Stars align for first-ever Salt Lake Comic Con in September
Editor's note: The location of this event has since changed. Click here for more details.
Dan Farr occupies a handsome red-brick house in Draper's foothills, furnished in elegant floral patterns and generally tidy except for a child's toy here or there. He's a tall blond man with a broad jaw, and standing at his door wearing a polo shirt and a wry smile, he strikes you as modern-day nobility, a front-runner.
Then he shows you the undead guys in his closet.
Farr is full of surprises, and not just the movie-quality horror props he stuffs into the nooks of his idyllic home. It is this preppy, self-styled "serial entrepreneur" who in September will deliver to Utah's geek culture what it has long awaited: its very own comic book convention, or comic con.
"It's a kind of love of building entertainment," says Farr, known in his neighborhood for extravagant Halloween productions. "I personally am not a performer, but I love putting together events that make people happy."
And, in the case of comic cons, make people money. This week's 44th incarnation of San Diego Comic-Con International is expected to draw well over 100,000 ticket buyers as well as scores of luminaries from productions related to movies, videos and comic books. Its rapid growth, combined with a rise in appreciation for once-niche pop culture, has led cities nationwide to launch their own lucrative conventions, and now Farr aims to follow suit.
Star search • Farr witnessed his first comic book convention about four years ago while representing the 3-D model and animation software company he co-founded, DAZ 3D. Soon after, he resolved to attend as many conventions as possible, studying their basic formulas in the hope of one day emulating them.
"What are fans there to see? What's drawing them in the door, and once they're in the door, where are they spending their time?" he'd ask. After a couple of years of mulling it over, he and former DAZ co-worker Bryan Brandenburg agreed to host a show in partnership with MediaOne (which prints and distributes The Salt Lake Tribune). Salt Lake Comic Con would share the South Towne Exposition Center with the pre-existing GEEX Gaming and Electronics Expo and capitalize on the crossover appeals of comics, sci-fi, gaming and tech.
But for stars, you need fans. For fans, you need stars. To solve the chicken vs. egg conundrum, Farr paid top dollar to attract an early batch of premium celebrities who included "The Incredible Hulk" Lou Ferrigno, "Hercules" leading man Kevin Sorbo and "Battlestar Galactica" actor Richard Hatch. That first wave generated enough buzz that Farr could sweeten his sales pitch and secure the likes of Adam West and William Shatner (he of the 1986 "Saturday Night Live" cameo in which he famously implored overzealous "Star Trek" conventiongoers to "Get a life!").
"All the actors talk about the good ones and the bad ones," says Sorbo who works about five shows each year but is asked to go to between five and six a month of the desire for a high ratio of fans to stars. For his part, Sorbo says he's not too worried about how the inaugural Salt Lake Comic Con comes off. He has a condo in Deer Valley and has been coming to Utah to relax for about 20 years. "All the weight's on Dan's shoulder's right now," he says. "To me, it's a no-brainer. I look at it as vacation."
And to Greg Gage, owner of Black Cat Comics in Salt Lake City, it's enough just to have any comic book convention. "There's different kinds of comic cons," he says. "There are some that are comic-oriented and some that are more media- and actor-oriented. I don't know yet which this will be, but that's OK because it's about time we got one of these."
Geek is chic • As investment from Hollywood power players fuels interest in shows such as the San Diego Comic-Con and sci-fi and comic book genres, geek culture has, paradoxically, merged with the mainstream.
"You don't have to play 'Dungeons & Dragons' in your closet anymore," Farr said. "It's become cool to be a geek."
Cool, yes, but not necessarily cheap. Sorbo says an autograph from most celebrity guests will cost between $20 and $70. For him, they fall in the $30 to $40 range. If you just want to feel his Herculean grip, though, a handshake will only cost you the price of admission and the time you spend waiting in line.
Salt Lake Comic Con marketer and comic book aficionado Elaine Atkins-Manley says the signature-seeking attendees are "adamant about what they want. They'll plan months in advance. And they'll go with lots of cash and just be ready to fork it out, because that's what they do."
Many fans dress up like their favorite superheroes, acting out their roles in an alternate universe where all things are real except insecurity and daily worries. Pleasant Grove's Danny Haskell is molding a War Machine suit out of ethylene-vinyl acetate foam for the show, to pair with an Iron Man suit he built for his brother-in-law.
"I'm ecstatic," Haskell said. "I've always wanted to go to one, they've just been so far out of the way or out of my price range."
The Salt Lake event will also feature authors and a wide array of comic book artists who will draw in fans' sketchbooks for a fee as well as numerous panels and screenings with special guests. Even if you've never read a comic book, there's probably something for you.
"It's kind of like a Disneyland all under one roof," says Ferrigno, a lifelong comic book fan himself. "It's instant gratification. If I was young and George Reeves, the original Superman, came to town, I would give anything to go and see him."
Often, the diehards know more about the shows than the actors do, says Sorbo. "People know the schematics of my ship on 'Andromeda.' I just showed up and said my lines." (Easy, "Andromeda" fans; he said that with a laugh.)
Hatch, who visits Utah regularly to teach acting workshops and recently shot a short movie in Logan, said that the conventions particularly the bigger ones like San Diego have the added benefit of bringing together creative types for brainstorming sessions and networking. He may be Apollo and Tom Zarek to "Battlestar" fanatics, but he's still a very busy actor with a wide range of creative interests.
"When I go to conventions, I can collaborate with people that I may not get a chance to meet and have access to otherwise," he says. "It's part fun, and it's part business."
An easy act to follow • If the Salt Lake Comic Con sells out, more than 20,000 people will have attended the three-day festival, with a total attendance as high as 40,000, counting return visits. And it will sell out, "unless tickets just stop selling," Farr says. Saturday-only passes already are almost gone.
Farr first asked for just a single hall at the South Towne Exposition Center, with an option on a second, but he's now up to four and angling for a fifth. He attributes his marketing success to Facebook and Twitter, but says that even though it's probably not necessary, you can expect to see more advertising in traditional media over the next month.
"We want to spread out the demographic and reach people," he said. "It's not just the 18-to-30 demographic: We've got moms and grandmas coming to see Adam West and Burt Ward."
Farr wants to make the convention his "livelihood" and is assuming much of the financial risk for the inaugural show. He hopes a partnership with ABC4 and the CW will lead to more studio involvement, and he has also talked to the Governor's Office of Economic Development about future support. This year, Farr says the key is to strike a balance between building an event that is small enough to support the celebrities' autograph needs, but big enough to gain more backing next year.
"As an entrepreneur, most times you end up being more optimistic than the situation [deserves], but this has turned out to be one of those things that I felt I was very optimistic on how well it would do and I've been blown away."
When • Sept. 5-7
Where • South Towne Exposition Center
Writers • Jake Black, Larry Correia, Jessica Day George, James Wymore, Rhiannon Paille, James Dashner, Tracy Hickman, David Farland
Artists • Steve Argyle, Derek Hunter, Bill Galvan, Howard Tayler, Sal Velluto, Batton Lash, Arthur Suydam, Ryan Ottley, Tyler Kirkham
Tickets • Thursday only: adults $20, ages 11-16 $12; Friday only: adults $25, ages 11-16 $12; Saturday only (limited supply): adults $30, ages 11-16 $15; three-day pass: adults $50, ages 11-16 $30; VIP pass $150. Children 10 and under get in free on all days. Visit http://saltlakecomiccon.com/utah-comic-con-tickets/ for more information.