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Salt Lake Comic Con organizers have San Diego in their sights

Published September 11, 2013 3:50 pm

Convention • Organizers look to fill up both sides of the Salt Palace next year.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Attendance for the inaugural Salt Lake Comic Con drastically exceeded initial expectations and set a high-water mark for first-time fan conventions, but organizers say they're just getting warmed up.

"Not only will we increase local participation by 50 to 100 percent, but based on analytics, we are going to be another San Diego Comic-Con," Bryan Brandenburg, Salt Lake Comic Con VP of marketing, said on Monday.

That may seem like a tall order, given that San Diego is the unquestioned comic con flagship, but a post on Salt Lake Comic Con's Facebook page says that between 70,000 and 80,000 people attended Saturday alone. To put that in perspective, the next-biggest stated attendance for a first-time show was New York City at 33,000 — over all three days — in 2006. Salt Lake Comic Con officials said an official three-day estimate is not yet available.

San Diego draws well over 100,000 and is so central to geek culture that it's where Warner Bros. announced an upcoming Batman and Superman mashup in July. For Salt Lake to reach that stature, organizers would need to expand space and possibly add Sunday to the schedule. But logistically, it's doable. The Salt Palace can offer nearly double the capacity if they open the building's north side, which Salt Palace GM Dan Hayes said he's encouraged organizers to do next year.

"I have no doubt in my mind that we can fill up both sides next time," said Dan Farr, founder of Salt Lake Comic Con. Brandenburg said they will likely also rent space in downtown hotels for next year's event (or events, plural, as Farr hinted that something else may be in the works).

For a while on Saturday, Salt Lake Comic Con was probably too big. Sidewalks outside the east and south legs of the Salt Palace Convention Center teemed with fans waiting to see the likes of William Shatner, Adam West and Stan Lee at midday when officials — on orders from fire department inspectors — told the crowd that the event was sold out and that ticket holders would only be allowed in as people left. (Watch the throng's reaction to that news here.)

"The number of folks on Saturday took everybody a little bit by surprise," said Hayes, attributing the overcrowding to unpredictable logistics — such as moving people through a line that includes a weapons check for blaster- and sword-wielding cosplayers. Once inside, wait times for panels and celebrities also often exceeded an hour.

Long waits mean high demand for the stars, however. Manu Bennett, of "The Hobbit" trilogy, "Spartacus" and "Arrow," was effusive in his praise for Farr, whom the New Zealander considers a "mate" after meeting him at a convention in Philadelphia and defying his booking agent's warning against attending first-time shows. "I'm quite happy for Dan," said Bennett before heading to Moab with Farr's family for a post-convention vacation. "He's a quirky character, but he's a great guy. There's something miraculous about what he's pulled off."

Brandenburg and Farr say that, influenced by fellow celebrities who were impressed by sales, more geek A-listers have already expressed interest in coming to future Salt Lake City shows. Bennett said he broke a personal record for signing and considers himself a newfound "advocate" for Farr. "I'm certain that they're all going to hear about this one and come flocking," he said.

By a large margin, Salt Lake Comic Con is now the most-attended single convention on Utah's calendar. Governor's Office of Economic Development director Spencer Eccles says Outdoor Retailer (which drew about 27,000 for its summer show) likely brings more out-of-state dollars, but that Salt Lake Comic Con has the potential to improve in that regard. Eccles also praised Farr — a childhood friend of his — and Brandenburg for their "revolutionary" use of social media to promote the event.

Of Farr, he said "It's wonderful to see people have a dream and realize that dream."

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper