has on fans. Johnson also stated that the pay for celebrity appearances in this virtual setting is notably less, compared to the travel and in-person costs these conventions would pay for people like Johnson to attend and for the hours scheduled to interact on the convention floor with fans on a given weekend.
Groups like Wizard World are focusing on the silver lining under these circumstances of having to go completely virtual. “I think it’s expanding the geography that has been the best part of it. We can’t do in-person ones now, so we are going to do what we hope is the next best thing. And for some people, it’s better,” says Milani.
Johnson has decided to take part in some virtual conventions since the start of the pandemic and even though she says that she has enjoyed those different experiences, she still feels the hit of no face-to-face interaction. “Sure, somebody from Ireland can tune into a convention in Colorado now,” Johnson states. “At the same time, there is nothing like the actual convention experience. I think we are all sick of sitting in our living room, but I don’t know when that will ever go back to normal.”