To paraphrase Harvey “Two-Face” Dent in The Dark Knight, you either die a scrappy independent business or you live long enough to see yourself become a sellout. It’s easy to imagine that sentiment knocking around in local pop-culture-addled brains when Jim Demonakos, the cofounder of Emerald City Comicon, announced early this year that he’d sold his baby to a company that produces conventions all over the world. For that matter, the thought—or maybe a fear of the thought—had evidently crossed Demonakos’s mind too. “ECCC will still be produced by the same people who have made this show great,” read the mid-January press release. In other words, Put down the homemade photon blasters and magical Norse hammers, folks. We haven’t gone full villain yet.
Emerald City Comicon, in case you’ve never seen the phalanx of superhero cosplayers that descends on the Washington State Convention Center every March (or you happened to forget that the nerds won), is a big damn deal. For years the three-day con drew consistent, modest crowds, before exploding in popularity in 2011, when 32,000 people streamed through the doors. By 2014 that number hulked out to 70,000.
And a big part of its charm is that it’s homegrown: Demonakos launched the convention with his brother, George, and two friends, Brian Meredith and Michael Byers, in 2003. In fact, that quality was a major selling point for ReedPop, a Connecticut-based organizer of nearly two dozen shows both here and abroad, including New York Comic Con and Seattle’s own Penny Arcade Exchange. “They built a show that they would want to go to,” says Lance Fensterman, ReedPop’s global vice president. “It’s just Jim and his team, so people feel connected to it in a more personal, deeper way.”
Which is why when the news hit that ECCC had been sold, some regular attendees couldn’t help but wonder if something sinister was afoot. And Demonakos’s preemptive strike failed to quell their suspicions. “There is simply no way this event won’t become more corporate,” one fan wrote on the convention’s Facebook page. “A quick ‘ReedPop’ web search makes it appear they have more to gain from ECCC than the other way around,” wrote another.
Some of the grumbling is even coming from within the convention—or at least from those who used to be on the inside. Joe Parrington managed PR for ECCC from 2009 to 2013 and pulls no punches when discussing Demonakos. “He’s a sellout,” Parrington spits. (Parrington says he left over a personnel dispute; Demonakos says he was fired.)
Parrington lists a series of other moves that he believes are beginning to eat away at what made ECCC the pop culture summit it is now, but he focuses on Demonakos’s decision to dismiss original partners Meredith and Byers, in fall 2013 and spring 2014, respectively. The consolidation of power, Parrington claims, smoothed the path for acquisition. (Demonakos denies that, pointing out that both were employees with no stake in the company. Neither was available for comment, though; they had signed nondisclosure agreements.) At any rate, while ReedPop may be excited at the prospect of adding Emerald City to its stable of shows, Parrington says that without Meredith or Byers—or himself, for that matter—it’s getting a show that’s only a shell of its former self. It’s worth noting that last year, for the first time, two of ECCC’s celebrity guests failed to make their autograph quota. “This is like firing half of the people in your band, bringing in a bunch of session musicians, and then expecting them to write hits like they used to,” he says. “They might be able to ape it, but it’s not the real thing.”
Demonakos just sighs when asked about the backlash to the sale. He’s heard the cries of sellout and understands fans’ anticorporate sentiment, but he says they have nothing to worry about. Just days before we spoke, Capitol Hill’s Elysian Brewing was gobbled up by Anheuser-Busch, and Demonakos seized on the sale to make a point. “[Anheuser-Busch doesn’t] want to go in there and say, ‘The beer that made you famous, let’s start messing with the formula.’ That makes no sense.”
It’s true, ReedPop probably won’t need to tweak Emerald City’s formula. Demonakos already did it for them.
This article appeared in the March 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.