By the close of 2011, Shamus, who declined to comment for this story, was out as CEO. A few months later, John Macaluso was in, billed as the man who would help bring Wizard World back to life.

"They're pretty much the Cadillac of conventions."

Macaluso is an oatmeal man. The Wizard World CEO has been traveling quite frequently for this year's lineup of conventions — he attends every event — and he needs some hearty sustenance to keep him going.

The down-home breakfast fits Macaluso's style. He's a businessman. A finance whiz. A practical guy known for solving problems. But Macaluso's background doesn't exactly scream "geek."

Brian Spath screens his Web series Comic Geeks around the country at conventions like Wizard World.
Jon Gitchoff
Brian Spath screens his Web series Comic Geeks around the country at conventions like Wizard World.
Star Trek's William Shatner is one of many celebrities slated to appear at Wizard World St. Louis. John Macaluso stands at right.
Courtesy of Wizard World
Star Trek's William Shatner is one of many celebrities slated to appear at Wizard World St. Louis. John Macaluso stands at right.

In 1987 he founded California Concepts, a women's apparel manufacturer that produced private labels and serviced upscale specialty chains, which he ran until he sold the company in 2007. Macaluso also has been involved in real estate development and other entrepreneurial endeavors — undertakings that he says all translate to his position at Wizard World.

"I was a garment manufacturer selling to every major chain in the country — Walmart, J.C. Penney, Kmart, Sears. And for the most part, you had to look at a cost sheet and make sure that a garment that cost $6 didn't sell for $5," Macaluso says. "It's all the same business principles."

After Macaluso retired, he invested in Wizard World on the advice of a friend and eventually became a member of its board of directors after enjoying an experience at a convention in New Orleans. That wasn't his only incentive to become active with the company, though.

"My wife and kids basically said, 'We're really glad you're retired, but you're driving us crazy. Go find a job,'" Macaluso laughs.

Since Macaluso took the helm in March 2012, Wizard World has bumped its annual number of comic cons from seven cities in 2012 to sixteen in 2014 and increased its full-time staff to 23 people. Macaluso has also greatly increased the company's overall revenue. In 2012, Wizard World earned just $6.7 million in operating revenue. Last year that same figure eclipsed $11 million. In 2012 the company eked out just $197,809 in operating income. Last year it netted $343,506. Sure, no one is going to confuse Wizard World with the next Apple; the company operates out of a nondescript walk-up in Southern California, and its thinly traded stock sells for well below a dollar. Still, it's progress.

"For a company this size, probably the best measure of health is what we call the book value of equity, and that has increased from a deficit to a positive amount over the year," says Mike Alderson, chairman of Saint Louis University's finance department. "And the company's liabilities declined and its assets grew. In many respects, the most important thing that can happen for a small company is that it accumulates assets and then doesn't burden itself with excessive liabilities."

So what was it that had put Wizard World in such a precarious position for years?

"Just like anything else — spending too much, not selling enough tickets," Macaluso says. "But we've come up with a really great formula, a really great marketing strategy, that helps us sell more tickets."

Under Macaluso's leadership, Wizard World has been researching even more cities for expansion in 2015. He has also ensured that the convention's growing fan base will have appealing entertainment options, with the company spending between $400,000 for a smaller comic con and up to $1.5 million for its events in its biggest cities.

"We try and bring in a great celebrity lineup — topnotch artists and writers, award-winners, a large variety of exhibitors," Macaluso says. "We've put a lot of time and effort into the panels and the Q&A sessions. And we work very hard on logistics so a fan doesn't have to stand in line for 3.5 hours to get into a show."

Housel, the author who studies the intersection of geek culture and philosophy, agrees that Wizard World puts a lot into its event-planning process.

"I think [The Lord of the Rings and The Goonies actor] Sean Astin said it best: 'Wizard World is a well-oiled machine,'" Housel says. "They have consistency and hire really good people — not just good at their jobs, but these people also are incredibly nice. I consider them my second family when I'm on the road."

Even the celebrity guests commend Wizard World's new practices.

"They're pretty much the Cadillac of conventions," says Bruce Campbell, a veteran of cult films like The Evil Dead series and a long-time convention guest who is scheduled to appear at the St. Louis event. "They research the venues, they research who's had a convention in that area, and they research every guest to make sure they haven't been overexposed."

William Shatner, star of the original Star Trek television series, agrees.

"Wizard World is turning out to be the best company to put on these conventions," beams Shatner. "They're the best organized."

After a series of pleasant days, the late-spring blizzard arrived out of nowhere last March.

On Washington Avenue, Super Mario trudges through the piles of white stuff, the bottoms of his blue overalls becoming wet as they drag on the sidewalk. Mario's thick red hat repels some of the snow, but it's a wash when the wind flips the chapeau from his head.

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