The decline of what was once the biggest fish in a small pond
Some of the individuals interviewed for this article have requested that their identities remain anonymous.
Do you remember when Wizard was about comic books? If you were to ask any Wizard Magazine/Entertainment employee to reflect on their experience with the company, you would notice a range of emotions. In the beginning, Wizard was a fun place to work. At its core, it was a company dedicated to comic books. But now, all that has changed.
"When I first started working at Wizard, I remember it was an exciting time, where I was working with an exciting brain trust of creative people who were enthusiastic about the job. Grossly underpaid, living in New York City, they did the work because they loved to do it, worrying less about compensation. The beginning felt like Christmas Day, so what if I had to sacrifice comfort? Working for Wizard was also seen as an "IN" into the (comics) industry, and for many, it worked out that way."
I spoke to several former employees of Wizard. Soured by the downward spiral of employee treatment, it seems to them Wizard had lost its luster. Drastic restructuring and change in the general focus of the company as a whole shattered the morale of employees. Was the dream job over?
"At the end, it wasn't fun. I can remember an 8 week stint where every week, at least one person was fired. They claimed the firings were financially motivated, that the websites were not making enough. That the magazine was not making enough. Wizard may have over extended itself, hired too many people than were needed in the 90's-00's, so they had to make up for that by letting people go.
There were stories of a few firings that occurred on Sunday night [where you would receive an e-mail or a phone call saying] "don't bother coming in tomorrow."
"I think for many years, Wizard was good to their employees, yes. But I think that changed at some point. They fired me without even saying goodbye."
The company was changing; cutting corners and costs where they could. The firing of their Senior Vice President and Editor in Chief Pat McCallum in the fall of 2006 came as a surprise to the majority of Wizard's publishing staff. McCallum had been with the company practically since its inception. However, the loss of McCallum in 2006 and the thinning of the writing staff over the course of the following years can be attributed to a variety of reasons. First, and probably the most obvious, the publishing sector as a whole was waning, and had been for years. Wizard was not the only periodical publication that had seen a decline in it's sales, with circulation "under 50,000 copies into the direct market, [and] a subscription base reportedly in the 40,000s," back in 2008.
Wizards hard-ships only worsened with the rise of the internet. Suddenly, fans were able to obtain information faster and more frequently. The logical step for the company would have been to move from print media to the internet, which they attempted to do in 2006 with the launch of WizardUniverse.com. They hired Rick Marshall (the current editor of MTV Splashpage) to head the site until he too, was asked to leave the company. Another stumble? The decline of Wizard can also be attributed to the change in focus. The company was restructuring and changing.
"They began to treat it [the comic book industry] less as an industry and more as an Empire. Wizard used to be the only one in the game. [They were the] Only means to get comic info about comics. Now, with the internet and broader based magazines (Maxim, Wired) there are more places for fans of the comic genre to get their information. Before, comic companies would just eat crow. Early Wizard was targeted towards comics fans. As time went by, they broadened their demographic...The company tried to reach too far. I still think it had it's hard core comic book fans but the mandates from above had to deal with the broadening of the demographic."
Wizard had moved further away from being a periodical about comic books, and closer to a magazine about "geek culture." Going so far as to change their name from Wizard Press to Wizard Entertainment, incorporating a toy line and several exhibitions to their repertoire. Did they overextend themselves?
Over the course of the last year the number of layoffs within the company became routine. In the month of February seven staffers were fired and Wizard Dallas was canceled. It seemed that a struggling economy equaled a struggling Wizard, and it became evident that there were internal problems when the company layoffs began to coincide with major company announcements, like the acquisition of Big Apple Con (New York) for example. From an outside perspective, it is strange that a company would experience so much down sizing internally, but still look to spend so much money on conventions. Was Wizard's strategy about to alienate its core fans?
The relationship between Wizard and the comic book industry (creators, fans and retailers) had begun to go sour when Wizard scheduled their Atlanta convention to be held the same weekend as Heroes Con in Charlotte, North Carolina the two convention locations being only three hours apart. Yet, public outcry and industry backlash did not prevent Wizard from doing it again. This past Fall, Wizard moved their Big Apple Con from its scheduled October 16th-18th to the same weekend as Reed's New York Comic Con/Anime Festival on October 8-10th. It seems that Wizard has no problem alienating the industry that helped make it what it is today in order to produce revenue. Consolidating the conventions is probably less about a rivalry with Reed, and more about banking on New York Comic Con being a success. More than likely, Wizard wants to milk the fact that there will be another convention in the same city only a few miles away in the hopes of drawing in a bigger crowd. This would mean they would have to spend less on advertising nationally since NYCC is expected to be a success. The idea, however, of hiding behind the mask of "rivalry" with Reed seems somewhat ridiculous, considering Reed has the backing of the majority of the comic book industry, and is one of the world's leading event organizers "with over 470 events in 37 countries," in 44 different sectors. Reed also saw a 13% growth in their exhibitions sector in the last year.
Reed's 470 to Wizard's 8 does not seem to make for much of a rivalry. Being that Wizard is a privately owned company, it is hard to determine what percentage of growth and revenue is derived from holding Wizard conventions, but since the company seems to place a considerable amount of emphasis on these events with the acquisition of two already this year ( Austin Comic Con on January 6th and Atlanta Comic Con Wizard World Convention on January 10th), we can only assume that a large portion of their revenue comes from holding cons. Let's not forget, conventions are not cheap.
"As far as I know, from what I have heard, the conventions he's 'acquired' (notice the language in those press releases) don't actually cost [company owner and current figurehead] Gareb Shamus any money up front, he does not have to pay the previous owners for the conventions. Take for example, the Terminator franchise. To purchase that franchise you had to pay for the entire thing up front in order to obtain all of the property's rights and profits. In 'acquiring' the con, Gareb is likely signing contracts with the previous show owner and gaining all the rights to the convention and its profits, but he's not actually paying up front for the show. He then employs the previous owner as a paid consultant. Wizard does, in fact, take on all the responsibilities and all of the risks of the show, but the previous show runner is now acting as a consultant, maybe selling booths or show sponsorships in return for commissions from Wizard, and those commissions may total more than the profits than they made in previous years. And I've heard that, quite often, Wizard doesn't owe the convention center anything until the last day of the show or even after the show, and I've also heard they'll hold off on paying for the previous convention until they can get the profits for the next convention, basically robbing Peter to pay Paul."
By merely "acquiring" these conventions and not necessarily putting money towards the projects up front, does not cost Wizard anything until the convention is over. Could doing business this way be a reflection of a weak company infrastructure? The idea that Wizard has a rivalry with Reed is nonsense considering the level of experience Reed has with hosting conventions. It is not about a rivalry. In reality, Wizard is making a smart business move. This is no different than when a Pete's opens across the street from a Starbucks, or a Wendy's next to a McDonalds. It is about drafting resources and advertising from a bigger player.
There is no question that Wizard Entertainment is changing, but more than likely, Wizard is doing what it needs to survive. The company's focus has moved away from comic book related print journalism to general entertainment, and in the process attempted to increase their fanbase and demographic. While Wizard's focus has grown (in terms of expansion), their company model seems to have failed to develop accordingly. It is questionable how long they will be able to survive as a private company. While the layoffs do decrease the cost structure, the down sizing of the publishing sector and not to mention the radical decline and eventual cease in their product sales may be an indication that Wizard is shrinking. What was once a company that had been a major player in the comic book industry seems to have practically abandoned its roots in its attempt increase its overall reach and influence. Is Wizard really as big and bad as people say? Perhaps, perhaps not. What is evident, however, is that things used to be better back before they took the industry that made them so successful for granted. As the pieces of the Wizard puzzle begin to fall by the wayside, only time will tell if the decisions they are making will prove to bring the company success.