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What Can Arts Organizations Learn from Comic-Con? (Part 2)

Building New Audiences with Social Media

Welcome to Part II of our series "What Can Arts Organizations Learn from Comic-Con?". During this three-part series, I've asked three local arts leaders and committed Comic-Con fans/attendees to consider the titular question. They are: Tyler Richard Hewes, the Executive Director of Orchestra Nova San Diego, Dalouge Smith, the President and CEO of the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory, and Edward Wilensky, the Director of Media Relations for the San Diego Opera. We've moved on from considering the dated categories of high and low art, to discuss the education and building of new audiences, which led us naturally to social media and technology. And, interestingly, to "District 9", "La bohème", Gustavo Dudamel and Jimmy Fallon. I swear there's a logical thread! See for yourself...

ANGELA: It seems to me that one of the reasons Comic-Con works so well is that it knows its audience and programs accordingly. How do arts organizations program to grow an audience? How do you take the necessary risks without losing or alienating a portion of your audience?

DALOUGE: Comic-Con has dealt with this problem by continuously growing its program to make room for every medium and genre of mythical fantasy story and becoming a world of partnerships. This capacity for [Comic-Con culture] to be accepting is no surprise to me when I consider all the comic book readers I’ve ever known also consume other artistic works. They read science fiction or fantasy novels, participated in all-night, role-playing game marathons, frequented movies, read fanzines, or played video games. No one had to do all of these things to feel like part of the Comic-Con community. There have even been tribes in the comic book world. You were a DC or Marvel collector in days past. Yet within the halls of Comic-Con, this disagreement didn’t really manifest as more than a friendly rivalry. I don’t think it even exists today.

Non-profit arts organizations have a spotty willingness to engage in program collaboration, so its no surprise their current audiences are unaccustomed to seeing new audiences attend or participate. Likewise, arts organizations are inconsistent partners with non-arts entities. This is the opposite of Comic-Con, where partnership is an intrinsic part of the culture. This year, Lego and Warner Bros. were jointly promoting Lego Rock Band on the exhibit floor. Hasbro and Lucas Films have exhibited side by side for years with no apparent boundary between one "Star Wars" focused display and another. Comic-Con’s producers don’t seem to operate with a zero sum perspective. Unfortunately, arts leaders often feel there is a limited pool of audience members and donors so they behave as though other arts organizations are their competition. The reality is, Comic-Con and all the entertainment it celebrates is our competition and we don’t come close to attracting the variety of people it does. Nor do we so successfully make them feel like full members of our community during their first interaction with us.

EDWARD: There is so much diversity at Comic-Con, there is something for everyone. And that's hard for an arts organization to do - plan a program so diverse that there is something for everyone. I like Marvel Comics but my friend likes DC. I like bel canto opera but my friend likes baroque. For us, with a four opera season, you really need to look at a five-year cycle to see what is really diverse about our programming. Our upcoming season might seem like a season of warhorses, but these are the operas that fill the theatre and the season is framed by ones that include a modern opera, a rarely performed opera, and a few premieres.

However, planning a season with even one unknown opera is incredibly risky. Opera isn't cheap, and if it doesn't sell to expectation, that's 25% of your revenue right there. I'm sure it's the same for any arts organization with a limited season. And while we have a mission to grow new audiences with new and exciting works, we also have to be fiscally responsible. Comic-Con has the luxury of saturation. I've seen plenty of duds over the years but the good always outweighs the bad at the Con.

TYLER: I think it is a matter of knowing which audience you are catering to. The advantage an orchestra has over an opera company is that we can tailor a concert depending on the audience who will attend. The Symphony can put together the video game concert with ease and it doesn't alienate their core audience who attend their typical classics series. Orchestra Nova can do a Disney pops show one week and then do a full Mozart concert the next, satisfying two diverse audiences with relative ease. There is a flexibility that some art forms have that others do not - and that can help contribute to growing your audience.

EDWARD: Where Comic-Con really succeeds is something Dalouge touched on: their ability to cross promote for various audiences with these synergistic products. I was also impressed with the use of social media this year. It was used very effectively by some. Disney's promotion for "Alice in Wonderland" comes to mind and various booths had free giveaways if you followed them on Twitter - replacing the mad swag rush of old. This was a wonderful use of Twitter because it gave people a feeling of exclusiveness, of community, of insider information. And now they're still tweeting to me. We need to learn from this and come up with our own ways to make our patrons feel invested in our company, to give them a voice, and an incentive to get involved. By engaging them, it lessens the impact of doing risky work they might not like -- as long as they know they have a way to make their voice heard, we can engage them in a dialogue. And that's always a good thing.

TYLER: I believe one area where arts organizations can start to break down the barriers is through new media - Ed hit on the idea of Twitter and how it was used at the Con - I believe that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all provide a perfect opportunity for arts organizations to take risks and present themselves in a new manner without turning away from their current audience. If we can show a backstage preview on YouTube and Tweet a symphony (as the National is doing this weekend with Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony) than we can start breaking down the barriers that have prevented interaction with this new audience.

This is one of the ways that the Con works so well: you can hear directly from the creators of your favorite movie, TV show, or comic in person and, depending on the size of the panel and room, you can even ask them a question or have a conversation. This is the type of interactivity I believe the arts must pursue to lure the next generation of arts consumer. For years, we've all had "artist hosts" and fostered relationships between high-end donors and the artist, but what about the normal ticket buyer or fan? What about those who can't give thousands of dollars to obtain access? By bringing these folks into the conversation, through blogs, tweets, and some basic artist interaction, we are able to forge a strong bond between consumer and brand. Con is a master at this. Fans will wait for hours upon hours to get into Hall H (the large convention hall where blockbuster movie panels are held) just for the chance to glimpse someone they love from hundreds of feet away. They will cheer and scream because they are breathing the same air as George Lucas, or Peter Jackson or Johnny Depp. That type of dedication and fandom is something we all can learn from.

DALOUGE: Another issue I believe hampers non-profit arts organizations is their impatience. Comic-Con has taken 40 years to grow into what it is today. I once heard the adage, “overnight sensations are 20 years in the making.” Non-profit arts organizations don’t generally set their sights far into the future and decide to aim their programs and resources to achieving that long-term goal. Nor do they communicate that long-term vision when they have it. San Diego Opera may have five years of opera planned but the public only knows about the season they are currently selling. Has anyone ever tried to let people buy into the 5-year cycle that includes the variety Ed mentions? Everyone knew seven Harry Potter books would eventually come out over a span of years and that built anticipation for each one. I agree with Tyler that price is a barrier in some cases, as can be programming. Those choices are outcomes of a world view, however, that operates quite differently from the world view that grew Comic-Con.

TYLER: Interesting you should mention the 5-year plan, Dalouge, as this is one of the key recommendations Michael Kaiser makes for organizational stability and growth: program 5 years out. By showing long-term thinking and planning, you can set into motion those factors that will turn you into an overnight sensation. For my part, that thinking has been very helpful and has really changed how I am looking at how we plan our upcoming season(s).

DALOUGE: Tyler, has creating a five-year programming plan also changed how you announce your seasons? One thing that orchestras use successfully to keep their current audiences looking forward to the future is music director searches and announcements. This isn’t a practice that can always be deployed because you hope a music director will stay with an orchestra over time. When it happens, it can be like the extended product launch campaigns we see at Comic-Con. Gustavo Dudamel’s hiring as the new Los Angeles Philharmonic (LA Phil) Music Director came over two years ago. His first season in this position begins in September but he’s had “teaser” appearances with the orchestra since the original announcement. The same frenzy that surrounds the launch of a blockbuster movie has been building in Los Angeles for his official arrival and the LA Phil will oblige with a huge concert at the Hollywood Bowl for a large, diverse audience as well as its gala opening for major donors.

TYLER: Right now, the future season planning is being kept in house, but soon we will be able to start sharing at least one year ahead, maybe two, with donors and potential sponsors in an effort to start whetting their appetites. One thing we have undertaken is performing all of Beethoven's symphonies in order over the course of 9 years. This has given our audience a touchstone to look forward to and allowed us to plan/budget accordingly.

I think that following the idea of the "teaser" is wonderful and that is another area where I think social media and online links can help. By posting snippets of recordings from upcoming seasons on your website, you are giving the audience more to be excited about. Again, Comic-Con is a great example of this. After seeing the "District 9" panel, I am literally counting down the days until I can see the full movie. Hearing a conversation with the filmmakers and watching some extended footage has turned me into a full-on fan without having seen the entire flick yet. Great way of going about building that frenzy we're talking about.

The thing Dudamel had going for him, outside of an excellent roll-out (I totally agree on that front) was true star power. The LA Phil has capitalized on his growing reputation, his age and his looks to really capture the imagination of their public. That is an area where we in the arts can sometimes get bogged down. We might have a star within our own industry, but a casual ticket buyer might not know who that person is and why they are such a big deal. By creating more energy surrounding these announcements and trying to capture more market share with them, I think the results will be more beneficial.

EDWARD: Again, this is where I think that leveraging the artist – getting them in front of your community can help. We have one of the hottest tenors in the world coming to sing our "La bohème" but nobody but a select few know this. It's going to be our job over the next few months to get Piotr Beczala himself in front of people via Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc… and of course, KPBS.

But where Comic-Con took it to the next level, and I hate to tell you this Tyler, was they actually showed the complete version of "District 9" one night. It wasn’t publicized except through Twitter and a website but it was there, free and open to the public. So again, while teasers are an excellent way to generate buzz, sometimes we also need to deliver in a big way so as to recognize our supporters. To motivate them even more to go out and be emissaries for our organization.

TYLER: I MISSED IT! Nooooooooooooooo. Yep...I am now going to weep openly into my lunch.

EDWARD: Hate the message, not the messenger ;-) If it helps, I thought it was horrible. I’m only telling you that to lessen the blow.

Early on, Tyler mentioned ticket prices. I think every organization needs to hype that there is a price for everyone at their performances, something we can learn from Comic-Con. Yes, even the opera is affordable. Tyler touched on something else important. For $200 you can start a nice comic collection but there is something more to it - a comic book collection is something you can keep, put on a shelf, take down and return to a year later. It is something you can pass down to your children. Attending the arts is a temporary experience. Once it is over, it is gone. You have a program you file away in a drawer and your memories, but that’s it. So we have this difficult battle: how do we make our experience worth the investment in money and in time? This is tricky in attracting new audiences as they lack the motivation and the experience that even though art is ephemeral, it can be a life-changing experience.

TYLER: This is where, again, I think emerging media will help us put something tangible in the audience's hands - an instant recording of a performance, a blog post from a musician, a video post of selected scenes. Each will help trigger the memory of their concert experience and let them re-live it.

I also think that there is something great about the ephemeral nature of these arts. One of the reasons I love opera and theatre and symphonic music is that I will never see the same performance twice. I will never hear the same concert played the same way twice. Human error and inspiration will always modify the experience and I love that. I saw Mark Rylance perform "Hamlet" at Shakespeare's Globe in London about 10 years ago and still haven't gotten over it. That experience is burned into my mind because I knew I would never see it again, so I needed to capture and hold onto it. The program I bought is a nice touchstone to trigger the memory of that day, but it's still just a memory.

EDWARD: Tyler that’s an excellent point – the live arts are different from night to night, which is why each performance is so special. I’ve seen "La bohème" a dozen times, but I’ve never heard it with this cast, so for me, this is what makes it special. But the battle we all face is how to educate the general public about this, especially in a digital world where even live theatre can be captured, recorded and uploaded to YouTube by the time you get home from the theatre. Does this distill the singular unique experience of live theatre or is this the future?

As art organizations we have two things we can leverage to our online community: the art itself and the artist. Getting the art out to people costs money but getting the artist out in front of people can be free especially to an artist who understands this. And this is what Comic-Con understands so well. I was reading Jimmy Fallon’s tweets where he was giving a nearly blow-by-blow account of his Comic-Con experience. He mentioned he was at one booth. I was at the same booth and I looked up and he was standing in front of me. It gave me the feeling that I was part of something larger. So why can’t we have the first violinist tweet from the rehearsals and the tenor tweet from the wings? Market not just the art but the artist, the entire process. This is something we’re going to try next year. But it gives up control, something I think many arts organizations are reluctant to relinquish.

TYLER: I fully agree, Ed. I think that is the only way to go forward is to share the artists themselves with their public through Facebook, Twitter, etc. I love the Jimmy Fallon story as that is everything about how to create a movement that people will follow. I know that "Inglorious Bastards" did the same thing through their Twitter feed - you had to get a code, go to a place and then you get to see the movie. That feeling of insider status can really help foster brand loyalty, something I think the Con itself and all its member companies are VERY good at. I think the idea of being a Marvel or DC person is so wonderful - really making being one or the other part of your life.

Join us here tomorrow for Part III of "What Can Arts Organizations Learn from Comic-Con?" We'll discuss the impact of arts criticism and citizen bloggers on Comic-Con and the arts.

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