Erin Lefler speaks at an ACE Comic-Con panel in 2019. [Credit: Erin Lefler/ACE]
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Credit: ACE Universe

Comic cons, artists, and fans search for a way forward amid coronavirus cancellations

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Apr 4, 2020, 4:43 PM EDT (Updated)

While it seems like a lifetime ago, it’s been just over a month since thousands of people crowded into McCormick Place in Chicago for C2E2. Since then, with novel coronavirus spreading through the country, the comic con industry has been effectively closed for the foreseeable future. While San Diego Comic-Con has recently vowed to find a way to push forward, other major events like Emerald City Comic Con, ACE Comic Con, and WonderCon have announced plans to reschedule in the past few weeks, leaving fans and staff alike scrambling to make adjustments.

At the top, many convention organizers were caught between a rock and a hard place after C2E2 seemingly went off without a hitch from Feb. 28 through March 1. Without guidance from local (not to mention the federal) government, con creators were still bound by contract to hold these major events. By March 12, though, tough decisions were made simple as federal and state leaders alike declared emergencies and issued bans on large gatherings. With mandatory shelter-in-place orders now spreading, what happens now? While comic cons big and small fight to stay afloat, the artists, vendors, and support staff scramble for solutions.

Gary Sohmers is the organizer of the NorthEast Comic Con & Collectibles Extravaganza, which organizes two midsize cons that happen three times a year just outside of Boston. The cons usually attract about 4,000 attendees over three days, with the average person spending about $100 on merchandise. Sohmers employs a small staff of 12 to 15 people and then usually hires a handful of service contractors per show. That’s not to mention thousands of dollars in marketing costs, he tells SYFY WIRE.

NorthEast Comic Con producer Gary Sohmers lets his hair down for the concert afterparties at the NorthEast ComicCon featuring incredible bands and performers such as Gwello. [Credit: NorthEast Comic Con]

While NorthEast does book celebrity guests and comic industry talent, Sohmers says the event puts vendors first and he’s concerned that the army of self-employed "1099ers," artists, musicians, and entertainment and event service providers who have traditionally helped sustain the cons in the past are simply out of luck.

“I am a vendor. My main reason for producing the shows is to give myself and my vendor friends a place to show and sell our wares. Vendors do my show because they are the first priority, I promote them online and support their websites,” Sohmers says. “Now with the circuit completely shut off by the pandemic, the vendors have no way to meet their public. Our March 13-15 show was shut down by the Board of Health on March 12, so the impact was devastating to everyone involved.”

There’s a myriad of expenses to living on the comic con circuits, Sohmers explains. You have to buy space at the convention, provide inventory to sell or give away, and pay for travel expenses — all in the hope you’ll make it back over a three-day weekend.

“When an event gets canceled at the last minute, everyone loses," he explains. "The promoter may lose a big chunk of money, but when you add up just the expenses outlayed by 100 vendors, the amount is substantial. Airlines don't give refunds, just credit. Michael's doesn't buy back artworks created on the products you bought there. The out-of-pocket loss, added to the expected needed sales, can be crippling to someone living on a dream of being a self-employed artist, craftsperson, or entrepreneur.”

Anime Boston 2019 Cosplay Suite [Credit: Anime Boston]

Spring is the unofficial start to comic con season. Many East Coast comic and manga fans were ramping up for ACE Comic-Con from March 21-23 and looking forward to Anime Boston, formerly scheduled for April 10, before both events were canceled following Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s orders banning large groups. Prior to that, both events were still planning on moving forward with updated safety guidelines.

Both conventions are rather large for local events, with Anime Boston attracting around 25,000 attendees last year and ACE previously expecting upwards of 35,000 this year, but the two are very different in style and organization. Anime Boston, led by Convention Chair Kristen Leiding, is a nonprofit run by an all-volunteer group. Leiding says the organization has been watching the situation closely for months.

“We have the benefit of having people from all over, and that includes the healthcare sector,” she says. “Also, people like myself who work in the trade show industry, we’ve seen this coming. Things started to hit in February with non-trade shows canceling.”

In the meantime, Leiding says, the organization reviewed their contracts and kept an eye on how shows like PAX East rolled out. But a shift occurred in early March when the country’s major sports leagues started shutting down and canceling seasons.

A view of Pax East from above [Courtesy Photo / PAX]

According to PR Director Chris O’Connell, Anime Boston organizers started regularly hearing from fans who went from “Please don’t cancel” to “Are you going to cancel?” to “Why haven’t you canceled yet?”

Anime Boston uses an army of volunteers to do everything from PR to setup, and it doesn’t generate a profit, making cancellation fees an insurmountable expense.

“If we had canceled our contract when we were still legally able to have the event, we would have been on the hook for the facilities charges and everything else,” O’Connell says. “So if we canceled and had to pay it would have been the end of our organization.”

Still, Anime Boston has been issuing refunds since early March and, according to Leiding, while many fans, artists, and vendors have been disappointed, many have understood and rolled over their tickets to next year’s event.

“People have been overwhelmingly positive,” she says.

While they try to figure out what’s next, Anime Boston organizers have set up donation centers for one of their charity sponsors, the New England Multiple Sclerosis Society, along with ways to support the artists and exhibitors that would have been there in April.

“It’s just a way to give something to these smaller exhibitors who do this every weekend for a living,” O’Donnell says.

Ace Comic Con poster for Boston [Credit: ACE Universe]

As one of the newest and largest comic cons in the game, ACE, run by Gareb Shamus (of Wizard Magazine and Wizard World fame) and his brother Chris, has focused on booking the biggest stars it can find over the past three years. In addition, it has put a major focus on the biggest, most voracious fandoms out there, including Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Star Trek. This year, ACE lined up MCU stars like Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Tessa Thompson, Tom Hiddleston, and Tom Holland in addition to Star Wars veterans like Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen.

As of March 6, ACE had boosted safety precautions and implemented a “no touching” rule to lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus. While some fans protested online at the new restrictions — which included no handshakes, hugs, gifts, letters, or props — others started requesting refunds.

After ACE Boston was canceled on March 11, the battle for refunds began. While some ticket holders have received a refund for things like day passes and signings, much of the money set aside from VIP packages was left in limbo. Last week, ACE sued its ticket provider GrowTix and its parent company Patron over who is on the hook to refund the money to fans, some of whom had dropped thousands of dollars for meet-and-greets.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, both Patron and ACE blamed each other for the mess. In a statement on March 31, ACE said, via Twitter, "all refunds would begin immediately and everyone would receive a full refund by April 10."

Erin Lefler (center right) at an ACE ComicCon panel in 2019. [Credit: ACE Universe]

ACE Comic Con in Boston was supposed to be Jennifer Nicole Schecter's first convention; she bought a three-day pass early this year. Schecter tells SYFY WIRE she’s still waiting on her refund, adding she was told it would take a week, max.

"I'm from Arkansas, and I was planning on driving two days to get there," she says. "This was going to be my first con, so now I'm a bit leery of trying to do another one."

Kerry, a longtime comic-con attendee who didn't want to use her full name, says she bought several packages and was planning on traveling from Europe for ACE before it was canceled. She says she’s still waiting on a refund for VIP packages with Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth.

"I've been going to comic-cons for years and seen many fall down, but I never thought ACE would fall so quickly,” Kerry says.

In a statement to ticket holders issued on March 24, ACE said refunds of general admission tickets had already started and would take approximately two weeks to fully process. As of this week, the company's Twitter had started promoting vendors and artists with the hashtag #creatorspotlight. ACE CEO and founder Gareb Shamus declined to comment.

Erin Lefler shows off her Star Wars inspired dress she created for ACE Comic-Con Boston [Credit: Erin Lefler]

Erin Lefler is a licensed merchandise artist for Lucasfilm and Marvel and was one of many planning on attending ACE in Boston. Both an artist and a fan, Lefler has been a guest appearing at ACE cons since 2018. For this year's event, Lefler spent countless hours creating a custom Star Wars dress featuring prominent Jedi from the series.

“Comic cons are very important to what I do,” she explains. “Besides what I make by doing my daily work, it’s a very vital source of income. Also, comic cons are great for building a network with other creatives in the industry, as well as getting your name out there a bit. I just really can’t state enough the good that’s come for me with guests appearing at ACE shows.”

As cons have shut down or been rescheduled, Lefler says she’s seen the same basic info from many on how to get refunds and ways to plan for next year. Some, she says, have started doing what they can for vendors and artists who have been affected. Emerald City recently set up a virtual artist alley and NYCC took to Twitter to boost exposure for artists who were affected by con cancellations.

“I’ve honestly heard so many stories from fellow artists and creators who are also being greatly affected. To me they’re all heartbreaking,” Lefler says. “One author I know, who relies heavily on cons to get her books out into the hands of new readers, had to push back releasing the next installment in her series due to all the cancellations. Another artist I’m friends with got laid off from her job making official shirt art for a large company due to everyone getting told to stay home.”

Artist Author and Filmmaker Brian R. Hall, with costumed actor Alex Capella Natal, displays creature costumes from his upcoming film in front of a green screen for cosplay fun. [Credit: NorthEast Comic Con]

So, what’s next? For Sohmers, it’s hope. After the economic crash triggered by 9/11, the comic book vendor says he stopped producing shows for 13 years. It was only in 2010 when the shows started becoming somewhat regular again.

“Don't forget that the collectibles business can be somewhat recession-proof. People with money will always buy a bargain if available,” he says. “Supply will meet demand.”

Sohmers adds that he’s already booked and scheduled his July 3 show featuring an Independence Day film cast reunion (if possible) featuring two members so far, James Duval and Lisa Jakub.

“Interesting enough that it's on July 4, but also that a 'virus' saved the planet from aliens,” he says. “We offered all of our March exhibitors a replacement space for our July or November show, and most have already booked. We expect to roll out in May if we get an all-clear. If not July, then we can hope for November.”

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