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The Mark Searby Interview: Michael Mota, Sopranos Con / Mob Movie Con co-founder

THE SOPRANOS is constantly voted one of the greatest TV shows of all time – its six-season run on HBO between 1999-2007 arguably changed the face of drama television as we know it. The huge ensemble cast made us care about mobsters. We cared about Tony and his ‘birds’. We cared about AJ’s struggles in understanding life. We cared about Carmela’s troubled marriage, we cared about Dr. Melfi’s drinking, we even cared about secondary characters such as Paulie Walnuts, Silvio Dante, Junior Soprano and even Janice Soprano… Every single character was an important part of THE SOPRANOS jigsaw and the legacy of the show continues to live on to this day.

But in this day and age of rabid fandom, it is surprising to realise that hardly any of THE SOPRANOS cast and crew have appeared at any conventions and the show hadn’t been served by a convention of its own before.

However, last November, a brand new convention thankfully appeared to fill that need and celebrate THE SOPRANOS: Sopranos Con ran 23-24th November 2019, appropriately held enough in New Jersey. Recently, I was lucky enough to catch up with Michael Mota, one of the co-founders, to discuss how this unique event came together…

MARK: Where did the idea for Sopranos Con come from?

MICHAEL: Sopranos Con was a passion project for the two partners and I. I own an event venue in Providence, Rhode Island where we do a lot of different events and I had met a couple of THE SOPRANOS [cast members] throughout the years. I did a very successful event where we had Federico Castelluccio, who played Furio, we had Vincent Pastore, who played Big Pussy, and we had Dan Grimaldi, who played Patsy Parisi, and we did a dinner and it went over very well.

I posted pictures online and a lot of people commented about it. About two months later, I got a call from someone who runs a social media group called Time Immemorial, which is the largest Sopranos fanpage. He had been curating it for about ten years and he called me and said, “Listen, I have some interest in doing an event. I saw your event online and I know that you know some of the cast members. Can you help me?” He had a partner who he knew through the website, which had a couple of hundred thousand fans, and I said that I would be interested in doing something larger.

The three of us had a conversation and found that we were very like-minded and we had a passion for THE SOPRANOS. We all had different skill sets: I was more in the events space; Dan Trader, he was the guy from Time Immemorial, and he had a lot of social media contacts; then, Joseph Fama is into conventions, he builds out convention spaces. I’m from Rhode Island. Dan is from Baltimore. Joe is from Long Island. We had never met [in person]. We did it over two phone calls! We became very close.

I said I could get a couple of people on board right away. I call Federico Castelluccio right away as we had become very close and he said, “Brilliant idea!”. It was the 20th anniversary of THE SOPRANOS and nobody had done anything like this. Comic cons in The States are huge. Everyone loves comic cons! The negative, if I had to pick one thing even though they are hugely successful, is that it is very generic. SpongeBob could be sitting next to Batman who could be sitting next to a Soprano. There is not a lot of consistency in who is there.

We said to ourselves let’s build a convention that is like a comic con but very specific to THE SOPRANOS, hence Sopranos Con, and let’s get as many cast members as we could. In the beginning, we had no idea how many we could get. I knew, for sure, I could get five or six. We ended up with fifty-five! We ended up going crazy!

I said, “Let’s put together a website and see if there is a want for this.” We have Federico, Vincent and I think one or two others. We picked a date; I called The Meadowlands – the reason I called The Meadowlands is because Meadowlands in [the world of] THE SOPRANOS is important and New Jersey is the birthplace [of The Sopranos]. So, I call Meadowlands, none of us had ever gone to it… it is 65,00 sq. feet. I asked them some questions. I asked them how much it would cost. I never picked a date. Just went crazy and said let’s do it. Let’s build a website and say it is there… We sold close to $20,000 in tickets overnight! Then we realised we were on to something! [laughs]

I called The Meadowlands to arrange an appointment to look at it. The three of us met, literally, there for the first time as we walked into the facility. That was it. The rest is history.

MARK: Having fifty-five guests by any standards is pretty impressive – even more so when it is from one TV show. How did you go from having five or six guests to having fifty-five?

MICHAEL: To be honest, I would love to say it is my genius [laughs] but a lot of it really was… we started with a snowball and it got bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s interesting because some of the actors know each other, but a lot of them don’t because when they were filming they came on but someone else was in that scene or that episode or that season. The way filming works is that it doesn’t always happen that people are all in the same spot.

We started with a few that I knew. They gave me a few others. We reached out to some online. People came to us. It became a world of its own. Even in the Time Memorial group, there are cast members, some of their family are members. So just from word of mouth, good marketing, the hype of THE SOPRANOS, everything just came together. It was a lot of work. It certainly was not easy. A lot of negotiations.

From being a fan and loving the show to being able to call these people my friends, and that’s what a lot of them became, it is something that I will never forget. It was a passion project that turned into an explosion and it all came together.

MARK: As you are such a huge fan of the show, which actor did you get the most excited about their appearance at Sopranos Con?

MICHAEL: I’d say Tony Sirico, he was one of my favourite characters. He is getting older and unfortunately, he was sick at the time [of the con] and I didn’t know if he was coming or not. He had committed and then said he couldn’t come. He ended up coming but leaving after a few hours. When I met him, I think that was the goosebump moment. I got to spend three of four hours with him in his home because about three to four months after we started we got a call from a company that wanted to do a documentary on us. So, we filmed a documentary about us putting on Sopranos Con. We did a whole behind the scenes, we shot for nine months. I was honoured to go to Tony’s house with the film crew and now we have footage that nobody else will ever have.

MARK: By all accounts, it appears that the event itself went very well. How was it for you guys?

MICHAEL: I would say unbelievably well received, we had huge press – over a hundred outlets in total. We were going strong, especially in the last three or four weeks. We were on everything. The last week was crazy.

In retrospect, we would have changed a few little things here and there. We didn’t get to enjoy it like we wanted to enjoy it because it was so massive. We had over fifteen thousand people attending. We spent a lot of money to get it right. We could have done it with fewer characters. We could have mounted a backdrop photo of Dr. Melfi’s office – but we built it. We could have shown a movie that showed the Pine Barrens – but we built it! But when you look at those things, they are important, key pieces of how THE SOPRANOS became such a phenomenon.

MARK: It was your first crack at this, after all – lessons are to be learned. Did you have any negative feedback?

MICHAEL: [sighs] We did. At the end of the day, you can’t please everybody. If you have fifty-five cast members, they want fifty-six! If it’s eighty degrees outside, they want it to be eighty-two. So, in the business that I’m in, I understand that. You can’t please everybody.

Lines were long but that is to be expected as this is the first time we’ve done this event. Tony Sirico got sick. [The attendees] didn’t know the backstory that he wasn’t going to come to the event. He turned up for a couple of hours and people had to wait in line. But, the truth is, Tony is in his eighties! So it was things like that we got complaints about.

The VIP experience… they may have had expectations of one thing but got another. What we felt they got was history; what they got something no one will have in their life.

For the majority though, they loved it. I have to say I was super impressed with the people that came from overseas. They were so overwhelmingly appreciative than I would ever have imagined. People flew in from Australia, from London, from Africa. Just a great group of people that I still get notes today saying things like “Best weekend of my life!”.

MARK: How did you determine prices for photos, autos and badges?

MICHAEL: We called it ‘the unconventional convention’ because we wanted to do everything different. Some stuff worked and some didn’t because of that. I think that we overthought some things. I hadn’t been to many cons myself and then, towards the start of Sopranos Con, I went to a couple and I didn’t love the fact that there are so many prices for things. You could spend $100 or $120 or $50 or $20. I didn’t think there was any consistency about it.

So, we came up with $20 and $40, that was it. We didn’t want to gouge our people because we charged a decent amount of money for our tickets. We didn’t want them to come in and have to spend all this money. That bit us in the rear end a little bit! When we came up with the prices for the tickets, we knew we were going a little bit crazy and planning to build all kinds of sets and that is an expensive proposition. The event itself cost just shy of $700,000. We could easily have done it for $200,000 but the experience would have been different.

We started at $50 [a ticket] and everybody got the experience right from the start. You didn’t have to pay for everything. You didn’t have to pay to go in the maze, for example. That was another thing that rubbed me the wrong way at the conventions I’ve been to, you have to pay for everything. I just didn’t want to do that. So, we offset it with sponsorship. We offset it with vendors. Anybody that knows those events knows the reason why there is not a lot of them, and why this is not for everyone, is because the first one is the most difficult thing to do.

Nobody has expectations of it. You have no data to prove how many people are coming so it is hard to get sponsors. People don’t know who you are. It’s not like a brand that people know. If HBO put it on themselves, then they would have all these things. [The attendees] had no idea. They had to take the word of three guys! That’s really the reality of it.

We tried to give the biggest bang for the buck. We didn’t want anyone to come and feel ripped off. We had packages that had the hotel – that was a major pain in the ass for us. We sold out four hotels. People thought we got rich from doing it… we really didn’t. It was the biggest thorn in our side because of the coordination that had to go in there. We took on the burden of the rooms just so people could get a discount. There is some much that goes into putting on a convention. You’ll have to watch the documentary to see it all. It is very overwhelming.

MARK: Lessons have been learnt and you clearly haven’t been dissuaded from putting on a second event. So, what is next for Sopranos Con?

MICHAEL: When we were doing Sopranos Con, I came across the harsh reality that some of our guests are, frankly, older. For example, Dominic Chianese is in his eighties; he’s living in London now. He is at that point in his life where he doesn’t want to travel that much. And that story goes on and on and on.

We knew THE SOPRANOS legacy would go on forever but we knew the cast members wouldn’t. So, we wanted to come up with an idea that would couple Sopranos Con with something else. We came up with a new name called Mob Movie Con. Obviously, Mob movies will go on forever, we just had one with [Netflix’s] THE IRISHMAN. So, we decided to bring Sopranos Con into Mob Movies Con and bring some other great movies like THE GODFATHER, GOODFELLAS, THE IRISHMAN, etc.

We will still have Sopranos as a big piece of it, still bring some of the cast members, but also bring in other movies. Mob Movie Con is alive!

This new show is going to happen April 18th & 19th 2020 at Harrows Resort Casino in Atlantic City. We’ve realised that an event venue is not good enough, it needs to be a resort because we have to accommodate people and it can be more of a vacation for them. They come out and spend the weekend. Casinos are great because it gives you more entertainment, so they don’t just have the con there are other things during the day. We are going to feature THE GODFATHER, GOODFELLAS, SCARFACE, A BRONX TALE and THE SOPRANOS. We will probably have about thirty movies altogether.

Thanks to Michael for taking his generous time to take part in this interview. Find out more about Mob Movie Con – and book tickets – at http://www.mobmoviecon.com/

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