Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

October 8, 2010

CR Newsmaker: Lance Fensterman


Lance Fensterman is Group VP of ReedPop and is the public face of their two major comics shows, the NYC-based New York Comic Con and Chicago's C2E2. Today marks the beginning of NYCC's fifth show. It's now in what seems to be a permanent slot on the convention calendar, as one of the last big shows of the year and a major Fall event, a kind of New York-centric pre-Holiday season launching point for its publishers, pros, and attendees. I was pleased he agreed to speak to me during the busy final run-up to the show's launch. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Lance, congratulations on your fifth NYCC. Did you have a five-year plan at any point during the show's development? In general, are you where you expected to be? Is there an area you can point to where you've maybe exceeded expectations if terms of how you thought the show might develop? Has there been an area maybe harder than some of the others in terms of a learning curve?

LANCE FENSTERMAN: Thanks for the congrats. Honestly, five years ago this was an untested idea and unlike anything Reed Exhibitions had ever done. This year, we have formed a new arm of the company, ReedPOP, that is solely focused on pop culture events. We ran nine shows this year with some of the leading brands in pop culture like Star Wars, UFC, Penny Arcade. So while I can't lie to you and say we envisioned this five years ago, we do have a three-year strategic plan for ReedPOP going forward and it includes pretty aggressive expansion into new genres of pop culture and new regions around the world. It's exciting. And exhausting!

Broadly speaking, I think we've succeeded for NYCC and all of our events in putting the fan at the center of all that we do. Ultimately, no matter what event or what community, if we respect, understand and cater to the fans, we will enjoy success. As for the steep learning curve, on NYCC specifically its been how to best work with the film studios to consistently deliver the content the fans crave. I think we are solid in this area, but we still struggle to break into that next level of a must attend even with that audience.

SPURGEON: What is the difference between running a Fall show and running a Spring or Winter show? Does coming near the end of the convention calendar bring with it specific challenges and opportunities?

FENSTERMAN: Well for one, I don't look at long term weather forecasts fearing a blizzard, that's a plus for my mental health! One challenge is dealing with customers budgets, being at the end of the year means that at times, budget have been exhausted, but I'm not overly worried about that, we are on their calendars.

SPURGEON: Are you settled into Fall for a while? How many years ahead are you committed, and how many would you like to be committed? Is the goal to put on two big shows that begin and end the heart of the comics convention schedule?

FENSTERMAN: NYCC will remain in October for years to come, this is our permanent home. As the show grew so dramatically in years 2-4 we worked hard with the Javits Center to find permanent dates where we could take the entire building (this is not an easy feat considering the Javits is booked every weekend of the year), now that we have the dates and the entire building, we won't be moving. As far the larger con calendar, when talking with our exhibiting customers, a three-pronged approach was one that they really supported -- C2E2 early in the year, of course San Diego right in the middle and NYCC at the end of the year. We certainly had an eye on how we balanced the overall calendar of large scale national events.

imageSPURGEON: How difficult is it from your perspective to put together programming that appeals to the wide variety of people attending your show? I get the sense there were some struggles with the programming this year: it went up a full week late, there were panels without named participants, and panels featuring at least one person that said they weren't attending and two companies/imprints that are no longer publishing. If I could, I'd like to ask about a couple of quirks of programming -- quirks to my eye, anyway -- on this year's list. First is that your programming is going later than I'm used to for shows like this, until 9:00 PM or just after 9:00 PM. Second is that you don't seem to have programming that features all of your special guests. What is the thinking there?

FENSTERMAN: Honestly, it's one of the hardest aspects of the creating the event. We have an exceptional team that pulls together the programming, but it is just three people. There is such massive amounts of content concepts that trying to create a balanced, enticing, inclusive roister of panels is a massive job. I'm proud of the content we've created for the fans and our team that created it, but for sure, there are challenges, some of which you highlight. We always do our best to reach out to the community at large for submission ideas and feedback on what we have created, but ultimately, its a big massive puzzle of ideas, logistics, schedule, etc that has be put together.

Programming went out a bit later this year because we had such a high demand for events and quality submissions. We tried to include as much as possible, which meant later night events. We try to include special guests in panels but as there are hundreds of guests, we can't accommodate all of them within the time frame of the event. By the way, what guests are on there incorrectly? I am unaware of this and this concerns me.

SPURGEON: It was a singular guest, not guests: Colleen Doran. She talks about it here. I'm not aware of anyone else, but I also haven't really scoured the programming. The two companies/imprints that I was thinking of were Del Rey Manga and WildStorm, although that was off the top of my head and that could have been changed since.

To take this in a different direction, how has your relationship with city and convention center officials changed and developed over the last five years? How are things different now than they might have been when the con was an unknown quantity?

FENSTERMAN: NYCC is now the second largest event that takes place in NYC, but honestly, city officials are still largely uninvolved. Being in NYC has a lot of advantages, but being easy to notice is not one of them. This is a major media market that makes it tough for any one event or happening to really stand out and take over the city. Every year we improve, though. Stan Lee ringing the bell on the New York Stock Exchange this year is a pretty cool development and illustrative of the city's embrace of the show.

As for our relationship with the Javits, do keep in mind that Reed is the single largest customer to the Javits Center, this helps us a great deal, but further keep in mind that none of those other events look like NYCC! I have to admit, I do feel a bit like the kid throwing a party when the parents are out of town. Every year, after the show, we sit and discuss how the event went with Javits officials and that sometimes feels like the moment when the parents return and find beer cans in the bushes and a broken vase I tried to hide. In all, though, they are an awesome partner. We would not have these permanent dates and the entire building for the foreseeable future without the support of the Javits Center.

imageSPURGEON: With Comic-Con making a decision to stay in San Diego, that leaves two cities and two sets of organizers without a show. Does Reed have any interest in Anaheim or Los Angeles?

FENSTERMAN: In short, no. I really can't see ReedPOP launching another domestic "con" style event. Our exhibiting customers have made it clear that they are looking for quality, not quantity of events. We are not in the business of launching shows for us, our bottom line or our egos, we launch events because the fans and the exhibiting customers have a need. I see other style events being launched or acquired domestically in the future, but most likely not in the NYCC/C2E2 style, we feel very good about the businesses we have in that space.

SPURGEON: Was it a boon for the New York Comic-Con to have DC Comics retain its print publishing business operations in New York City? How much have you come to rely on the local and regional comics communities and organizations in terms of providing the show with a specific tone?

FENSTERMAN: I'm pleased that DC's publishing arm will remain in NYC first for those staffers that need not disrupt their lives by moving. Many of those folks have become friends as well as customers. It also certainly helps us maintain and build those critical relationships in that typically once a month I'm in one of the New York City based publishers office just to catch up on one thing or another.

As for the regional flavor, we've always tried to keep NYC central in the con. We joke that it would be so much cheaper (for everyone) to run the show somewhere else and just call it "New York Style Comic Con," but NYC is too central of a character in the story that is NYCC to ever do that.

SPURGEON: You're halfway along in your preparations for next year's Chicago show. In what area would you like to see the biggest improvement from year one, and what steps have you taken in that direction thus far? Is there anything that surprised you about the way that show worked once it was on its feet?

FENSTERMAN: We have to deliver a bigger audience. For a lunch, I am pleased with the turn out and ticket sales, but in year two we need to really establish the brand and bring in more fans. We do very deep research after every show that is conducted by a professional research team and the learning that struck me were that the fans were wowed. It was one of the highest rated shows we run by the fans.

Additionally what was fascinating is that we drew fans from 100 plus miles away significantly better than from 15 miles away, this tells me we've got to get people from the Loop and the neighborhood down to the show. More busing, cheaper parking, better promotion of the available mass transit at McCormick Place are all good starts. The last point I found interesting, and this was from doing focus groups with fans that did not attend, was that the audience was jaded, they were hesitant to buy a ticket for a first-year show after hearing many promises for many years about events and being disappointed so they took a wait and see approach.

SPURGEON: Five years from now, what is different about NYCC? What's the thing that will be most familiar?

FENSTERMAN: In five years, comics and comic creators will still be at the center of the show. Maybe in different forms -- digital? -- but we will not stray from that central pillar that our show is built on. From there though, what will look different is all of the various forms of popular culture the event will branch into. Some of this will happen naturally as more people and creators and artists of all different genres are attracted to the magnet that is NYCC and some will be seeded by us in a very strategic way. You'll see a bigger, broader event more vibrant and diverse show but still with comics and comic creators firmly entrenched in all that we do.


* all images related to exclusives available at, and art from advertisements for, NYCC 2010


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