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Meet the Vendor
Behind the Production of Comic-Con International with David Glanzer
by Chris Carver
on April 3, 2017
Comic_Con

INTRODUCTION
We've all heard about the phenomena which is Comic-Con. And if you haven't, just stop now...

As a San Diegan, Comic-Con is literally our most shining event. Especially with the departure of Shamu and The Chargers. What's crazy is that this little convention (slash costume party), brings in over $180 Million dollars for the city each year. What's even more mind blowing, is that every time they expand the event, people just keep coming. It is honestly some of the best people watching in the world.

This is clearly a team we all need to meet and learn from. So here goes...

FIRST SOME STATS:
Started: In 1970
Attendance in 1974: 300
Attendance in 2016: 135,000+ attendees and about 25 full-time staff.
Average Cost of a 4 Day Pass: $254
Press Covering the Event: Over 4000 Press 
Business Status: (Non-Profit)

I guess you can say "Mission Accomplished" on this one. 

Conan Obrien Building Wrap Photo Big Picture Comic Con International San Diego David Glanzer
We were excited to go behind the production of Comic-Con. Even Conan makes an appearance each year.

LET’S SET THE SCENE
When thinking about the interview with David Glanzer, (Comic-Con's Chief Communications and Strategy Officer) I really wanted to understand:

Enjoy this glimpse behind the curtain of the world's coolest costume party. 

Spider Man San Jose Mercury News - Production of Comic-Con David Glanzer
Photo Cred: AP Photo/Denis Poroy - San Jose Mercury News

Do you mind if we just jump in?
Sure, by all means.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Texas, lived in Japan for a short time, but pretty much raised in San Diego. My father was in the Navy so we were stationed here.

Big family? Small family?
Small family. My dad, my mom, myself, and a sister that was older than me.

So what was fifteen year old David like?
Oh my God. A big geek and a nerd.

I love it. I love it.
I tried to do well academically in school. I enjoyed school. I loved science fiction. I loved movies. It wasn't until I turned 16 that I discovered there were other people like me to be honest with you.

So, at that age, what's hanging on your wall in your room?
I want to say a Star Wars poster. I had a lot books in my room, too. So not a lot of wall space, but the one thing that stands out is the Star Wars poster I had.

featured-star-wars11 photo Pointbreakcafe.jpg Behind the production of Comic-Con International
Just another day in Downtown San Diego. Storm Troopers and all. Photo Cred: Point Break Cafe

On a scale of one to ten, how big of a comic book geek are you?
Well it's funny, I got involved in Comic-Con not because of comic books but because of movies. Then I discovered comics when I started working for the organization.

Now, I had read Archie when I was kid, but while other kids made model airplanes or sports cars, I made models by a company called Aurora. They had Frankenstein's laboratory. They had Dracula. Those were the coolest things to me. 

If you were a piece of event equipment, what would you be and why?
Oh my God, there's so many different kinds. I would be a scissor lift. Not because I'm tall, but because I would like to be able to go up and see a better vantage point of everything. See the landscape.

Have you ever dressed up for Comic-Con?
Oh yes. before I started working here I did. My friend and I spent almost a year putting together a Tuscan Raider costume from Star Wars. That's one of the characters that was in the desert that attacked Luke. This is before DVDs. So we literally had to see the movie a lot of times, go out and get magazines that had photos, kind of dissect them. We built these really great costumes.

I had other costumes, too. Like a Han Solo-type Pirate costume. I think I had a really bad Star Trek costume once, but it was cool to me.

After the show each year, do you and the Comic-Con team ever choose your favorite costumes from the week? 
You see a lot of stuff and sometimes it’s the simplest costumes that are the best. One that stands out in my mind: there was a little kid in a stroller, couldn't have been more than three or four years old. And he was dressed as Luke Skywalker. Pushing him was his dad who was dressed as Darth Vader. I was like, "Oh my God, you're his father!"

There was also one a few years ago, this kid put together a transformers costume. I'm not exactly sure how he fit in it, but it was huge and was able to walk around in it. It was really great.

And Actually last year I think there was a guy in a "Rancore" costume. The "Red Core" is an animal that was in Return of the Jedi. 
It's amazing the creativity that goes into costume building.

Behind the Production of Comic-Con International Rancore Photo Cred Model-Space.jpg
Found a cool video on the making of this costume by model-space.com: Click Here

How many people does it take to put on something like Comic-Con?
We have a year-round office staff that's probably around 40 to 50. It's grown a lot in the last few years.

And during the actual event, we have a lot of department heads and a lot of volunteers. We hire security. Just volunteers alone, I think we have in excess of 4,000 over the course of the week of the show.

Are there any production or operational stats that just blow your mind?
Yeah, the fact that it all happens every year. When I first started with this organization, I think we had 6,000 people. It's still mind boggling to think of the show as having the impact that it does.

I was in Turkey recently and a Turkish affiliate company was broadcasting stuff from our show. People knew what it was, it's very weird.

I was on a cruise eight years ago and we all were talking about what we did. I mentioned, "Oh, I work for an arts organization in San Diego," and one of the other passengers said, "What is it, Comic-Con?" I said, "Yeah, actually it is Comic-Con." They were like, "No way!" I was surprised that in the middle of the Mediterranean that someone would know what Comic-Con was, but they did. To me, the reach that we've obtained is mind boggling.

So, how long ago did you start?
I first started attending as a fan in 1978. I started volunteering in 1984. Then I was offered a staff position in 1994.

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From an interest and excitement standpoint, w
as there a moment when you were like, "Holy shit. This is crazy. This is out of control." 
Totally. There have been people that I've met that I was very surprised to be able to meet because of Comic-Con.

Years ago, Spike TV was doing an awards show and we were one of the award recipients. They said, "Would it be okay if we presented that award on this show?" We said, "Sure." The people they got to present the award ended up being two A-list actors from Hollywood. I remember sitting in the audience and thinking, I never thought that our little show would have these real famous people, not only know who we are, but saying nice things about us.

Over the course of the years, we've heard from musicians, actors, artists, writers, politicians. It's remarkable how many people are aware of the show and even if they haven't been at the show, it's on some people's bucket list. Blows my mind. To us it's still a lot of hard work, but a fun little show that we put together every year.


"The reach we've obtained is mind boggling." twitter-128.png


So how do you describe it to someone?
I always say, if you like comics, if you like movies, televisions, toys, games, anything having to do with pop culture science, this is the place you at least want to visit once. I also warn people, you can see photos, you can see video, you can hear from your friends, but nothing will compare to actually walking through those doors. There's just no way to prepare you for it because everybody has a different experience, but it's always an overwhelmingly good experience.

20140727_Comic_Con_14 photo malaymailonline.com.jpg Behind the production of Comic-Con
Photo Cred: malaymailonline.com

I noticed you've been calling it “show” and I think that reflects back to the origins. Do you consider it a conference or a festival? It feels like a combo of a few things.
Yeah, it's interesting. One of the guys in our office once said he related the story about an elephant, that if you were blindfolded and five different people touched different parts of an elephant, then everyone would come away with different things. Whether it be the tail, the trunk or foot, whatever it happens to be.

I think that's true of Comic-Con. It is a festival. It's a festival of people who love animation, who love film, who love all those very cool, fun things. It's a seminar and a symposium. We have workshops on all aspects of popular art. We have education components to the show on how to reach kids through comic books and comic art. We have drawing classes. We have writing seminars, hands-on workshops. We have demonstrations. We have tips on costume building.

So it's really hard to say Comic-Con is one thing. Comic-Con is really what you make of it, you can spend a whole weekend just going to comic panels and meeting people who create comic books and strips, or you can do the same about toys or games or movies and television shows.

One of the things that we found that was true for me, and it's still true to this day, because you come in with one interest doesn't mean you're limited to that. So, people who come in for film may discover comic books. That's what happened to me. People may come in for costume building and discover there's a video game.

Behind the Production of Comic Con Crowds - Sideshowtoys.jpg
Photo Cred: SideShowToys.com

What would you say are the three most critical aspects of your role now as opposed to when you first started?
FIRST: Really being hyper-aware of what's going on. The world is instantaneous now because of the internet. Somebody can come and do an interview and it will appear in a matter of minutes. Same thing with news reporting. I remember when one of the Star Wars movies announced the title at Comic-Con and people ran out of that room and reporters immediately flashed it across the world.

Justin Timberlake & Anna Kendrick at Comic-Con - The Celebrity Auction.jpg
Just another D List Panel at Comic-Con. Photo Cred: TheCelebrityAuction.com

So, one of the most important things I think is just being hyper-aware of as much as I possibly can, or what's going on during the show.

SECOND: Is accuracy. This is something that is always a challenge, even before social media honestly. Trying to clamp down on rumors or just making sure that we have an accurate view of the show.

Oftentimes people say, "Oh my gosh, did you hear so and so?" No one can find anybody to attribute it to and it may not be true. So I try to make sure that we can answer questions to make sure that people get the accurate response.

LASTLY: The most important factor to all of us is the safety of our attendees; both physically and emotionally. One of the great things about Comic-Con when I first came was I remember literally coming through the doors and thinking "Wow, my tribe." There were people I found that were into the Aurora models that I didn't think anybody played with or knew about, but they did and it was a great feeling of belonging. It built up these emotions of being comfortable with who you are and I’ll never forget that.

When I was in Japan, I was a big Alterman fan. When I came to the United States, I didn't think anybody knew what that was. I came to a convention where people knew Alterman, and they would watch the Jeopardy episodes and have the toys. I knew I was a geek, and you know what, I was with other geeks and nerds and I was made to feel completely mainstream.

I think that's an important thing for us to make sure that the people that visit our show have a safe environment, both physically and emotionally. We all have things to contribute. We respect each other and learn from each other and that just makes for a more pleasurable experience for everybody.

sdcc-cosplay-2016-0337 Melia Robinson Tech Insider.jpg
A random group of people came together to become the cast of Game of Thrones. Photo Cred: Melia Robinson (Tech Insider)

If you were to start the event over from scratch, what advice would you give you and your team?
I think it's the unwritten rule that we live by today and that is to produce the type of show we want to attend. I think it's easy to get off the track when you try to think along the lines of, "Well, I think we could do better if we do this because that seems to be a trend, or things may be moving in this direction, maybe we should entertain that.”

Now the truth of the matter is the show today is very different than it was 20 years ago. And it was very different 20 years ago than it was 20 years before that. I think the mantra that we have that is key to our success is "Try to produce the show that you want to attend."


"Produce the show that you want to attend." twitter-128.png


[And he’s not joking. Comic-Con has helped develop an experience for literally every pop culture fan out there. They include on-site child care, deaf and disabled services—there’s even a blood drive each year in honor of sci-fi writer, Robert Heinlein.]

What's your favorite aspect of the entire production between the planning, the build, the data, the breakdown. What is your favorite part, personally?
It's interesting. It's not a mechanical aspect, it's an emotional aspect and there are two great things.

FIRST: I have an amazingly dedicated team. I couldn't do what I do without them. They hold my hand a great deal. It requires a lot of attention on their part and a lot of time. I think that's true of almost every department. We have a very low turnover rate here. I think people enjoy what they do and they're really dedicated to it. They want to make sure that they produce a good show.

SECOND: it sounds cheesy, but it really is true, is seeing people have a good time. You'll see a kid who meets a comic's artist or TV actor or somebody dressed up in a costume because that's who they want to be, and that's a remarkable thing for me. It's the understanding that they have the freedom to be able to get lost in the fantasy of pop culture.

Marvel+Avengers+Age+Ultron+Booth+Signing+During+ Photo Cred Zimbio.jpg
What kid doesn't want to get their Captain America Shield signed by Captain America himself? Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images North America)

So how do you scale something like Comic-Con? And where does scaling fit?
I'll tell you, we've never looked to grow the show. 

We have grown the show because we've had to. By that I mean, we have more people that want to attend than we can accommodate. So we try to accommodate as good as we can. It's not like we start out and say, "Hey, let's see if next year we can get more attendees." We always thought if as many people came this year as did last year, we'd be happy. The truth of the matter is, more people come.

When we were at a local basement hotel our first year, we had about 300 people. The following year it grew exponentially. We had to move to a small convention facility. We outgrew that, so we moved to the official convention center for San Diego. We were bursting at the seams there, so we moved to the new convention center and we thought that facility was so large, we thought we would expand maybe one exhibit hall every two years if our growth continued. It ended up being two exhibit halls every year after that.

 

"We always thought, if as many people came this year as did last year, we'd be happy." twitter-128.png 


Comic Con Expo Crowd - Photo Tracy Lien Polygon.jpg
This needs to be a case study in crowd control. Photo Cred: Tracy Tien - Polygon

Now we've outgrown the current convention facility. We're outside in the parking lot and in hotel meeting rooms. It was never our plan to be as big as we are. It was kind of an organic thing. Again, I think that's attributed to the fact that we produce the type of show that we want to attend. People come to the show because it's the type of show they want to attend. We're very fortunate in that regard.

Screenshot 2017-03-21 09.45.44.png

So with it as big as it is now, do you and the team find it difficult to keep the quality high?
Quality is very, very important to us. Years ago, we would program a lot of stuff ourselves. We still do. We're in a great situation now where a lot of people bring programming ideas to us. Unfortunately, there's also a lot of stuff that we have to say no to. That's true for the floor. There are a lot of people who want to exhibit on the floor, but just because somebody has the funds to buy a booth doesn't mean they can be on the floor.

As an example, an exhibitor that has no relations to popular art or the sciences, probably won't find a booth on the floor because it doesn't meet our mission. It doesn't meet our fans' needs. If I go to a convention I want exhibitors that have stuff that I like, in terms of the genre. We try to keep ours fairly consistent within the pop culture realm.


Sometimes we have to say, "Sorry but we cannot accommodate you this year." twitter-128.png


How do you guys think as a team about innovation?
It's funny because whenever something new is coming out, invariably somebody on our team will already know about it. Luckily, we have great relationships with tech companies, movie studios, and publishers and all that. They will tell us when they have something new coming out that they think is good for the audience. Oftentimes somebody in the office knows about it because they have an interest in it and they will say it’s either really cool or really gimmicky.

We really do have our finger on the pulse. One of the great things about this job is being up to date on what's new.

Speaking of the office, how would you describe the culture of the Comic-Con team, the core team?
We are kind of like a family. Turnover is very low here, so people have been here for a very long time.

The organization is really good to its employees and I think the employees appreciate that. Honestly, the people here spend a tremendous amount of time working on the show. It's funny because I think sometimes when you think of Comic-Con, there are people who think of it as just this big company, but it really is a tight-knit group that produces an amazing show each year.

Everybody here reads social media and reviews. When somebody has a positive comment, everybody here gets really happy. When somebody says something negative, it's hard not to take it personally. You don't want people to have negative experiences but one of the awful things about our event is we have more people who want to attend than we have badges and it’s horrible because you know that on some level there are people who are going to be unhappy because they cannot attend. We take that personally.

Comic Con Por Favor Photo Cred Ryan Reynolds.jpg
Photo Cred: Ryan Reynolds @VancityReynolds

How do you manage that process? Is that a big logistical problem?
It's a challenge. The key to us in terms of programming on the floor, is diversity. So oftentimes, some people will say, "Oh, this industry is taking over the floor." Well, no. Some industries have a deeper progress than others so they can advertise their presence more widely.

If John Doe came in and said, "Hey look, we're launching this big thing and I want to buy up half of your floor with the display." We have to say no because the floor is broken up into film entertainment or recorded entertainment like movies and television, gaming section, publishers section, retailing section. There's all these different sections on the floor and we try to make sure that we have as diversified of an exhibit floor as we possibly can.

That's true for programs, too. In a recent survey, there was like two or three thousand individual programs during the course of four and a half days. So, we want to make sure it's diverse. You don't want to have eight panels doing the exact same thing. It's sad because sometimes we do have to say, "I'm sorry but we cannot accommodate you this year."

What is the biggest area of of improvement for you and the team that you're concentrating on from last year to this year? 
Well, every year after the show we debrief on what worked, what didn't work and how best to improve.

I would have to say with a broad brush technology. Whether it's the process of spelling badges, or security in hotel rooms, we want to make sure that our attendees have a great experience.

The truth is there are so many people that can inundate our servers and what not, when some of these things go live. It's a challenge. We're always trying to improve that.

The same for security. We're always looking at that as well, so we want to make sure people have a good time and any challenges are few and far between.

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Say it's the month before the event, how are you and the team managing internal communication and meetings? Do you have a certain process that you go through?
Each department has different things, there are deadlines that we all have to meet. Programming will have deadlines for when they need to have their stuff in because there's publication, there's things of that nature. Exhibits have to have deadlines  because they have to lay the floor out and whatever contracts have to be signed.

With press we need to have our stuff done early so we can have any potential interview requests. We make a press list available to our programming and exhibitor base if they want to hold interviews during or before the show.

Then, as we get close to the show, we're at the wire now. The stuff that needs to be in for the most part is in. Then we start the countdown. At that point, I'd say it really is making sure everything is locked in the way it's supposed to be and then starts the process of putting out fires. Then the week of the show, it really is trying to mitigate any problems that arise.

Do you have any advice for other press and marketing folks for other major live events on how to deal with press during a big event?
When we first started, it was really difficult for us to get press to cover the show. One of the things I thought we should do is why not inform the press? We know what our show is, we know what's going on, they may not, so why don't we inform them.

So when a reporter would come in, we would say, "Hey, can I give you a little tour?" They would say "Yeah, but I already know what my story is." We said, " Okay great." I would always pick five things that they probably didn't know. I would give them stats like, "Did you know there are more women now in this industry than ever before" or whatever it happened to be.

I got to tell you, nine times out of ten, the reporter would say, "That's interesting. Let me get some background on that. Let's do an interview. I don't know that I'll run with this story, but let's see if we can.” You know what? Those stories would run. So, my advice for anybody who's starting out and having to deal with press, is to give them stuff to cover. I think a lot of people don't realize that. We oftentimes think okay, a reporter's going to come in. Let's see what they're going to ask. That's perfectly legitimate. But here's an opportunity to introduce your show to a wide audience via free press. What is it that they don't know and highlight that stuff. The reporter may actually be grateful that you're giving them stuff that somebody else doesn't necessarily have.

Wow.

I think making sure that you're accurate and honest with them, but also be informative.

Event PR Advice: Ask what is it that they don't know and highlight that stuff. twitter-128.png


Do you think gaming will have as big of an impact as film has had on Comic-Con in the future?
I think it can.

I think the thought of what is going to be the next best thing in five years is best left to other people. The reason I say that is because one of the things I always get asked during the show is, "What is the big thing at Comic-Con this year? What is the thing that's going to really resonate?" I very honestly say to them, we will know on Monday after the show. The reason I say that, is that there are so many cool things and we all have our own interests, but in the end, it will be the attendees who let us know.

What's the best career advice you've been given and from whom?
I don't know where I picked this up, but my thought is, do what you love and hopefully you'll be good at it because you love it so much. There were three things that I was really interested in growing up. One was science fiction fantasy conventions, one was film and movies, and one was politics. I was very lucky because I had an opportunity to work in all three fields. Sometimes they overlap. It's crazy. I have meetings with people now that I would have never thought I would have meetings with. I've been able to do stuff that I never thought I'd be able to do and I think if you're doing what you love and you have an energy about it, it's contagious. You want to do well because who doesn't want to do the best at what they love doing?


"Do what you love and hopefully you'll be good at it because you love it so much." twitter-128.png

Parting wisdom?
What I would say is something my boss always says. That is, please remember that the people who are coming to the show want to have a good time. So do whatever you can to make that happen.

You know what? Working 10, 12, 15 hours a day, having things go wrong, it's easy to get angry and upset, but oftentimes the people who are coming to your event don't know that. They don't know that you've been working 16 hours. One of the funny things is on day one sometimes off the record somebody will say, "How are you doing?" I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm exhausted." They'll say, "How can you be exhausted, the show hasn't even started yet?"

Well you know, we've been running on full speed for a week and half already. So, my big thing is make sure that you're kind to your audience. I know that sounds silly, but sometimes they can be short tempered too, but you know what, treat them nicely and they'll remember that.

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Screenshot 2017-03-26 11.02.00.png

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