At just two years old, Awesome Con DC is already the District's biggest, baddest pop culture rodeo. This year the comic book and sci-fi convention's audience increased more than five-fold, growing from about 7,000 attendees in 2013 to 40,000 last weekend and taking up 15 times as much space in in the Walter E. Washington convention center.
What accounts for the massive growth in fabulously costumed geeks in downtown D.C.? A successful crowdfunding push.
A Kickstarter campaign let organizers make the early investments that helped the show shine, but they say the process was so stressful they aren't planning to use the same strategy next year.
Awesome Con is the brainchild of Ben Penrod and Steve Anderson -- the latter of whom own's Third Eye Comics, a Maryland retail chain with stores in Annapolis and Lexington. After getting their hands dirty starting Annapolis Comic-Con and Southern Maryland Comic-Con in 2011 and 2012, the duo decided it was time to bring their talents to a larger metro area. Since Washington was just around the bend -- and lacking a major geek oriented event -- it seemed like a natural fit.
The original event was a success, but the main request for the next year was "bigger," Penrod wrote in a Kickstarter campaign the team started last summer. Fans wanted more space, more celebrities and more exhibitors. Of course, that also means more money.
But rather than look for a big corporation, the organizers asked previous attendees and the larger fan community to help provide seed money. In return, they promised to run a much larger convention "from a fans-first perspective, with the help and support of the fan community."
The goal of the crowdfunding push was $50,000. By the time the campaign ended, they raised just over $56,000 from nearly 500 backers who received rewards such as special-edition comic books or vendor booths.
The fundraising campaign wasn't intended to cover the entire budget of the show, which Penrod says was upwards of half a million dollars this year. Instead, the organizers hoped to get people excited about the event earlier and, well, kick start the process. The money they raised was enough to reserve a much larger space and hire designer Paul Petyo to create a cohesive visual style for the event before cash started coming in from vendors and normal ticket sales.
The Kickstarter was ultimately successful, but didn't reach its goal until the final day of its campaign. Because of Kickstarter's terms, if it hadn't met the threshold even by the tiniest of margins, pledges would have reverted to the backers leaving Penrod and Henderson back at square one. Some other crowdfunding options, such as Indiegogo allow projects to keep donations even if they don't meet their goal.
Penrod described the Kickstarter process as both needed and "incredibly stressful" during a panel held exclusively for backers of the crowdfunding push, which featured the organizers alongside actor and comedian Phil LaMarr and musician Andrew W.K.
"You just sit there and hit refresh all day long" checking to see if it people have contributed, he said.
Penrod expects the baseline for next year to be about the same as this year's show, but he said he doesn't plan on doing another Kickstarter because the pressure when raising this level of sum was so overwhelming.
"I don't think I could handle the stress of that again," he told the audience. Instead, he said he hoped the revenue brought in by the convention this year would be enough to at least maintain the size of the show next year.
Although it seems unlikely Awesome Con will do another Kickstarter, the backers from this year seemed happy with the return on their investment.
Many backers were return attendees from last year and were excited to see how it had grown. When LaMarr, who was returning for a second year himself, asked the backers panel how many invested after coming in 2013, a cheer rolled through the room as nearly all of the audiences' hands shot up.
"I came last year, the first year, which is a dicey proposition," he said, adding, "you never know, there's no track record." LaMarr credited the professionalism of the first Awesome Con with allowing it to attract more media talent for photo and autograph booths this year. "The reason I'm back is because it was so well run," he said, noting that "people talk" and know which conventions are worth going to in media circles.
Eddie Kryschtal, a middle school science teacher who lives in Northwest Washington, was also returning for a second year -- but as an attendee. He said watching the convention and its local community evolve was "pretty awesome." He had originally committed to the $200 level of the Kickstarter, but he upgraded to the $500 tier as the deadline approached and the campaign still needed a bit of a boost.
For Kryschtal, the Kickstarter was a way to be directly involved in what he hopes will be a sort of comic book renaissance in D.C. In recent years, he says some of his favorite local comic shops have closed or relocated to the suburbs. But he calls the central location of the convention "perfect," adding, "it's nice to see something like that coming back into the city."