Making Money on the Mania

These days, geek culture has morphed into pop culture and become an unstoppable force, living large on silver screens and TV screens in year-round releases. From adaptations of comic books to reboots of old favorites, excitement for the next installment of a franchise brings in droves of fans of all ages.

Not convinced? San Diego Comic Con has had to cap attendance at 130,000 tickets and New York Comic Con draws more than 150,000 attendees. Down south, attendance at Dragon*Con in Atlanta continues to grow every year. Those numbers, along with the hundreds of other conventions held across the country, prove that pop culture can fuel themed events large and small, no matter where your establishment is located.

Not only are these franchises popular, they’re reliable. Many – including Marvel Entertainment, DC Comics, and Star Wars – have movie releases planned out anywhere from five to ten years in advance, and older favorites like Star Trek and Jurassic Park are also seeing revivals. Even the Harry Potter series, which concluded in 2011, is revisiting the big screen with a new trilogy. Any way you slice it, if you aren’t making an effort to capitalize on the most recent release, you could be missing out on potential profit.

Planning Your Themed Event

Themed events that are open to the public are a great way to engage your community. We reached out to Darren Fink at Transfiguring Adoption, a nonprofit organization that uses the Harry Potter series to help foster and adoptive families, for advice on how restaurants and other businesses can incorporate themed events into their schedules.

“An owner doesn’t want to be in a situation later of having to forfeit their success and idea because the title specifically named a lightning-scarred wizard owned by someone else.”

Avoid copyright infringement. After realizing that Transfiguring Adoption was going to be more than just a family project, Fink says the organization consulted an attorney and were “advised to search the U.S. Patent and Trademark website and steer clear of anything that was already claimed by Warner Bros.” Using generic theme names, like ‘Superhero Night’ for an event focused on comic book characters or ‘Wizard Night’ instead of ‘Harry Potter Night,’ can help you avoid copyright infringement. Fink advises that owners avoid using anything that legally belongs to someone else. He notes that, “Our guides are about a discussion with the books and not the books themselves,” so although they “contain specific names or references, the big difference is that TA in no way takes credit for J.K. Rowling’s property.”

Know your audience. Because “there are so many fandom categories and genres and various tastes within each,” Fink notes that “the age group that your business is targeting through your event is immensely important.” Clarifying if the event is child-oriented, adult-oriented, or appropriate for all ages will help avoid confusion among potential attendees and help you successfully plan the event. “As a father, I’m not going to be a happy camper when I bring my young child to an anime-themed event at your restaurant only to discover that the majority of the guests are adults,” says Fink. Further, he adds that teenagers will “be disappointed when they show up at an event that with only small children. For your event, you need to set the expectation for your target age range and then people can decide if it is the event for them or not.”

Create an atmosphere. Another important expectation to set ahead of time is the level of immersion your guests will be able to enjoy. Fink points out that during TA’s involvement with events, “the success we have seen in the themed evenings or celebration events has a lot to do with audience expectations.” Special menu items that play up the theme can be pulled directly from the source material or be a new concoction inspired by a particular character or location from the story. Games and contests will give guests an interactive experience and give the host an opportunity to hand out gift cards or coupons as rewards. Costumes are a festive way to immerse guests in the theme, and child-friendly events could benefit from hiring costumed professionals to attend. “If you are encouraging customers to come dressed in costume, your staff needs to dress as well,” says Fink, who also suggests that an owner “strongly encourage your staff to get into character or speak the jargon.”

Double up. If you’re worried a themed event might not be successful on its own, consider adding another component. Trivia nights have become popular weekday events, so hosting a themed trivia night will take advantage of two fads at once. Obtaining sponsorship from a local, noncompeting business can expand your reach and build a relationship with your community.

“Right away you need to set the expectation for folks. Is it a themed night because you are merely going to serve something that you call Butterbeer or are you going to do more? The trick then is to deliver on your expectation with excellence and go one step further.”

Transfiguring Adoption members at an event

Partner with a charity. “Working in coordination with a charity is a great idea that has the potential for mutual benefits. Obviously, the business owner hosting the event can help a good cause,” Fink says, recommending that you “market heavily how your event is helping the community,” which also helps the charity out by increasing its visibility. To help the event be a positive experience for all parties involved, Fink adds, “It’s important for the business owner to be honest about the event and keep the charity in the loop. If the number of expected guests is seeming to be lower than you first anticipated, make the charity coordinator aware of the situation and don’t be embarrassed. The coordinator may actually have some advice for your event to help, but no one can help if you don’t clue them into the issues.” Another benefit of partnering with a charity for an event? “Your work with the charity can also turn your event from a capitalistic venture to a great human interest story that various news media would love to cover (for free).”

Put on a movie night. If your restaurant has televisions, you might be interested in licensing a film for a public viewing. To do this, you can contact companies like the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation, Swank Motion Pictures, and Criterion, which can provide a license to show movies to a public audience. The company you decide to obtain a license with will probably be determined by which one has the film you wish to show. The cost for licensing a film will likely be a few hundred dollars, but an exact price won’t be available until you request a quote from the licensing company. It’s important to factor the cost of the license into your seating capacity to decide if you can make a profit on a movie night.

Summoning the Masses

“Social media is a huge tool that will help you set your expectations and not enough small businesses take advantage of this tool,” Fink says. If your business doesn’t already have an online presence, he declares, “Today is the day you make a business page on at least Facebook.” Managing your social media accounts to build a following and engage with current and potential customers will make it easier to tell people about your themed event, as your own loyal fans will be compelled to share the news online or by word-of-mouth. “In my past job as a social media manager,” Finks explains, “I have witnessed businesses be able to execute a great event by simply engaging with people on social media. Be consistent with posting. Ask questions to encourage conversation and be sure to respond to comments.”

“Please self-promote your page and event, and strongly encourage all of your staff to do the same. Too many people are afraid to self-promote their events.”

That isn’t to discount low-tech forms of advertising. Having a well-designed flyer to post in your establishment and in surrounding businesses will advertise your upcoming event offline, while clever sandwich board art placed outside your restaurant might prompt some passersby to share the image on their own social media accounts. Creative, image-driven advertisements that can also be used online can leave a lasting impression.

Don’t forget about promoting it yourself, too. “If you don’t think your event is worth talking about, then why should your guests attend?” Fink also suggests sharing photos and videos of your staff preparing for the event. “If your staff is going to be in costume, take a few videos of them trying out costumes. As a restaurant, video your chef trying out various themed recipes. It all lets your potential guests see the level of work you are putting into making an immersive experience and gets them excited.”

Thoroughly advertising your event online and in visible places in your venue’s entrance will also limit the number of people who show up unprepared for the themed event, which can lead to dismayed customers who were expecting a different environment. If your building has multiple floors, you can avoid this issue by dedicating one floor to the themed event and maintaining regular operations on the other floor.

“There are so many fandom categories and genres and various tastes within each… For your event you need to set the expectation for your target age range and then people can decide if it is the event for them or not.”

Deciding what type of themed event will work best for your establishment will depend largely on your available seating, budget, and schedule, but with so many franchises releasing movies in the near future, you have plenty of opportunities to try your hand at putting on a public event. If you find that it works well for your business, you’ve invested in a recurring event that provides revenue and community engagement.

Upcoming Releases in 2016

  • Captain America: Civil War on May 6
  • Alice Through the Looking Glass on May 27
  • X-Men: Apocalypse on May 27
  • Independence Day: Resurgence on June 24
  • The Legend of Tarzan on July 1
  • Ghostbusters on July 15
  • Star Trek Beyond on July 22
  • Suicide Squad on August 5
  • Doctor Strange on November 4
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them on November 18
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16

  • The Flash renewed for Season 3
  • Arrow renewed for Season 5
  • Game of Thrones renewed for Season 7
  • The Walking Dead renewed for Season 7

Working with Transfiguring Adoption

To partner with Transfiguring Adoption or to learn more about what they do, Darren Fink can be reached via e-mail at darren@transfiguringadoption. The nonprofit organization has previously worked with The Empty Cup, a local coffee shop, and the Barnes and Noble Café in Knoxville, Tenn., and would like to work with other businesses and restaurants.

“The TA crew is quite creative and likes helping coordinators think of ideas for their events,” Fink says, explaining a few of the ways businesses have worked with them in the past. “TA has attended retail store celebrations of the Harry Potter series and we have also been to events such as the US Quidditch Cup.” In addition to one of the organization’s members acting as the event’s MC, “Some businesses have set up a purchase reward program for the day, so much of the profits of the day or on an item go to help foster kids via TA. TA has set up informational tables and dressed in costume while being allowed to sell our T-shirts and other merchandise.”

Transfiguring Adoption's table setup at a convention

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. Her family moved to Knoxville when she was 12, and in the years following she became a self-described "big nerd" with deep-seated feelings about Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, and the Lord of the Rings series. A 2014 graduate of the University of Tennessee with a degree in English, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from around the country, and celebrating the Cubs' 2016 World Series win. Passionate about animal rescue, she met her feline soulmate, a Maine Coon mix named Vesper, while volunteering with a local humane society.

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