Comic Book Publishing Follies

Fri, August 10th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Todd Allen, Columnist

All You Ever Wanted To Know About Comic Book Convention Models, But Were Afraid To Ask

Comics publisher Zenescope always has a bunch of costumed models at their convention booth.
Welcome back to the Comic Book Publishing Follies. Convention season is in full swing, right now. Many of you were in San Diego two weeks ago and some of you, right now, are in Chicago for Wizard World. Everybody likes looking at convention pictures, and one of the things you always see pictures of, are the booth models. Be it Vampirella in costume or someone handing out fliers, there's more than one way to use a model at your booth, so in the spirit of the season, let's take a look at why you might want to use a model and where to find one. Lucky you, I've worked in the trade show business before, so let's run down the basics.

There are two primary reasons to use models at your booth: draw in traffic or increase your company or product branding.

Drawing in traffic is fairly self-explanatory. Having a few attractive people in and around your booth will get attention and make people more likely to stop by and look over your product. This can be as simple as some people (booth models don't have to be women, you know - fan girls need eye candy, too) in company t-shirts handing out fliers, inviting people into your booth and then handing them off to someone with your company/publisher if the attendee has questions. If you have a particularly recognizable character, say Spider-Man or the Hulk, having that character in costume is a good way to draw in a crowd, and Marvel has done that in the past. It's also relatively common for some of the smaller publishers to have scantily clad female characters prowling their booths, like the aforementioned Vampirella models that were a convention staple in the Harris booth for years. The character may not be instantly identifiable to the general public, but it will get you a certain amount of attention you wouldn't otherwise get. Drawing in traffic will increase exposure to your product and, if you're selling in the booth, increased exposure and traffic should lead to more sales.

Increasing the branding is the second step, and this gets more into the costumed character. If you can create a positive impression with your model, your brand or publication is more likely to be remembered one to three months down the road when the now former convention attendee is shopping and comes across your book. Typically this is where somebody gets their picture taken with Spidey or Vampi, or in the more word of mouth variant, two fanboys making comments something along the lines of "Zenescope, weren't they the ones with the saucy Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White at their booth?" A happy memory, perhaps a picture taken or light conversation with the character, and the consumer is more likely to continue, or even start, picking up your product. Can the same thing be done by conversing with the creators? Certainly, but it can be more efficient with a model, and especially when you don't have a "hot" artist at your booth who has widespread name recognition, and definitely when dealing with people who aren't familiar with your brand to begin with.

Increasing the branding is a little harder to do than just getting traffic. The model's costume needs to be right, the personality needs to fit the character portrayed, and your model has to be able to interact with the crowd. Don't take that as a given, I've seen models that have walked in and acted like a deer in headlights, actually scared of a comic convention crowd. Really, it's not unlike being afraid of Elmer Fudd, albeit a slightly more leering Elmer Fudd, but it does happen. You also need to be careful that there isn't someone in a better costume of the same character floating around the show. If you've been to conventions in recent years, odds are you've seen a fan dressed as Power Girl or Harley Quinn that DC would be hard-pressed to top.

Those are the basics of what you typically try and accomplish with a model, but how do you get one? I spoke with Tony Panaccio, a former VP of CrossGen and long time PR consultant who spends a fair amount of time helping out with the Heroes Initiative (www.heroinitiative.org) and Meredith Dirner, Director of Operations for Event Pros (www.event-pros.com), a talent agency for the exhibitor industry, about just that.

First from the booth owner's perspective:

"The process has changed considerably in recent years," Panaccio explains, "but the hiring can be very high end, or very low end.

"In every city there are modeling agencies who have booth models at the ready -- now these are not just pretty faces in bathing suits. These are models who have some level of training through acting classes so that they can actually assimilate information on what is being promoted in the booth and speak convincingly enough about it to engage the passers by. You'll see this quality of booth babes at technology shows like CES and E3, and they cost a pretty penny, some up to $1,000 per full show day.

"Now, if you don't need them to talk, but just look pretty and tantalize the mysogynists with fat wallets in the crowd, then there's always craigslist, which has a talent section filled with requests for models in promotional settings. The agencies scan these ads, too, and if you're paying a decent wage ($200 to $500 per model per full show day), you can get a good quality model."

Of course, we all know somebody who used their girlfriend or a friend of a friend for a booth, and that doesn't all work out so well. Panaccio recounted a particularly unpleasant experience with an ecdysiast.

"One year," he forced himself to recall, "I remember a client of mine hiring a stripper of his acquaintance to do the job. She hung around the booth about 1/3 of the time, and whined and complained and goofed off the rest of the time. She looked good in a super-hero costume, but her work ethic was more along the lines of lounging around until somebody asked for a lap-dance."

Diana Knight
On the other hand, Panaccio speaks very highly of Diana Knight (www.dianaknight.com), calling her "a fabulous fetish model and notable comic book geek." Knight has frequently donated her time to the Heroes Initiative charity, posing for photos with fans in a Wonder Woman costume for $5 a shot.

"She raised many hundreds of dollars for us that way," Panaccio said.

"At the end of the day," he sums up, "it's worth the money to hire a pro from a licensed modeling agency. She'll work the time, learn the lines and represent the company in a professional manner."

And I'd agree with that. The more interaction your model is going to have with attendees, the more important it is to get someone who knows what they're doing. Especially if your emphasis for the show is increasing your brand recognition.

Now from the agency side:

Meredith Dirner says that what we're used to seeing at comic conventions is actually a subset of your traditional exhibit talent, which she calls "costume characters and impersonators." So when you call up asking about Spidey and Vampi, an agency may be thinking in terms of Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe impersonators, from a casting approach.

"When casting a costumed character," Dirner continues, "we're usually looking for a specific build or personality."

You want consistency in looks and personality with the original print version of the character, so this is the professional approach. However, this means you need to be prepared for the obligatory strange reaction if you have to explain something like "Elektra's a ninja assassin. She stabs people with these little Japanese daggers called sai. But she's one of the good guys."

Remember, you're often looking at a trained actor for things like this and many agencies will get you someone who can act in character. After all, before he was Commander Riker, Jonathan Frakes appeared at shows as Captain America.

An important part of the appearance will be the costume and who actually provides it. Dirner says there's no normal procedure for the costume. Sometimes the client provides and "sometimes we get a reference and research the costume at local costume shops and get the model fitted there."

Generally speaking, if the agency needs to find a costume, it will take a couple weeks to prepare for a show. If the costume is provided or you're just having some extra hands for your booth dressed in "business casual," you can normally find someone in under a week.

As for cost, Derner quotes a typical rate at $475 - $550/day, depending on things like costuming issues.

That's hiring models, in a nutshell. Before you embark on this course, you need to stop and think what you're doing. If you're just looking to increase traffic for in-booth sales, make sure to check the cost of a model with how many units you need to sell to pay for that. You may not need, or want to spend $550+ just to entice customers into your booth. If branding is what you're looking for, that's something with the potential for longer term benefits and, hopefully, repeat customers and its easier to justify the expense of someone appearing in character.

I'd also ask if you have someone appearing in character, do have somebody keeping an eye on them while they're in the booth. Sometimes Elmer Fudd will drool a bit much and needs to be shooed on his way. The agencies tend not to ask for it specifically, but its common courtesy.

Todd Allen is the author of "The Economics of Webcomics, 2nd Edition." He consults on media and technology issues and is an adjunct professor with the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. For more information, see www.BusinessOfContent.com. Todd even did a webcomic. Sort of.

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