Bryan Brandenburg had never been to a comics convention until he got involved in planning one.
Brandenburg and his business partner, Dan Farr, teamed up in 2013 — after encountering each other in the software industry over the previous two decades — to create a comics convention in Utah. “I said, ‘If we’re going to do this, I need to go to one.’”
So it was at the Wizard World Comic Con in Portland, Ore., in February 2013 that Farr took Brandenburg around to see how the vendors’ floor was set up, how the celebrities took the stage, and how fans interacted with stars, comic artists and each other.
Brandenburg, whose expertise is in marketing, already knew the business potential of a convention in Salt Lake City. But the scene in Portland was something more. “They were so supporting, so validating,” he said.
Farr said of his business partner, “All of a sudden, he caught the magic of the event.”
For four years since, Farr and Brandenburg have been attempting to capture that magic at Salt Lake Comic Con. The event’s fifth edition will take over the Salt Palace Convention Center in downtown Salt Lake City Thursday through Saturday.
Much of the success of Salt Lake Comic Con — which boasts a raft of celebrity appearances, panel discussions, visiting artists and authors, and a slew of vendors selling nearly anything geek-related — can be credited to these two men, the pitchman and the marketing expert, and their drive to give fans the experience of a lifetime.
Brandenburg looked at Wizard World in Portland and saw something missing for fans.
“These guys [in Portland] are marketing a comic con, but they’re really targeting people who read comic books,” Brandenburg said. “I wasn’t a comic-book person, but I was a comic-character movie person. Here’s this market for people who read comic books, but then here’s this market for people who go to comic-character movies. … If we can paradigm-shift the market, and focus on those people who like the movies — and bring in those celebrities for those movies and TV shows, like ‘Star Trek’ — that’s a whole different ballgame.”
A couple of software guys
Farr and Brandenburg both grew up in Utah, though their backgrounds are rather different.
Brandenburg, 58, was born in France to an Army father and German-born mother. He and his family moved to Utah when he was 4.
“My mom saw the mountains, and they said, ‘This looks like Germany,’” he said this week in Salt Lake Comic Con‘s offices.
He grew up in Ogden and enlisted in the Air Force when he was 17.
Farr, 50, was born and raised in the Salt Lake City area, a graduate of Skyline High School. He served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from 1986 to 1988, in New York City.
In high school, he showed the signs of a showman. He organized church dances, distributing fliers in neighboring wards and schools. “We would have 1,200 kids show up to a church dance, which was crazy,” Farr said.
He started a business staging dance events at venues such as Brigham Young University and the old 49th Street Galleria.
“I fell in love with the creating of an event, putting it together and promoting it, and getting people to show up,” Farr said.
He played basketball at Salt Lake Community College until he blew out his knee. He got his degree from the University of Utah and soon launched a company that created 3-D visual models for computer games and other applications.
Brandenburg started his first video-game company while still in college, after his Air Force stint. He left college after three years for a job at a California game company. In 1984, he was a founder of Sculptured Software, a game developer in Salt Lake City; Acclaim Entertainment acquired it in 1995 and ran it until 2002.
He founded another game company, Software Arts International, in 1994; it was acquired two years later by Engineering Animation Inc., and Brandenburg became executive producer of its interactive division.
Farr, in 2000, co-founded Daz 3D, a software company that creates 3-D models. In 2004, Brandenburg became, for about a year and a half, a marketing executive at Daz. He came back to Daz in 2012, around the time Farr was leaving the company.
During Farr’s later years at Daz, he would take the company’s 3-D modeling software to events, like comics conventions, for demonstrations. He met some celebrities and their managers. “I really started falling in love with the events,” he said. “I felt there was this amazing, passionate energy there.”
With both men leaving Daz, Farr talked to Brandenburg about creating a comics convention in Salt Lake City.
Shooting for 15,000
The plan was to stage the first Salt Lake Comic Con in March 2013 at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy. The convention would take one of the five halls at South Towne — big enough, Farr said, to accommodate between 12,000 and 15,000 people, about the same-size crowd as the Portland event drew.
“To us, that seemed to us like a great turnout,” Farr said.
“We could do that,” Brandenburg added.
Farr and Brandenburg hit the floor in Portland, handing out fliers to vendors. They also made connections with celebrity managers, trying to persuade them to send clients to a fledgling convention in Utah.
After deciding March was too soon to organize the convention, the partners chose three days just after Labor Day: Sept. 5-7, 2013. They launched a website that April and started selling tickets.
“When tickets went on sale, we were surprised at how many sold, a couple thousand up front,” Farr said.
A turning point that first year was a major “get”: William Shatner, Capt. James T. Kirk from the original “Star Trek” — the fandom that launched the comic-convention phenomenon in the first place.
The Shatner announcement boosted ticket sales further, and a snowball effect began. More tickets meant the convention could book more guests, and new guests attracted more ticket buyers.
Advance sales went from 5,000 to 8,000 quickly. Farr and Brandenburg shared those numbers with talent managers and persuaded them to send their clients.
“That’s the one thing that’s always tricky: How do you convince somebody to come to a new convention, and convince them there’s enough substance there that it will make it worth their time to be there,” Farr said. “There’s a lot of gun-shyness about sending quality talent to new events. They like to let it weather a little bit.”
As the sales exploded, Farr and Brandenburg realized South Towne wasn’t big enough, even if they expanded to a second hall. They made a quick move downtown, to the Salt Palace.
“The atmosphere is so much better for [Salt Lake] Comic Con downtown,” Farr said.
They had seen the action at Denver Comic Con and wanted a similar downtown scene.
“They’re going out in the nightlife and hanging out with other people dressed like Darth Vader,” Brandenburg said.
Stan Lee and the fire marshal
In the week before the first Salt Lake Comic Con, Farr and Brandenburg persuaded a few celebrities to come early and do publicity. Muscular actor Manu Bennett (“The Hobbit”) was an early backer, as were Kevin Sorbo from “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and TV’s Incredible Hulk, Lou Ferrigno.
Ferrigno happened to be in California the week before, at an event with Stan Lee, the creative genius behind Marvel Comics.
“We said, ‘Lou, ask Stan to come out to our convention,’” Farr said. At the same time, ticket sales had reached 25,000. “Stan’s manager called the next morning and said, ‘I hear you have this many tickets sold.’”
“That blew up,” Brandenburg said. “For Stan Lee to come to our first comic con in Salt Lake City was huge.”
By the time Salt Lake Comic Con opened its doors, some 72,000 tickets had been sold. It was beyond the dreams of Farr and Brandenburg, but success had its own problems.
Booking Lee “was just gas on the fire,” Brandenburg said. “That’s why we had lines a mile long.”
By Friday night, when Shatner and “Batman” TV star Adam West appeared together on the Grand Ballroom stage, the crowd in the Salt Palace was approaching 100,000 — a record for a comic convention in its first year.
“It really wasn’t until Friday night, looking over the convention hall that was just packed — and the fire marshal coming in and telling us we had too many people in the Salt Palace — was when we said, ‘We really did it,’” Brandenburg said. “Saturday, the doors were shut two or three times by the fire marshal.”
“Wow, we really did it,” Farr said his reaction was at the time. “But you look at the reality of it, you hate the thought of somebody standing in line for two or three hours to get in.”
After the first convention was over, Farr and Brandenburg looked at ways to improve things for the fans.
They announced a sister event, FanXperience (FanX, for short), in the spring, that would sell fewer tickets for a more intimate feeling. And from the second year on, the September convention has encompassed the entire length of the Salt Palace.
A “gamechanger,” Brandenburg said, is the RFID system — wristbands with computer chips, mailed out in advance to ticket buyers — that has made entry much faster and smoother.
Conflict in the community
Salt Lake Comic Con has had its share of growing pains.
An ongoing legal battle with the nation’s biggest comic convention, San Diego Comic-Con, has dragged on without resolution. Organizers for the San Diego event say they hold the copyright on “comic con,” a phrase the Salt Lake City event’s creators contend has become a generic term. A trial is scheduled to begin in November, and Farr and Brandenburg can’t talk much about the issue until then.
This summer, an argument sprouted on Salt Lake Comic Con’s social media outlets, when Brandenburg floated the idea of giving a forum to science-fiction author Orson Scott Card.
“My first instinct was that there’s no upside, only downside,” Brandenburg said. Salt Lake Comic Con has made substantial efforts to be inclusive of the LGBTQ community, Brandenburg said — and Card has written about his opinions on homosexuality, particularly his opposition to same-sex marriage.
But, Brandenburg said, “maybe there’s an opportunity. It looked like he’s moving in a good direction, moving to the right side of history. Maybe both sides of this issue can come closer together with his appearance.”
Brandenburg said he did some research on Card’s writings and consulted with local LGBTQ leaders.
When Brandenburg brought the idea to Salt Lake Comic Con’s Facebook page, the reaction was fast, loud and hostile. Some questioned why the event, known for being so inclusive, would invite someone they believe to be intolerant. Others were suspicious of Card’s softening of his opinions and wondered if it had more to do with the need to sell his next book, “Children of the Fleet,” and a TV series he’s producing for BYUtv, “Extinct” (both coming out in October).
“The community was, like, no way,” Brandenburg said. “There was no willingness to even have a conversation about it. … The hurt was so deep.”
“We live so close to the customers, and the online discussions, that [we] feel every bump in the road,” Farr added.
What happens next
Although this year’s Salt Lake Comic Con is only days away, Farr and Brandenburg like to think about the event’s future.
Farr recalled the blockbuster event last year, when Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker from the original “Star Wars” trilogy, attracted more than 10,000 fans to Vivint Smart Home Arena — the largest panel in the event’s history.
Salt Lake Comic Con would like to do more events at The Viv, just across the street from the Salt Palace’s west exit.
Farr and Brandenburg also like the idea, seen at New York Comic Con, of expanding convention events to nearby hotels or into tents — the way other Salt Palace events, like the DoTerra convention or the now-departed Outdoor Retailers trade show, have done.
“We’d love for it to become more of a festival experience,” Farr said.
They also talk about the big stars they still haven’t lured to Salt Lake City — either because their schedules are full or their appearance fees are still out of reach.
Brandenburg pointed to the 2015 convention as “a perfect storm” of big stars meeting the fans. That year, the Salt Palace was host to four big names from the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Chris Evans, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan.
Yes, San Diego may get the entire Marvel cast onstage, Brandenburg said, “but you can’t get your picture taken with Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans [in San Diego], while in Salt Lake, you can.”
Salt Lake Comic Con
When• Sept. 21-23
Where• Salt Palace Convention Center, 100 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets• For online ticket and pass sales, schedules, cosplay rules and other information, go to saltlakecomiccon.com
Top celebs at Salt Lake Comic Con 2017
Of all the things to do at Salt Lake Comic Con — listen to panel discussions, gawk at the amazing cosplayers, admire the comic artists’ work, sniff the Voldemort-scented candles — the celebrity appearances may rank as the biggest draws.
In past years, luminaries such as William Shatner, Mark Hamill, Stan Lee, Carrie Fisher, Sir Patrick Stewart, Chris Evans, Nathan Fillion, Lena Headey, Gillian Anderson, Buzz Aldrin, John Cena and many more have made fans laugh and scream either at Salt Lake Comic Con or its springtime sister event, FanX.
Which celebrities are worth staking out a seat in the Grand Ballroom this year? Here are five recommendations:
Dick Van Dyke (Grand Ballroom, Friday, 11 a.m.) • The comic legend — star of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Mary Poppins,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and more — doesn’t do many conventions, so this appearance should be a treat. Van Dyke is 91, but still active; he’s already filmed a cameo for “Mary Poppins Returns,” set for release in December 2018.
John and Joan Cusack (Grand Ballroom, Friday, 4 p.m.) • What have these acclaimed acting siblings done in the fantasy and science-fiction fandoms that Salt Lake Comic Con most closely identify? Joan is the voice of the cowgirl Jessie in the “Toy Story” franchise and tried to off Uncle Fester in “Addams Family Values.” John starred in the Stephen King adaptation “1408,” helped save the world in the apocalyptic “2012,” played Edgar Allan Poe in “The Raven” and roamed around another actor’s head in “Being John Malkovich.”
Jon Bernthal and Elodie Yung (Grand Ballroom, Friday, 7 p.m.) • Fans of Netflix’s Marvel TV shows will want to hear from Yung, who plays the ultra-fierce Elektra Natchios on “Daredevil,” and Bernthal, whose Frank Castle recently spun off from “Daredevil” into his own series, “The Punisher.” Bernthal also has a range of other credits (“Wind River,” “Sicario,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), and Yung recently played opposite Ryan Reynolds in “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.”
John Barrowman (Grand Ballroom, Saturday, 3 p.m.) • The actor is known on TV as villain Malcolm Merlyn on “Arrow” (and other DC-based shows on The CW) and the omnisexual immortal Capt. Jack Harkness on “Doctor Who” and its spin-off “Torchwood.” He’s known to convention visitors as a hilarious entertainer, exuberant song-and-dance man and tireless champion for the LGBTQ community. (Get your seats an hour early, and you can hear another “Doctor Who” alum: Catherine Tate, who played The Doctor’s companion Donna Noble, and also had a recurring role on the American version of “The Office.”)
Twisted Toonz (Grand Ballroom, Saturday, 4 p.m.) • This assemblage of cartoon voice actors, organized by Jeff Zannini, has become a regular feature at Salt Lake Comic Con — taking a recognizable script (this time, it’s “Back to the Future”) and reading it in as many funny voices as possible. This year’s actors include Richard Horvitz (“Invader Zim”), Vanessa Marshall (“Star Wars Rebels”) and the group’s rock star, Jess Harnell (“Animaniacs,” “Transformers”). (Warning: The ad-libbed jokes hit a PG-13 level, so parents might not want to let small children hear them.)