1. Archive


LOS ANGELES - Taking a page from the wildly popular Comic-Con, Disney is wishing upon a four-day expo that ends todayto draw more enthusiasm from its loyal and well-wired fan base.

Clubs and fan fests have long worked to rally Star Trek, Barbie and comic book collectors, but the D23 Expo, which began Thursday in Anaheim, and an online fan club of the same name launched earlier this year are Disney's first attempts to organize and romance its far-flung followers.

Over the long run, strengthening the relationship between the company and its fans online can create self-perpetuating marketing, where eager fans can promote Disney products online without the company incurring further costs.

By copying Comic-Con - which attracted about 126,000 comic book lovers to this year's July event in San Diego - Disney can tantalize devotees with behind-the-scenes access to the franchise's celebrities and upcoming movies.

"When you talk about Disney fans, they want to consume every iota, every scrap of minutiae they can get their hands on," said Steven Clark, head of D23. "All this is unprecedented - we've never granted this kind of access to our fans."

Disney is corralling all the divisions and businesses under its umbrella - about 30 brands, including Pixar, ABC-TV and the theme parks - for the event at the Anaheim Convention Center. For $37 a day, attendees got advance movie screenings, peeks into the Disney archive collections and updates on the company's theme park expansions.

While it's open to the public, the expo is the capstone event for the D23 club, which was named to signify creator Walt Disney's 1923 move to Hollywood. The company started selling $75 annual memberships in March, but won't say how many have been sold. Members-only perks include a subscription to a collectors' magazine and access to exclusive events.

Stagnant DVD sales, less spending at theme parks and lower ad revenue at the company's TV networks have dampened Disney profits the past three quarters compared with a year earlier.

The expo itself is less a reaction to a few bad earnings reports and more of an investment in brand loyalty, said New York-based financial analyst David Bank of RBC Capital Markets.

"I think it's more about tending a garden that's generally well-maintained, as opposed to fixing something," Bank said.

Clark was mum on whether the expo will make or lose money, although they planned for tens of thousands of attendees. Merchandise revenue from the event will certainly be welcome, but perhaps the biggest perk for Disney is coveted, one-stop access to the Net-savvy fans who perpetuate the company's name.

"Consumers are becoming very powerful arbiters of what they like and don't like," said Gareb Shamus, CEO of Wizard Entertainment, which owns five Comic-Con operations in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Toronto and Anaheim.

Companies are transitioning from wooing retailers to wooing consumers - and ultimately, their Twitter followers, blog readers and Facebook friends, Shamus said.

That fan-centric model is at work for companies like Mattel, which rallies its 8 million U.S. Barbie collectors through a paid online fan club and a sold-out, three-day annual convention.

What the company tries to leverage with its $25 fan club memberships is a collector's appetite to be in-the-know, said Mattel's Barbie Collectors spokeswoman Liz Grampp. The company uses exclusive online bulletin boards to leak Barbie news to the 7,500 club members.

"It's about scarcity, rarity and the thrill of the hunt," Grampp said. "If we release the information slowly, we can balance the excitement and the frustration."

But companies with influential fan communities face a two-edged sword. Fans empowered with fierce, longtime loyalty and the latest technology have been known to let their strong, sometimes negative opinions fly.

Disney's unofficial Internet watchdogs include Al Lutz, creator and full-time operator of the Web site MiceAge, which gets more than 2.5 million page views each month. Lutz said courting fans online is a shift for Disney, which was once wary of its wired commentators.

"Early on, they blamed the Internet for a lot of their failures and bad word of mouth," he said.

Shortly after Disney launched its fan club this past spring, MiceAge posted blogs skeptical of the $75 membership fee and recommending fans hold out on joining. Later, the site reversed that position when Disney released a schedule of members-only events that one columnist called "pure magic to a Disney fan."

"Apparently, fans asked and they listened," Lutz wrote.

On D23's Facebook page, some fans grouse at what seems to be a money-grubbing Expo. An overwhelming majority, however, is spellbound by a program that includes personal appearances by company heroes like president Robert Iger and Pixar chief John Lasseter.

Disney fan Jennifer Morrissey, 33, is so devoted that she decorates her home with Disney collectibles and had Mickey Mouse tattooed onto her ankle. She flew from Boston to spend all four days at the Expo and said Disney is finally seeing the importance in courting its fan core.

"In the past, they were more interested in the bottom line," Morrissey said. "They're finally getting that we exist and there's a need for something like this."