Is the Comic-Con Era of Hollywood Coming to an End?
Game of Thrones and Westworld won’t be there. Marvel Studios is skipping Hall H months before the release of their biggest movie ever. Star Wars was a no-show in 2017 despite The Last Jedi and Solo: A Star Wars Story.
A few years ago, all of these moves would have been unthinkable. Now, they’re becoming more and more common. Is the era of Comic-Con’s dominance coming to a close?
It sure seems that way. Not that Comic-Con as an event is going away; tens of thousands of dorks will show up in San Diego this July, and the lines will remain as soul-crushingly long as they have been in recent years. Comic-Con is an institution. It was around for decades before Hollywood became obsessed with it, and it will be around long after. But we may be moving towards that latter phase at high speed.
To some extent, Comic-Con is the victim of its own success. Over the last 15 or so years, as the multiplex has transformed into a giant comic-book store with an overpriced snack bar, San Diego Comic-Con International has undergone a similar metamorphosis, from a cultist’s paradise to the epicenter of the American movie and television industries’ marketing machine. The influx of big-name stars, the chance to be the first in the world to see trailers and clips from upcoming movies, and the potential for swag and other exclusive collectibles drove up attendance, which had a deleterious effect on the overall experience. Now Comic-Con is busier, louder, smellier, harder to navigate, and full of many more potential frustrations — all with a far greater possibility of bad publicity, any of which would negate the only reason brands came to Comic-Con in the first place.
Covering Comic-Con from the middle of the last decade to the middle of this decade, I had a front row seat to a lot of these changes. The first year I attended Comic-Con, as a news host for the Independent Film Channel, we were one of the only television channels with a dedicated crew there for the entire weekend (MTV was really the only bigger outlet I saw). The people behind the films and shows that were there were thrilled to talk to us; we walked onto red carpets for blockbusters like Spider-Man 3 and Ghost Rider, got great spots, and talked to all of their stars at length.
In a matter of years, everything changed. Mainstream shows like Entertainment Tonight took notice of Comic-Con’s evolution, and pretty soon my team from IFC went from being courted to ignored. A few years after a publicist begged me to cover their movie at Comic-Con, the same publicist did me a “favor” by putting me on the very end of a red carpet, where I was positioned behind (and therefore less important than) a man dressed in a Skeletor costume. The competition for access (and the insane awfulness of the San Diego Convention Center’s wifi) made it easier to “cover” Comic-Con remotely than in person. (The last year I attended I spent one whole day not in Hall H but in my hotel room, where someone texted me updates from inside the convention which I then turned into articles.)
A similar kind of crowding out happened to the films and shows themselves. There were so many movies and shows fighting for attention, it was almost impossible to stand out. The only way to make a mark was to spend more, with bigger booths, crazier giveaways, and more extravagant gestures towards fans. In 2015, I attended a Comic-Con panel for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which culminated with Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy inviting every single person in Hall H to leave the building and walk about a mile away, to a sports field where Disney had built a gigantic stage and then put on a free concert of Star Wars music, complete with a massive fireworks display. Everyone in attendance even got a free lightsaber.
I don’t know how much money Disney spent on this gesture, but it had to be more than the budget of many independent films. I also don’t know what tangible effects, if any, it had on The Force Awakens’ bottom line. (It went on to become the biggest film in U.S. history, so it definitely didn’t hurt.) But I do know that from Lucasfilm’s perspective, in a world where this amount of financial outlay is required to really get attention, it makes absolutely no sense to do it at Comic-Con, where they are attendees instead of profit participants. The next time Star Wars had a surprise convention concert for fans, it wasn’t at Comic-Con; it was at their own Star Wars Celebration. (And this time, they even got John Williams to show up and conduct the orchestra.)
Along similar lines, Marvel’s begun eschewing San Diego for Disney’s own D23 convention, and the company has talked openly about the possibility of Marvel starting its own Comic-Con-style convention. (I wouldn’t be surprised if HBO tried the same thing on a smaller scale for Game of Thrones, Westworld, and others.) Comic-Con will continue to be a destination for geeks from around the world, but I suspect that major companies and pop culture brands will increasingly find ways to try to beat Comic-Con at its own game. Why not? It’s better to be the big fish in a small pond. Or better yet, to be the guy who owns the land the pond is built on so you can charge the guests who want to go fishing.