SAN DIEGO, Calif. — As the San Diego trolley pulls up to the Convention Center stop, multiple versions of Conan O’Brien stare down from window clings on the Marriott Marquis & Marina hotel. Look out the other side of the trolley, just down from giant inflatable Powerpuff Girls floating over a pool of still water, and Amazon’s experience offers glimpses into Man in the High Castle and the rebooted Thunderbirds are Go!
As the trolley approaches the Gaslamp district, lights and giant screens promote upcoming NBC shows Emerald City and Timeless. Leave the trolley and immediately join a mass of humanity — well, humanity with qualifications. Superheroes and Starfleet officers from all eras easily mingle with robots and aliens from hundreds of planets. Villains take a break for selfies with those who would relentlessly pursue them any other time. Genres and franchises mashup: Deadpool leans into Wonder Woman as she wraps her arm around The Legend of Zelda’s Link.
Walk through the doors onto the massive show floor and, to quote Harrison Ford in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, “We’re home.”
There is no other Comic-Con like San Diego’s Comic-Con International.
While every Comic-Con is a place of safety and camaraderie for geniuses and misfits, dreamers, explorers, craftspeople and artists, the bigger world descends on San Diego Comic-Con like no other event. And that bigger world also fans the embers of childhood memories and archetypes here with great fury, turning them into flames, in hopes of driving consumer activation.
Amid all of the love and affection among attendees, the reverence for art and the deep appreciation for storytelling, there is also a clear capitalist penchant for selling big things like movies, and small things like toys and stickers—and a consumer desire to buy them.
Between the comic book vendors and the artists alley lies a vast platform of sound and light, which creates a gravity well for attendees that swirls them around its myriad attractions. If they are lucky, they literally watch stars glow as they sit, arms-length away, signing a poster or a book. Models and props and toys glimmer behind glass panes like a museum of the future. Pity the poor child caught in the onslaught of adults crushing toward a pristine, mint-in-box Comic-Con exclusive toy.
While the heart of Comic-Con International may remain pure, the event strives to align the hopes and dreams of the studios with the hopes and dreams of consumers. Because this platform doesn’t always meet expectations, the studios tend to blame the event, rather than their properties, for the failure of hype to transform into ticket sales. The studios have a Comic-Con customer relationship problem: if there is nothing new, or if they have been recently burnt, they don’t show or they significantly divest.
Last year I stood for a couple of hours watching an annoying repetition of the Batman vs. Superman trailer in the DC booth just for a glimpse of the movie’s cast in a very late, very brief, and pretty dismissive appearance. While the Hall H crowd may have been wowed by Zack Snyder and the cast in the panel, the increasing disgruntled proletariat grew chagrined by the constant dismissal of the value of their time. Ultimately, the film failed to match its hype.
Attendees still talk about this poor customer relationship event. Relationships aren’t an issue for fans, though. The regular attendees meet and greet year-after-year. They easily welcome and coach new attendees. Relationships event extend to celebrities and artists whom they have come to know, who shake hands or embrace with familiar recognition.
Hollywood needs to recognize and tap into the underlying vibe of the attendees, and create relationships and experiences regardless of the next presumed blockbuster. Because they saw their PR and marketing budgets fail to drive movie-goers to the likes of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Pan and Warcraft, those teams protective of their budgets and their reputations scapegoat Comic-Con rather than just admit that no amount of buzz will make people go see a bad movie.
Star Trek gets this. As the 50th Anniversary year kicks into swing, Star Trek is everywhere. The only bombast is generated by Star Trek Beyond, which premiered at the Con. The panels covered everything from books to a cast reunion that included William Shatner, Jerry Ryan, Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn and Scott Bakula. Star Trek uniforms were probably the most prominent outfit next to Death Squad’s Harley Quinn. Star Trek, of course, also generates its own conventions around the world without much help from Paramount. The franchise has built a relationship with its fans, and the studio lets that relationship play out. Without the fan-centric view, Star Trek would probably not be the multi-billion dollar franchise it has become.
The other studios need to emulate Paramount and Star Trek by integrating themselves into the Con rather than overwhelming it. They need latch onto the vibe and the verve that already exists about their universes and the characters who inhabit them—to feed off the existing enthusiasm rather than pump unnatural energy into the mix, which can lead to an imbalance in The Force.
The Comic-Con platform needs to evolve from one of just PR stunts and launch events to ongoing relationship nurturing. If the studios approach Comic-Con the right way, it will prove an important learning event, where they come to listen more than they push information. Smaller booths, more celebrity interaction. Rather than the celebrities of past shows siting in autograph booths in the Sails Pavilion, bring them to the floor to interact with fans next to their old costumes or props.
The Verge’s Bryan Bishop called Comic-con “a mess” and laid the blame at Hollywood’s feet. I disagree. Despite the studios competing with the comic books and the recent inclusion of video gaming, the attendees do not seem confused, just dazed. And there is nothing wrong with being dazed at Comic-Con. The worlds of comic books are meant to intrigue and dazzle, to take our minds off current events, or perhaps to help us just think about them more deeply. Comic-con is chaotic and emergent, but that is what has made it grow from a local, intimate gathering of enthusiasts into an international phenomenon.
Friction creates energy, and Comic-con remains the penultimate fan experience for generating more energy than it invests. A happenstance photo with a celebrity can cause an Instagram or Twitter account to explode. The pandemonium outside the convention center that spills into the Gaslamp District and beyond derives as much from locals coming to take part as it does from Con attendees. Little shows like truTV’s Impractical Jokers, which has absolutely nothing to do with science fiction or fantasy, took over multiple venues, including Petco Park, to bring wackiness and awareness to the genre-infused crowd—and to build a deeper relationship with its audience.
There is so much to do that people want to come back next year to dabble in something that they didn’t have time to try this year. And sleeping outside for a seat in Hall H…that has become a badge of honor and a right of passage (as much as getting into Hall H without sleeping overnight is for others).
The only mess is the studio customer engagement model that leans more toward activation than engagement.
Is Comic-Con at risk? Do the studios really want to lose a pretty easy attachment to 130,000 fans and millions of others who live vicariously through those who attend Comic-Con International? They don’t. Supplementing Comic-Con with other, more-focused cons, is a fine thing, as Star Trek has proven for more than 40 years. But Comic-Con International is THE event where the world takes the pulse of geekdom. The studios that don’t participate miss a great opportunity to interact, learn and build abiding relationships with the fans of their franchises—and to introduce new worlds and new characters. For accountants and executives, that kind of interaction proves less costly, and the regularity makes it easier to forecast. The psychological disconnect says more about the studios’ business models than it does about the viability of Comic-con as a platform for relationship building.
Comic-Con International isn’t going anywhere, regardless of which studios chose to attend or not. But it could become a better event, a more lasting and sustainable venue if it became the place to engage rather than activate — a platform for relationships rather than a platform for sales.
I walk out of the convention center and cross the street, and I see one of my favorite authors, William Gibson, heading toward me. As people brush past briskly, and police spew whistles into the air, we shake hands briefly as I tell him I love his work. And we keep walking.
Only at Comic-Con.