As the second annual Wakandacon drew to a close Sunday at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, its founder, David Barthwell, had a lot to be proud of — and high hopes to grow the three-day celebration of all things “Black Panther.”
Barthwell, a graphic designer and web developer, had no experience when he decided on a whim last year to host Wakandacon — a nerd with a dream.
He did it by funding it himself with $85,000 and recruiting his brother, sister, mom and dad, along with a host of other volunteers, to help him. The first endeavor was held at the Hilton Chicago hotel across from Millennium Park on the same weekend as Lollapalooza.
”Last year was such a fever dream it came together over four months, the planning and execution, we thought we’d open the doors and nobody would walk in,” he said.
About 2,500 people came and he broke even.
This year, sponsors kicked in about $50,000 and Barthwell added $70,000 — regularly pulling overnighters at his job to help cover simple expenses like audio visual equipment and the fees associated with union labor at the city’s main convention hall.
About 3,000 people attended this year. And he again broke even.
A success by any measure, especially considering the fact that no actors from the film have attended either year, said Barthwell, a graduate of Oak Park River Forest High School and Yale University.
Although, it’s not for lack of trying. Barthwell, 35, hunted down agents for the big name actors on a paid version of IMDb (Internet Movie Database), and tried reaching out directly over social media.
He knew it was a long shot — a star could cost well over $100,000 to lure for a single day — but one worth taking.
The most encouraging sign he got that people in big places might be paying attention was an online order for Wakandacon T-shirts that he designed.
The address on the order: Marvel Studios in California — the same people who made the movie.
“I think getting to that next level, like the Hollywood level, it takes such a weird in,” Barthwell referring to the complications of establishing connections. “There’s no real straightforward way to do it.”
In the meantime, he’s kicking around a few ideas to expand his budget and decrease the amount of his own money that goes into it.
Crowdsourcing is one possibility. Or taking on an angel investor.
“I’d like to get back to normal and save money like a normal person who knows what they’re going to do with their money when it’s not tied up in T-shirts,” he said.
Barthwell is confident that Wakandacon can succeed.
“I think often times it’s easy to overlook minority communities of color because you don’t prioritize them as economic drivers, but this can be a real economic driver, like ‘Black Panther’ was,” he said.
Something to consider for Barthwell is how one major change to Wakandacon was received.
This year, in addition to costumes and revelry, social causes were also a big focus of Wakandacon. There was even a theme: Minority Mental Health Month.
“We wanted to sort of focus on the fact that healthy minds create healthy bodies, which create healthy communities. And in order to really do cosplay, to self express, you have to be comfortable with yourself and have a healthy self image,” said Barthwell, who lives in River West.
Invited speakers and several activities, including yoga, played into this theme.
Hundreds of attendees were surveyed to find out what they thought of the new format.
“We’re so proud of them,” Andrea Barthwell, said of her son and his siblings. “And that they took it this direction, it reflects the needs in their community.”
Barthwell’s dad, David Barthwell Sr., worked the merchandise table on Sunday. His younger sister, Ali, an improv actor at Second City, coordinated invited speakers. His younger brother, Matthew, organized logistics.
“It’s a family affair,” Andrea said. “I do this so I can see them. And I’m the wind beneath their wings ... I make them eat.”
“I haven’t eaten today,” David confessed.
Left unmentioned was what could bring even more wind beneath their wings: a “Black Panther” sequel.
One is reportedly in the works.