Has San Diego Become the Con of Diminishing Returns?


This past week, I attended my 10th San Diego Comic-Con in a row. As always, there were some amazing reveals, from trailers and clips to casting announcements, plus wonderful interactions between fans and their favorite stars. But, for the first time, I was left underwhelmed by the experience. And I’m left to wonder if maybe we’ve hit the saturation point for this version of SDCC.

When I first started going to the San Diego Comic-Con in 2007, I was amazed at what was available to us as fans. We were treated to exclusive footage, new trailers, neat swag(!) and character reveals that no one outside of that particular panel would know. You felt catered to and appreciated by your favorite TV show, film or comic book title. Panels let you get up close and personal with your favorite actor, director or creator. And if you were lucky, you might get to have a life-changing exchange with them. There was also time to “walk the floor” at your own pace and explore the exhibitor booths showcasing all of their coolest products.

However, as the popularity of SDCC has exploded, these perks have dwindled and the exclusivity of the experience has suffered. The increase in the number of attendees has skyrocketed, which has led to insanely long lines full of irritated people who are sacrificing numerous panels for the chance to get into a single panel. People were in line on Tuesday night for a chance to get into Hall H for Saturday’s WB/DC and Disney/Marvel panels. I mean, there has to be a better way! Some have called for a lottery system similar to the one used for local hotels during Comic-Con, but that has it’s own problems worthy of another column.

The real problem is that the increase in local and national comic conventions combined with a major studio like Disney launching its own conventions (D23 and Star Wars Celebration) has thereby diminished the uniqueness of the experience of SDCC. Judging by this year’s 50% attendance among studios and the lack of X-Men or Deadpool footage at the Fox panel, it’s clear that Hollywood no longer feels the pressure to rush the marketing process in time for SDCC. They’re willing to take the PR hit because they know that the fans of their properties will be there on opening weekend anyway, and if they don’t lead with their best foot forward at Comic-Con, a movie could be dead in the water a year out from release. There are also more avenues these days for studios to get their product out there without suffering an immediate online backlash (see ABC’s Inhumans).

Warner Bros./DC and Disney/Marvel did bring their A-games, respectively. WB brought out Steven Spielberg to get fans hyped for Ready Player One. We got an amazing futuristic presentation for Blade Runner 2049 featuring Denis Vilenueve, Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling and a freakin’ Jared Leto hologram! We also got great teaser footage from Aquaman, official announcements for Shazam!, Green Lantern Corps, Batgirl and most surprisingly, Flashpoint. And the studio topped off its presentation with a new Justice League trailer that gave hints of what influence Joss Whedon may have on Zack Snyder’s work. DC’s presentation also put Gal Gadot center stage — and deservedly so — so she could take a victory lap for Wonder Woman, and she commanded the room despite Jason Momoa’s hilarious chair-throwing antics.

Just hours later, Disney/Marvel screened some great Ant-Man and The Wasp footage and the incredible Thor: Ragnarok trailer, which was quietly my favorite trailer of the Con. They also brought out the cast of Black Panther to introduce some exclusive footage and a new trailer. You couldn’t help but sense that Panther will be a cultural touchstone film, just as Wonder Woman was this summer. The film looks incredibly powerful and badass, while also conveying a very deep foundational respect for the African culture it’s going to explore with its Wakanda-set story.

Marvel also screened some otherworldly Avengers: Infinity War footage that debuted the previous week at D23. It practically blew the roof off of Hall H. The MCU proved that it’s on a whole other planet (pun intended) with what they’re doing compared to the DCEU. Wonder Woman was a great first step for DC, but we’ll have to wait and see if Justice League and their newly-announced slate of films will help bridge the gap between them and Marvel.

Fox’s panel on Thursday served as an appetizer for Saturday’s fireworks, and a disappointing one at that. The studio focused its panel solely on Kingsman: The Golden Circle and did not bring any footage from Deadpool 2, or announce any big news related to The New Mutants or X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Sure, I enjoyed spending time with Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Colin Firth, Taron Egerton and Pedro Pascal, and Halle Berry drinking a pint of bourbon (if it was bourbon!!) would be the highlight of any panel, but there was an audible groan when it ended. The fans wanted a chance to cheer on Deadpool and express excitement over New Mutants. Especially since it was fans whose love of the Deadpool test footage motivated the subsequent leak of that material that prompted the studio to make the movie in the first place. They feel a personal sense of responsibility for its success, and after the debacle of X-Men: Apocalypse, I would’ve expected Fox to jump at any chance to get the fans excited about this branch of their X-franchise again.

Meanwhile, Disney didn’t screen any new footage from Star Wars: The Last Jedi because they had released that impressive Behind the Scenes reel at D23. They also passed on the opportunity to do some damage control for the Han Solo movie. An appearance by Ron Howard and Kathleen Kennedy with some teaser footage might have gone a long way toward allaying any fears the fans may be having about the project. From what we’ve heard in various news reports, ex-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller had shot several months of footage and most of it was still usable for the film. So why not have some of that footage screened for fans who couldn’t make it to D23 due to timing and attendance limitations? The truth is, it’s because Disney and the other studios know they don’t have to rely on Comic-Con anymore.

The consensus coming out of San Diego was that it was an uneven Con with some great moments that were few and far between. The studios are starting to play it safe more and more. There are enough opportunities to screen footage or trailers at other cons year-round such as WonderCon, New York City Comic-Con and Emerald City Comicon, as well as the almost weekly national and international conventions. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see more studios start to explore what Disney has done with D23 and Star Wars Celebration. They’ll be able to control their content releases, limit attendance, have tighter security to avoid leaks and dictate the days and times of their presentations.

When you add it all up and factor in the role the internet plays in all of this, it means the exclusivity and uniqueness that used to be the main attraction of San Diego Comic-Con since 1970 is over. When you can have the same experience at numerous cons throughout the year, the annual pilgrimage  to San Diego becomes less special. I’ll always enjoy going, but it will be more out of nostalgia rather than the chance to see something new or exclusive that I won’t be able to see anywhere else for months. Sadly, those days are gone. All good things come to an end sometime…

John Steven Rocha is a host, actor and voiceover artist in LA. He currently hosts the Outlaw Nation and The Top 10 podcasts on the SK Plus channel and The Cine-Files podcast on iTunes. When he’s not doing that, he’s winning and losing belts as The Outlaw on the Movie Trivia Schmoedown. Feel free to send him a tweet or Instagram post at @TheRochaSays.

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One Response to Has San Diego Become the Con of Diminishing Returns?

  1. John,

    Thanks for this great piece. I was on my 10th consecutive too (point of order: my first was SDCC 08 and this is my 10th in the row, so you are on your 11th in a row?).

    Before getting into my comments, I will also note (and you may want to note in your piece) that FOX had actually billed the Thursday Hall H panel as the “20th Century Fox Panel” until July 18 or so, when it was renamed to Kingsman only. That leads me to believe that they intended to discuss a few other films, but changed their minds.

    Like you, the big draw for me at SDCC has been Hall H movie panels. There’s nothing like them. And I don’t even mean the Saturday panels, but any Hall H panels with films. You get a giant room with huge screens, a panel with the cast and crew, insight into the film, exclusive footage, and Q&A, although over the years, Hall H Q&A are dominated by the same people, but sometimes great questions are asked. And you get an electric crowd of passionate fans, the best part, arguably.

    Take SDCC 2011. Until this one, I considered SDCC 2011 the worst SDCC I attended between 08 and 16. Why? Mainly a lackluster Saturday Hall H. That was the year, if you recall, Marvel and Disney completely skipped out on Hall H because they launched D23. The Avengers movie released in 2012, and although we had the principal cast all together at SDCC 2010, SDCC was always known as the place where you got Hall H panels on movies coming out next year, so we expected Avengers footage at SDCC 2011, and got shut out.

    THAT SAID, I challenge you to go back and look at the Hall H SDCC 2011 lineup. http://ew.com/article/2011/07/14/comic-con-2011-hall-h-ballroom-20/

    Yes, the lineup of films throughout Thurs, Fri and Sat was quite weak, especially Saturday. But count the number of films with presentations in those three days. It’s astonishing! Over 20! That year, we lived in Hall H those 3 days and enjoying learning more about films we were already excited to see, but also to learn about movies we didn’t know anything about.

    Contrast that to this year. Because of the ridiculousness of getting into Sat Hall H, we didn’t get in. We refuse to camp (more on that later). But getting in line at 5pm on Friday wasn’t good enough. Apparently 9am on Friday wasn’t good enough either! We watched those panels in the playback room, and booed vociferously when the exclusive footage was blacked out. Friday has become TV shows only, and Thurs, well, we ended up attending one panel in Hall H, Kingsmen. For our 10th SDCC in a row, we spent a grand total of one hour in Hall H.

    There’s many articles about the death of film in Hall H, and while we all know the reasons, it’s sad and it sucks. The one big attraction for some of us was Hall H movie panels on Thurs/Fri/Sat, and to see that reduced to near zero, and with the icing on top of the craziness of getting in for Sat Hall H, is very disheartening. Like you, I will always enjoy going, but increasingly nostalgia (and the company you’re with) is the big draw, not the content. Hell, even the exclusives were weak. Mattel was a joke in terms of what they had, ditto Hasbro.

    “Some have called for a lottery system similar to the one used for local hotels during Comic-Con, but that has it’s own problems worthy of another column.”

    I’d be very interested in reading another column from you on this, because I think lottery is way to go. Once upon a time, we had no lottery for badges or hotels. As much I loved those days because I had no issue getting a badge or the hotel I wanted, it wasn’t fair. Old people complained at Talkback panels galore, so we got lottery for badges (randomized waiting room = lottery) , and then hotels. I was at the Westin Gaslamp instead of the 6 closest hotels like I usually am, but again, we had a fair system.

    A lottery only makes sense. The Hall H line has been corrupted by campers, line buddies, and line cutters. All three problems are essentially gone with an online randomized lottery that occurs PRIOR to SDCC. You click a link at some point after getting badges, but before SDCC, where are you asked about whether you want a “digital wristband” for Thurs/Fri/Sat/Sun Hall H. You are only asked for the days you have badges, so if you are Thurs only, you only get asked about Thurs. (Although, arguably, they should start with only doing this on Fri/Sat Hall H only, and if needed, expand to other things)

    SDCC conducts the random lottery and informs you of whether you got it. Either you get something marked on your badge (likely) or they upgrade their RFID system to have that info stored on your badge and you get a green light at Hall H to walk in (not likely). Then on each day of Hall H, you have to show up at 7:30am or your spot is lost. Those people who do show on time then walk in and enjoy Hall H. There would also be a standby line for people who didn’t get the lottery to either take the place of people who don’t show OR for when people leave, standby’s can walk in.

    If you do it this way, the days of camping are numbered. Yes, one could camp for the standby line, but if you figure at least 80% of people with the digital wristbands show up, you are camping for a 20% chance to get into the back of Hall H from the beginning or get in after panels let out and some people leave. And one could camp for the front row if they have a digital wristband, but the number that would would not exceed the space available under Hall H tents. Simply put, having any day where 6500+ people are camped out on the Marina looking like bums would be over. And line cutting would stop being an issue. It might happen once in a while in the standby line, but otherwise you won’t have hundreds cutting like they did last Fri night. And with the lottery, gone are the new “line buddies” issue where 5 people invite 80 of their friends to line. Again, that might happen in the standby line, but the standby line is a minor issue compared to all the line buddy nonsense last Fri night where the volunteer said there was 1500 people in line when I got in line, but somehow I not only didn’t get a wristband, but was hundreds of people away from even a D wristband. For a hall that seats 6500.

    And yes, just like the badge and hotel lotteries, this would decrease my own personal chances of getting into Sat Hall H, although as it is those chances were diminishing. But just as my interest + speed with the computer used to guarantee a badge and a great hotel, the notion of guaranteeing your spot in Hall H by camping should be a thing of the past too.

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