SALT LAKE CITY — Looking down over the bustling convention floor in the final hours of Salt Lake Comic Con's FanX event, co-founder Bryan Brandenburg's mind is on the future.
The two-day comic and pop-culture event — a scaled-down version of Salt Lake Comic Con in the fall — attracted an estimated 55,000 fans to the Salt Palace Convention Center on Saturday, beating 2016's FanX attendance by 5,000 people. Attendance at its headline event, which happens each September, consistently attracts more than 120,000 attendees.
Though organizers had initially promised a more modest celebrity lineup for the condensed event, FanX ended up with some long sought-after names on its program, including the quirky stars of the crime-solving comedy/drama "Psych," James Roday and Dule Hill. It was the duo's first-ever appearance at fan convention.
FanX had also promised a return by Marvel creator Stan Lee, who had selected Salt Lake for one of his final convention visits but canceled his appearance for health reasons.
The now 94-year-old Lee still participated in a 30-minute video panel late Saturday, a virtual appearance that organizers said he personally requested in order to make up for his absence. Lee answered questions from audience members and received a standing ovation from fans.
With its increasingly star-studded guest lists and consistently strong attendance, Brandenburg believes the Salt Lake Comic Con franchise, now in its fourth year, will only continue to grow.
And with that growth, Brandenburg sees potential to increase comic con's economic impact on the state.
"We realize it's a delicate balance to stick to our roots of amazing fan experiences for consumers, yet create critical mass where we can continue to bring in guests like Chris Evans and Mark Hamill," Brandenburg said. "We think we have a good plan for doing that, and city and state officials seem willing to work with us in a way that is a win-win situation, so we'll continue to take those steps."
"We certainly have their attention," Brandenburg said, noting the unmistakable presence downtown whenever a Salt Lake Comic Con event is underway.
During Utah's 2017 Legislative session, Brandenburg and Salt Lake Comic Con co-founder Dan Farr floated an open letter suggesting the homegrown geek convention could eventually fill some of the void left by the departing Outdoor Retailer trade shows.
Outdoor Retailer announced last month that after 20 years in Utah, it is taking its summer and winter trade shows — and their $50 million annual injection to Salt Lake's economy — out of the state in light of controversy surrounding public lands and the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument.
Brandenburg and Farr visited lawmakers on the hill to lobby their idea, saying Salt Lake Comic Con could match that $50 million impact by the year 2020, according to the letter.
Scott Beck, CEO of Visit Salt Lake, says that while Salt Lake Comic Con is well-attended and has quickly come to play an important role in the city in a short amount of time, its consumer-oriented model simply doesn't match that of a large trade show and therefore has less economic impact.
While comic con plays a huge role in the community's identity and promotes economic vitality as attendees eat in restaurants, use transit and spend money on the convention floor, the bulk of its attendees are locals, Beck pointed out. That means the events don't bring in the same spending and tax revenue as a primarily out-of-state audience traveling in to attend a trade show.
"When someone comes from Sandy to Salt Lake, that is not economic impact in our world because Sandy and Salt Lake are on the same island," Beck said. "Moving dollars from Sandy to Salt Lake within our economy is not the goal of our organization."
But when someone from out of state comes to Salt Lake for an event, spends money and pays taxes, and then heads home, the money they leave behind reduces the tax burden and improves the economy for the city, Beck said.
That doesn't mean it's not possible for Salt Lake Comic Con's impact to grow, Beck points out, but he emphasizes the event would have to change, specifically in attracting a greater percentage of its audience from outside Utah and distinguishing itself from dozens of similar events in the region and around the country.
"Comic con can continue to grow. There is more room at the convention center for them to grow," he said, adding that Salt Lake Comic Con would have change the "visitor demographic they attract."
"In our world, we don't ever say things like, 'That's not possible,'" Beck said. "We say things like, 'That's what would have to happen for them to become at the level of an Outdoor Retailer show.'"
Top events such as San Diego Comic Con or New York Comic Con have a measurable economic impact in their cities, topping $60 million and $100 million, respectively.
"We have the ability to move in that direction," Brandenburg said.
Currently, he says, about 25 percent of the show's attendees are coming from outside Utah. That's up from the inaugural Salt Lake Comic Con event in 2013 when the crowd was almost 92 percent local, according to Brandenburg.
Salt Lake Comic Con's goals would only continue to grow its out-of-state audience, Brandenburg says, and having some of the financial support previously set aside in the state for the departing Outdoor Retailer show would help accomplish those goals.
For example, Brandenburg says he and Farr are looking to attract even bigger celebrities — fans are consistently clamoring for superhero stars such as Chris Pratt and Robert Downey Jr., he noted — with the potential to bring in fans from around the country.
Once that "critical mass" builds, the co-founders hope to score participation by major studios and merchandisers, Brandenburg said. Offering a first look at advanced screenings or trailers, new products and big-name celebrities could help shift the primarily consumer market that comic con has now to include retailers, media and business professionals.
For now, Salt Lake Comic Con will continue preparing for future events and striving to reach "milestones" that move it toward its goals, Brandenburg said. As examples, he pointed to last fall's appearance by Star Wars icon Mark Hamill before 10,000 fans in Vivint Arena, or the company's partnership with Funko and its collectible POP figurines.
"We feel like we have the infrastructure to move forward in growth yet maintain what has made us very successful, and that's taking care of the fans," Brandenburg said.