Behind the scenes of a convention as incredible, well planned, and fan-friendly as Wizard World’s Comic Con sits a man who has used his time in the industry and his knowledge of what makes fans tick to create one of the best conventions to ever exist. This man is John Maatta, CEO of Wizard World, and his passion for the convention was evident during every moment of the weekend spent in Chicago.
John did not sit back and watch the action from a window at the convention or stay in sunny Los Angeles and keep up via e-mail and text message, he spent the convention walking around amongst fans, talking to anyone who had a question, concern, or statement, and thoroughly enjoying his time spent there; had you not known who he was, you’d have thought him to be a fan himself. The truth is, John is a fan of all things larger than life and Wizard World is how he shows that while giving other superfans a place to not only enjoy but be themselves too.
We got to speak to John about the convention, honoring heroes, and what’s so special about Wizard World!
Why was getting involved with heroes honoring heroes so important to you?
“We travel all over the country, 25 shows a year, and we go to communities large like Chicago and small like Des Moines and we’re based in Los Angeles with the movie stars and talent and it’s the land of make believe. The show is a lot about fantasy and role play but we realized that in every community there are real heroes, they’re superheroes and we thought it would be a good thing as we go in to spend a few minutes honoring the local servicemen, firemen, police…etc…and it’s turned out to be great. It’s something that the recipients seem to appreciate and we bring our celebrities to make an award to the local heroes and we’ve had some very interesting people. In Sacremento, we had the airmen who stopped the terrorist attack on the train in Belgium. It’s nice to be able to do something that is hopefully memorable for them and we give them passes to spend the weekend at the show. It just came out of a conversation because we were looking for a way to get us more involved with the community. It’s nice to be able to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet and it’s pretty pure.”
How do you pick the heroes that get honored?
“We work with an agency in Los Angeles that identify them based on the location of the convention. We were in Colombus, Ohio and reached out to Patterson Air Force Base and in the case of the services they pick the people. We say, we’d like to do this, who do you think we should honor?”
How do the celebrities get involved?
“Part of it is scheduling because they come and go during the weekend, I don’t think we’ve been turned down, everyone we asked is eager to do it and everyone is into it. Every celebrity comes away realizing that it was a great thing and they’re really pumped up.”
“Yeah, we talked to Lou Ferrigno yesterday after it happened and he was like this is awesome because I’m a serviceman too and getting to see this is awesome. You could tell by the excitement on his face that he loved it.”
“It was interesting, we had Caroll Spinney – the voice of big bird – he had been in the service and he was overwhelmed, he told a story of when he was in the service himself and it was great.”
How did you get involved with Wizard World?
“I was on the board since 2011 and it’s a small public company so I served on the board and the former CEO was very entrepreneurial and decided he’d done this for years and he wanted to do other things. The board asked me to do it and I’d been at Warner Brothers for 28 years and I had the entertainment background and it was just kind of evolutionary. It’s turned out to be a much bigger project than I thought, it’s definitely kept me busy.”
What do you think makes Wizard World different than other conventions?
“A couple of things. Wizard World started as a guide to comic books 27 years ago by Gareb Shamus and Gareb had an interest in comic books and he’s got the most amazing family. One is a doctor, his brother Kenny owns a toy business, Gareb started this company and is now in fine arts and his brother Stephen does the talent here; each one of these guys is brilliant. So he got interested in comics and his parents bought a comic store in Long Island to kind of get an interest going and from there Gareb sort of became the voice of the comic world. He had a magazine and that morphed into a convention. San Diego has been in business for about 40 years and this is a bit newer than that but the real differentiator is that in the case of San Diego, for example, they have 150,000 people coming to one place and over the course of a year our attendance is over 700,000. We have 25 shows in cities all around the country. It was a nice thing, I co-ran the CW for 7 years and the thing about being bordered into Burbank is that it’s very antiseptic. You have local affiliates and television stations but outside of cities like Chicago and New York you really don’t see that very much. Here, however, this is a very very tactile experience with the fans. You get to meet people and see people and it’s not just sending out programming and marketing by satellite, this is really for the fans. Wizard is the biggest traveling comic con company, there are others, but this by far is the largest.”
What is your favorite part of being in charge of Wizard World?
“The fans are incredible, to be out seeing the fans and the spirit and the people in costumes. Everybody that comes to these conventions, they’re happy, there’s never been a fight, never any problems. I like the energy, I like the fact that people are having fun. The staff is fantastic and I like working with the celebrities, they’re very creative.”
Do you expand to new cities or is it the same ones every year?
“We are going to new cities, Chicago, this has been going on for years, there are a number of markets where we’ll be back every year. The company is so set logistically that we could almost do this for 52 weeks a year. Just going different places and there are parts of the country that have no comic con at all and I think it’d be great to travel.”
It’s easy to see, after speaking with John, why Wizard World goes off without a problem each and every time. The thought, talent, and passion that goes into this convention from start to finish is what makes this experience so special and we were honored to be a part of it.
If you haven’t gone to Wizard World yet yourself, check their schedule and make it out to the convention nearest you, you won’t regret it!