Reading over the comics blogosphere for the past few months, and fans and industry watchers alike might get the impression that the biggest battle in comics today has nothing to do with Batman Vs. The Joker or Marvel Vs. DC. The real fight is the one over where Comic-Con International will land in 2013.
America's biggest convention is about to reach the end of its contract with the city of San Diego, where the event has been held for over 40 years this July, and the show has made no secret that it's currently trying to decide where it will set up shop in 2013 with the front-running cities being San Diego, Anaheim and Los Angeles. In recent weeks, things have heated up as San Diego has gone on a massive public push to show their support for Comic-Con, making their coordinated plans to provide the show with more hotels and more tax breaks public. And while press articles on the other two cities vying for the con have been in shorter supply, CBR News learned that last week representatives from Comic-Con's Board of Directors traveled to Los Angeles to meet with members of LA Inc – the company who controls the downtown complex that includes the Los Angeles Convention Center – to tour the new facilities.
To find out where exactly things stand after this meeting, we reached out to LA Inc's Senior Vice President Michael Krouse (who was joined on the call by Associate Vice President of Media Relations & Communications Carol Martinez) for their take on Comic-Con, what their company can offer the show and what changes fans can expect and not expect if a move from San Diego to Los Angeles becomes a reality.
CBR News: Michael, everybody has been talking so much about this both inside and outside of comics, and they've all known that Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Convention Center has been courting Comic-Con's Board of Directors for a while now, but I can't remember hearing from you on the record yet. To start, what is it about Comic-Con that makes the city, the convention center and really everyone there in LA so interested in getting it?
Michael Krouse: Well first of all to be perfectly frank with you, I arrived here five years ago, and this is my and our organization's third or fourth attempt at securing this. I will be frank that those attempts have been well received by Comic-Con, but then again, they like San Diego. Most of the board is form San Diego – the leadership and other people. So it's hard for me to compete if the organization isn't willing to look at options. Having said that, they have come out and looked at us once before during my first attempt, and then there was this most recent visit with us.
But I will say to you that the biggest reason there is a big push from us is because of our proximity to the entertainment world. The television and motion picture industry and the gaming community...all of it is here in LA and not in San Diego. I don't think I have to tell you that. So frankly, it's a good marriage between us and the industry. We're known as the entertainment capital of the world, and that is not what San Diego is known for. It's a beautiful city, a wonderful place to be, but Los Angeles is where it's happening. And I'll say that they've come a long way in that they're getting more serious about LA. I'll give you an example. When we first did this attempt a few years ago, we had complete support. We really thought they were going to move the show, and when it went into the board's vote, we did not win. A lot of the work tends to be done "in committee," and the entire board doesn't get to see a lot of the elements. And there are plenty of outside influences which I know nothing about that seem to be distracting from the real benefits of moving this to Los Angeles.
And I'm going to be very blunt with you too: we're not doing this deal in the media. Anaheim and San Diego – San Diego just woke up and put out that offer a day late and a dollar short, in my view. Our offer's been out there for five years. And our offer is superior to their offer. I won't say all the details because I'm not going to play this all out in the media, but I will say that that offer is a chump change offer. It's kind of an afterthought to me. It's like, "We think we're going to lose it, so we're going to throw a few bucks out there." And I've got to be honest with you, to Comic-Con it isn't just about that. That's how I interpret it. It's all about "How can we grow and enhance the show?" And my primary mission here is to grow and enhance that show. If I can't improve that show for Comic-Con and for your industry here in Los Angeles, then I would not pursue this show. And I would not have busted my rear end for five years to do it if I couldn't present them with that option. My offer today is only improved by the fact that I have A.E.G. and the LA Live development in partnership with me.
And by the way, I presented the same offer back before construction was done [in downtown LA] and it was hard for them, I think, to visualize the difference. They saw models and shovels in the ground, but they didn't see the finished product. Now, while they were out this last week, they saw the finished product.
Carol Martinez: And LA Live, in case you don't know, is a complex that has two hotels, a lot of restaurants, theaters, the busiest sports arena in the world in the Staples Center – so there's quite an active area around there that can be a vital part of Comic-Con.
Krouse: And I'll give you a couple examples of that. The NOKIA Theater which is adjacent to the convention center seats 7,100 people. They could visualize what they could use it for. It's a massive theater. Then we have Staples Center with 18,000 seats adjacent to the convention center. Oh! And we also have 2,100 seats in the [Club] NOKIA theater. Oh! And we also have an 18-screen theater complex with a 750-seat premier theater. So all of this in one complex and one condensed package. And what I'm trying to illustrate is that you can see how all these elements blend together for them.
Like you said, over the past few years the LA Convention Center has been built up more than it was even going back to the introduction of the Staples Center. The earliest Comic-Con would be able to move would be 2013. Do you see more development between now and then? I know one thing people cite as a selling point for San Diego is the Gaslamp District, which is a nice restaurant community within walking distance of the show.
Krouse: First of all, that's the whole reason this has been such a frustrating process. That's all here. Right today, that's here. Just to put that in perspective, the LA Live development alone has 12 restaurants in it just in the complex, but within eight blocks of the convention center I have over 200 restaurants, bars and nightclubs surrounding. So, what do you mean? I don't need anything else here. What are you talking about? That's my sarcastic wit coming out there. [Laughs] But that is a perception issue, not a reality. And I'll add to that by saying all of the new business improvement districts surrounding our convention center – and there's multiple districts, and Gaslamp is a wonderful area – but our districts far exceed what Gaslamp is. Gaslamp is one street. A block and a half. However you want to call it. We are eight times of what Gaslamp is. We are everything from a China restaurant to multiple Wolfgang Puck restaurants. We have multiple Patina restaurants. We have multiple price points, the Disney Concert Hall, the music center...none of that is within an eight-block area in San Diego. I tend to get a little passionate about this because that comment or that question tends to be a very common question from someone who has not been to downtown LA in the last two years let alone the last five years. That question is a common question from someone not familiar with Los Angeles. My typical problem is perception or lack thereof.
Well, this may be another one of those questions from your point of view, but every year the attendees of Comic-Con hit the massive headache of trying to find hotel rooms early enough to be close to the show. Would you say there's a comparable amount of hotels within the range of the LA Convention Center to what's downtown in San Diego, or is there more on that front to be developed?
Krouse: There is, but just to be clear, there is a lot of additional hotel development coming and a number of other projects coming, so that's important. On many of them, the approval process has been completed, but with the economy they're sitting on it until funding improves. But also you have to remember that we have over 6,500 residents living downtown, and if we didn't build one more hotel room, we would have more than enough hotel rooms in a similar proximity to what you have in San Diego. The difference is that here you would have a wide variety of price points and a wide variety of types of hotel products. San Diego, as you know, tends to have the big guys with 1,000 rooms, and what I hear is that the big struggle is the room rate and room availability and that they compress the rates so that people are paying a fortune. We don't have that issue here like you have in the competitive market.
The other thing you have to realize is that, again, unlike San Diego this is a very large city. Your ability to take the subway from here is now that you can get on the Metro system, and in 15 minutes you're in Hollywood. In 15 minutes, you're in Pasadena. In 15 minutes, you're in Long Beach. You know what I mean? The subway system can link you to all these areas of the city whether you're local, or if you're coming from San Diego you can take the train to Union Station and then take the Red Line straight to the convention center. So you don't even need to bring your car here if you're coming from San Diego, and remember that a lot of people who attend this are coming form LA. A large percentage...they told me the number, but I forget it. But the studio folks, I've been told directly, will love having this in Los Angeles because they don't have to go all the way down to San Diego.
Well, have you guys at LA Inc had any direct contact with the studios and with exhibitors at the convention, or has most of your research and lobbying been done squarely through the Comic-Con organization?
Krouse: The simple answer is that we have been going directly to Comic-Con. I have relationships with all these studios, but it's been my approach out of professional courtesy that I've been resistant – I'm to trying to play this in a professional way so that I don't ruffle these feathers. The minute I start going around Comic-Con is the minute I'm damaging my relationship with them, and I'm cautious of that. It's the same thing about talking this up in the media. I've been resistant to do that until I see my clock getting cleaned by my competition, and that's when the line gets drawn, so now we're going to play that game. It's ridiculous. I just don't think that's the way to do it. I think it's important that everyone knows what's going on, but putting it all out there in the media does not, I think, solve anyone's problems.
Like you said, you don't want to put everything out about your proposal, but one aspect of this is that people are very used to tradition surrounding a show like this...
Krouse: For years! I do understand why they're passionate about it. I'm respectful of that. It's another reason I'm cautious about getting too nutsy cuckoo here because I am aware that it's 40 years there. It's a crazy number – unheard of. But times are a' changing.
That's what I mean. People are so used to having Comic-Con at a certain point in July, having their big events up in Hall H, doing that experience in one place...you've spoken about the idea of using the Nokia Theater, the Staples Center and the rest of the complex in some way. Right now, do you feel ready to block out that big weekend in that July timeframe where all those resources will be available to have everything fans expect from this event at one place in one way?
Krouse: I'm already holding it. You don't think I would be bidding on it if I couldn't produce it. No, I'm holding it. I'm just waiting for them to confirm Los Angeles. Sign on the dotted line, and I'll have everything you need available for you. And the other thing is that we're going to help them market it. We're not just going to sign a deal and then walk away.
Well, it's a mutually beneficial relationship. You can talk a lot about what you can bring to Comic-Con, but that event can bring a lot to the city and the downtown area, so it has to be a partnership.
Krouse: Absolutely. I think one of the things that Los Angeles can excel even further against my competition is that we have incredible reach that the next area can't accommodate like us. This is Los Angeles, after all. It's the second-largest city in the United States. We have 3.5 million people here. I have to have every resource here that you could possibly need and right at your fingertips, probably a phone call away. What do you need? Do you need a celebrity? Do you need someone to help you support a funding model? Do you need city support? That's what we do. And I used examples [with the board] about other electronic media we can use and all kinds of things.
Michael, to wrap...we know the Comic-Con Board came out last week to see the location. Do you feel that was your final pitch, and it's all on the table, or is there still some back and forth to be sussed out?
Krouse: Well, I can't speak for them. I can tell you that the site visit went extremely well, and I can tell you they were extremely impressed. As a matter of fact, they missed their train. [Laughs] They missed the train back so we shuttled them back to San Diego. They wanted to stay longer, but they just ran out of time. That was a humorous thing. But I would say there will probably be some more back and forth, but my feeling is that they can do back and forth all day long, and the competition can't beat me. They just can't. There's no better offer on the table. I know it from my experience. If we're talking about inclusions and benefits that will help grow and expand the show, no one can beat me. I know it from the numbers, and that's all I can say about that.