How Much Is An Autograph Worth?
For one hot minute on Friday, I had planned to go to the Wizard World comic convention in Rosemont on Saturday.
I made the decision as I was roasting at a White Sox game, when the thought of walking an air conditioned floor alongside Batgirl cosplayers and fellow back issue-seekers was especially appealing.
When I got home from the game (a trouncing that involved a Minnesota Twins grand slam), I went online to see how much Wizard World tickets were: one-day passes for Saturday were just shy of $60 per person. Since I had planned to take my son, that would mean a significant investment, not including parking, just to walk in the door.
I hadn’t totally ruled it out at that point. Instead, I kept reading through the Wizard World site to learn more about the event. Loads of genre celebrities were in town: Stan Lee! Wil Wheaton! Zachary Quinto! Brandon Routh (the George Lazenby of movie Supermen)! Each of them had predetermined autograph and photo-op prices that caused my debit card to release an audible yelp. Though the Chicago autograph pricing is no longer available, check out this analogous example of “VIP” experiences currently being offered on the Wizard World circuit. Once I added up the jawdropping cost of “once in a lifetime” opportunities with beloved sci-fi and fantasy celebrities to the already suffocating admission price, I decided to make other plans for my Saturday. For the record, those plans involved enchiladas at Uncle Julio’s and an afternoon screening of Red 2 (Total cost for two: $75, significantly less than a day at Wizard World)
I love the idea of creators, artists, and actors meeting and interacting with their fans and admirers in a friendly place like a comic con. As a pop culture fan, I totally get the desire to further personalize a piece of art (movie, picture, comic, etc.) with a creator’s signature. Perhaps I’m a cranky old man for saying this, but there used to be a time when those interactions didn’t carry a price tag–or at least not such a high-rolling price tag.
When Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics by Les Daniels was published in 1991, Stan Lee did an in-store signing at the Kroch’s and Brentano’s on Wabash in the Loop. I bought a copy, and he signed it (“Excelsior! Stan Lee”). It was a simple, easy-to-understand, transaction. In 2013, for the price of $299, one can get in on the Stan Lee VIP Experience. As Wizard World’s page explains, the VIP treatment includes an exclusive badge, lithograph, autographable 8×10, a photo op, early access to the show, guaranteed access to the Stan Lee panel, and “speedpass” access for Stan Lee’s autograph session. So, for the general price of a monthly car payment, you can line jump at the comic con for a one-minute interaction (autograph + picture) with Stan “The Man.” And you get an exclusive badge.
The speedpass concept has irked me since I first came to consider its existence at Great America. It was maybe ten years ago; I had just shuffled into line for the Demon, and had accepted my fate of having to wait in line for 45 minutes to finally get my chance. As I leaned back against the metal bar line partitions, I noticed kids running past me in a totally separate line. They had paid extra for the “Flash Pass,” a way to circumvent lines for a bunch of extra money. The Flash Pass seemed like extortion (if you really want to have a good time, you’re going to have to pay up); a fact that felt especially icky at a general admission park that entertains kids of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Expanding the “Flash Pass” mechanics to shaking hands with celebrities is just plain twisted.
Stan Lee’s autograph isn’t something that should be “Flash Passed.” Furthermore, as the creator of Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Hulk, it comes across as more than a little greedy to ask that much money of his fans.
Along those lines, shame on anyone who pays $175 for speedpass VIP access to WWE superstar Sheamus. You’ve been had, fella.
I understand that charging top rates for autographs and photo ops is a new and lucrative economic model for celebrities, Stan included; this is how they make their money at conventions. Since this model works, I’m not foolish enough to expect it to go away. I would like to recommend some changes, however …
From here on in, celebrities should charge half of what they currently charge for autographs. Instead of counting on a small handful to pay a big premium to cover their nut, they should allow for more people to get in on the autographs at a lower cost. I’m not going to pay $30 for Ernie Hudson, the black Ghostbuster, to sign something for me, but if he was asking $15 I’d consider it. And as much as I enjoyed the Adam West Batman show growing up, there’s no way I’ll spend $60 to get Adam West to sign his name for me. On the other hand, for the price of $30, I’d happily whip out my Bat-Sharpie and let him go to work.
Considering the expense-to-profit ratio, I tried to figure out what a celebrity’s cost to attend Wizard World might be, and what the potential profit could be.
If a celebrity stayed in a standard room at the Hotel Intercontinental near the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center for three weekend nights (Thursday-Saturday), he or she would pay somewhere around $199 per night, for a total of $600, pre-taxes/fees. Depending on airline flown and how far in advance tickets are purchased, a round-trip flight from Los Angeles to Chicago would likely run between $750-$1250. Add a few meals and some ground transportation into the mix, and the total cost for the weekend trip would probably come in between $2500-$4000.
Using Adam West as an example, at $60 per autograph, maybe he’ll get 300 takers over the course of a weekend. That’s 18K in his pocket for signing his name, less whatever percentage needs to be kicked back to the promoter. By any standards, it amounts to an insanely healthy profit, even once expenses are backed out.
Let’s now say that Adam West were to charge $30 per autograph. Suddenly, he might see more parents walking their kids over to meet him. People who might have been on the fence about spending money to meet the potbellied Batman would more enthusiastically whip out their wallets. Maybe the total amount of takers would inch closer to 500 for the weekend: the result would amount to a total of 15K, only 3K less than the profit potential seen with higher priced autographs. Only in this case, he would have turned off a lot less fans. And really, that 3K can’t make that much of a difference.
The practice of charging for autographs is here to stay. I accept that. But I challenge celebrities to be more fan-friendly in the way they place value on their signatures.