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How Superstars Can Now Make “Many Millions” Signing Autographs


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For decades, a Hollywood star’s autograph has been a coveted piece in fandom collections, whether gathered on the street, at a premiere or after hours waiting in line at a meet-and-greet. After two years in a pandemic, though, the autograph industry has been upended by the cancellation of red carpets and conventions. As a result, a new autograph-seeking avenue has blossomed: private signings.

In the past year alone, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Margot Robbie, Natalie Portman, Chris Pratt, Gal Gadot, John Boyega and Jeremy Renner are among the many A-listers who have taken part in private autograph events, raking in up to seven figures in the process. Private signings — where stars are sequestered with a handful of team members in a hotel or meeting room and spend hours autographing items fans have preordered or mailed in — aren’t an entirely new concept, but has recently seen an explosion, says Brittany McManus, marketing manager for CGC Comics.

“When COVID happened, a lot of the big-name people were all of a sudden down to do signings because you could get quite a big check,” says McManus, whose company conducted 60 signings in 2020, 90 in 2021 and expects about 120 this year. “The customers get what they want, and nobody has to be exposed to anybody else.”

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Robert Downey Jr. is among the A-listers who recently have participated in private autograph events.

Courtesy of Swau

In doing a signing, the star teams with one of a handful of autograph companies — including Ace Universe, SWAU and Celebrity Authentics — for a multihour window or up to several days, and works their way through posters, comic books, Funko Pop characters and other collectibles like Thor’s hammer or Captain America’s shield. The items are then mailed back to the fans, and the star is paid handsomely, with no physical interaction between the two.

SWAU co-founder Mike Tanski says a top actor can make “many millions” for several days of signing, while McManus says that CGC, which handles only signed comics, can see A-listers charging fans $500 to $700 a signature, multiplied by 300 to 500 books. That’s often on top of a guaranteed flat fee paid by the autograph company, which on its own can be six figures. Some, like Downey, have done these events for charity, but others are tapping into a new revenue stream courtesy of their fandom connections.

“There’s that level of talent now that is looking to do this as an extension of their brand,” says Celebrity Authentics president Joe Lamothe, adding that production delays and fewer public appearances have created room in stars’ hectic schedules. “Normally they were going from movie to movie, and they weren’t necessarily taking time to do this.”

With the private signing system, he adds, they are able to “receive a compensation similar or greater than what they would do at a Comic-Con, [which] has provided the opportunity to provide the fans with their autograph and meet that demand without necessarily taking the three, four or five days it may take to go travel to a convention, make a one- or two-day appearance, and then fly back home.”

It’s also expanded the access to stars who do not typically take part in conventions, like Portman, who had not done a signing since her Star Wars films came out two decades ago. She was the sole missing autograph in some fans’ collections, says Tanski, until she did a three-day signing with SWAU last fall.

The signings are arranged (via the talent’s agents and managers) all over the world, with the companies bringing the preordered items to the star — 14 pallets worth of goods for one recent signing, according to Lamothe. Some are capped at a certain amount of signatures, and others will sign as many items as were purchased.

And while selling signatures was once looked down on as a way for has-beens to make a quick buck and relive their glory days, the infusion of A-list talent to the space makes it clear that perception has changed. Lamothe compares it to the days when “movie stars doing TV shows would mean their career is in decline,” but credits the market dominance of DC and Marvel for “helping birth a whole demand and marketplace for [signings] that wasn’t there. It’s become more mainstream now.”

The superhero genre boom has also made collecting into a business, says Hollywood Show owner David Elkouby, who arranges conventions and meet-and-greets with more niche, old-school Hollywood talent. “What used to be for the fans isn’t working out that way these last couple years, with a lot of the bigger actors coming in and asking way too much money,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, it is getting out of hand.” He also notes that the private signing system cuts out any opportunity for fans to interact with the star, which is a disappointment for some die-hards.

Then there’s the question of how the collectibles and autograph industry will adapt to an increasingly online world amid a surge of interest in digital goods and NFTs. While some, like Lamothe, say the appeal of physical autographs won’t be replaced, McManus feels a shift coming. She says, “In order for us to be relevant in the collectibles industry, we will have to get digital, too, and find a way to authenticate NFTs.”

In the meantime, the private signing trend looks to be full steam ahead, with Florence Pugh, Salma Hayek and Hailee Steinfeld taking part in early 2022 events. “It’s kind of a win-win all around,” says Tanski. “I’m not going to say it’s not a lot of work, but compared to other things they could be doing, it’s pretty easy to do.”

A version of this story first appeared in the March 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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