“San Diego Comic-Con is the ultimate abusive partner – it kicks you, it mistreats you, it teases you with treats and snatches them away at a moments notice. Which begs the question – why do we keep going back to Hall H?”
Celebrity attracts attention and attention breeds success. From the very beginning San Diego Comic-Con (or, ‘The Golden State Comic Book Convention’, as it was back in 1970) has built its popularity from the attraction of Special Guests – artists, writers, editors – from all walks of the comics industry. Comics fans from across the country flocked to San Diego to meet their creative heroes, face-to-face… And San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) lapped it up, growing and growing, year after year.
As film and television companies saw the potential of tapping into this passionate audience, comics publishers saw the opportunity to create an alliance that saw both grow and thrive. Both saw a means to an end: the comics industry saw the potential to take their properties into lucrative markets, ones that suited the bright optimism of the medium; meanwhile, the film and TV conglomerates (joined by the games industry in the 90’s) saw a young and passionate demographic, willing to part with massive sums of money simply to fuel their passions. When the bubble blew up in the 70’s and 80’s, both rode on the crest of the wave – and SDCC became the shop front for it all.
Numbers swelled, the Convention continued to evolve. The outgrowing of SDCC of the conference rooms of the U.S. Grant lead to eventually moving to the cavonous spaces of the mammoth San Diego Convention Center, simply to contain the growing interest in comic-based pop culture – and the Con, like a vacuum continued to grow to fill these huge spaces. Cue: The Halls.
When I talk about ‘The Halls’, I am referring to the three large capacity venues, situated within the Convention Center and the Hilton Bayfront; Ballroom 20 (upstairs inside the Convention Center, 3,500 people), the Indigo Ballroom (Hilton Bayfront, 2,600) and the legendary Hall H, with its arena-like 6,500 capacity, taking up nearly one third of the Convention Center’s ground floor footprint. (San Diego Room Capacities) In effect, the entire length of Harbor Drive has now given itself to the ever-growing monster that is Comic-Con.
What’s the appeal, today? Comic-Con sells out in minutes and the Halls reflect the swelling numbers in graphic detail. Endless lines, forming as early as the afternoon before (if not earlier), weave through the tents outside the Convention Center and down to the Marina like some bizarre human version of the game ‘Snake’. As the reputation of the Halls builds from year to year, the lines form earlier and earlier, growing beyond the expectation of actually setting foot in the room.
And it doesn’t get any easier once you get in there – the pressures of finding a good seat; keeping that seat, to the point of fighting for that seat …the stress in each can almost be bottled. The battle to keep any kind of seat can be best demonstrated by the famous ‘Stabbing At Harry Potter Panel’ incident of 2010 – I was in the room that day and I can say, while there was concern for the participants involved, the over-riding feeling from attendees in the room was, ‘This better not hold up the schedule of the day too much!’ People have been known to sit in these rooms for hours on end, from the moment they step foot inside to the second the house lights go up.
You can’t say that these massive arenas don’t make a difference for those representing on stage – companies pin entire marketing strategies on the success and enthusiasm that a presentation will bring to these rooms. Marvel Entertainment’s Kevin Feige has admitted that his company was making a massive gamble on creating its own movie production studio – he had seen huge responses in Hall H before but the reactions to footage for the upcoming ‘Iron Man’ film blew him away. He knew they were on the right path and Marvel consequently shaped the company’s entire approach and dynamics for its future movie releases. Without those Hall H reactions, it’s unlikely such shifts would have taken place.
This attitude extends beyond the comics-based properties: for all the vitriol heaped upon it by so-called Con purists, the Twilight Saga was the perfect storm of Comic-Con interests – a successful series of big-budget movies based on a massively popular series of fantasy books, tailored towards a younger demographic with disposable pocket money to spare. These were a textbook Comic-Con audience and having the stars and filmmakers appear at Comic-Con was a massive draw for a new generation of pop culture fans, experiencing such hysteria for the first time. As anybody who has been swept up up that hysteria will tell, it’s quite the drug.
But to have that much energy, whipped up by that many people, sometimes the data can be misleading to the tune of millions of dollars. The responses to ’TRON: Legacy’ and ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs The World’ would have assumed massive box office success, however on release, both opened to damp figures. It appears that, in The Halls, nothing can be taken for granted.
So, to paraphrase the old musical number, how can you solve a problem like Hall H? Ticketing for panels is unwieldy and complicated, requiring a whole other set of logistics for CCI to manage. Room clearing is even more impractical, and utterly impossible to do on such a large scale. To fit as many panels as they do in these rooms, you look at fifteen minute breaks in between each panel – to switch out an entire room, to filter incoming attendees for the right panel and do so without the entire thing descending into chaos is a ridiculous notion.
As many of you may know, I’ve been a keen advocate for Google+ for the past year, won over by it’s features and capabilities. One of the more compelling features is that of the Hangout On Air, a live streaming video conference system that can be viewed not only on the social media platform but also live on YouTube, the world’s most popular video streaming service – these streams are then also view-able on the uploaders channel. So, you have the most reliable distribution platform, the ability for people to not only watch live but also watch later at their own discretion and a built-in revenue stream from advertising. Whichever platform is chosen, the question becomes not ‘Why isn’t Comic-Con streaming it’s content’, but ‘Why can’t it afford not to be’?
Maybe something to ease the burden would be to have a larger stage to spread out the attention – a larger Convention Center. This would solve the other inherent problem – while the Halls and high-profile sections bring in more people, they have to be put somewhere. An expansion plan to the existing site has been in place for years and was scheduled to begin work over a year ago, however this has been mired down with bureaucracy and paperwork – and, as John Rogers, President of Comic Con International’s Board of Directors put it at the Talkback panel at SDCC 2012, he ‘didn’t see any bulldozers breaking ground out there’.
Rearranging, rebuilding, even moving on to another city… are the big name draws and massive numbers of the Halls really the problem? For all the talk of comics and the comic industry facing being forced out its own Con, the Exhibition Floor is always packed to capacity – are all these people wandering around because the Hobbit panel is full? Of course not.
Preview Night was traditionally the Con’s soft-open, allowing a limited number of dedicated fans to wander freely without the numbers. But now, even Preview Night is the by-product of the Con’s success – in an attempt to fan down the noise of people wanting to attend, CCI decided to sell more Preview Night badges, turning this normally relaxed day into a Con day like any other. And all without panels on hand to bring in the crowds – like air in a vacuum, the voracious demand of the Con has grown to accommodate and I think will continue to do so.
One radical solution put forward to ease the burden has been the ‘big divorce’, finally making the intervention and getting out of the abusive relationship – separating the Con into two events, one serving the comics part of the affair, the other dealing with the pop culture element. There are smaller Cons out there, purely servicing the ‘sequential art’ format, from the small one-man outfits to the larger print houses. But it says a lot about the niche feeling of ‘market stall’ that these events have – on their own, it’s an arrangement that could never demand the audience or attention that Comic-Con has to spare.
Organizers of the original Comic-Con attempted to set up a smaller comics-orientated event last year, taking the whole thing back to, what they felt, basics. The ‘success’ of this event simply demonstrated the inevitable fact: the two halves of the coin are intrinsically linked and there’s nothing you can do to separate them. Part of the problem now is that, for some, both visiting and exhibiting, these rooms define what Comic-Con is. Indeed, the hysteria generated in these massive rooms has seen people both flock to, and run screaming, from these sections of the Con. Raising the subject of Hall H / Ballroom 20 brings up such heated feelings of emotion, both of passion and even hatred from observers, declaring they wouldn’t be caught dead at the entire thing, purely because of the rabid mania.
I feel there is a state of denial by all parties and they need to realize very quickly – ‘pop culture’ not only should stay part of Comic-Con; it simply IS a part of Comic-Con, now, to its very core. Where before it was a marriage of convenience, today the comic industry IS pop culture – it has pervaded every media format and, to its credit, Comic-Con International recognized this before even the fans did – this is why the Con ‘Celebrates The Popular Arts’. People decry the invasion of Hollywood into their territory but, at the end of the day, the comics industry sought this alliance out – at the beginning, they had to for their very survival. Now, it’s in the blood.
I think a lot can be taken from the way Comic-Con International themselves treat the Halls. No-one can say for certain the exact attitude towards these Halls from those inside the organisation of Comic-Con; however, you can make an intelligent guess. If you investigate how the Con is run for any period of time, you start to recognize the same names and faces – these are people with long-term investment with the event, who are considered family by the hierarchy and have been working on Comic-Con for many years. They’ve been there, some of them from the very beginning, when Comic-Con was purely about comics and this has been reflected in the focus of the new update to the Comic-Con website: the Toucan Blog, a series of posts exclusively centered around the comics industry, the creators, the publishing, the marketing of comic art.
I honestly believe that the panels are, if not an afterthought, then certainly not the main priority for the organizers at CCI – their primary focus is, and always shall be, the Exhibition Floor, the mainstay of Comic-Con from its very inception. While panels allowed a room full of people to hear from their creative heroes, having the artist right there in front of you, performing his craft is the purest demonstration of the form – for all the believed encroachment by alternative media (games, merchandise, toys), there is a massive representation of artists, writers and publishers of every scale and size on the Floor. (The retailers may have had to scale back but that may be due to a seismic shift in how modern comics are consumed… But that’s a whole other blogpost!)
In the past, CCI have been more than willing to just let the children play in their respective ball-pools while the grownups do grownup stuff on the main floor. However, sooner or later, CCI is going to have to make a serious decision about how to treat these ‘distractions’ because they have the power now to bring the whole house of cards down – and there is too much money at stake to let that happen.
Some have decided to make the first move – over the last year, Disney (owner of Marvel and now Lucasfilm) started to shift its attention to its own Convention, D23, by pulling Marvel out of CCI’s sister convention WonderCon altogether. Film companies started to hold back major properties, thinking of the risk of gambling all on the Con. I think this was a massive mis-step on everybody’s part – the two worlds of Comic-Con and pop culture may, at first, been a marriage of convenience but now they rely on each other for their very survival, a symbiotic relationship. The two industries may have some clout on their own but they are titanic together – the world’s media attention on a comic’s convention and the incredible demand to even get through the door is testament to that.
There are old-school ‘supporters’ of Comic-Con are happy to see pop culture retreat away and they talk about the pop culture balloon popping in the next few years – they had enough of these Hollywood interlopers and want their toys back. But, sooner or later, they’re going to have to realize, this is incredibly naive wishful thinking on their part. Their toys no longer belong to them and the rest of the world is having far too much fun playing – and making money – with them to give them back any time soon.(This post was originally a blog entry on ‘Leonard’s World Of Stuff and Nonsense’ and was posted 19th May, 2013)