Fan Fests Emerging from the Pandemic Bring Changes
After an absence of nearly a year and a half, in-person pop culture conventions began to return in the latter half of 2021. While a number of small cons appeared earlier in the year, the resurgence of major cons was marked by the return to the Javits Center of ReedPop’s New York Comic Con in October. The event evinced a number of changes from past events, some of which are likely temporary while others may mark a permanent change to the con landscape.
The most apparent changes, of course, were the new Covid policies. All guests and attendees were required to show proof of vaccination and wear a facial covering. Inside the convention, photo ops and signing events were partitioned with plexiglass shields.
ReedPop reportedly limited this year’s attendance, and photos from the exhibition hall showed less crowding than in past years. It’s difficult to determine the actual number of attendees, however. While the reported attendance was somewhere between 125,000 and 150,000, New York Comic Con typically counts the number of badges sold rather than the number of individual attendees [see: “Comic Con Attendance: Numbers, Numbers, and Numbers”]. Each individual may have as many as four badges (one for each day of the con), and thus count as up to four “attendees.” Since previous NYCC attendance tallies have been in the 200,000 to 250,000 range, NYCC 2021 may have seen something over half as many fans as in recent years.
Typically, badges for New York Comic Con sell out the day they’re offered, and that appeared to be the case this year. However, what was described as “a limited amount” of badges were available to people who had previously signed up to become a “verified fan” in a second round on September 1. Two days later, additional badges were offered to the world at large. Saturday badges finally sold out on September 11. Sunday badges didn’t sell out until the Friday night of the convention on October 8.
It’s unclear whether the availability of these additional badges are the result of NYCC expanding attendance in anticipation of relaxed Covid guidelines or due to sluggish sales.
Reserved Programming Slots
Another change made it less time consuming to snag a seat for some of the programming sessions. The method to gain a seat in the large rooms — the Main Stage and the Empire Stage — shifted from the previous year’s partial lottery to a full-room reservation system. The former approach allocated only a percentage of the seats to lottery winners with the remainder available for those who queue up on site. The new reservation system allocated 100% of the seats, allowing only a small standby line (presumably due to last-minute no-shows).
The new scheme hopes to free people from waiting hours in a queue in hopes of seeing a popular panel. Fans with a pre-registered slot were told to arrive a mere 35 minutes before the presentation. Of course, fans wanting to sit close to the stage presumably queued up much earlier.
The reservation process itself was fraught with problems, with many users reporting errors when attempting to complete the convoluted online process. At one point the queue was halted in an attempt to correct problems. When this proved unsuccessful, a second attempt was scheduled for the next day.
Once the kinks are worked out, I suspect this change will become permanent. The time savings to fans — freeing them to spend more time on activities such as shopping in the exhibition hall — is too compelling pass up. One wonders whether Comic-Con International would ever follow suit to reduce the chaos around San Diego’s infamous Hall H.
The Hybrid Media Future
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, fan fests that didn’t cancel entirely switched to providing online content. The return of New York Comic Con in 2021 offered an amalgam of in-person and virtual presentations in what could be a harbinger of a hybrid future of pop culture conventions.
The situation regarding “virtual” panels was confusing, however, with NYCC offering a hodgepodge of presentations that were both live and recorded, on-site and online, free and for paid subscribers only.
Some panels, dubbed “virtual only,” were pre-recorded sessions available only to members of ReedPop’s Metaverse subscription service. Other panels occurred in person and could be later viewed on-demand (although not live) by Metaverse subscribers.
Still other in-person panels could be viewed live as they happened on a free livestream and then viewed subsequently on-demand by Metaverse subscribers.
And then there were the “virtual screenings” — prerecorded panels that were played back on site at the Javits Center on the Main Stage or elsewhere. Many of these could also be viewed online, either streamed free or available on-demand for Metaverse subscribers.
The description of many of these as including a “Q&A” was potentially confusing, since this typically indicates an opportunity for fans to ask questions of the guests. In the virtual screenings, however, the Q&A was simply the moderator interviewing the guests.
To complete this mélange of formats, the Outlander Season Six presentation featured a panel with both guests live on stage and others attending remotely online.
Some of the on-premises virtual screenings were also available online for free and subsequently on-demand for Metaverse subscribers. Fans who purchased badges to attend in person were granted access to on-demand replay of the premium panels for the days they attended.
While it’s laudable that NYCC is offering a rich array of options — both on-site and online, real-time and on-demand, subscriber-only and free — it would be helpful if they were clear in advance about what was happening in which format. At least one Outlander fan who bought tickets for the virtual content was shocked to later discover the panel was available online for free.
One suspects that some variation of this hybrid in-person/online con experience will persist in the future. Content streamed online can increase the reach of the event, expand the audience and, through premium content, increase the event provider’s revenue.
The peril is that this will undermine the thrill of an in-person comic con — the excitement of seeing exclusive footage of a forthcoming movie, the charge of being in the same room with admired celebrities, the serendipitous encounters on the show floor. The special magic of attending a comic con is diminished if the content is equally available online.
It remains to be seen whether these changes are transient, in place only as we recover from a global pandemic, or become permanent fixtures of pop culture conventions going forward.