Ithaca College is offering a course for the spring 2019 semester on planning, promoting, and hosting a comic con. Students will learn all the details on conventions from professors and industry experts, culminating in running Ithacon on March 23-24. (For more on the course, check out our Industry News coverage in Scoop.) Before the class began, Scoop spoke to marketing professional and pop culture guru Ed Catto, who will be co-teaching the class. He provided details on the class and its goals, while also sharing his knowledge on conventions.
Scoop: First, tell me about the class.
Ed Catto (EC): The class is taught in two schools, it’s taught in the business school where I’m a professor on the entrepreneurial track and it’s taught in the humanities school. The very brilliant professor that I’m teaching with is a professor in humanities, so she has a focus in 18th century literature. Students will be learning the nuts and bolts about running a convention, management, marketing, and then also a lot of the softer side, so if you’re interested in the creative end of things, there’s a lot there too. We’re calling this course Ithacon Creating and Managing a Convention. We’re going to have a lot in here not only in developing a convention and how you do that, but also have a real focus of celebration of geek culture throughout the semester.
Scoop: How did you become involved in it?
EC: There’s an amazing thing that happened. I grew up in this area. I went to the second Ithacon way back in the ’70s as a kid. I loved comics, I loved the whole thing. It was a fantastic experience. As I grew up, I’d go a little bit again, I went to school at Cornell, which is also in the town of Ithaca. I really enjoyed the conventions. Then I went off and had a career. Ithacon was a special show. Recently, I moved back to the area and I joined the business school faculty where I focus on entrepreneurialism. While this was going on, the group that ran Ithacon for all these years developed a relationship with Ithaca College and now Ithaca College hosts the show. I had met Katharine Kittredge the woman who’s co-teaching with me and she had done a one credit practicum where students were involved with the show. I thought, wait a minute, I’m here teaching, there’s an element of business to this and entrepreneurism, I love geek culture, I also was a senior VP of sales and marketing at Reed Elsevier, which does trade shows, including New York Comic Con and C2E2. I thought it’d be a great way to turn it all into a learning experience, but also have a lot of fun with it and really celebrate this particular convention.
P.S., one of the crazy aspects of this show is that right after [Comic-Con International: San Diego], it’s the nation’s second longest continuously run comic con. San Diego became very big, of course, Ithacon became more focused on being run by fans for fans. It’s like the best kept secret for a comic convention.
We’re going to make sure it’s true to itself, but we’re going to really help celebrate what an awesome thing it is. That’s really how it all came together.
Scoop: There’s going to be a Twilight Zone celebration, correct?
EC: There’s another crazy part to it all and that’s that Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, is from the Finger Lakes area. You may notice at the end of episodes, they’d say Cayuga Productions, which was his production company, the name was taken from the lake in that area. He was part of this Finger Lakes scene. In his last years he was a professor at Ithaca College. When he passed, his widow donated this amazing Rod Serling archives to Ithaca College.
Next year is the 60th anniversary of the debut of The Twilight Zone. It’s culturally adjacent to the worlds of comics and geek culture, so I wanted to figure out a way to tie that into the convention. I met with the archivist and it seemed to all just fall into place. We’re going to have a Twilight Zone mini marathon, we’re going to have a stage reading of one of the scripts, and we’re going to trot out all his cool collectibles and have them on display at Ithacon. I think that’ll be a really special thing, real fun for hardcore fans and casual fans as well.
Scoop: That is really cool and it leads into another question. Since there are so many conventions in the country trying to attract attendees, will you discuss ways to set this show apart during the class?
EC: Yeah, we will. One of the things I want to do is take what’s really special about this area, this convention and polish it up and make sure it’s nice and shiny for everybody. I’d say the longevity of Ithacon – 44 years – is one thing and The Twilight Zone is another. I think it’s really important, and some of the best conventions do this, is make sure the content is big enough that all fans can be a part of it. Ithacon is one of those shows that’s very comic focused and as a fanboy that’s the stuff I love the most. We want to make sure that there’s an element of cosplay here, that there’s an element of anime, an element of science fiction movies or zombie stuff or Doctor Who or Star Trek or Star Wars. We do want to make sure we focus on the things that make it unique but also be very inviting and have everybody have a good time.
Scoop: This sounds like the type of course that’ll appeal to students who have a variety of majors.
EC: Yeah, the way we structured this is that if there’s somebody who’s really into comics, they’re going to love this course. If it’s somebody who’s into music, I think they’ll get a lot out of this course, because a lot of things we’ll talk about is how to manage a convention, how to publicize, how to do the marketing, how to get insurance, all those things involved in what kind of convention it is and the skills and tasks that you have to master in order to do event marketing. Hopefully you’re right, Amanda, hopefully we’ll appeal to a lot of different folks. It looks like we’re getting a nice mix of hardcore genre fans and more diverse group of fans who want to learn about event marketing, or celebration of a certain type of content or literature.
Scoop: What will be the focus of your lessons?
EC: First and foremost, we’ll talk a little bit about the history of conventions and comic cons, in particular. We’ll touch on some of the current trends, both domestically and internationally. Then we’ll speak about the nuts and bolts, so it’ll be super compressed. We have about two and a half months from the first day of class until the show opens and there’s a lot to fit in there. One day is event marketing, one day is post-show analysis, one day is all about managing and developing schedules for people at a show. That nuts and bolts will be very important. I’m trying to fit a lot in and I’m very blessed because a lot of industry people have taken an interest in it. I’m lining up some phenomenal guest speakers, like Paul Levitz, Bill Schanes, Will Dennis, and Chris Ryall the new publisher of IDW. I think that we’re going to have an A+ list of industry people who are going to do some guest lecturing or Skype call-ins. I’m really excited for that too.
Scoop: During the convention itself, will you have the students run things? Will you try to get students involved in all aspects of the show?
ED: In a perfect world we’d have the students rotate every half hour – take tickets, then do the show floor, then do this. But in reality, what I found with managing conventions is that the best thing for the convention is to have people focused on different areas. I’m going to try to walk that tight rope between teaching about all the different things so people will get exposure – everyone will write a press release to understand how that works. But, when it comes down to the boots on the ground for the show, one student might be assigned to be in the panel and one might be assigned to manage the guest, they’ll really have to focus on the task at hand.
Scoop: Will you oversee students’ interactions with industry professionals and the media?
ED: Yeah. I’ve been really impressed with the IC students. I taught a class of graduate students, MBA students in the summer and I just got through an entrepreneurial innovation class in the fall. By and large, the students were able to do an excellent job on all of the book learning and then when it came time to go out into the real world, in this case it was all about doing presentations, they did a fantastic job. I’m confident and hopeful that we’ll have another round of students who do a great job in the real world and are focused. I don’t anticipate that this will be one of those things where I have to do a lot of babysitting. I know it’ll be a great learning experience for the IT students.
Scoop: Is there anything else you want to mention about the class?
ED: Yes! Ahoy Comics, who publish The Wrong Earth, High Heaven, Captain Ginger, and an Edgar Allan Poe book is a great new imprint that is based out of Syracuse. A man named Hart Seely, was in newspapers for a while, folks like Tom Peyer, Frank Cammuso are working really hard to build this imprint. They’ve kind of done the impossible where issue 3 and 4 for The Wrong Earth are getting more orders than issue 1. They’re on a roll and the books are so much fun. Because they’re so close by, I reached out to them and asked if they’d be our featured publisher and help from an entrepreneurial point of view, talk to our students. We’re really excited to have Ahoy Comics on board as an up and coming, hardworking, highly creative publisher that students will get to know.
Students and attendees will get to interact with this group in a way that they won’t be able to at a big convention. That’s one of the unique opportunities for a convention this size. The other thing I should mention is, we’re currently recruiting some real A-list guests for the Ithaca show. I’ve been very encouraged by the feedback from top level talent. We should have two great guests of honor that will be a great way for fans to meet and interact without the long lines from the bigger shows.
Scoop: As someone who is involved in pop culture and conventions, what do you foresee happening with the future of cons?
EC: I can remember when I was at Reed when that economic downturn was coming upon us in 2008 and we were all trying to forecast what was going to happen. Would people still go to conventions, how will they go to conventions, will they just be dialing in? We tried to figure that out and I think everyone was wrong. For today’s world, I think in many times, especially for a comic con or pop culture convention, they’re the places where people want to come and gather, augmenting the old corner stores. Every weekend gets filled up across this country with conventions. If you live in a major metro area, you can go to several major conventions a year. They become the gathering places, not only to buy stuff and see stuff, but where you go to meet friends. There’s that whole notion of convention friendships that gets to be a great thing. I see more and more of that happening. A friend of mine asks about when do we reach that saturation point. I don’t think we’ve reached that saturation point yet. I think there’s still a lot of room for it and a lot of excitement.