What’s that monster towering over the pop culture world? It’s comic con-zilla.

Comic cons, or pop culture gatherings where thousands of costumed attendees celebrate comic book characters and related TV shows and movies, are expanding all over the country. Smaller productions are trying to replicate the popularity of annual geek get-together Comic-Con International in San Diego, the industry leader.

One player in the rapid growth of comic cons is a small El Segundo firm called Wizard World. The company is doubling the comic con shows it produces this year to 16 events.

Wizard World’s expansion is a big bet, since a single show can cost more than $1 million to produce, but Chief Executive John Macaluso said the expansion is supported by a growing pool of fans – the same people that make film adaptations of comic books into record-breaking box-office sensations. Of course, other types of popular fiction, such as sci-fi and fantasy, are included, too.

“What we do is becoming much more mainstream,” Macaluso said. “When you look at the movies that Marvel puts out, or DC Comics puts out, or you see a new ‘Star Trek’ movie, it broadens the base of people interested in popular fiction.”

Wizard World’s 2014 tour began in January with a stop in Portland, Ore., and will continue March 7 in Sacramento, followed by shows in about a dozen other cities, including San Antonio, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Wizard World’s events bring comic creators and stars of movies and TV shows they inspired to the hometowns of fans willing to pay hundreds of dollars to meet actors such as Chris Hemsworth of Marvel’s “Thor” movies. The shows also feature panel discussions about TV series, movies and comic books, and vendors selling merchandise, such as posters, comics or replica swords.

But as the number of events grows, booking stars is getting more competitive as comic cons now number in the hundreds.

Aside from the San Diego show, which is operated by a non-profit, the next largest is New York Comic Con, produced by a division of international event producer Reed Exhibitions. Locally, there is Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo – known for its association with comic book legend – which has staged its event at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the past three years.

Comic con promoters generally support the growth of their competitors – the thinking is that one show’s popularity will help feed another’s. But Wizard World drew some criticism in February 2013 when it staged a show in Portland soon before a competing show, Emerald City Comicon, in Seattle – potentially diminishing the returns for both events. This year, Wizard World avoided the conflict by putting its Portland show in January while Emerald City Comicon is scheduled for late this month.

With so many options in so many places, there’s more pressure than ever for Wizard World and others to wow attendees if they want repeat business, said Rob Salkowitz, Seattle author of book “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.”

“The expectations for all comic cons are rising because the attendance is through the roof,” Salkowitz said. “The more people go to these shows, the less they’re satisfied with the old-school experience.”

VIP experience

The San Diego show, founded in 1970, is the oldest in the country and started as a comic book convention. The non-profit that operates the event owns the hyphenated “Comic-Con” name, but other companies have made abundant use of its variations. For example, Wizard World’s Sacramento show is called Wizard World Sacramento Comic Con – without a hyphen.

The shows have other differences, too. For example, the San Diego show is known for its celebrity panels and has strong appeal to the Hollywood crowd. Wizard World focuses on producing regional shows that feature celebrities who will pose for photos or sign autographs for fans.

Perhaps the most important component of Wizard World’s model is getting celebrities to show up, since the company can use their names to generate interest in its shows and also to sell premium packages to attendees who want privileged access.

For example, a Sunday general admission ticket to the upcoming Sacramento show costs $40. But Wizard World sells a photo opportunity with Stan Lee for an extra $100. An autograph from Hemsworth of “Thor” on an item such as a replica Thor hammer costs $200. A VIP package that includes a three-day ticket as well as photo and autograph opportunities from Hemsworth costs $399.

Celebrities such as Hemsworth or Lee can make more than $50,000 for participating, a source said.

The VIP offerings set Wizard World apart from shows such as Comikaze, which last year only sold regular admission tickets – $25 for one day, $60 for three days. Celebrity autographs and photos could also be purchased for an extra cost. Attendance at that event grew from 45,000 in 2012 to 52,000 last year.

Regina Carpinelli, chief executive at Comikaze, said her approach is different in part because many of her attendees live in Los Angeles and might already be used to seeing celebrities in everyday life.

“In Los Angeles, you can go to the grocery store and see these stars,” Carpinelli said. “(Wizard World) is just a completely different show from our show. It’s great they’re taking their show to all these different cities.”

Fanning finances

One of the oldest events was launched in Chicago in 1972. A magazine publisher called Wizard took it over in 1997. Wizard World was created by the acquisition of that business in a 2011 reverse merger. After the deal, shares of Wizard World began to trade on the over-the-counter Bulletin Board. The thinly traded shares were up a cent to 42 cents last week.

The company moved its headquarters to Los Angeles from New York when it hired Macaluso, a former apparel industry entrepreneur who lives in Manhattan Beach, as chief executive in 2012. He became an investor in the newly formed company and joined the board after he attended a Wizard World event in New Orleans and enjoyed the experience.

With no prior entertainment industry experience, he’s had to learn on the fly how to best serve the company’s fanboy audience. One of his first moves was to publish a comic book featuring Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino from MTV’s “Jersey Shore.” Some fans scoffed at the miscue.

“It was a learning experience,” Macaluso said. “Unfortunately, it was something that never rally panned out.”

More importantly, Macaluso has been tasked with improving the company’s financials. Its conventions typically turn a profit, but the company reported net losses for years due to liabilities stemming from favorable terms it gave to early investors. In August, Wizard World got rid of those liabilities by converting those preferred shares to common stock.

For the six months ended Sept. 31, Wizard World’s four conventions in that time period increased revenue by 51 percent to $7 million. The company had an operating profit of $803,000 for those six months, according to quarterly reports.

The Wizard World business model is more logistics than magic. The company rents a convention center for a few days, books the biggest celebrities it can, promotes the show and sells tickets. The events cost between $300,000 and $1.3 million to produce, according to the company’s 2012 annual report, the most recent available, although Macaluso said they are getting more expensive.

Most of the company’s revenue comes from selling tickets to attendees and floor space to exhibitors. A small portion comes from sponsorships.

The company will be financing its expansion with cash generated from previous events, Macaluso said. Wizard World had $3.2 million in cash as of Sept. 31.

The company has a 23-person staff and contracts with up to 50 workers to cover an event. They also get 50 to 200 volunteers. Macaluso said he and his staff work up to 20 hour days for three or four days straight while putting on an event. He said he’s only hoping to expand further next year by getting more stars, opening in more cities and attracting more attendees, such as the voice of Darth Vader.

“How great would it be to get James Earl Jones?” How great would it be to get Nic Cage?” he said. “We look to expand our calendar in a giant way for 2015.”

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