Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Comic Conflict: Amid Legal Disputes and Other Drama, Competing Local Conventions Stake Their Claims on San Antonio’s Burgeoning Pop-Culture Business

Posted By on Tue, Oct 22, 2019 at 2:22 PM

click to enlarge KELLY MERKA NELSON
  • Kelly Merka Nelson
The local comic convention landscape has changed dramatically since Alamo City Comic Con, or ACCC, debuted as San Antonio’s first such mega-show back in 2013.

Six years and hundreds of celebrities later, the geekdom that gave birth to that single pop-culture-focused event has transformed into a monster — its own version of the gamma-infused Incredible Hulk. A plethora of new conventions have since emerged to compete with ACCC and turn a buck from fanboys and fangirls willing to shell out for autographs and selfies with Hollywood stars.

These days, the city is also home to Celebrity Fan Fest and Big Texas Comicon, not to mention smaller events such as Traders Village ComiCon, Monster-Con and Sci-Fest — plus San Japan, a long-running con for fans of Japanese anime and manga.

But at what cost?



The surge of competition comes with baggage. For the second time in three years, former ACCC staff members have severed ties with the group to start their own event — a move that they said stems from ACCC breaking their employment contracts. What’s more, ACCC’s been forced to find a new home this year, due to tens of thousands in unpaid debts to the City of San Antonio.

Infighting between the bigger cons also isn’t helping business, especially for people like Laurie Gonzales, who runs six of the smaller events in San Antonio, including Monster-Con and Sci-Fest. She doesn’t see things ending well if the shows continue cannibalizing each other’s attendance.

“You have vendors, charities, organizations, artists and craftsmen who contribute to these conventions that don’t want to see any of this drama,” Gonzales said. “In the end, that drama affects us all. I foresee in the next two years a very diminished convention scene. It’s going to be interesting to see who hangs in there at the end.”

Even so, it’s easy though to see what’s driving the proliferation of new cons. Pop culture shows have become a big business.

While San Antonio city officials don’t track the economic impact of the shows here, San Diego officials estimate that its city’s Comic-Con — considered the big daddy of all such events — generates $149 million in regional economic impact, including $88 million in direct spending by attendees.

Angelus Delacroix, CEO and founder of videogame production house Hebi Studios, has been to almost every San Antonio con and travels the nation attending as many others as he can. He sees both the pros and cons to the more competitive local market.

“With so many cons, there is a lot of diversity now,” Delacroix said. “Each con is doing something different. But I’ve noticed most conventions have seen a decrease in attendance. Spending extra money on conventions every month, patrons and vendors are starting to pick and choose which ones to go to more wisely, or they sometimes just stop going to them altogether.”

Only the Strong Survive

The fall con season is well underway. This weekend, Celebrity Fan Fest is hosting a “Preview Con” as a lead-up to its big event next June. ACCC and Traders Village ComiCon follow the weekend after.

The multiple bookings are reminiscent of 2017, when ACCC went head to head with the now-defunct Rockula Horror Expo over that year’s Halloween weekend. ACCC founder Apple De La Fuente maintains, as he did then, that more cons won’t hurt his bottom line.

“San Antonio has proven to be a strong market that can support a number of shows,” he said. “We are confident that if we put on a good show, our ticket sales will not be impacted by the presence of other shows in the market.”

Bob Wills, president of PMX Events, the production company that runs the year-old Fan Fest, said local cons are diverse enough that each can hold its own.

“I don’t see the other comic cons as competition,” Wills said. “I reject the commentary that we’re all similar. It can’t just be about what big stars you can bring. It’s about bringing in other interests that people have, so you can make a more developed show.”

Still, Wills said there can be disagreement about what a show needs if it’s going to bill itself as a fully realized convention.

“I think there should be a definition for what a comic con is,” he said. “I think you have to have at least five stars to be considered a comic con. If not, is it a comic con or just a celebrity appearance show?”

Splinter Groups

The competition among cons isn’t exactly new.

Eyebrows raised in 2017 when Angel Castorena, a former ACCC staffer, left to start his own rock ’n’ roll and horror-themed comic show, Rockula. He chalked up the split to “creative differences” with ACCC founder De La Fuente.
Apple De La Fuente (rear) emcees a costume event at the 2014 ACCC Thank You party. - RICK CANFIELD
  • Rick Canfield
  • Apple De La Fuente (rear) emcees a costume event at the 2014 ACCC Thank You party.
“We reached a point where we just weren’t seeing eye to eye,” Castorena said at the time.
Since then, six more staffers have ended their run with ACCC and struck out on their own. They formed Big Texas Comicon and those same former staff members — Allen Garcia, John Hernandez, Garrett Killian, Aaron Uresti, Tommy Uresti Jr. and Fred Hernandez — were at the helm when the show made its debut last month.

“I never thought about being a comic con owner,” said Hernandez, ACCC’s former public relations director. “A bunch of us just got together one night and started talking about it, and it just happened. It wasn’t something we planned at first.”

The May 2017 show at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center was the last ACCC event Hernandez and at least one other Big Texas Comicon co-owner, Garrett Killian, participated in. After years of volunteering, the work became too much, Killian explained — especially since he wasn’t getting paid.

“The responsibilities kept piling on and snowballing,” Killian said. “It didn’t make sense to volunteer anymore.”

Killian thought he’d turned things around with De La Fuente in 2017 when the show founder presented him and other ACCC volunteers with paying contracts. But Killian and Hernandez said ACCC didn’t honor those pacts at the end of the convention.

The pair cut their ties to the con.

“What I can say is that in 2017, my contract wasn’t fulfilled,” said Hernandez, who declined to provide the Current with the paperwork. “We built ACCC, so it stings a little now having to go up against something we built.”

De La Fuente pushed back on the claim that he didn’t pay his workers.

“I’m confident that ACCC paid every employee with whom we had a contract,” he said. “I respect [Hernandez and Killian], and I’m sorry they feel that way.”

Family Matters

But the apparent bad blood between De La Fuente and the Big Texas crew doesn’t end there.

Big Texas founder Hernandez is the nephew of Carlos Uresti, the former state senator sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for securities fraud another felonies.

In August 2017, De La Fuente sued Uresti for fraud and breach of fiduciary duty over legal services Uresti, an attorney, provided ACCC. Uresti hit back with a countersuit alleging fraud and breach of contract.

Both cases are still pending in court.

Hernandez denies that the legal squabble had anything to do with his decision to stop working with De La Fuente, however.

“Me being related to [Carlos Uresti] has got nothing to do with Apple,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said starting Big Texas came down to wanting to do something on his own with friends and family he could trust.

“We’ve moved on,” he said. “We hear all these rumors, but we don’t want to get involved. Our thing from day one is that we’re just worried about us. We don’t take jabs at people. I can look myself in the mirror and say, ‘I paid my employees.’”
Actors Ron Perlman (left) and Tommy Flanagan during San Antonio’s Big Texas Comicon. - FACEBOOK / BIG TEXAS COMICON
  • Facebook / Big Texas Comicon
  • Actors Ron Perlman (left) and Tommy Flanagan during San Antonio’s Big Texas Comicon.
Hernandez said everything at Big Texas’ debut last month went smoothly — from booking celebrities to securing dates at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

Of the 25 celebrities who appeared, 11 are clients of Hernandez under his own Prime Time Appearances company. As the founder and owner of Prime Time, Hernandez works on behalf of a roster of media personalities to get them booked at cons around the world. They range from Hellboy’s Ron Perlman and Kiefer Sutherland of Fox’s 24 to comedian and Bio-Dome star Pauly Shore.

“We’re a small show just starting to build,” Hernandez said. “Everybody has their department and does their job. We’re a team and everybody comes together.”

Conventional Wisdom

After debuting in 2013, ACCC grew aggressively for the next four years, eventually becoming a nationally recognized player. For its first five years, the event took place at the city-owned Convention Center. Even in 2017, when De La Fuente had to shift ACCC to the spring because there were no available fall dates, he made sure the show stayed at the venue.

In 2018, however, De La Fuente relocated to the Alamodome. At the time, he said the move came down to the need for more space. The argument made sense given the show’s meteoric growth.

However, De La Fuente announced another move for ACCC’s 2019 show. This time, he left observers scratching their heads when he said it would take place at much smaller Sunset Station, the east-of-downtown entertainment complex.

“[ACCC] went from the Convention Center to the Alamodome to what is basically an oversized bar and restaurant,” Fan Fest’s Wills said.

What’s more, that venue switch was unveiled on September 9, fewer than two months before the event. In contrast, Fan Fest announced dates for its June 2020 show 10 months ahead of time.

And even with the next ACCC days away, another move is in the works.

Shortly before press time, the Current learned De La Fuente is now switching the con to the Grand Hyatt Hotel three weeks before kickoff.

“When we originally booked Sunset Station, there was a misunderstanding about what parts of the facility we would be able to use,” he explained. “After that misunderstanding was cleared up, we decided that the show was best served in another venue.”

De La Fuente said that “in a perfect world, ACCC would always take place in the Convention Center.” However, this year, the show wasn’t able to find a date that worked. He noted that he hopes to return in 2020.

San Antonio Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras, who oversees the Convention Center, confirmed in an email that the dates ACCC wanted this year were unavailable. However, he added that the Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities department “denied [ACCC’s] request” to use the venue at all.

The reason: ACCC still owes the city of San Antonio “in excess of $170,000 from two prior events,” Contreras said.

When presented with Contreras’ response, De La Fuente acknowledged that ACCC still owes money to the city.

“Due to extenuating circumstances beyond our control that arose after last year’s show, we weren’t able to pay the city’s bill in full,” he said. “However, ACCC is committed to paying the city everything it’s owed and plans to do so as soon as it can.”

Save the Drama

In reality, most local fans could care less about the brewing business battles. They’re more interested in shaking hands with stars, browsing the vendor tables and cosplaying as Sith Lords or Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker.

And this fall offers an abundance of opportunities for those folks to get their geek on.
Up first is Fan Fest’s “Preview Con,” which falls the weekend before Halloween. After Fan Fest made its debut last November, this will be the organizers’ third show in just 11 months. Admission, autographs and photos at the con are free if attendees purchase a badge to next year’s show.

On deck for appearances are Zachary Levi (Shazam!), Antony Starr (TV’s The Boys), Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) and Brandon Routh (DC’s Legends of Tomorrow). The con will also include a car show featuring vehicles such as the 1989 Batmobile and the ECTO-1 from Ghostbusters.

Up next will be Traders Village ComiCon at the popular Southside flea market, one of the newest shows to sprout up in San Antonio.

The event is free — although there is a $4 parking charge — and will feature a handful of celebrities, including actor Reb Brown, who played the title Marvel hero in the 1979 made-for-TV Captain America movie. Also on deck are voice actors Charles Fleischer, who gave life to toon Roger Rabbit from the groundbreaking 1988 film, and Rikki Simons, who plays hyperactive robot GIR on Nickelodeon TV’s Invader Zim, in addition to WWE Hall of Fame wrestler Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake.

The Trader’s Village event will go up against ACCC — Halloween Edition, which is booked for the same weekend.

This year, SA’s longest-running comic con has lassoed some significant star power, including Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton (Birdman, Batman). Joining Keaton are actor Steve Guttenberg (Police Academy) and a trio of Red Dead Redemption II voice actors – Roger Clark, Benjamin Byron Davis and Rob Wiethoff.

Celebrity Fan Fest “Preview Con”
$10-$40, Oct. 26-27, Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Freeman Expo Hall, 3201 E. Houston St., pmxevents.com.

Alamo City Comic Con — Halloween Edition

$10-$550, Nov. 1-3, Friday 3 p.m.-9 p.m.; Sat 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Grand Hyatt San Antonio, 600 E. Market St., alamocitycomiccon.com.

Traders Village ComiCon
Free, Nov 2-3, Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Traders Village, 9333 SW Loop 410, tradersvillage.com.

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