The size of a pop culture event depends on how you count
This year ReedPop’s New York Comic Con reportedly reached a new record high attendance: 200,000. However, it’s difficult to know the actual size of the event relative to other fan conventions — or even to the previous year’s New York Comic Con — due to vagaries in how attendance is counted.
New York Comic Con is unquestionably huge. Several years ago the annual fan fest outgrew the confines of the Javits Center and now hosts additional programming sessions in the The Manhattan Center’s Hammerstein Ballroom, the Theater at Madison Square Garden, and Hudson Mercantile.
The Javits seemed particularly crowded this year due, at least in part, by having less available floor space than in past years. Javits North, traditionally the site of Artist Alley, was closed due to construction, forcing the show’s artists to relocate from the 80,000 square foot hall to the 45,000 sq ft. room 1E on the ground floor, a space used for vendor exhibits in the previous year.
Ways to Count
While fan festivals both large and small routinely report specific attendance numbers, what they mean is less clear. There is no industry standard for attendance calculations at pop culture conventions. In practice, at least three methods are used:
(1) Counting unique individuals, where each person counts as one attendee, regardless of the number of tickets they hold or days they attend.
(2) Counting the number of tickets sold (whether for a single day or multiple days)
(3) Counting the number of people who enter each day and totaling it for all the days of the event.
For example: An individual with two single-day tickets (say, one for Friday and one for Saturday), would count as one attendee using the first approach and two using the second and third. On the other hand, someone with a single four-day ticket would count as one attendee using the first and second methods, but four using the third.
The third method is sometimes referred to as a “turnstile” count, although this term introduces an additional confusion. Most events allow you to leave and return later the same day, so an actual count of the number of turnstile entrances would further inflate the number, making this a potential fourth method of counting attendance (although I know of no event that actually uses this approach).
Which Con Uses Which Numbers?
When a convention reports attendance figures, it’s often not clear which method is being used. All these approaches are valid, but they’re different, making comparisons fraught with uncertainty.
Comic-Con International’s San Diego Comic-Con reportedly uses the most conservative approach: a count of unique individuals, regardless of the number of days each person attends. The attendance at that event has been capped by space constraints for several years and is reported each year as around 130,000.
When New York Comic Con reported a significantly higher number — 151,000 — in 2014, it sparked a flurry of articles breathlessly reporting that ReedPop’s event had surpassed the Comic-Con International convention. The confusion was compounded by ReedPop’s identifying the number as a “unique attendee” count. Reporting by the SDCC Unofficial Blog, however, clarified that ReedPop was counting tickets sold (using method 2, above) not unique individuals (method 1).
The key takeaway is that comparing attendance figures from events run by different organizations — Comic-Con International (San Diego Comic-Con and Wondercon), ReedPop (New York Comic Con, Chicago’s C2E2, Emerald City Comic Con), Wizard World (events in dozens of cities) or others — is highly dubious.
Assuming the method for each event remains the same, however, at least year-over-year increases could provide a reasonable proxy for the relative growth of a single event. Alas, this year New York Comic Con — which, remember, tallies the number of tickets sold — changed their ticket sales policy to no longer offer a four-day ticket. People were able to attend all four days only by buying four single-day tickets. Thus, even with the same number of attendees, the number of tickets sold would be expected to increase irrespective of any growth in attendance.
New York Comic Con and Comic-Con International: San Diego are both enormous pop culture events, with an broad array of activities and large numbers of attendees. Until the industry adopts a standard accounting method, however, the relative size of each will remain obscure.
Mr. Robot’s Alternate Reality Game at San Diego Comic-Con
At San Diego Comic-Con last year, the offsite marketing event for USA Network’s Mr. Robot cleverly blended a physical environment with a virtual reality experience. This year, Mr. Robot eschewed the virtual in favor of physical constructions and encounters with live actors. Some aspects of the experience were clearly visible. Other elements were revealed only to fans who participated in a complex alternate reality game (ARG) to solve clues scattered around downtown San Diego.
Clearly Visible: The Bank of E and the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ
While the climax of the experience was cleverly hidden, much of this year’s Mr. Robot activation (as these marketing events are termed) was apparent to anyone strolling around San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
On Fourth Ave, a short distance from the Convention Center, fans could see the storefront of the Mr. Robot Repair Shop. Last year, the shop was the entrance to an elaborate reconstruction of the fictional retail establishment from the TV show, complete with old mid-1990s computers. Moving down a hallway, fans then entered a recreation of the apartment of Elliot Alderson, the show’s protagonist. From there, participants donned VR headsets and entered a 13-minute virtual reality experience written and directed by showrunner Sam Esmail. [For more on the 2016 marketing experience, see: “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media”
This year, the repair shop was abandoned. The closed storefront displayed a condemned sign and a notice for eviction. An ad for the E Corp Online, the AOL-like online service of the show’s mega-conglomerate E Corp, could also be spotted. (More on this ad later.) Graffiti was splattered over much of the storefront.
Next door, the Bank of E had a small branch office where fans could sign up for an account from the fictional bank and receive a charge card loaded with 20 Ecoin, the Bank of E’s cryptocurrency. People could also sign up online on the Bank’s website, e-coin.com. While the bank may be fictional, Ecoin worked as an effective pseudo-currency throughout much of the Gaslamp during Comic-Con. Signs declaring “Ecoin Accepted Here,” where fans could use their newly-acquired Ecoin card to purchase souvenirs and snacks, were scattered around downtown San Diego.
Next door to the Bank of E was the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, where Bank of E customers could receive a complimentary pulled pork sandwich (supplied by local favorite Phil’s BBQ) along with chips and a shake.
While the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ appears only obliquely in the previous season of the show — appearing briefly as a takeout menu in one episode — it will reportedly play a larger role in the upcoming third season.
These physical recreations of locations from the show allowed many fans at Comic-Con to enter the world of Mr. Robot. There was, however, a mystery hiding in plain sight.
Following the Clues
While many people were blithely enjoying lunch at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, observant fans noticed clues to something deeper behind the Mr. Robot activation. [For many of the details in this section, I’m indebted to the redditors in the /r/MrRobot/ and r/ARGsociety/ subreddits, particularly B-Cipher, Cornelius55555555, and britter2]
At the Bank of E, a video screen running promotional ads for the bank would occasionally glitch and display a black screen with red lettering saying:
SOMETIMES TO SEE CLEARLY, YOU MUST CLOSE YOUR EYES.
ISE IARI CHI EIVE RIY WIH IERE
Removing the Is and unnecessary spaces, gives: SEARCH EVERYWHERE
Some of the Ecoin Accepted Here signs included the following text at the bottom:
Use Ecoin to unlock the mysteries of the universe!
Don’t wait… EVERY SECOND COUNTS!!
The gibberish at the bottom is an anagram for:
USE PROMO CODE ENLIGHTENMENT
Entering ENLIGHTENMENT as a promo code on the Ecoin website showed a black screen with white text that read:
so, you decided to bank with e corp.
you’re on your way.
you need a job.
ask an employee at red wheelbarrow if they’re hiring
hope to hear back from you soon.
When asked, staff at the Red Wheelbarrow would hand out a job application form to prospective hires. Applicants were told to be observant and look around both inside and outside the Red Wheelbarrow. Staff also pointed out the application number at the top right of the form: 619. This is the area code for San Diego.
A number of letters were missing from words in the application form. Listing the missing letters gives: “find and assemble the pieces enlightenment calls.”
At the top left of the application, above the Red Wheelbarrow logo, were three circles, the first of which was filled with the other two empty.
On a chalkboard at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ was written the William Carlos Williams poem from which the establishment takes its name:
So much depends upon
a red wheelbarrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens
– William Carlos Williams
Underneath was a speech balloon saying “follow us!” above one of a pair of stickers of white chickens.
A white chicken sticker could also be seen on the closed Mr. Robot Repair Shop.
Looking closely at the shop’s E Corp Online ad revealed additional clues. At the upper left, three circles could again be seen. In this case, the middle circle was filled with the two outside circles empty.
The first sentence of the text read: “A world of enlightenment is just a click away with E Corp Online!,” with the bold “enlightenment” harking back to the earlier clues.
Elsewhere in the text, a number of words, representing numbers, were in all caps:
The World Wide Web is what’s happening now, and EOL brings it right to your computers. Sports, Shopping, Travel and more… over FOUR categories of content all at your fingertips.
And thanks to E Corp’s cutting edge technology, connecting with the people and things that you love has never been easier. Our new high connection speeds will have you online in less then THREE minutes!
BONUS: Order now, and receive ONE free hour to check out E Corp Online!
This text thus adds to 619 three numbers: 431.
White chicken stickers led down 4th Avenue and across the street. An abandoned building displayed a street art poster with four marionettes on strings. In the upper left were three circles, with the first two empty and the final circle filled.
The text of the poster read:
If you pull the right strings,
a puppet will dance any way you desire.
A later version read:
The real you is not a puppet
which life pushes around.
The real, deep down you
is the whole universe.
The work was signed “Enlightenment.”
In one hand, each of the figures was holding an object: a noose, a white rose, a cell phone, and a knife. With the other hand, each of the marionettes displayed a number of fingers. In order they were: 2454
Putting together the three sets of numbers gives a San Diego phone number.
A number of people reportedly had problems calling the number, receiving a busy signal or a recording telling them to call back tomorrow.
When the call was completed, the person on the other end said, “If you pull the right strings…” A wrong response would be answered with “Your journey is not complete. Follow the chickens.” If the caller answered correctly with “A puppet will dance any way you desire,” they were congratulated on following the correct path, asked their name, and given the time and location at which to appear. (In some accounts, they were told they could bring one friend.)
At the appointed time and place, the participant was met by someone who asked their name and led them to a doorway for the final segment of the experience.
The End of the Journey
It turned out the entrance to the final chapter of the Mr. Robot Experience was located next to the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ. A glass doorway was covered with newspapers which, in a clever bit of misdirection, appeared to be more relevant to Superman than to Mr. Robot. A Daily Planet newspaper placed in multiple locations on the door trumpeted the headline “Mysterious Crisis Strikes City!” and discussed shocking developments in Superman’s home town of Metropolis.
The newspaper included a crossword puzzle with odd clues:
Although I didn’t see this when I was there, apparently at one point the crossword puzzle on one of the pages was filled in with a series of backward and forward words:
Unscrambling and rearranging these gives: “Find The Right Number to Unlock Enlightenment Behind That Door.”
The door led to a dimly lit hallway with graffiti on the walls. A woman in a hoody was standing midway down the corridor. I was told I needed to turn over my cellphone before proceeding. I objected. As a compromise, I turned off my phone and promised to keep it in my pocket.
The door at the end of the hall led to a darkened room — one that looks virtually identical to the interrogation room encountered by Angela (Portia Doubleday) in the penultimate episode in season 2 of Mr. Robot (titled “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z”).
As in the show, the room contained a dimly lit table on which sat an ancient Commodore 64 computer along with a few 5-1/4-inch diskettes. Also on the table was a red telephone. The only other object in the room was an illuminated fish tank, whose glow provided ambient light in the room.
While the physical environment closely matched the room seen in the show, there was one striking difference: While Angela was interrogated by a young blonde girl — looking much like the Angela would have looked at that age — in the room at Comic-Con, you were facing a person wearing the mask of the ominous Dark Army.
After being directed to sit down, the questions began.
“How many times have you lied today?”
“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?”
The series of questions apparently varied somewhat. One account reported being asked “At what age did you realize you are alone?”
The final question was:
“Are you afraid of the dark?”
At that point, the masked figure slid forward a mechanical light switch. When switched on, the lights went off and the room turned . A black UV light revealed graffiti scrolled on the back wall that included the phrase, “What do those in darkness desire?”
To avoid the obvious I initially answered, “Truth.” The masked figure shook his head. I then responded, “Light.”
At that point, the black light switched off and the dim room lighting returned.
One account reported that the fish tank began to slowly drain, echoing what happens during the similar sequence in show. When I spoke with one of the developers of the activation, he told me the original plan was to drain the tank, but it was taking too long to refill between sessions, so this was dropped.
The red phone then rang. When answered, the distinctive voice of Whiterose (BD Wong) began to speak. “No, no. Please don’t talk. I have allotted precisely one minute and twenty seven seconds for this conversation.” The character then went on to provide hints about the upcoming season of Mr. Robot, the main thrust of which (as well as I can recall) was that things were in motion that were much deeper than E Corp president Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) and others currently realize.
After replacing the receiver at the end of the call, my interlocutor said I had earned the right to see something. He handed me a manila envelope and said I had 30 seconds to review the contents. Inside were a series of photos from season 3 of Mr. Robot.
After viewing the photos, I returned them to the envelope and handed it back. I was then told I could leave and was shown the door.
Once in the hallway, participants who turned over their cellphones had them returned. I exited the hallway to return to the bustle of San Diego’s 4th Avenue and the crowd blissfully dining at the Red Wheelbarrow.
Worlds Within Worlds
The final phase of this elaborate marketing activation was a haunting experience. Being placed into a bizarre situation from the show — not as a digital simulation, but a physical environment interacting with human performers — is an eerie experience.
It’s striking how much effort went into the hidden elements of the marketing experience that would be seen by only a few fans of the show. A representative from Civic Entertainment Group, the company that helped to develop the activation with USA Networks, told me the final act of the experience took about 8 minutes. Allowing for buffer time between each session, this implies that only six or seven people per hour could go through the experience. As mentioned above, draining of the fish tank was dropped in order to decrease the time to cycle between each session. And some people were reportedly told they could bring a friend, which would double the number of participants. Even so, it’s a large effort for a limited audience.
In a way, this echoes the structure of the Mr. Robot TV show itself. Many viewers simply watch each hour-long episode. Others pick up on the obscurereferences and hidden “Easter eggs” that reveal additional story details or lead to otherwebsites or videos for a deeper experience.
The Comic-Con Mr. Robot Experience was a rich interactive component to the show’s layered, transmedia content.
Comic-Con International: San Diego or, as it is more commonly known, San Diego Comic-Con or simply SDCC, is a massive event. Each year presents attendees with a challenging exercise to determine which of the many simultaneous activities they can afford to miss. Comic-Con scheduling is particularly vexing in my case since I wear multiple hats. For Knowledge@Wharton I’m on the lookout for emerging business trends, which frequently sends me to many of the offsite marketing “activations” (as they are known). As a photographer for TwoMorrows’ Comic Book Creator and other magazines, I attend many of the comic book panels and autograph signings. And, of course, there are things of which I’m personally a fan, which often send me to the mammoth Hall H for the major movie and television properties.
Here is an overview of San Diego Comic-Con 2017 from my perspective. [Click on the images to view full photo albums.]
The Big Panels in Hall H
The most popular programming sessions at Comic-Con are held in the 6,500-seat Hall H.
On Friday, the cast of Twin Peaks: The Return took to the stage for “Twin Peaks: A Damn Good Panel.” Moderated by Damon Lindelof, the panel included Kyle MacLachlan, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Dana Ashbrook, Kimmy Robertson, James Marshall, Everett McGill, Matthew Lillard, and Don Murray.
Following the Twin Peaks panel, I was able to do a brief photo shoot with the cast of Twin Peaks before an autograph signing in the Entertainment Earth booth.
Saturday typically hosts the biggest panels to Hall H. This year, the day began with Warner Bros. and concluded with Marvel Studios.
For the first Warner Bros. panel, Ready Player One, the curtains on the side walls pulled back to display a huge 180-degree video display that wrapped around the audience. Following a trailer for the upcoming film, moderator Chris Hardwick brought to the stage director Steven Spielberg; writers Ernest Cline and Zak Penn; and actors Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, and T.J. Miller.
The Blade Runner 2049 panel began with a display of a timeline of the events between the period of the first film (2019) and the upcoming sequel (2049). A version of this content can be seen at roadto2049.bladerunnermovie.com. Following this, the film’s trailer was screened, followed by a hologram-like projection of actor Jared Leto. Moderator Chris Hardwick then introduced director Denis Villeneuve; actors Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, and Lennie James; producers Andrew A. Kosove and Broderick Johnson; and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green.
The final Warner Bros. presentation was for Justice League, which began with the stars of the forthcoming film charging down the center aisle past the Hall H audience to ascend the stage. Moderator Chris Hardwick first introduced Aquaman‘s Jason Momoa, who danced around with his trident like Jimi Hendrix on the guitar. Next up was Gal Gadot, followed by the rest of the cast: Ben Affleck, Ray Fisher, and Ezra Miller.
After Warner Bros., next up in Hall H was the “Women Who Kick Ass” panel. While this annual panel typically includes a group of female actors, this year it highlighted a single performer: Charlize Theron. After an extended clip from Atomic Blonde with Theron in an intense fight scene, the actor was interviewed by Sara Vilkomerson.
The Stranger Things panel showed a trailer for season 2 of the popular Netflix series and then brought to the stage an enormous panel of cast and crew: series creators Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer; actors Natalia Dyer, Shawn Levy, Joe Keery, Gaten Matarazzo, David Harbour, Caleb McLaughlin, Matthew Modine, Noah Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, Dacre Montgomery, Millie Bobby Brown, Paul Reiser, and Sadie Sink; and moderator Patton Oswalt. Midway through the panel, Shannon Purser, who played Barb in the show’s first season, emerged from the audience to join the cast on stage.
The Westworld panel included a trailer for the upcoming season of the series and featured a large cast including showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy; actors Shannon Woodward, Luke Hemsworth, Angela Sarafyan, Ben Barnes, Jimmi Simpson, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Rodrigo Santoro, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Simon Quarterman, and Tessa Thompson; and moderator Reggie Watts.
Capping Saturday in Hall H was Marvel Studios. Moderator Chris Hardwick first introduced Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. Before introducing other cast members, Comic-Con International Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim presented Kevin Feige with an Inkpot Award.
The first part of the Marvel panel then focused on Thor: Ragnarok. Joining Fiege and Hardwick on stage were director Taika Waititi and actors Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, and Jeff Goldblum. An exclusive trailer was shown.
Following Thor: Ragnarok, Feige brought to the stage the cast and crew of Black Panther: writer/director Ryan Coogler and actors Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis and Winston Duke. Exclusive footage from Black Panther was also debuted.
Although Fiege had initially stated the session would cover two films: Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, when Fiege began to sum up after the Black Panther cast exited the stage, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth, Chadwick Boseman, and Mark Ruffalo returned to egg Fiege on for more — pointing out there were three Avengers on stage. Responding to the rising audience demand for additional material, Fiege, playing along, relented and showed the first public footage from Avengers: Infinity War.
While the footage shown in many of Saturday’s panels was released to the public shortly following its debut in Hall H, the Marvel Studios footage remained unavailable elsewhere. While it’s a shame to keep the content from fans who couldn’t make it into Hall H — and it’s likely beneficial to the studios to have the material seen by the largest possible audience — I’m pleased Marvel is upholding the tradition of showing exclusive content to the fans who who camped out for hours (or even days) to get inside Hall H.
Comic Book Panels, Signings, and Awards
This year marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of famed comics artist and writer Jack Kirby. A number of this year’s comics-focused panels honored his legacy.
On Thursday, the panel “Jack Kirby’s Consciousness, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, Barry Ira Geller, and the Real Argo” featured Barry Ira Geller and artist Mike Royer discussing Kirby’s work on a planned movie and science theme park based on Roger Zelazny’s novel, Lord of Light. While neither the movie nor the theme park materialized, the unproduced movie script and artwork were used as part of the scheme to rescue American diplomats who were in hiding in Iran following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, events portrayed (in a fictionalized version) in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning film, Argo.
Mark Evanier moderated a separate spotlight panel with longtime Kirby inker Mike Royer. In comparing his inking style with that of another noted Kirby inker, Joe Sinnott, Royer said, “Joe Sinnott inked Jack MGM. I inked Jack Warner Brothers…. MGM was glossy. Warner Brothers was raw, and to the point.”
TwoMorrows’ publisher John Morrow, editor of Jack Kirby Collector Magazine, was featured in a spotlight panel on Friday. At the outset of the panel, Morrow was awarded an Inkpot Award by Comic-Con International’s Gary Sassaman.
Also on Friday was the “Jack Kirby: Friends and Family” panel with Kirby decedents Jeremy Kirby, Tracy Kirby, Lisa Kirby, and Jillian Kirby, along with artist and family friend Mike Thibodeaux and moderator Mark Evanier.
The “Spotlight on Paul Dini” panel featured the writer in conversation with his friend, writer/producer David Mandel.
“The Women of Marvel” panel included Sana Amanat, Lorraine Cink, Margaret Stohl, Rainbow Rowell, Christina Strain, Alanna Smith, and Mariko Tamaki, moderated by Judy Stephens.
Beyond the panels, comic book creators are available throughout much of Comic-Con — in Artist Alley, at signing events, and simply browsing the con with the other attendees.
And, as always, Friday evening brought the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Ceremony, which is a wonderful event honoring the women and men who create comics. Among the many awards given that evening, the members of the Kirby family accepted the Bill Finger award given to Jack Kirby for his writing.
Science Fiction Meets Real-World Science
While Comic-Con often features panels that look at the scientific underpinnings of fictional worlds of movies and television like Star Trek or Star Wars, this year saw a number of panels and events focusing on science in the real world.
New at Comic-Con this year was the Futurism and Tech Pavilion (an expansion of last year’s VR Con) with demonstrations of a wide range of immersive entertainment technology including virtual reality, 4D VR motion controlled chairs, and augmented reality goggles.
In the “Science Fiction, Science Future” panel, science fiction writers, including The Martian‘s Andy Weir, discussed the synergies between science fiction and science fact with scientists and engineers.
“No Tow Trucks Beyond Mars” featured engineers and scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) discussing how the space program works to anticipate and avoid problems in interplanetary travel.
The “2017: The State of Iron Man Tech” panel, moderated by Dent the Future’s Steve Broback, featured inventor Richard Browning (who has developed a prototype jet-powered exosuit), actor and stunt woman Zoë Bell, NASA engineer Chris Gerty, and venture capitalist Adam Draper. That evening, Dent the Future hosted an informal get-together with Browning and Bell at San Diego’s Mission Brewery. While billed as an opportunity to see Browning’s jet suit, there were hints during the panel that Browning might do more than merely model the suit. And, indeed, midway through the gathering, people were given earplugs and asked to assemble outside the brewery where Browning flew around the parking area in his jet suit.
Marketing: From Ubiquitous Banners to Immersive Environments
Advertising takes over nearly every square inch of San Diego during Comic-Con. This year’s award for Most Ubiquitous Ad Campaign would likely go, as in other recent years, to TBS. This year the network was promoting People of Earth (replacing the Conan ads from the past two years). Ads promoting the series appeared on everything from the stairways and baggage carousels at San Diego International Airport to the large building wrap covering the upper floors of the Marriott Marquis.
The companion real estate on the Hilton Bayfront was occupied by wrap for FX’s Legion, which mercifully replaced the creepy banners for The Strain that occupied that location in the previous two years.
The most significant marketing activity at SDCC occurs on the large-scale activations that take place around San Diego. Virtual reality was all the rage at many of the immersive marketing events in recent years. While VR was still in evidence, several of the most popular marketing activations this year were geared toward physical installations and real-world interactions. Scavenger hunts were featured in the activations for The Tick and Mr. Robot. Meticulously constructed physical environments populated with actors formed the core of the events for Blade Runner 2049 (which also included an optional VR component), Mr. Robot, and Westworld.
The Tick Takeover, promoting Amazon’s forthcoming series, was a two-part activation. In the first section, fans could work the controls of the large tick antennae that towered over the sidewalk and rest on sofas while viewing the pilot episode of the series. In the second part, fans are first led into a reconstruction of a convenience store and are then whisked away into another room for a competitive scavenger hunt. Throughout the event, fans are required to answer a number of surveys in order to get free schwag.
More immersive was the Blade Runner 2049 Experience. Located in a large temporary structure, this event was also presented in two parts. The first was a 4D virtual reality experience — 360-degree video and sound with a synchronized motion chair. In the simulation, you’re piloting a spinner, the flying car in the show, in pursuit of a runaway replicant. The chase soars between the skyscrapers in Los Angeles of 2049, eventually ending with both vehicles crashing to the ground.
Once the virtual experience ends, you remove your headset to see the wall previously in front of the room has disappeared and you walk into a large scale reproduction of a street scene in Los Angeles 2049. The entire scene is suffused with a foggy haze. Actors wearing outrageous fashions interact with you. A chef prepares dishes at a noodle stand. Police keep an eye on things and, at one point, insist you submit to a Voight-Kampff test to verity you’re a human. There are also props from the film on display and, in an adjacent room a place to pick up noodles or drink vials of Johnnie Walker whisky.
Perhaps the most exclusive marketing event at this year’s Comic-Con was the Westworld Experience, which reportedly accommodated only 12 people per hour. The lucky few who were able to sign up for an appointment, were able to participate in an in-depth physical immersive experience. After being interviewed by a host, you were given a western hat — either white or black. Guests were then led to a full scale replica of the show’s Mariposa Saloon.
Also built around physical environments, along with a mysterious scavenger hunt, was this year’s Mr. Robot Experience. As with the Westworld Experience, this year’s event stood in contrast with last year’s Mr. Robot Experience, which combined a VR experience with a physical environment. That year’s hybrid experience reconstructed the Mr. Robot Repair Shop and the apartment of the show’s main character, and then launched into an extended, 13-minute virtual reality experience. [See On Technology and Media, “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media.”]
This year, the Mr. Robot Repair Shop was closed, with condemned notices posted on a reconstruction of the building’s exterior. Open next door was the Bank of E, where fans could get a bank card loaded with 20 ECoin, the show’s fictional digital currency, that could be used to buy food and other items at many locations throughout San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. At the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, an establishment only hinted at in season 2 of the show but reportedly playing a larger role in season 3, fans could enjoy a pulled pork sandwich (supplied by Phil’s BBQ) with chips and a shake.
As if this weren’t enough, observant fans discovered hints that led them on a hunt to decode additional clues around town. When all the clues were collected, they revealed a phone number that directed participants to the final stage of the activation. Past a secret doorway, guards confiscate your cell phone to prevent photos or recordings, and then lead you down a hallway to a dark room that is a near-exact replica of the interrogation room in which Angela finds herself in season 2 episode 11. You’re seated in front of a table with a red telephone and an old Commodore 64 computer. A few 5-1/4 diskettes are scattered around. At the rear of the room is an illuminated fish tank. But where Angela was interrogated by a young girl, you’re sitting across the desk from a masked representative of the Dark Army. He asks a series of odd, somewhat intimidating questions: “How many times have you lied today?” “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” “Are you afraid of the dark?” “What does one in the darkness seek?” After the interrogation, a phone rings. When answered, you hear the voice of Whiterose giving you a cryptic message that may contain clues about the direction of season 3 of the show. You’re then handed a manila envelope and told you have 30 seconds to review the contents. Inside are photos from the upcoming season of Mr. Robot.
While these immersive marketing events relied on real-world environments populated by actors, rather than virtual simulations, next year may reveal whether this was a single year deviation or the beginning of a trend. [For additional commentary, see Knowledge@Wharton, “Marketing at Comic-Con Gets Real (Again).”
SDCC 2017 ended for me, as it does each year, with the Talk Back session, in which Comic-Con International President John Rogers listens to feedback from attendees on what went right and what went wrong (mostly what went wrong) at that year’s Comic-Con. In addition to the usual complaints about long lines and over-zealous security staff, this brought a new concern: allegations of counterfeit Hall H wristbands. Although these reports were unconfirmed, it was clear something went terribly awry regarding Hall H access on Saturday. After the 6,500-seat room was filled for the opening Warner Bros. panel that day, a significant number of fans with wristbands — which should have guaranteed access to the room — were still outside waiting in line. Rogers made it clear that Comic-Con International needs to “look into the security of the wristbands and how we tie that into people going forward.”
This past weekend, Wizard World Comic Con returned to Philadelphia with a show geared to expanding the audience beyond the usual comic book and superhero crowd. This year’s celebrity headliners were drawn from a wider array of fandom than the usual superhero and science fiction movies and TV shows. And, new this year, Wizard World partnered with Bloody Disgusting to present the Wizard World Horror Fest as an addition to the Philadelphia pop culture convention.
At Wizard World Philadelphia 2016, newly-ensconced Wizard World CEO John Maatta stated his plan to “amp it up” with “better marketing and more content creation.” After expanding from 17 comic conventions in 2014 to 25 shows in 2015, Wizard World scaled back to 16 conventions in 2016. While originally announcing a slate of 16 shows for 2017, when I spoke with him at this year’s Philadelphia show, Maatta stated that announcements of additional dates — perhaps has many as ten — may be forthcoming.
While smaller markets may not have the audience of Wizard World’s largest shows in Chicago and Philadelphia, Maatta sees benefit in these venues “because the fans are so appreciative.” In his view there is less advantage in moving into a saturated market like Los Angeles.
Regardless of the number of cons, the content of the Philadelphia show seemed designed to appeal to a broad audience with appearances by performers outside the usual comic book and sci-fi realm. Jesse Eisenberg, who played Lex Luther in Batman v Superman (but is perhaps better remembered as portraying Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network) was a featured celebrity. A popular panel featured the cast of the CW’s Riverdale. And Wizard World regular Michael Rooker from Guardians of the Galaxy was also in attendance. However, many of the other featured celebrities were drawn from other realms of pop culture, including KISS front man Gene Simmons and actors Chuck Norris and John Cusack.
While it’s tempting to view this year’s celebrity roster as an attempt to reduce booking fees for top tier talent, it may be more happenstance than intention. Maatta told me they company has offers out to major stars of current DC/Warner Bros. and other films this year. Maatta indicated his plan is to keep the show’s traditional core comic focus with artists and comics creators while expanding to a broader range of interests.
Maatta also highlighted the company’s aim of adding more entertainment to the show. An Entertainment Stage on the floor of the exhibition hall featured an eclectic array of acts, including musicians, magicians, and a hypnotist. The stage’s master of ceremonies was Kato Kaelin who, despite his unusual rise to fame as the world’s best known house guest, did a deft job of entertaining the crowd throughout each day of the show.
“We’re here to please the fans,” CEO Maatta told me at the show. Time will tell whether these format changes keep the core audience pleased while also expanding to bring in a broader range of fans.
Here are highlights from Philadelphia Wizard World Comic Con 2017, with links to more extensive photo galleries for each:
All four of the principal cast members in the CW’s Riverdale — KJ Apa (Archie), Lili Reinhart (Bettie), Camila Mendes (Veronica), and Cole Sprouse (Jughead) — interviewed by CBS 3 Philadelphia’s Meisha Johnson.
Jesse Eisenberg discussed his roles in Batman v Superman, The Social Network, and other films with Aaron Sagers.
Famke Janssen talked about her many popular portrayals — including Jean Grey in the X-Men movies; Xenia Onatopp in Goldeneye; and roles in Game of Thrones, all three Taken films, the Netflix original series Hemlock Grove, and ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder — with Aaron Sagers.
John Cusack spoke with Aaron Sagers about his many film roles from Say Anything…, and High Fidelity to Being John Malkovich, and 1408.
Wizard World favorite Michael Rooker regaled the audience with tales of his roles in Guardians of the Galaxy, The Walking Dead, and Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. To get through everyone on line waiting to ask a question, Rooker left the stage and went one–by–one down the line to spend a moment with each fan.
KISS front man Gene Simmons hosted an interactive session with the audience and offered his advice on achieving success and profit. “Being selfish is good,” Simmons stated. “Think: Me, first,” noting that airlines’ safety procedures require passengers to first apply their own oxygen mask before helping others. Simmons also demonstrated how to gain personal power when greeting others. When another audience member asked “Is it ever enough?” Simmons unabashedly replied “It’s never enough.”
Kristy Swanson hosted a Q&A session following a screening of her 1992 film, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The “Indie Comics Creators Power Hour” panel hosted by Danny Fingeroth initially featured Fabrice Sapolsky, Dean Haspiel, and Josh O’Neill, but became an interactive session with comics creators from the audience Kathleen Kralowec, Christine Cassano, and CS Jones joining the panel.
The Exhibition Hall included the expected assortment of vendors offering comic books and pop culture collectibles. The show floor also included a number of surprising booths, including live tarantulas and large insects at the Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion booth, snake skeletons and mounted creatures from Darwin and Wallace, and both real and reproduction human skulls from RealHumanSkull.com. As has now become common, there was also the usual array of non-pop culture vendors. In addition to the usual booths by Geico insurance and an array of telecom providers including Verizon, T-Mobile, and Comcast/Xfinity, the show floor included a surprising number of health related booths, aimed as easing aches and pains which, given the rigors of a long day on the con floor, could be viewed as relevant to the event. The relevance of the booth from Risqué Boutiques with more intimate personal products was less clear.
The major comic cons — such as Comic-Con International’s San Diego event in the summer and ReedPOP’s New York Comic Con in the fall — feature a large assortment of pop culture events and activities. That presents a challenge for people who are interested in multiple aspects of popular media — movies, television shows, comic books, and more. There’s a great deal to see and, given the scale of these events, a great deal will be missed.
With that caveat, here is an overview of highlights from New York Comic Con 2016 from my perspective, with links to additional photos.
This year New York Comic Con announced a record high in ticket sales, reporting sales of “at least 185,000 unique tickets,” up from 167,000 the previous year.
As discussed last year [see “New York Comic Con 2015: Recap and Photo Highlights“], because of the different ways in which attendance is tallied, these numbers do not provide a meaningful basis of comparison with events run by other organizations. San Diego Comic-Con’s attendance numbers (reported as around 130,000), tallies unique attendees, many of which hold more than one ticket for different days, making head-to-head comparisons with New York’s “tickets” count infeasible. Nonetheless, New York Comic Con’s ticket number does provide an indicator of the relative increase in the size of this festival year over year.
Another indicator of the growing scale of the event is the increase in venue space. Last year, New York Comic Con grew beyond the confines of the Javits Center to include panels in the 2,200-seat Hammerstein Ballroom. This year, the expansion continued further into midtown Manhattan with the addition of events at the Theater at Madison Square Garden and, for BookCon (a companion event run by New York Comic Con’s ReedPOP), the Hudson Marcantile venue.
Television Highlights: Marvel/Netflix, Mr. Robot, Hulu, and Amazon Prime
In recent years, New York Comic Con has become a major event for television programming including broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms.
First on stage were the cast members of Marvel’s Iron Fist: Finn Jones, Jessica Henwick, David Wenham, Rosario Dawson, Tom Pelphrey, Jessica Stroup, and showrunner Scott Buck.
Following the Iron Fist panel, Loeb welcomed The Punisher‘s Jon Bernthal to the stage. Bernthal was then joined by Deborah Ann Woll, who plays Karen Page in Marvel’s Daredevil the forthcoming series The Punisher and The Defenders.
Loeb then assembled on stage for the first time the central cast of Marvel’s The Defenders: Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, and Finn Jones. The crowd, as you might expect, went crazy. As a final surprise, it was announced that the role of Alexandra, the villain in The Defenders, would be played by Sigourney Weaver, who then joined the other cast members on stage.
While the Marvel panel was a highlight of the con, other new television and streaming series were also well represented.
A session by industry trends and analysis firm ICv2 included Vivek Tiwary‘s inspiring talk about his graphic novel The Fifth Beatle, followed by ICv2 CEO Milton Griepp‘s discussion of the future of retail in the comic book industry. Heidi MacDonald then introduced revered industry veteran Karen Berger who gave an insightful discussion of the current state of the industry.
The large pop culture events like New York Comic Con and San Diego Comic-Con have become showplaces for large scale — and highly entertaining — marketing activities by major media companies.
As in past years, New York Comic Con was peppered with marketing booths by several brands unrelated to popular culture. Chevrolet was once again a featured sponsor. Geico‘s ubiquitous advertising has become a staple at several large cons, including New York Comic Con.
Many of the major marketing installations, however, were for popular television programs. Interactive environments set up just outside the Javits Center included the South Park 20 Experience, with life-sized standups of many of the South Park characters, and an Ash vs. the Evil Dead walk-though installation.
Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle Virtual Experience, which was on display at San Diego Comic-Con over the summer, made a return appearance at New York Comic Con, although it didn’t include the large museum component seen at San Diego.
One of the most compelling marketing events combined an interactive virtual experience with an impressive physical reconstruction of the world of HBO’s Westworld. A short distance from the Javits Center a staid, corporate-looking building was marked with the Westworld logo. Inside, the white-clad “hosts” — playing the role of the show’s lifelike automatons — take you down a corridor that leads to a virtual reality experience that places you in universe of Westworld. This combination of a physical, constructed environment melded with a virtual experience is the high point of the marketing experiences at the con. [For a more detailed description of the Westworld VR experience, see Knowledge@Wharton, “Entering Westworld: VR Marketing at New York Comic Con“]
Comic Book Creators
A primary focus for me at Comic Con is photographing portraits of the men and women who create comic books. This year’s New York Comic Con featured a number of storied creators. I was pleased to have the opportunity this year to take a portrait of the great Frank Miller. And, in a moment of serendipitous Comic Con magic, I stumbled across a signing event with filmmaker Luc Besson, promoting his forthcoming film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and artist Jean-Claude Mézières, who illustrated the original Valérian comics.
While I don’t typically focus on cosplay photography, it’s always fun to capture some of the creative costumes roaming the convention center. I’m particularly fond of seeing early Steve Ditko creations, like the Mac Gargan version of the Scorpion I spotted this year. Another favorite was the WW I version of the Red Skull.
For a full visual recap of New York Comic Con 2016 in 300-plus photos, see the Flickr album, “New York Comic Con 2016“:
Virtual reality (VR) had a significant presence at ReedPop’s New York Comic Con this year. A dedicated exhibition space on the lower level of the Javits Center, dubbed the Experiential Zone, demonstrated a number of approaches to virtual reality and immersive cinema for both entertainment and marketing.
One of the most compelling examples of using virtual reality for a marketing experience didn’t take place inside the Javits Center, however. A half block away on West 37th Street, HBO’s Westworld VR Experience presented a combination physical environment and virtual experience to promote the network’s sci-fi series.
The Westworld VR Experience debuted a month earlier at TechCrunch Disrupt SF. At New York Comic Con, the virtual simulation was enhanced by a physical space that set the stage for the immersive experience.
Hybrid Physical/Virtual Environment
This type of hybrid physical/virtual environment has been featured in a number of recent high profile marketing “activations” (as the industry terms them). At this past summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle VR Experience combined a virtual simulation with a constructed environment designed to recreate the world of the program. (The Man in the High Castle VR Experience was also present in New York Comic Con’s Experiential Zone, but without the physical installation preceding the VR experience.) The most notable recent blending of real world and virtual environments as part of a marketing activation was the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience at San Diego Comic-Con. After entering a detailed reconstruction of the bedroom of the show’s protagonist, Elliot Alderson, you then enter a VR simulation that begins in the very room in which you’re sitting. It’s an uncanny sensation.
New York Comic Con’s Westworld activation presents a similar experience that transitions from the real world to the virtual.
A short distance from the Javits Center, a sleek facade with frosted glass doors displays the logo: “Westworld: A Delos Destination.” Inside you enter a lustrous black and glass corridor and are greeted by performers playing the role of Westworld’s “hosts,” the program’s synthetic humans. Dressed in white and speaking in eerily measured tones, the hosts welcome you to Westworld.
After a few introductory comments — and warnings about violence and nudity in the virtual experience — you stand in the center of a black room, empty except for a chair in the corner. An assistant helps you don your HTC Vive VR headset and audio headphones, and you grasp your Vive controller. You’re also told that should you feel uncomfortable during the experience you can raise your hand and the assistant will help you end the experience (advice that’s both comforting yet somehow unnerving).
In many of these interactive simulations, including The Man in the High Castle Experience and the Mr. Robot VR Experience, the participant remains seated at the center of a 360-degree virtual environment. In the Westworld Experience, by contrast, you can move around to a limited degree within the environment. This can be disconcerting, since you’re moving through a physical space you can’t see. To avoid accidentally running into the walls, the simulation displays a series of bars floating in space if you move too close to the edge.
The Westworld simulation plays out over three brief tableaux. It begins with you entering a room where you select your weapon and decide whether you want to wear a white or a black hat. The simulation closely follows the scene in episode 2 of the program where new Westworld guest William (Jimmi Simpson) is presented with a similar set of choices. (When I went through the virtual experience, I hadn’t yet seen this episode. When I finally watched it, it gave me an eerie sense of déjà vu.)
After making these choices, you enter the western setting familiar from the show. A row of wooden buildings stands beside sandstone cliffs under a wide, blue sky. After picking up ammunition and loading your revolver, you engage in target practice by shooting bottles.
A sheriff then ambles over to recruit you to join a posse. But before that gets underway, the sheriff starts to glitch. Something’s not right here.
You’re instructed to move over to the chair in the corner. (This is one of the more bizarre aspects of the simulation. Contacting a physical object in a space that you perceive through a virtual simulation is an odd experience.)
Once seated, the setting changes to the Delos lab where simulated humans are being created and repaired. With the ability to look in any direction, you can survey the entire scene. Things are glitching here as well. Your vision falters and lights flash. There’s a commotion in the lab. A synthetic human is out of control. Things are clearly breaking down in Westworld.
The Throughput Conundrum: Does It Scale?
As impressive as the simulation is, it has one constraint as a marketing tool: throughput. The interactive experience lasts 11 minutes. Allowing time for a brief introduction and exit, sessions are scheduled in 15 minute blocks. At New York Comic Con, there were two rooms that ran simultaneously. Thus, eight people per hour can participate in the experience, which runs for nine hours each day for a total of 72 people per day, or 288 participants throughout the four days of the convention.
This is obviously a small fraction of the attendees at the con. (Because New York Comic Con reports the number of tickets sold, rather than the number of unique individuals, it’s difficult to know exactly how many people attend the event.)
This approach leverages the buzz generated by the hardcore fans who attend Comic Con, while also gaining a larger audience through the simulcast, and then further expands the piece’s reach through the on-demand offerings.
As VR plays an expanding role in marketing, expect to see more of this layered approach to reach a broadest possible audience for these rich, interactive experiences.
Reports on San Diego Comic-Con always read like the story of the blind men describing an elephant. The scope of the event is so broad, its scale so large, that each attendee can only experience a small sliver of the long weekend’s activities.
This was Comic-Con International: San Diego 2016 from my perspective.
Because of my interest in the media marketing that accompanies Comic-Con, Wednesday afternoon before Preview Night provided a good opportunity to explore the branding and the media installations around the Convention Center and throughout San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
Back in the real world, it was time to head to the Convention Center for the official opening of the con with Preview Night. For many, Preview Night is a mad rush to get first dibs on exclusive collectible items. I use it as an opportunity to visit the comic book creators in Artist Alley and elsewhere before the crush of the crowds in the subsequent days of the con. [See, “Be a Con-trarian: Go Against the Flow at Comic-Con.”] While San Diego Comic-Con attracts numerous high-profile movie and TV celebrities, I always enjoy the opportunity to meet the men and women who write, draw, and publish the comic books that form the basis of so much of our popular culture.
Thursday began with a second opportunity to experience Sam Email’s immersive Mr. Robot 360-degree film. Rather than taking place in the reconstruction of Elliot’s apartment, this second viewing was in Petco Park with cast members Rami Malek, Christian Slater, Portia Doubleday, Carly Chaikin, and Grace Gummer viewing the virtual experience along with the audience. At one point, while the audience members were still in the virtual world, Malek left the stage and sat in the crowd, surprising the adjacent audience members once the simulation ended.
First Timers and Old Regulars
Given the 47-year history of San Diego Comic-Con, it’s surprising to discover major popular culture icons who have never attended the event. This year a number of notable artists made their first appearances at San Diego Comic-Con.
Oliver Stone made his inaugural appearance at Comic-Con to promote his forthcoming film, Snowden, along with cast members Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, and Zachary Quinto.
Similarly new to Comic-Con this year was Luc Besson, who brought producer Virginie Besson-Silla and actors Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne to present concept artwork and early footage from his film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Comic-Con International Senior Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim presented Besson with an Inkpot award for his contributions to popular culture.
Also appearing at Comic-Con for the first time was famed cyberpunk writer William Gibson. Gibson also received a Comic-Con International Inkpot award for his contributions to science fiction.
In contrast to these Comic-Con newcomers, Friday brought back to Hall H longtime fan favorite, writer/director Joss Whedon, who answered audience questions and hinted at future projects. He gave scant details about his current project, other than to say it was something new — neither a sequel nor a franchise piece. In response to an audience question, he reiterated his intention to eventually produce a follow-up to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, stating it would not be a prequel but, rather, focus on events following the original series. Work on this project isn’t imminent, however, since other members of the creative team (like Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancheron) are currently busy with other projects.
Following Whedon, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone discussed their 20 years of working on the animated series, moderated by host Chris Hardwick.
Friday evening always brings the annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards ceremony, honoring the work of comic book writers, artists, and publishers. With industry notables and surprise guests, the event is always a high point of Comic-Con for me each year.
Big Shows in Hall H on Saturday
While each day in Hall H brings panels with notable celebrity appearances and exclusive content, Saturday is the day coveted by the major studios for their showpiece events.
With a number of major movie studios, including 20th Century Fox, Paramount Studios, and Sony Pictures, skipping Hall H this year, on Saturday the room was dominated by two studios: Warner Bros. at the start of the day and Marvel Studios at day’s end (before the annual Kevin Smith panel). It’s worth noting that although they skipped Hall H, Paramount made a big splash in San Diego this year with the world premiere of Star Trek Beyond, Sony brought a Sausage Party screening and cast appearance to the Horton Grand Theatre, and Fox television programming had a significant presence at Comic-Con.
Arriving late in Hall H that day, I missed most of the Warner Bros. panel. As I entered the cavernous room near the end of the WB presentation, I almost ran into Eddie Redmayne as he raced around the floor handing out magic wands to fans to promote Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
After Warner Bros., the panel celebrating the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek television series brought together cast members from several generations of the TV series: William Shatner, Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn, Jeri Ryan, and Scott Bakula in a session moderated by Bryan Fuller, showrunner and co-creator of CBS’ new forthcoming Star Trek series.
The panel following Star Trek marked another anniversary of a popular science fiction franchise: the 30th anniversary of Aliens. On stage for the event were Aliens writer/director James Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd, and cast members Sigourney Weaver, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Michael Biehn, and Carrie Henn (who portrayed Newt in the film).
Next up in Hall H was the annual Entertainment Weekly: Women Who Kick Ass panel moderated by EW’s Nicole Sperling, featuring an array of women who portray strong female roles on television and the movies: Morena Baccarin, Melissa Benoist, Nathalie Emmanuel, Lucy Lawless, Tatian Maslany, Connie Nielsen, and Ming-Na Wen.
Marvel Studios then capped the day with a session that featured cast members and exclusive clips from several of the company’s upcoming feature films introduced by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and moderated by the ever-present Chris Hardwick.
Appearing first was the director and cast of Black Panther: director Ryan Coogler and actors Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, and Chadwick Boseman.
Smoke then filled the stage and sides of the auditorium along with abstract patterns of projected light. The smoke cleared to reveal Doctor Strange actor Benedict Cumberbatch at center stage. Joining Cumberbatch was Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson and cast members Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Clyde Kusatsu. The Doctor Strange presentation included new footage and the debut of a new trailer.
Next up was Spider-Man Homecoming actor Tom Holland, joined by director Jon Watts and cast members Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Jacob Batalon, and Zendaya. A brief comedic video segment showed scenes of Peter Parker trying to balance his daily life at school with his responsibilities as a superhero.
Director James Gunn next took the stage — along a cadre of fully-costumed Ravengers — for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Gunn then introduced cast members Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kurt Russell (who was revealed to be playing Peter Quill’s father). Gunn also announced that Disney would be opening a theme park attraction based on the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. The Hall H crowd also saw a clip from the film and a new trailer.
Finally, Feige confirmed the long-held rumor that Brie Larson would play Captain Marvel in the movie slated for Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Larson joined the cast members from all the films for a Marvel family portrait.
Wrapping Up on Sunday
Sunday provided the opportunity to visit some of the marketing activations I hadn’t yet seen, including the Timeless time travel ride (built around that old amusement park classic, the Gravitron), Adult Swim on the Green, and the Son of Zornrock climb and giant leap into an air bag (the latter pair of which I merely observed rather than participating in). After the virtual reality experiences of Mr. Robot and The Man in the High Castle, these decidedly non-virtual activities were an interesting change of pace.
Sunday’s final Hall H panel was originally slated for a much smaller room. Back in April 2016, Comic-Con International was coordinating with gaming company Niantic to present a panel on their augmented reality game Ingress. When the programming schedule for Comic-Con 2016 was released — as usual, just two weeks before the event — Niantic was scheduled to speak about Ingress and a new game they planned to launch, Pokémon GO. Shortly afterwards, Pokémon GO debuted and quickly became the hottest thing on Internet. Comic-Con International quickly changed the schedule to move the panel from its Thursday time slot in a modest 480-seat room to the last available spot on Sunday in the 6,500-seat Hall H. While this initially seemed like overkill, it proved otherwise. The enormous auditorium was packed on Sunday afternoon.
Host Chris Hardwick interviewed Niantic’s CEO, John Hanke for the session. Fans’ expectations that Hall H events bring big surprises caused many to assume that a special, rare Pokémon creature would appear in the hall for attendees to capture. But, alas, CEO Hanke seemed somewhat taken aback by the amped up expectations of the Hall H crowd, and no special creatures were to be found.
As in past years, my final session at Comic-Con was the Talk Back session in which Comic-Con International president John Rogers responds to questions and complaints from attendees. This year, Rogers and Comic-Con International Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim made a valiant effort to keep the session on schedule, only running roughly 15 minutes over the allotted one hour time slot in contrast to the two-plus hour sessions in past years. While the Talk Back can be a rather dour way to end the con, it offers insights into the choices made by Comic-Con International in running the complex event. For a good recap of the key points from this year’s Talk Back session, see the report from ConShark.