Comic book conventions exist in four different categories. There is the mothership, known as San Diego Comic-Con, SDCC or Comic-Con International. This is the one where major studies bring their stars and make their announcements. It’s a singular event. Then there are the corporate shows, some of which started as local shows, like Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, and New York Comic Con, both now owned by show producer ReedPop. These retain a local feel but with better connections to talent, and improved funding for technology and logistics. Then there are the pure local shows, in many cases decades old and rich in grassroots support, that take place every weekend someplace around the world. These local shows vary in size and budget, between a few thousand in a breakeven, volunteer setting to the likes of Silicon Valley Comic Con, started by Apple Founder Steve Wozniak and collection of colleagues and partners from America’s high-tech capital. And then there is a new version of the convention from Ace Universe, which can be characterized as a Comic Con informed by the Stars on Ice model of production.
Ace Comic Con doesn’t so much dazzle with the spectacle of a Stars on Ice as much as it borrows from the star-studded touring aspect of those shows. Ace Universe books big-name talent—and then they book a venue. At that point, they offer their show to local artists and partners for the “floor” experience.
Ace Comic Con landed in Seattle over the June 22-24 weekend. Here is the Serious Insights review:
The Draw. Ace Comic Con Seattle started with a great draw with Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans, along with Tom Hiddleston. Ace also brought in some wrestling stars from WWE. The Chris’s canceled well before the show, but the Avengers: Infinity War panels still won the weekend. The conversation started with Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, and then delivered Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie and Tom Holland. Both panels were moderated by Kevin Smith, who kick-started the show with “An Evening with Kevin Smith” on Friday night. All celebrities were insightful, genuinely appreciative of the audience and clearly good friends off the screen. Captain America’s Halley Atwell offer thoughtful insights into acting as well as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Grant Gustin rounded out the top tier with his reflection on The Flash. Other interesting panels included the always funny Tom Lent (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who shared his DIY fashion designs, and Marvel Studios Visual Development Supervisor & Concept Artist Andy Park who talked about designing character looks for the films.
The Packages. General admission was pretty inexpensive and it included seating at all of the panels. Attendees who purchased individual star packages received reserved seats for the bigger panels as well as photo and autograph access. Individual autograph or photo sessions were also available. The biggest crowd moments took place during times packed with simultaneous photo op sessions. General admission stated at $96 for three days (individual days ran $46 for Friday and $56 for Saturday and Sunday). Star packages started near $300 and went up from there, with Hiddleston coming in at over $550.
Production. The open area after admission opened to the stage and seats, and then a sparsely populated walk with some photo op set pieces (including a replica of Captain Kirk’s command chair, courtesy of MoPOP) and a giant Funko Dorbz Captain America, along with some charitable organizations. Big drapes captured video streams above the walkway, displaying schedules when they weren’t streaming the main stage. The Floor included everything else from the second stage to the autograph and photo ops, along with a purchasing station for both. As Cons go, I never felt confused and didn’t really hear any organizational complaints. Unlike Emerald City Comic Con, which covers multiple buildings and floors, Ace created a compact design that they could easily manage and attendees could easily navigate. The final Q&A, which was probably not planned but expected, ended the Con and the final panel on an awkward note as fans rushed the aisles looking for non-existent microphones. If all panels include Q&A except one, then share the change before starting the panel, not when the moderating starts saying “good night and good luck.”
The event was pretty eco-friendly with the simple schedule repeating endlessly on the ubiquitous screens. No printed programs and no need for maps.
The Floor. As comic cons go, the Ace Universe floor was pretty sparse. It didn’t feel sparse until you went through all of it and realized that you had, well, gone through all of it. Ace brings a new convention model, so none of the publishers were there with their books. The the artist section was lightly attended and there were no exclusives (see the Serious Insights analysis of comic con exclusive strategies for marketers here), outside of a single Ace titled cover. So no lines to wait in. Those who bought celebrity pictures were probably OK they only attended for a day, as they spent most of their time in panels and lines. General admission guests didn’t have much to do in-between sessions once they walked the floor and ate a snack.
The Venue. CenturyLink’s Wamu Theater is a big space. It felt underfilled just past the entry doors. Ace could have taken a few queues from the Seahawks pre-game and put up a bounce house or some other activities to keep kids engaged and fill the space more.
The seats deployed on the floor and on risers were comfortable, as was the air temperature. Only the very few in heavy cosplay designs would find the venue too warm. Sound systems were good on the main stage. The second stage, nestled on the show floor, would have benefited from its own, more isolated location. Parking directly in the Wamu Theater adjacent structure ran $20, though parking could be had for half that nearby.
For those who attend Seattle Seahawks games, the in-house food prices were expected, but despite that knowledge, they were woefully overpriced for the quality and quantity of food. It would be nice to see prices that don’t rival 26% interest rates for outrageous margins.
Analysis. Celebrities were the major draw of the 2018 ACE Comic Con Seattle, especially those seeking personal moments with pictures and autographs. While the big Saturday panels filled seats, most of the others, including Hiddleston’s Sunday appearance, allowed plenty of people to move up from the general admission seats into the unoccupied chairs closer to the stage. Unlike Star Trek conventions, where special badging means staunchly defending your seat for the weekend, most people weren’t so tied to their seats. If future events draw more people, seating may eventually become an issue, but undersold packages and a lot of seats on the floor translated into a pretty comfortable con panel experience.
Ace should stick to its strategy, meaning don’t try to add on traditional con features like simultaneous panels. They do need to come up with additional non-talking head activities to keep people engaged (they did populate the floor with an entire section devoted to genre-empowered tattoos, but tattoos don’t appeal to the entire audience) between the limited sessions. Seattle’s Pioneer Square/SODO district downtime appears to have benefited from con attendees looking for something to stay busy between celebrity materializations.
Though fixing a few design issues would improve the overall Ace Comic Con experience, the show as produced offered an enjoyable and engaging three-day adventure. The celebrity panels went beyond the next release’s PR briefing notes as the Marvel and DC stars explored what it means to be an actor and a human.
Should you attend an Ace Comic Con? If you are looking for the traditional comic convention experience, Ace Comic Con, at least the Seattle incarnation, offers a taste, but not the full menu. Those with a comic con experience expectation will be disappointed. If, however, your primary drive comes from meeting a celebrity and taking away a memento from that experience, then Ace Comic Con was designed for you. Come for your day, hear your favorite celebrity(ies) and meet them, pick up a collectible or two and get home in time for dinner.
Ace makes Full 2018 ACE Comic Con Seattle video and previous Ace Comic Cons available through Facebook.