I no longer read comics as I once did, but I do keep an eye on the comics industry, mainly to give me a basis for comparison when I look at the animation industry.
The comics field has long been the scene of conventions in various cities. They've been going on consistently since the 1960s in cities of various sizes. I've personally attended conventions in four different cities over the years and I haven't scratched the surface.
While there is some industry business transacted at these conventions - mostly because they serve as a gathering place for professionals - their real audience is comics fans. They come to find items to buy, pick up news about what's happening next at their favorite companies or in their favourite titles. Finally, they come to meet the professionals. Conventions regularly advertise their guests as a draw for pulling in attendees. Guests will sign their work and perhaps do sketches. It's the opportunity for fans to have personal contact with people whose work they admire; it allows them to feel closer to the work.
These days, you can purchase just about any item you're looking for on the internet. In the past, news about the comics industry was limited to print publications that came out monthly or less frequently; these days, there are several comics news sites that are updated at least daily. In these areas, conventions don't offer the opportunities that they used to, but where they still succeed is in the social aspects of being a comics fan. The chance to hang out with people who share one's interests and the chance to meet the professionals that produce favourite work is enough reason to attend.
The idea of the comics convention has succeeded beyond the field of comics. Comicon International in San Diego has become a magnet for Hollywood. They use the gathering of fans to promote their forthcoming projects and film professionals are trotted out for personal appearances to help promote the projects.
The nearest thing the film industry has to this is the film festival. People attend to see films that are not yet released (or may not get a general release) as well as have the opportunity to see and hear film professionals speak about their work.
The animation festival I'm most familiar with is the Ottawa International Animation Festival, though I attended an animation festival at New York University many years ago. I haven't attended Annecy, Zagreb, Hiroshima or any of the festivals that occur on the North American west coast. I'm curious to know, though, if these festivals tend to be closer to trade shows rather than for general audiences. My impression (which is unscientific), is that the Ottawa festival caters more to professionals and animation students than general audiences. I think the programs that pull in the largest number of people outside the industry are the screenings for children. Certainly, the Television Animation Conference and the Animarket are definitely in the mold of trade shows, offering information and materials to those in the industry.
I wonder if animation festivals aren't preaching to the choir when we should be reaching out to the regular audience. Right now, many animation artists are piggy-backing on comics conventions, selling sketchbooks or personal projects, as well as using film festivals to talk to general audiences. Both are great for reaching the public, but I wonder how it is that comics conventions and film festivals exist all over North America, but animation festivals have somehow failed to take hold? Is it an indication of how soft support is for animation or is it just poor marketing? If an animation festival can't attract a general audience, what does that say about the films we're producing?
I'd be curious to hear comments from those who have attended animation festivals other than Ottawa and hear what they think about the percentage of animation professionals and students compared to the general public.