Wizard World CEO strives to make Rosemont convention 'a perfect fan experience'
"It's a golden age for content," says Wizard World CEO John Maatta, calling the era of endless channels and streaming services "the best time ever to be a consumer of television and motion pictures."
It's also a golden age for pop culture conventions, with 16 staged across the country this year by Maatta's company. The largest of the bunch returns to Rosemont Thursday, Aug. 23.
Wizard World Chicago, a four-day celebration of comics, cosplay and celebrity guests, has been a summer fixture at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center since 1996. The Chicago-area Comic-Con marketplace has gotten crowded in those 22 years -- C2E2 at McCormick Place, Walker Stalker Con, Creation Entertainment's "Star Trek" and "Supernatural" shows -- but Maatta shuns the idea of rivalries. "We're all doing our own thing," he said in a phone interview.
What is Wizard World's thing? "Our job is to make this a perfect fan experience," he said, and that starts with customer service.
Maatta won't be in an L.A. office while thousands of fans descend upon Rosemont; he'll be on the convention floor, where he says he enjoys seeing the costumes and feeling the energy of the room. He'll also be taking calls, as Maatta's phone number will be available to guests. "If something is amiss, I want to know about it," he said.
Attendees of the convention, which Maatta likens more to a pop culture festival, will have no shortage of options. There are the requisite appearances by celebrities, who will pose for a photo or give you an autograph for a fee. Some of them -- such as "X-Files" icons Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, or "Boy Meets World" stars Ben Savage, Danielle Fishel, Will Friedle and Rider Strong -- will participate in panel discussions that give fans the opportunity to ask questions and gush over their faves.
Wizard World also hosts hundreds of artists from all corners of pop culture and commerce; this year's lineup includes "Deadpool" co-creator Rob Liefeld and former Chicago Bears defensive end Israel Idonije, who founded Athlitacomics after retiring from the NFL.
The slate of panels and programs, available at wizardworld.com, includes cartooning and costuming workshops, fan debates (Marvel vs. DC, the eternal question!), a symposium on women in pop culture featuring a Guardian of the Galaxy (Pom Klementieff) and a "Charmed" witch (Holly Marie Combs), and a trivia contest hosted by erstwhile "Rookie of the Year" Thomas Ian Nicholas.
And don't forget the merch -- there will be mountains of comic books, Funko POPs and T-shirts for sale in every corner of the convention hall.
After the display cases are packed up, Wizard World will get ready for its September show in Tulsa. Then Austin. Then Sacramento. "Nobody travels like we do," Maatta said, and you can expect them back in the suburbs next year. "Rosemont has been fantastic to us."
Meet the stars
Notable celebrity guests scheduled to appear at Wizard World Chicago:
• Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny ("The X-Files")
• Caitriona Balfe, Sophie Skelton, Richard Rankin, Lotte Verbeek, Graham McTavish and author Diana Gabaldon ("Outlander")
• Nichelle Nichols ("Star Trek")
• Michael Rooker and Pom Klementieff ("Guardians of the Galaxy")
• Karl Urban ("Star Trek," "Thor: Ragnarok")
• David Krumholtz ("Numbers")
• Ernie Hudson ("Ghostbusters")
• Ben Savage, Danielle Fishel, Will Friedle and Rider Strong ("Boy Meets World")
• Tom Welling and Michael Rosenbaum ("Smallville")
• Charisma Carpenter and James Marsters ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer")
• Thomas Ian Nicholas ("Rookie of the Year," "American Pie")
• • •
Wizard World Chicago
What: Annual pop culture convention with celebrity guests, artists, vendors, entertainment, panel discussions and more
When: 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23; noon to 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 25; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26
Where: Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, 5555 N. River Road, Rosemont, wizardworld.com
Tickets: Four-day admission $95, Thursday admission $35, Friday or Sunday admission $45, Saturday admission $55. See pricing for VIP packages, autograph and photo sessions and more at wizardworld.com.