John Waters Says He Never Got Paid by Fort Lauderdale's Shock Pop Comic Con

John Waters signs autographs at Shock Pop Comic Con.
John Waters signs autographs at Shock Pop Comic Con.
Photo by Christina Mendenhall

The inaugural Shock Pop Comic Con came to the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center on February 14, 2015. And in a way, it was everything you’d expect from a Valentine’s Day date. Expectations were high, it cost a pretty penny, and – in the end – just about everyone involved got screwed.

Now, roughly two months later, some of the people who were involved with Shock Pop are pissed. One of those understandably angry souls is Shock Pop headliner and iconic director John Waters. “I got stiffed for the balance of my fee, which was $6,250,” he says.

And he’s not alone in his claims against the local comic con. Despite its impressive lineup, some of those involved with the convention paint a picture of a poorly executed event run by an incompetent organizer and financed by his rich family.

“I did everything I was supposed to do,” Waters says. “I did my show, I did a question and answer, I wrote new material for the show, I had a book signing. I did everything I was supposed to do and got along with them fine.” But when it was all said and done, Waters says, his contract was not honored. He contends he did a full job for half the pay.

Shade Rupe, a freelance talent manager in New York, had a similar experience. Rupe first became aware of the inaugural convention online. “I had seen Marc Heller posting about the show on Facebook,” Rupe says. “He said he was looking for some personalities for the show. I threw out a couple of suggestions of people I knew, and he thought they sounded really good.”

Two of those suggestions ended up being headliners for the show. One was Waters, and the other was Danny Trejo. Rupe had never met Heller in person before. Heller had reached out to Rupe two years earlier about organizing a film presentation, but the plan fell through. Rupe primarily works in film production.

“It was my hope to not only create this huge convention with a broad spectrum of pop culture and comic guests but also to break down barriers within the fan community and establish a safe haven for everyone to enjoy pop culture," Heller told South Florida Gay News in an interview a few days before Shock Pop.

Tickets for a one-day pass to Shock Pop cost $30, and a weekend pass cost $60. A package that included preferred seating for Waters' show, This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier; a copy of his book Carsick; and a chance to take a photo with Waters cost an additional $75. Though, anyone in general attendance was able to watch Waters' performance. 

“We were calling and asking very nicely for the balance, and some of the phone numbers were disconnected already. We could not reach him," Waters says.
“We were calling and asking very nicely for the balance, and some of the phone numbers were disconnected already. We could not reach him," Waters says.
Photo by Christina Mendenhall

At first, things went smoothly for both Rupe and Waters. Though Heller had created Shock Pop, his father, Stephen Heller, was financing it all. And at first, the checks were coming in. “People were getting plane tickets. Hotel rooms were reserved for them,” Rupe remembers. “A couple of people that I was interacting with that required some kind of payment up-front were receiving that.”

Waters’ contract stipulated a partial deposit up-front, which he received. The rest was to be paid after the convention. That didn’t happen.

“To be honest, it was a job,” Waters says. “I do this 40 times a year. It looked good.” Waters was flown to Fort Lauderdale from Detroit and put up in a hotel.

“They seemed legit,” he says. Waters noticed that the convention seemed underattended, but he shrugged it off. “I didn’t think that they were gonna – in a very short time – send a letter from a lawyer that basically was just like, ‘Don’t bother even trying.’”

The letter Waters is referring to came in the mail on March 13, 2015. After a month spent trying to reach Marc and Stephen Heller about when he would be paid, Waters received what was basically a 50-word legal equivalent of saying: tough shit.

The letter (attached at the bottom of the page), sent from Hollywood, Florida, attorney Mark D. Cohen, read:

Please be advised this office has been retained to represent the above referenced company Shockpop and Comiccon, LLC. Unfortunately the company had to close their doors and had no assets within which to satisfy its debts. The obligation(s) owed your company will not be able to be paid.

That was the last Waters heard from the Hellers. New Times couldn't reach either one for comment. Numbers for each had been disconnected. Messages left on Stephen Heller's home answering machine as well as emails to addresses for both Hellers have so far gone unanswered. (Comments will be added when received.) “We know their home address, and we wrote them a very, very nice letter," Waters says. "It was not answered."  

The lineup for Shock Pop was – for an inaugural event – really impressive. Guests included Waters, Trejo, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Robert Englund, horror actress Elvira and more. So what went so terribly wrong?

Elvira's manager confirmed that she was paid in full up-front.
Elvira's manager confirmed that she was paid in full up-front.
Photo by Christina Mendenhall

Looking back, Rupe sees that it was execution. “They had an incredible lineup. They had a lot of great people, but there was no one hired to actually run the show,” Rupe says. He remembers running around the convention, trying to do four jobs at once.

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“It would be like if you turned in this article to your editor, then you had to run over to that desk and proofread that article, then you have to run over to another desk and get the photos for the article, then you had to run over to the printing plant and make sure it was getting printed. There were maybe three people doing all of that,” Rupe says.

Rupe even got stuck with the bill for Trejo’s limo from the airport back to his Los Angeles home, something Stephen Heller agreed to cover, both in email and in Trejo’s contract. When Rupe needed to provide a credit card number to secure Trejo's L.A. car service, he used his own to save time. 

Rupe wrote in an email to Stephen Heller on February 12:

The driver is going to call me and ask for a credit card number. Do you have a number? I can spot if I can get reimbursed soon. Thanks!

Stephen replied that day:

It will be reimbursed as soon as i see you

Rupe was never reimbursed.

John Waters with former New Times Music Editor Liz Tracy.
John Waters with former New Times Music Editor Liz Tracy.
Photo by Christina Mendenhall

Overall, Rupe says, he is still owed around $750 that he was verbally promised from the Hellers. To sue, he would have to fly to Florida from his home in New York to file the small-claims case. He’s considered it, but overall it would probably cost him more money than it’s worth.

New Times was able to confirm that Cassandra Peterson, the actress known more commonly as Elvira; American Horror Story’s Naomi Grossman; and Doctor Who's Sylvester McCoy were paid in full for their time at Shock Pop. They appear to have asked for their money up-front.

Anyone owed money once Shock Pop was over seems to have not been so lucky. Two other people involved in Shock Pop who declined to give their names contend they are owed more than $7,800.   

Waters isn't holding his breath waiting for his check to come in the mail. He is frustrated, though. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and I do this show maybe 30 times a year, and I have never ever been beat,” he says. Waters believes the money is there. He thinks the Hellers have the funds to settle their debts but just aren't doing so. 

Waters won't comment on whether he plans to pursue any legal action against Shock Pop and the Hellers. 

“Marc just wanted to feel like a big boy for a day,” Rupe says. And that may be true. But after this kerfuffle, Marc Heller will have to answer to some big-boy consequences. At least one of his former Shock Pop employees who asked not to be named is planning to sue.

Follow Ryan Pfeffer on Twitter.

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