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Stars Getting Rich Off Fan Conventions: How to Take Home “Garbage Bags Full of $20s”

One effect of superhero culture: a proliferation of fan events where Marvel movie heroes and 'Walking Dead' stars walk away with six figures (more than most get paid for their real jobs) for a weekend's work.

It’s like a scene from Blow or Goodfellas: a room full of money with professional cash counters.” This isn’t a description of a drug den or casino cage. It’s the backroom of a fan festival, says one producer familiar with such events, where thousands of die-hards — many in costume — pay admission to fork over bigger bucks for autographs and photos with their favorite stars. And nearly all of this money is going into the pockets of talent big and small who, in many cases, now can earn more from weekend fan events than from the shows and movies making them famous.

Fan conventions, where stars can take home hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for a few hours of time, once were the domain of has-beens and sci-fi novelties. But the business has become so lucrative — think $500,000 for Captain America‘s Chris Evans or The Walking Dead favorite Norman Reedus to appear — that current TV and film stars are popping up at events like Salt Lake City Comic-Con and Heroes and Villains Fan Fest. The demand has become so overwhelming that agencies including WME, CAA, UTAICM, APA, Paradigm and Gersh have in the past three years added “personal appearance” agents to sift through the hundreds of annual events, book talent and (of course) score their 10 percent commission.

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“If somebody wanted to do a convention every weekend, they could make more on the convention circuit than their episodic fee,” says Arrow star Stephen Amell, who became so enamored of the festival business that he started his own talent agency, WFA Entertainment, to help other actors navigate the space (and score a buck for himself). The actor, who is said to have irked traditional agents by competing with them, says he “wanted to control the whole front- and backend of my operation. I didn’t see a need for representation.” One source deeply involved in the convention circuit estimates that Amell walks away with $250,000 a weekend — more than he makes per episode for Arrow — though he denies that figure.

Here’s how it works: Actors typically ask for a price guarantee — often paid up front — to show up, sign autographs, pose for photos and sometimes take part in a panel discussion or two. Most conventions charge an entry fee, collect $5 for every autograph and $10 per photo (with a photographer taking another $10). The stars — who receive luxury travel and accommodations — pocket the rest. Anything over the guarantee is icing on the cake.

Reedus (left) and other Walking Dead stars can earn lots of cash in a weekend for festivals like Walker Stalker.

According to multiple sources familiar with convention deals, the basic guarantee rate for genre stars is in the $5,000 to $10,000 range per appearance — with leads on such current TV series as The Walking Dead, Once Upon a Time, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, Netflix’s Marvel shows and The CW’s DC Comics fare commanding anywhere from $35,000 to $250,000 and up, depending on their popularity and the frequency with which they appear. At top conventions, it’s not uncommon for a star to earn anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 on top of their guarantee (more if they spend extra time signing).

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The most sought-after stars include Reedus (one convention owner says he easily could command a $200,000 guarantee and pocket $500,000 per weekend), Andrew Lincoln (who donates his proceeds to charity), Star Wars great Mark Hamill and anyone who played Doctor Who. Sources say ex-Doctor Matt Smith collected $250,000 per weekend at a string of recent events, with any former Doctor said to easily score six figures. Smith’s tally recently was doubled by Marvel film heroes, with the stars netting more than $500,000 each in one Atlanta weekend thanks to an overwhelming demand and rare convention appearances.

“There are plenty of people who can command six figures — plenty can make seven figures any given year,” says one agency insider. Amell has a profit participation stake in the Heroes and Villains Fan Fest, which has six events in different cities scheduled through October 2017. HVFF is not profitable yet, but in success the actor will receive a cut of the gate as well as photo and autograph revenue from those involved — without even having to be there (and more if he booked the talent).

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As if the conventions weren’t already lucrative enough, many stars also are contacted independently by autograph dealers looking to arrange meet-ups outside of events and can score anywhere from $6,000 to $250,000 to sign a few hundred items that will wind up on eBay. That’s one reason why Hamill and other stars are especially sensitive about fakes and are backing a new California bill that would require autographed collectibles sold in the state to come with a certificate of authenticity (yet another extra charge at conventions).

“The fact is, a guest star on a TV show can [get] around $10,000, whereas you can work two days at a convention and pull in the same amount — and sometimes double and triple that,” says Firefly actress Jewel Staite, who did 12 conventions last year while pregnant with her son and, as she says, “pretty much not hireable.” She’ll do the same when she has a second child. “Have I turned down smaller jobs that won’t pay as much? Absolutely. It would be silly of me to say yes to the job that pays $10,000 for a week of work and bow out of a big convention where I could potentially walk away with $40,000 in two days.”

That decision, however, can prove shortsighted. Multiple producers say if guest or recurring actors turn them down in favor of conventions, they likely won’t get called again. In some cases, genre shows have started putting their superhero boot down on talent who ask for time off to do a fan event. But some producers use the second revenue stream to lure talent to genre shows. “In a world where residuals don’t mean as much, conventions are like residuals,” says Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow executive producer Marc Guggenheim. Adds Staite, “My actor friends are always saying how much they’re dying for a genre show just to break into the convention world.”

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Making them more appealing, some of the smaller, privately owned events have been known to deal in cash (though many are starting to clean up their books as audits hit the circuit). “I know someone who literally takes garbage bags full of $20s with him back home,” says one convention regular who wished not to be identified, noting that another star hides convention earnings in art. Says Amell of the practice, “It’s like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption and hiding dirt.”

Three big companies dominate the paid-convention space: Wizard World, Informa and ReedPop (each with about 20-plus events set for 2017), all of which are publicly traded. But while conventions are rewarding for attendees and talent, the financial picture for those running them often is less rosy. “It’s not easy — there are huge logistics to it, and it’s a major undertaking, but we’ve got it down well,” says Wizard World CEO John Maatta, who had a 20-year run at Warner Bros. Television. Many smaller outfits struggle to make ends meet as competition increases. “Talent makes more in a weekend than I make annually,” says Salt Lake City Comic-Con founder Dan Farr, who launched the event in 2013 and didn’t turn a profit until last year. James Frazier started the popular Walking Dead fan fest Walker Stalker Con in 2012 with $15,000 raised by a Kickstarter campaign; in 2017 it will grow to 15 events, including a cruise to London. “Right now, the convention market is oversaturated; there’s a ton of them, notes Frazier. “We are, in some ways, retracting for next year.”

Still, for networks and studios, fan conventions also can be a boon for free publicity, though some — like AMC — have toyed with creating their own events to get in on the cash grab for lucrative brands like Walking Dead. Ultimately, say sources, many back down to maintain talent relationships. Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman is said to have strongly opposed the idea, prompting AMC to retreat from the space. “Not everything has to be monetized,” says TWD exec producer Dave Alpert, who supports Walker Stalker. “What’s important is that the community feels vibrant and engaged. As long as that happens … we should all be able to make a living and the money will come.” Other studios, like Warner Bros. Television, frown at talent accepting payment for appearing at events. (Sources say WBTV pulled out of New York Comic-Con after organizers wanted to pay a handful of their stars.)

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With stars like Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston joining such talent as Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk), Kevin Sorbo (Hercules) and the cast of Buffy on the circuit, the stigma of a convention paycheck has all but vanished. A-listers can judiciously attend paid fan events without damaging their brand or impacting their ability to command a seven- or eight-figure payday. It’s all considered marketing — paid marketing. “The way people used to think about conventions — and some still do — was that it was someplace actors who had fame early on went as almost a last resort,” says Amell. “And that’s just not true anymore.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.