How the Coronavirus Pandemic Cost Comic-Con 2020 Millions of Dollars

“We’re going to have no income for 2020,” Comic-Con International’s David Glanzer tells TheWrap

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The coronavirus pandemic did more than force San Diego Comic-Con to go virtual: It wreaked economic havoc on Comic-Con International, the non-profit responsible for staging the yearly fan-favorite event and its sister convention, WonderCon. San Diego Comic-Con typically brings 135,000 comic book fans to Southern California every July. Comic-Con International, a California-based non-profit public benefit corporation, has been putting on the show since 1970, and it needs nearly every penny it gets from the four-day gathering (plus a “preview night”) to stay above water. “We knew that by postponing the spring show and not having the summer show that, in effect, we’re going to have no income for 2020,” Comic-Con International Chief Communications and Strategy Officer David Glanzer told TheWrap. “That’s really scary. We have enough of a safety net still that we always thought that, should something catastrophic happen, we’d be able to weather it and have enough resources to put together a show for the following year. But I don’t think we ever thought that we would have to cancel two shows.” According to its most recent IRS tax return, Comic-Con International brings in about $22 million in revenue, with expenses of $18.9 million. Its total assets are about $33 million. The revenue the organization gets is primarily driven by ticket sales and the renting of exhibit space on the convention floor to studios and publishers. The four-day-plus-preview-night badges this year cost $304. Booths for 2020 ran anywhere between $600-$3,600, depending on the size and location on the convention floor.  The money from the booth space and badges “provide a nice nest egg” for the organization, according to Glanzer. San Diego Comic-Con 2020 was canceled in April due to the coronavirus pandemic, marking the first time the annual pop culture event had to be called off. A month later, the organizers decided to stage a slimmed-down, virtual event, Comic-Con@Home. The online con will take place July 22-26, the same weekend the in-person convention was originally scheduled, and feature between 300 and 400 virtual panels, almost all of which will be filmed ahead of time. SDCC typically hosts more than 1,000 panels during its four-day event. When Comic-Con was cancelled, that left the organization with the choice to either refund ticket holders or move some of that early revenue towards a hopeful 2021 return. For WonderCon, the other major convention the group stages, it provided refunds after the planned April 10-12 show was scrapped. For Comic-Con, they allowed some to request refunds, but mostly transferred tickets to next year. This year’s virtual convention will be free of charge, streaming entirely on the group’s YouTube page, something that the group was not completely sure they could pull off. But they have outside help from the likes of Amazon, which typically holds a large activation each year, that signed on to be a sponsor for this year’s event. “I think the discussion came up, paywall or no paywall, and we all thought, can we afford to do this without a paywall? And the answer was, ‘We think so.’ So we decided to go that route. Now, we’re very lucky because I think there are some people, some entities who will be sponsoring, which helps us tremendously. So they may be carrying the burden of this so that the end user doesn’t,” Glanzer said. “It certainly won’t cover all of the costs, but it will be better than having no revenue to offset.” Comic-Con International not only felt a responsibility to its fans after the in-person event was canceled, but to its employees, as well. Glanzer said the virtual con helped to keep its staff working. “One of the things we tried to do was — in shifting to an online platform — was try to keep everybody employed that we have employed now, so it isn’t just the programming department or the exhibits department or these other department,” he said. “There may be departments that worry about logistics or worry about stuff that are more show-centric, that still require a lot of planning, and we’ve been able to have them do some additional lifting for everybody.” The financial impact extends to San Diego, as well. The city is already going to suffer since its lone professional sports team, the MLB’s Padres, will be without fans attending any of the team’s shortened 2020 season. Comic-Con is one of the largest events the city holds each year, and it counts on the massive throngs of fans to spend their money outside the convention floor. According to the San Diego Convention Center Corporation, the city was projecting a regional impact of more than $166 million, including almost $100 million in total spending by attendees, which includes hotels, restaurants and other city attractions. Hollywood studios that are promoting the launch of a new film or TV show often hold activities outside the center and use other venues. Those studios usually hire local companies to help. Comic-Con also generates more than $3 million in taxes for the city. Glanzer is hopeful they’ll be able to return next summer — the dates are set, though in pencil rather than pen, for July 22-25, 2021. But that will depend on the nature of the pandemic and how well a vaccine works (which many hope will be ready by early 2021).

“We don’t know what the future holds and until such time as we do, it makes planning for the future incredibly challenging,” Glanzer said. “Our hope is to be able to have both conventions, WonderCon in Anaheim and Comic-Con in San Diego, next year, but we’re watching very closely the exposure rates and things like that. So that will ultimately determine how we move forward.”