Walker Stalker creator steps down after problematic Atlanta ‘Walking Dead’ convention

Credit: CR: Taylor Kirkwood took a shot of the bedlam during the photo op mess on Saturday, October 19 at the Walker Stalker convention.

Credit: CR: Taylor Kirkwood took a shot of the bedlam during the photo op mess on Saturday, October 19 at the Walker Stalker convention.

Originally posted Thursday, October 24, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

James Frazier, the Tennessee man who has run "The Walking Dead" Walker Stalker conventions for the past six years, resigned as CEO Wednesday, three days after the end of a problematic Atlanta convention.

“It became too much and beyond my capabilities,” Frazier said in a public social media post Wednesday evening. “Today, I’m turning it over to new leadership and stepping down. I will no longer have any decisions in the direction of the company and it’s daily management. I will make sure that they are up to speed on each and every issue and make myself available to assist them in any way that would help them succeed.”

The interim CEO for Spring Hill, Tenn-based Walker Stalker LLC and Fan Fest Events is Michael DeVault, a self-described talent manager. (He declined to state who his clients were.) In an interview at 10:30 p.m. EST Wednesday, he said he took the job about five hours earlier.

“I’ve got a team of dedicated people I’m reaching out to to make sure we are on the same page plotting a course of success moving forward,” DeVault said. “Rumors of this company’s demise are greatly exaggerated. There is a tremendous future in store for Fan Fest events.”

Credit: CR: Photo of James Frazier from his public Facebook profile

Credit: CR: Photo of James Frazier from his public Facebook profile

Frazier owns the company and has total financial control. In an interview Thursday morning, he said he has been in talks with a potential investor since January that he declined to identify. He said he has considered a 50/50 equity split but may just sell the entire company.

UPDATE: DeVault in a Facebook Live Thursday evening said while Frazier is still technically the owner, he will no longer have power over the finances. He will. He promised refunds for everybody who is owed and "fans are priority number one." 

The company is still selling tickets for four upcoming Fan Fests in Nashville, Chicago, London and New Jersey and a Walker Stalker convention in Dallas. Frazier said he is still hoping to hold an Atlanta Walker Stalker convention October of 2020.

DeVault promised no cancellations in 2020 and has reached out to talent agents across the country.

Frazier’s company, which has relied heavily on “The Walking Dead” for its income, has been plagued by financial problems the past 18 months as “The Walking Dead” itself has lost more than two-thirds of its audience in four years. Frazier himself was caught off-guard how quickly the show’s popularity has fallen.

“It’s been a tough year,” he said. “I was advised in the spring to file for bankruptcy. But I wanted to make sure the fans got what they paid for. It’s not my character to quit. I stick with it. I gave it my best. It didn’t work. I feel like crap that things have turned out the way they have.”

According to consumer credit reporting agency Experian, Walker Stalker LLC as of September 1 had $314,600 in financial trade payment debt, 86 percent of it past due more than 90 days. Frazier said it’s a loan and he has negotiated a new payment structure.The IRS also filed a tax lien against the company of $51,559 on May 14, which he said he’s worked out an installment plan.

Walker Stalker at the Georgia World Congress Center this past weekend had so much negative feedback, Frazier right after it ended questioned whether he would even bring the convention back in 2020. He wrote on social media that there were so many threats against him, he had to have armed guards around him.

“I’m going to take some time to decide if there will be a next year,” Frazier wrote earlier this week on social media. “I love making people happy. But this year has been grueling and no matter how much heart and effort I give, I can’t take another year of having every word, conversation, picture and move criticized and twisted.”

Frazier, a 40-year-old former personal injury attorney, added: “This isn’t worth it.”

His public note from Wednesday said: “The short-term goals remain the same, to complete the outstanding refunds and pay off the other debts of the company. But more importantly, the goal is to restore faith in the company and return the events to the level of quality once received and expected.”

Credit: CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com Andrew Lincoln and Walker Stalker co-creator Eric Nordhoff at the 2013 Walker Stalker convention at AmericasMart.

Credit: CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com Andrew Lincoln and Walker Stalker co-creator Eric Nordhoff at the 2013 Walker Stalker convention at AmericasMart.

The Atlanta convention has been an annual event since 2013, started by Frazier and music producer Eric Nordhoff, two "Walking Dead" podcasters who decided to parlay their love of the show into a business. Nordhoff left around 2015 but Frazier quickly added conventions in cities nationwide and overseas such as London, Chicago and Nashville. He even did cruises. By 2017, Walker Stalker LLC was an $11 million business, according to an Inc. story.

“It was an amazing story and a great run,” Frazier said.

But as “The Walking Dead” waned in popularity, attendance dropped off at the conventions. As a result, Frazier faced growing challenges to make the conventions profitable. Last month, he said he decided to end all “Walking Dead” conventions except for Atlanta and focus on his Fan Fest conventions, which cover a broader array of shows.

His president Jackie Prutsman - also his sister in law - departed in January. He lost most of the rest of his senior management between January and May of this year, shrinking from 17 to four.

Fans on a Facebook page called "Unfiltered/Walker Stalker Fan Fest Group" flooded the site with complaints in recent weeks about a host of logistical issues.

"When he started, the convention was supposed to be almost like a family reunion," said Valerie Anne, a traveling nurse for Long Island who has attended 20 Walker Stalker conventions in the past but has no plans to do so again as long as Frazier is around.

Anne felt like the VIP experience for high-priced tickets advertised became diluted over time with reduced access to stars, skimpy food, lame swag bags and too many tickets sold. “He used to say it was for fans by the fans. But now it’s more like a greedy, money-hungry operation. It’s not what it was when he first started.”

Indeed, as Frazier's financial problems worsened, Robyn Householder, CEO of the Better Business Bureau in mid-Tennessee, said she began receiving a ream of  complaints. There are 94 so far on its website as of Wednesday evening.

Frazier cancelled a Portland convention last year and refunds were hard to come by, would-be attendees complained. A Phoenix convention earlier this year was ultimately cancelled as well.

He then postponed a Nashville Walker Stalker convention on August 10, 11 days before the convention. He promoted the Atlanta convention, which did end up happening.

The BBB’s conclusion:  he is “using money from the canceled events to pay for advertising future events.”

“Fans in 21 states and six countries have lost thousands in ticket, travel and lodging expenses to attend ‘sold out’ events only to see them canceled or postponed days before the event with no refund in sight,” the bureau said.

One BBB customer wrote: “James is literally running a Ponzi scheme.”

Frazier said he got the impression BBB didn’t understand that they were a long-standing company and that seven conventions did happen this year, while two were cancelled and one postponed. He said he has tried to address every complain posted on the site.

He also acknowledged that he had to cut costs and that the quality of the Atlanta convention wasn’t up to standards of past ones. Long -time attendees had plenty of beefs.

If people wanted hard tickets and passes, they had to pay "shipping fees," but the tickets were never shipped and attendees were not refunded, according to multiple people. Kristen Bittner of Coventry, R.I., for instance, was charged $86.52 for shipping two $1,200 platinum passes and her request for a refund has not yet been granted. Many on site received trading cards instead.

“We’ll be refunding them for shipping,” Frazier said.

Security at the entrances were lax, some attendees complained. Anthony Collins of Atlanta said he strolled right in and nobody checked his wristband. No security was checking bags either, according to multiple attendees including Nadine Marzullo, who actually had an okay time.

Frazier said since GWCC is a government facility, people had the right to carry weapons so checking bags would have been for show. And he said he paid extra money for security. “We had 16 more police officers than normal,” he said. “We had tactical S.W.A.T. walking around with AR-15s. I had no choice because there were threats called in.

Non "Walking Dead" celebrities such as Dylan McDermott, Mitch Pileggi and Annabeth Gish cancelled at the last second when their travel was never booked, according to Dominic Mancini, who runs the promotion company Full Empire.

“We waited until 5 p.m. EST the day before my clients were due to travel and we still had not received confirmed flights,” Mancini said. “So I had no choice but to cancel everyone. As far as working with James Frazier in the future - while I have worked well with him for many years and enjoyed his events, I highly doubt I will be doing any further business with him. Never say never, but it would take a lot for him to earn my trust back.”

Frazier chose not to respond publicly to the specifics of Mancini’s issues. “I hope with time, he’d reconsider,” he said.

The celebrity photo op area run by Froggy Photos on Saturday became chaotic with too few booths, too many tickets sold and problematic printers. The result: long lines and massive delays.

Disability services were lacking compared to past conventions, some attendees said. For the first time in years, there were no interpreters, a service that was the norm in past years, Marzullo said.

Frazier said he only received one request for an interpreter and that disability services were fine.

Hard-of-hearing "Walking Dead" actress Angel Theory said this would be her last Walker Stalker convention. Earlier in the year, she posted a video in which she said: "It is not fun when it comes to not getting paid from the Walker Stalker company, what is owed to the actors. Just like you guys, y'all not getting y'all refunds back, the actors are not getting paid."

Frazier said the London show this year was "a financial mess" and some actors did not get paid. He said many actors have stuck with him though Cooper Andrews, a Dunwoody High School graduate who plays Jerry on "The Walking Dead," and Khary Payton (Ezekiel) earlier this year said they would stop attending the conventions because of payment issues.

On the bright side, most of the big-name celebrities such as Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Norman Reedus showed up to the Atlanta convention and had no issues. And given the fact attendance was down two thirds from the peak three years ago, it was far easier for fans to mingle with most actors from the show. (Frazier said final attendance was around 25,000 total over three days, down from a peak of 70,000-plus in 2016.)

Jay McClenahan, a podcaster and journalist who moderated some of the panels, wrote a story to counter all the negative social media chatter.

He noted that many fans seemed happy and many said yes when he asked if they’d return in 2020. He defended Frazier and said the man could have just filed bankruptcy and walked away but chose to persevere instead.

Some companies that have worked with Frazier in the past have stopped doing so because he owes them money.

Benito Varela, who currently resides in New York, spent more than four years organizing, ordering, and contracting for ground transportation and greeters on behalf of Frazier for many of his conventions.

In 2018 through early 2019, Frazier stopped paying him and he quit after the Chicago show in April. According to a GoFundMe page to help him out in August, he said he is owed close to $100,000. An attorney recommended he not speak publicly but he said the GoFundMe page is accurate.

“He has been left with no source of income, substantial debt, and can't afford legal representation but for credit cards,” the page said.

“We owe money to multiple vendors,” Frazier said, without specifically addressing Vera’s situation. “I’ve been open about that.”

On the lighter side, Dragon Con’s Twitter page totally shaded Walker Stalker: