The coronavirus pandemic has affected individuals and businesses across the globe. In the U.S., which was the epicenter of the infection for much of the late spring and early summer, businesses from bars and restaurants to sporting events and concerts were forced to close. Pop culture conventions were similarly affected, making 2020 a year largely without the crowded, chaotic, and wonderful on-site events that celebrate fan culture.
Before the Apocalypse
A few comic cons managed to take place before the pandemic forced a nationwide lockdown. ReedPop’s Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, universally known as C2E2, occurred as planned on February 28 through March 1, 2020. Wizard World managed to squeeze in shows in Portland, Oregon in late January and in Cleveland, Ohio in early March.
On March 6, ReedPop announced that Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Con, scheduled to begin in less than a week, was postponed. The event was initially rescheduled for August, 2020, but by mid-June was officially canceled.
By mid-March, the cancellation announcements began to cascade. On March 12 San Diego Comic-Con’s sister show, WonderCon, scheduled for April 10-12 in Anaheim, was declared “postponed until a later date.” That “later date” would not occur in 2020.
As late as April 1, Comic-Con International was still hoping to be able to host San Diego Comic-Con, the flagship event of the con calendar, in mid-July. A little more than two weeks later, however, Comic-Con International announced that, for the first time in the event’s 50-year history, San Diego Comic-Con was canceled, with plans to return in 2021.
While many small to medium shows were entirely eliminated for the year, the major fan fest producers — ReedPop, Wizard Entertainment, and Comic-Con International — moved to create virtual experiences.
ReedPop presented a series of live online panels with comics creators, cosplayers, and actors. These were supplemented with prerecorded panels from the previous year’s New York Comic Con.
Wizard World sought to closely replicate the business model of their on-site events by offering a combination of free streaming panels and celebrity Q&A sessions with commercial options for autographs, custom recorded messages (à la Cameo.com), and live video chats.
Comic-Con International: San Diego (as SDCC is officially named) also went online with more than 350 sessions of online programming. Unlike the on-site event, where each year the demand for access far exceeds the number of available tickets, the online content was free and open to all.
Comic-Con International made a noble attempt to have this year’s online event, dubbed Comic-Con@Home, emulate the traditional San Diego experience. While badges were not required, fans could download a digital file to print their badge at home. As in previous years, the schedule of events was announced one day at a time two weeks before the event. Even though the panels and presentations were recorded in advance, they were made available at set times during the originally planned weekend of SDCC, emulating how panels at the on-site event are slotted.
Digital downloads were also available for SDCC’s familiar signage and audio files of the announcements heard throughout the day in Hall H and elsewhere.
In some instances, the attempt at real-world verisimilitude seemed to go a bit too far. To locate vendors and their products, you have to click through an image of the exhibit hall floor to then see a pop-up window with tabs for a description of the company and their products. To purchase anything, you then had to click a link to the vendor’s site. While this gave something of the feel of roaming around the enormous hall, a simple list that could be searched and sorted would have been more efficient.
The Comic-Con@Home cosplay masquerade and the art show relied on images posted to Tumblr. In conjunction with Scener, Comic-Con hosted live watch parties of popular movies on Amazon Prime and Netflix. For video gaming, Comic-Con featured game play on live Twitch sessions.
Live events were a rarity, however. All the panel sessions and interviews were prerecorded.
Also missing were the major Hollywood blockbusters from studios like Marvel and Warner Bros. that have packed the Convention Center’s nearly 6,500-seat Hall H in years past.
Bill & Ted Face the Music was one of the few major film presentations, with actors Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter along with other actors and crew in a Brady Bunch style conversation with Kevin Smith.
Additional celebrities, including Charlize Theron and Nathan Fillion were featured in prerecorded interviews, but the high-wattage star power of previous Comic-Cons was largely absent from Comic-Con@Home.
Given the fierce competition between streaming services, it’s not surprising many these platforms were present at Comic-Con@Home, including NBC/Universal’s Peacock, HBO Max, Hulu, Apple TV+, and Disney+. Network TV panels included three for the popular Walking Dead franchise. And many panels on comic books and other genre content were available for on-demand viewing.
An unfortunate side effect of the prerecorded sessions was the lack of fan interaction. A hallmark of Comic-Con panels is the Q&A session following the prepared presentation or moderated interview. In addition to the loss of real-time interaction, comments were disabled on the YouTube videos, precluding any asynchronous exchanges.
To offset the dearth of live events, several news sites stepped in to fill the gap. IGN, in conjunction with SDCC, presented a series of live intros, commentary, and interviews. IGN featured select Comic-Con videos on their YouTube channel which, unlike in the official Comic-Con channel, enabled live chat comments during the screening.
The news and information site for all things Comic-Con, the SDCC Unofficial Comic-Con Blog, also went live with a three-hour online broadcast with actors Zachary Levi and Yvette Nicole Brown and other fan favorite performers and vendors.
Visions of the Future?
One wonders how many of the online features of this year’s Comic-Con@Home will persist in the future. No one expects Comic-Con to go completely virtual. The annual San Diego event adds an estimated $160 million to the local economy, supporting restaurants throughout the Gaslamp Quarter and hotels all over San Diego. For many vendors who provide pop culture items, SDCC is a major revenue opportunity. While links to vendors’ web sites were published this year by both Comic-Con International and the independent Unofficial Blog, it’s unlikely online sales will come close to the business these vendors would have seen in San Diego.
A hybrid online and on-site experience may be a possibility, however.
Given the difficulty of accessing many of the panels (not to mention getting a badge and snagging a hotel room) there has long been pressure on Comic-Con International to stream the panels online.
The presentations in the larger venues, including Hall H, Ballroom 20, and the Indigo Ballroom already include live, multi-camera video to feed the large screens for those seated far from the stage.
Streaming these panels live would provide the immediacy and excitement of San Diego Comic-Con to a much larger audience. Looking at this year’s YouTube stats, some presenters noted how panels normally scheduled for small rooms had sufficient views to fill the largest rooms in the San Diego Convention Center.
Nevertheless, Comic-Con International generally doesn’t release recordings of the on-site event. There is the perennial problem of the exclusive content that studios want to be seen only by the audience inside the room where it happens, but Comic-Con’s hesitation to make video available appears to be more founded on wanting to keep the on-site experience the exciting and exclusive event it traditionally has been.
Whether or not this year’s virtual experience changes that view, remains uncertain.
Being There: Something Gained and Something Lost
Viewing pop culture content from the convenience of your home provides many benefits: no waiting hours — or all night — to attend popular panels, none of the hassles of travel and crowds and overpriced hotel rooms, no hotelpocalypse at all! And it’s wonderful to be able to view panels online even after Comic-Con@Home weekend is over.
Of course, much is lost: connecting with old friends and meeting new ones, dining at favorite San Diego restaurants, and the serendipitous moments that arise out of the flurry of activity at the con.
Comic-Con@Home’s on-demand streaming allowed you to view as much content as you would like — more than any one person could have experienced at the on-site event. The FOMO, fear of missing out, that traditionally pervades SDCC can be crushing. There is simply too much to do, not to mention all you miss by waiting in line. (Lookin’ at you, Hall H!) Each year after SDCC, I read articles and see photos from other attendees and think “How did I miss this?” “Where was I?” “What was I doing?” It’s frustrating to have spent so much time and energy, and to have missed so much.
And yet, the difficulty of seeing everything makes the things you are able to see stand out. While you missed many events, only a small percentage of the 135,000 attendees saw the activities you did. This is particularly true of the smaller panels and the random encounters with comics creators and celebrities on the show floor and elsewhere.
The fact that you can’t do everything at Comic-Con, makes what you are able to do more special.
Perhaps next year we will again be able to experience the chaos and the wonderment, the joy and the disappointment, the stress and ecstasy, that is Comic-Con in San Diego.