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LA Comic Con Expects 140,000 Fans This Weekend — And Plans To Keep Growing

A crowd of attendees stand on the floor of a convention center, with a large banner above them reading "SEE YOU NEXT YEAR!" Nearby banners show the edges of an illustration with octopus arms.
Attendees wait for 2021 Los Angeles Comic Con to begin at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Dec. 3, 2021.
(Chelsea Guglielmino
/
Getty Images)
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L.A. Comic Con had a rocky start. In its early years, issues ranged from a lineup without star talent to fire marshals shutting the doors and not letting more people inside.

Cut to this year, when one of its major guests is actor Simu Liu, best known for playing Marvel superhero Shang-Chi. Organizers also managed to bring in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in recent years. Convention CEO Chris DeMoulin notes that getting a current Marvel star is still unusual for L.A. Comic Con — the local convention that’s still not at the same level in the convention world as marquee events like San Diego’s Comic-Con International or New York Comic Con.

Still, what started as a rickety alternative has quickly grown, now featuring a who’s who of guests from the wider universe of pop culture.

“It should be a really fun, typically L.A. Comic Con eclectic mix of old and new, and nostalgia and cutting edge,” DeMoulin said. “I think that we’re quirkier than [other Southern California conventions].”

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The convention’s operators are set on expanding it further — but first, they have a three-day event to produce in society’s latest phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first since most restrictions were lifted.

In The Age Of COVID

A fan dressed as the film version of Marvel superhero Doctor Strange poses, making magic gestures with his hands, and wears a mask, outside of the L.A. Convention Center. It's night, but the center is illuminated behind him, with large banners reading "Welcome to L.A. Comic Con." A number of passers-by are behind him.
A cosplayer dressed as Doctor Strange poses at the 2021 Los Angeles Comic Con at the L.A. Convention Center on Dec. 3, 2021.
(Chelsea Guglielmino
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Getty Images)

While society’s moved into a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the convention has been working to recover after facing existential challenges. While other large in-person events struggled, with even San Diego Comic-Con facing serious budget issues, L.A. Comic Con had fewer resources to fall back on.

“For everybody, it was a tough two years, right? For people in the event business, we basically had no business for 26 months,” DeMoulin said.

There were four different dates planned before they were finally able to hold their first pandemic convention in 2021. They raised eyebrows by promoting an in-person convention back in fall 2020, despite there being little indication that the conditions around COVID-19 would allow it to happen.

“We announced for December of 2020 because the state wouldn’t give us a straight answer on whether we could do it or not, and if we were going to do it, we had to get started,” DeMoulin said.

L.A. Comic Con put tickets on sale — then canceled the event two weeks after announcing it. But the convention offered fans the option to get a refund if they didn’t want to roll their tickets over to the next year.

“Although the show wasn’t able to happen, we appreciated the hope,” Marshall said. “There was nothing but cancellations and doom and gloom, so it was nice to see an effort to have a safe event. It never seemed very likely to happen, but for us it was a glimmer, and a glimmer was more than darkness.”

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The Convention's 2021 Return

In 2021, L.A. Comic Con held that postponed event, welcoming 95,000 fans — 45,000 less than they’re expecting this year, and nearly 30,000 fewer than at their last pre-pandemic convention. As one example of their work to get fans back on board, they’re bringing back Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul star Giancarlo Esposito after an appearance fans may have missed at last year’s con.

“One of the reasons we brought Giancarlo back from last year was that a lot of people couldn’t go to last year’s show, because of COVID,” DeMoulin said.

They also need to work to remain an attractive event for their special guests, despite pandemic-related issues.

“It’s been a little odd the last couple years,” Sandlot actor Victor DiMattia said. He’s appearing with his castmates at this year’s convention. “For the past year or so, they’ve been kind of coming back around, but still hasn’t had that same feeling. And I feel like this is going to be like that first big one that we’re coming back to, where it’s going to have that Comic Con type of vibe that we’re all used to.”

Masks and either vaccinations or negative tests were required at the convention last time around, but that requirement will no longer be in place. DeMoulin noted that a lot of the convention’s own staff will be masked, and they’ll also have signs up recommending masking.

A partnership between the convention and L.A. County Public Healthwas also just announced, providing guests, staff, and attendees the opportunity to get COVID-19 and flu vaccinations on-site.

Some of the talent remain concerned about their appearances this year, so additional precautions are being put in place for those who want them.

“We’ll put plexiglas around them when they do autographs and photographs, if that’s what they want to do,” DeMoulin said. But he added that most of the talent haven’t raised those concerns.

Larger crowds, particularly during a pandemic, were a concern that helped lead to some of this year’s expansion. They had 123,000 attendees in 2019 — this year, they’re expecting around 140,000 fans. Pre-show ticket sales were tracking ahead of previous years, including many more three-day passes being sold.

“If you were at the show in '19, on Saturday at 3 o’clock, it got a little claustrophobic in some of those aisles. And we love having lots of people, but we also want it to be an enjoyable fan experience,” DeMoulin said. “Part of why we expanded to the whole convention center is just to have elbow room to do all of this stuff.”

The Convention's Origin Story

An older man, Stan Lee, holds a microphone on stage in front of a screen promoting the film "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle." Another person is seen in the background on the lower left.
Stan Lee speaks onstage at an event featuring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson at Stan Lee's Los Angeles Comic-Con at the L.A. Convention Center on Oct. 28, 2017.
(Rich Polk
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Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly)

The show began in 2011 as “Comikaze Expo,” founded by producer Regina Carpinelli and her brothers. It started with a more local focus, featuring less-established creators, but they aggressively marketed and quickly expanded from 35,000 attendees that first year to more than 100,000 at recent shows.

“It really felt like a grassroots effort in the earliest days, but even as it’s changed it’s maintained that pop culture party vibe,” Parks and Cons blogger Shawn Marshall said. “That first year, panel rooms were on the floor with pipe and drapes separating. It felt so raw, but you could tell there was a heart there and that this show had a future.”

We’re going to bring in guests and there’s going to be a vibe to it that should scream the cultural mashup of L.A.”
— Chris DeMoulin, convention CEO

An endorsement that grabbed a lot of attention and spurred some of that early growth was that of legendary Marvel comic creator/hype man Stan Lee, who regularly participated in the early years and gave the event a calling card.

“Elvira, Todd McFarlane, and Stan Lee were all these larger-than-life figures that were supporters from early on, and it felt like it spoke to the quality of what was building,” Marshall said. “It’s hard to explain, but there was something about seeing those people believe in the event that made everyone that much more excited.”

DeMoulin, who at one time helped run the show’s business aspects before coming on as CEO in 2018, said they’ve been “trying to make a show that is so quintessentially L.A., if you took our show and put it in Kansas City, it wouldn’t make any sense. Because we’re going to bring in guests and there’s going to be a vibe to it that should scream the cultural mashup of L.A.”

Something For Every Fanbase

A small crowd of fans wearing various styles of Deadpool costume stand around Deadpool comic co-creator Rob Liefeld. One fan holds up a sign reading "Zack Morris, Ferris Bueller, & Wade Wilson walk into a bar, how many walls do they break?"
Rob Liefeld (C) poses with cosplay Deadpools onstage at the "Rob Liefeld Remembers Stan Lee" panel during 2019 Los Angeles Comic Con at the L.A. Convention Center on Oct. 11, 2019.
(Paul Butterfield
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Getty Images)

The convention’s continuing to expand, taking over the entire Los Angeles Convention Center. They’re filling that extra space with additional gaming and anime content, taking on some of the same targets as other L.A. Convention Center events like the E3 gaming industry convention and the annual Anime Expo.

DeMoulin describes the talent outreach process as a long one, starting as soon as the previous year’s convention ends.

“So if we’ve got Star Wars represented, what are we going to do for Star Trek? Or how do we handle Marvel?” DeMoulin said.

Some of the big panels this year feature the casts of comic book-based television, including The Boys and The Umbrella Academy. They’re also bringing in convention mainstay William Shatner, as well as Elijah Wood and Sean Astin to talk Lord of the Rings.

They’ve also got members of the cast from The Sandlot holding a reunion, as well as promoting their youth sports nonprofit, Play Forever. Sandlot actor Grant Gelt spent a long time working to distance himself from his child acting days, moving into management in the music industry, but now he’s come back around and has started doing the convention circuit.

“It took me a really, really long time to figure out how I wanted to relate to this film as an adult,” Gelt said.

But Gelt found that he enjoyed rekindling friendships with his castmates when he spent time with them for the film’s 25th anniversary in 2018. With the 30th anniversary happening next year, he explained the appeal of doing appearances at events like L.A. Comic Con, saying that they’re “opportunit[ies] to get together with my childhood friends, in new cities and new places.”

DiMattia said he enjoys the convention vibes as a whole.

“The atmosphere of just being able to cruise around and go meet other people, and see all the cool stuff — it’s awesome,” DiMattia said.

The cast and the convention put together an appearance quickly for the 2021 convention, and now they’re back in a bigger way as they continue to promote and fundraise for their nonprofit.

“Last year’s Comic Con was dangerous,” Gelt jested. “I ended up getting a bag in L.A. to ship all this stuff [I bought] home.”

What’s Next For L.A. Comic Con

A man in jeans and a green T-shirt on one knee, holding a microphone and a ring, in front of a redheaded woman in Mary Jane cosplay and a Spider-Man T-shirt. They are on stage, with a video screen behind them focused on the woman.
Jonathan London (R) asks Heidi Cox to marry him onstage during the 2021 Los Angeles Comic Con at the L.A. Convention Center on Dec. 4, 2021.
(Chelsea Guglielmino
/
Getty Images)

They’ve still got this weekend’s convention to get through, but the pandemic helped prompt convention operators to explore how to provide programming the rest of the year. One of those possibilities: DeMoulin said they’re considering adding a smaller, complementary convention in the spring.

But DeMoulin said they don’t want to “grow for the sake of growth.”

“We have to be interested in the same things [the fans are] interested in, and not just trying to sell them a ticket,” he said.

Like many other live events, they experimented with virtual options during the pandemic. They’re also continuing to explore what DeMoulin described as programming that reaches into the metaverse.

“I think it’s important for the fans that aren’t comfortable coming out in person yet to still be able to participate in all of that,” DeMoulin said.

They’re also looking to help other conventions create metaverse and other virtual programming, allowing people to gather in various ways when not together in person.

“Nothing’s ever going to replace the physical experience, right? Nothing replaces that energy of standing in a room with 50,000 people that love the same stuff that you do, and that feeling of exploration and discovery where you turn a corner and you see something you’ve never seen before,” DeMoulin said.

But now, he said, they want to take that experience digital. One of their pilot events was an online cosplay contest, with a hundred participants from around the country and fans voting in the metaverse, according to DeMoulin.

“Your avatar’s standing next to another avatar, you’re in L.A. and that person’s in Hong Kong, and you can have a conversation with them about why you voted for who you voted for,” DeMoulin said. “It’s the same thing that happens when you stand in line for an autograph, right? You’re with like-minded people.”

They’re even looking at doing more with both music and sports fans. The convention’s afterparty this year will feature live music from SpongeBob SquarePants voice actor Tom Kenny’s band, as well as J.J. Abrams mainstay actor Greg Grunberg’s group. Along with the Sandlot cast’s appearance, the convention itself will also have LAFC soccer players in attendance.

“When L.A. gets interested in something, we pay attention,” DeMoulin said.

You can join thousands of like-minded fans this Friday through Sunday at the L.A. Convention Center.

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