My piece earlier this year about Dragon Con earned me a press pass and an opportunity for a follow-up so I might take a closer look at the economic influence the convention could eventually exert on the Georgia film industry. (Also, there’s nothing quite like getting to skate on the membership fee.)
I had supposed in my prior piece that Dragon Con might grow into the Atlanta equivalent of Comic-Con in San Diego or New York – a much-anticipated event by fan boys and geek girls looking for studios to trot out their big stars for close contact with the masses, along with the attendant sneak peeks at upcoming movies. Comic-Con’s relationship with Hollywood is symbiotic and profitable. Comic-Con contributes about $150 million annually to San Diego’s economy, while the movie industry gets a shot at fine-tuning its blockbuster releases by vetting them against the interest of the hardest-core fans. Dragon Con generates a respectable $40 million or so for Atlanta on a bit more than a third the attendance.
The rationale seems pretty straightforward – expanding Dragon Con’s connection to the big studios could increase economic activity in Atlanta and draw even more filmmakers to Georgia’s growing film industry, now fourth in the nation behind Calfornia, New York and Texas. It could also draw higher-profile stars to mingle with fan-girls in Battlestar Galactica double-tank-tops.
But after four days of interviews with fans, vendors, volunteers and guests, panel discussions, research with the Georgia Economic Development folks and getting my geek on … I have changed my view.
Dragon Con as the Peach State’s Comic-Con would be the worst damned thing in the world for all involved.
Unlike Comic-Con and the South by Southwest film festival, Dragon Con is staffed and largely directed by volunteers. Invitations for panelists and programming tracks flow from small groups of highly-motivated fans at Dragon Con and not from the marketing imperatives of studio executives. It is from such things that movies like Joss Whedon’s Serenity get made – crazy fans keeping the flame alive long after television executives pull the plug. Even now, Dragon Con supports a well-attended Firefly fanbase.
These volunteers, many of whom are in their second decade of service to the convention, serve as the institutional memory of Dragon Con. And after a few conversations, it’s clear to me that they would go into open revolt – full-scale warfare with light sabers and bat’leth – if programming decisions began to be ceded wholesale to a suit. This may be especially true of leaders for popular-but-alternative programming – late-night offerings like BDSM 101 and Dragon Sex — which could conceivably get cut in the interest of being more family friendly.
The second consideration is size. At 50,000 attendees – more than doubling in size in six years – Dragon Con is straining at the seams. The convention takes up most of four hotels right now, along with the Americas Mart building for vendors selling zombie contact lenses, Firefly dusters and steampunk goggles. Even now, what I am told by a corset-monger is that the seven-year waiting list to get a vendor spot at Dragon Con elicits grumbling lessened only by the 15 year waiting list at San Diego Comic-Con.
Hotel room parties serve as a primary draw for many attendees, so moving the whole affair to the World Congress Center isn’t a realistic option. There’s talk about limiting the number of tickets – “memberships” in the parlance of the convention – just to keep things relatively sane.
Competition with other events also factors in. Dragon Con competes to attract writers as guests with the venerable WorldCon science fiction convention, now entering its 74th year. The Hugo Award is presented at WorldCon, so if you’re a great sci-fi or fantasy writer … you’re probably there. And every even-numbered year, when WorldCon is in the United States, it’s on Labor Day weekend. Dragon Con also competes with Burning Man, to the consternation of thousands of guests who split their years between them. One of the room parties this year was dedicated to those who wished they could be in both places at once.
But I suspect the biggest challenge may simply be the clash of culture between the state’s economic development folks, the film industry and the Dragon Con stalwarts. Put simply, the state’s political opinion makers don’t really get Dragon Con.
Here’s some perspective. The economic impact of Dragon Con is roughly equivalent to the economic impact of a Wrestlemania event or the NCAA Final Four in Atlanta, every year. It’s worth two home Falcons games. It’s 25 percent greater than the SEC championship game. Chastain Amphitheater sold about 140,000 tickets last year, at an average ticket price that’s probably in line with industry standards: around $50. Dragon Con’s membership for the four-day event was $130, and had about 50,000 attendees. Dragon Con is bigger than Chastain’s entire summer run. Nothing short of a NASCAR race, a BCS championship game or the Superbowl generates more economic impact in a short period around here.
I’ll happily accept a correction from someone who knows better, but as far as I could tell after talking with the folks at the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the film office, no one there communicates regularly with the Dragon Con folks at all. It’s not even on their radar.
They can’t get past the weird.
A final note, in passing. Dragon Con announced earlier this year that they had finally extricated themselves from the financial clutches of Ed Kramer, an accused child molester who owned a substantial minority stake in the convention. A few details about that extrication emerged in a brief conversation with the media director for Dragon Con.
Kramer had been unwilling to sell his share of the convention, so Dragon Con’s board formed a new corporation and then sold the existing corporation to the new one, for an undisclosed sum. Kramer still owns shares in the “old” company, but that company has no control or continuing financial claim to the new one, I am told.
Why didn’t they do this sooner? Well, because they’d get sued. Kramer could claim in court that the sales price of the old firm was too low, and that he deserves more for his shares than he got in the forced sale.
Why did they do this now. Ostensibly, because they don’t give a damn if Kramer sues them any more. They know they’re going to get sued. They’re expecting it. And getting sued by Kramer appears to be preferable to the alternative — having Kramer be part of the narrative of Dragon Con for ever after.