Recently, on the weekend of Saturday 4th & Sunday 5th March, the Capital’s glittering Olympia exhibition space was home to the biggest celebration of everything undead – the London edition of THE WALKING DEAD fan convention WALKER STALKER CON 2017, which was a massive hit with attendees and guests alike. Talent such as Michael Cudlitz, Lauren Cohan, Josh McDermitt, Alanna Masterson, Norman Reedus and Jeffrey Dean Morgan – along with the UK’s own Andrew Lincoln and David Morrissey – all made an appearance over the weekend and thrilled thousands of fans in the process.
AEISD Contributor Mark Searby took time to attend the event and report back to us – but that’s not all he did. Mark was also able to touch base with WALKER STALKER co-founder James Frazier, a man with his fingers in many pies in the international convention circuit, with WSC expanding to sister events under the banner of HEROES & VILLAINS.
Here, in the second part of an in-depth conversation with James (the first part can be found here), he talks about the complex issues of pricing of an event like WALKER STALKER CON, where WSC sits in the current pop culture convention landscape, and his own particular fandoms (if you’re expecting anything wild like whips and chains here, I’m afraid you’re going to be sorely disappointed)…
MARK SEARBY: How long do you spend on a convention after it has finished?
JAMES FRAZIER: Usually it is three to four weeks out. By the time we get all the final invoices and get everything paid out and know we are closed it is about three to four weeks per show. It’s mainly just the trickling in of invoices. Almost as the shows are wrapping up we are asking for a date for the next year so we can roll right in.
MS: Do you set the prices for autographs and photo ops?
JF: We don’t. On occasion somebody will ask me for my input/feedback or what I’m seeing, but we don’t set those. That is completely left up to the actors and their management. Most of the time it is determined by seniority. Lauren Cohen hadn’t done an event in a while so she kind of looked to see where some of the other actors who have been on the show as long as her and then put a value on her autograph. It’s really left up to them. I would say I strongly encourage them to not raise anymore than where Norman [Reedus] charges – which is $80. I’ve said on several occasions to managers that that is kind of the top and I think if we go to $100 autograph or more than that you are going to see that actor sign less, make less even though they are charging more. Or if that actor does, by chance, get the same number of autographs at a higher price it would probably hurt some of the other actors.
Say Norman charged $120, well that’s $40 that someone could have spent on another actor. I do try to encourage they don’t go beyond. On our HEROES & VILLAINS side, let’s say we could get a Chris Evans or a Chris Hemsworth or someone like that, I already know they charge $150-200 an autograph. That’s kind of a unicorn, that’s a rarity. But in terms of THE WALKING DEAD landscape, I’m really hopefully nobody will go beyond where they are now. These weekend’s people send a lot of money. Our money is made on the convention side from ticket sales and it is pretty much recovering everything to put on the event, get the actor there and get them set up. So these people that attend our events, we understand that our ticket price is a very small percentage of what they are going to spend on the weekend between hotel and getting to the event and autographs and merchandise.
I don’t think we have raised our price in a few years. Typically we adjust the price on the gold and platinum packages because our base price in those hasn’t changed but we’ve had to adjust them because the actors have raised their prices. Those gold and platinum packages include several autographs and several photographs. So we’ve billed in what we have to pay the actor back for those. As actors have increased their prices so we’ve increased. Beyond that, in our first year the VIP package was $200 now it is still, five years later, $240. I know, for next year in London, we are not raising prices except on Gold and Platinum and that’s only to adjust because the actors have raised the price on autographs.
Going back to your question about autograph pricing, I think it’s as high as it can go. I think to go beyond that – and not to single out any actor, but to go beyond that – would be disrespectful to the attendees who work hard for their money. They are going to spend money that they probably don’t have to spend. They are going to spend it on an autograph when they should probably be spending it on rent. At some point you just have to go, “That’s enough.”
Again, I really try to say, “Let’s keep $80 as the most somebody is going to spend on an autograph.” Unless of course we get one of those rarities at a convention, but I think we are good. I think the actors are comfortable, and there are some actors that say “This is as much as I’m going to charge. I know I could get $20 more but I don’t want to.” I think we are kind of at the top of what the actors can charge.
MS: There are a lot of conventions now. Do you think it is good for the industry?
JF: No, I don’t. I think there are too many conventions. But that said, I think we hit that peak a year ago/year and half ago and now we are starting to see the “bad ones” fall off. You have people are in it because these conventions make a lot of money. But actually they don’t. Most of our conventions in the first year lose money. We might barely break even the second year. I think a lot of people don’t go in with that mindset that it is going to take a couple of years before it will really make some money. I did an interview a year ago and we were just over a year into the HEROES & VILLAINS Convention and we hadn’t made a dime. We probably lost tens of thousands if not over a hundred thousand dollars across those events.
So somebody was, “Why do you keep doing?” Well, because it is going to make money but you have to invest it back in and you have to grow it. You can’t plant a seed and hope it’s just going to turn into a tree. You’ve got to water it and cultivate it and work hard to get it to grow. We seen, especially in the US, some major conventions fall off or cut back on what they are doing. Where we have always put quality over quantity, we are putting on sixteen to eighteen shows this year, we probably could have put on over twenty five or maybe even thirty if we really wanted to. We would have exhausted our team but we could have done it. We’d rather put on eighteen real quality shows and know that people are going to be pleased with them.
I think you will see over the next couple of years more events falling off because either one, their event wasn’t good enough, or two, they are not changing with the times. Conventions used to be shady, they really did. Before we got into the business it was kind of an underhanded business – all cash at the table type thing with all sorts of people. We very quickly saw that and said, No! We’ve always tried to do it the right way. Some companies aren’t going to adjust and they will fall off.
MS: Where do you see the con industry going in the next five years?
JF: Well we recognised with doing WALKER STALKER that we had all our eggs in one basket, which was the zombie phenomenon. We love WALKER STALKER and it is still my heart and soul, but we have expanded into Heroes & Villains and tried to model what we do at WALKER STALKER on HEROES & VILLAINS. I think it [the industry] is going to continue to be successful, and I would say even myself I’ve underestimated the popularity of THE WALKING DEAD because I was sure last year we would see sales fall off but not only did they increase last year they are increasing this year.
Sales for all of our shows this year are better than they have ever been. I think it’s also because we are refreshing the event. We are bringing in new actors, bringing in new vendors and artists. We are trying to be responsive to what the attendees are asking. So I think for us we will continue to see good, steady growth and that’s all I can ask for. I’m humbled and honoured to get to do what I do. This is a fun job.
MS: Going back to The Walking Dead, you’ve appeared in a couple of episodes. That’s got to be fun!
JF: [Laughs] It is unreal. The first time I did it I literally couldn’t contain myself. It’s like Christmas morning where you’re all amped up and want to open presents, you can’t contain the excitement. Having to be on set, almost in disguise, and having to be profession but on the inside going, “OH MY GOSH! I’m getting zombie-fied by Greg Nicotero!” The first time was really neat, but also the first time was they would do our scene with the walkers and pull us off and put us in this warehouse until it was our time to come back out again.
This last time because of, I guess, more familiarity with the crew and make-up guys I died really quick. There were nine walkers and I died first. That was kind of the joke of the scene that Rick said to Michonne that he would get the one and she could get the eight. Rick kills me really quick and they did about fifteen to twenty takes of my death. This was at about six thirty in the morning when we did the first take, so by about eight thirty/nine o’clock I was done. So, the next nine hours I just got to stand there and take it all in and watch how they shot a scene, and even though that scene was a minute, minute and half long, it took all day to film. From the moment they are walking up to the dumpsters to hopping in the car and rolls, that was from 6.30am to about 6.30pm, seven o’clock at night just to film that little bit of the show. It was amazing to do, just to get to hang out and observe and see all the different crew do their jobs, it was really cool.
MS: What is your favourite season so far?
JF: Season 3. I loved the prison and Woodbury interaction. I loved The Governor and Rick – that whole back and forth… season 3, by far, was my favourite. The introduction of Michonne! Rick and The Governor sitting down at the table sharing whiskey! That whole season was just high stress. I loved it.
MS: Who is your favourite character?
JF: My favourite character is still Rick Grimes! He is the hero of the show. I love everywhere they have taken his character. If I had to have a 1a or 1b then it would be Carol. I love Melissa McBride off set and I love her on the show because, truthfully, her character has evolved more than any other character on the show. Not only has it evolved but it has taken some major swings. So I just love the character of Carol.
Thanks to Mark Searby for conducting this interview, and lots of thanks to James Frazier for his time in taking part. Check out the first part of the interview where James talks about the nuts and bolts of what it takes to put on an extravaganza like WALKER STALKER CON, all the way back to its inception.
All photos, except Frazier profile pic and featured image, (c) Sam Payne: used with kind permission (Profile pic: walkerstalkercon.com / featured image: mrblahg.com)