Tag: comic-con

San Diego Comic-Con 2017: Recap and Photo Highlights

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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.

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Kyle MacLachlan gives the thumbs up at the ‘Twin Peaks’ panel.

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.

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The cast of ‘Twin Peaks’.

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.

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 ‘Ready Player One’: Steven Spielberg and Ernest Cline 

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.

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‘Blade Runner 2049’: Denis Villeneuve, Ryan Gosling, and Harrison Ford

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.

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The cast of ‘Justice League’ and ‘Aquaman’.

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.

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Charlize Theron.

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.

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The cast of ‘Stranger Things’.

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.

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Westworld’s Evan Rachel Wood.

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.

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Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige with his Inkpot Award.

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.

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‘Thor: Ragnarok’: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Mark Ruffalo.

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.

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The cast of ‘Black Panther’ celebrate after seeing the first footage from the film.

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.

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Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston rousing the audience.

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.

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Barry Ira Geller and Mike Royer.

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.

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Mike Royer.

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.”

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John Morrow.

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.

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“Jack Kirby: Friends and Family.”

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.

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Denis Kitchen and Danny Fingeroth.

This year also marked 100 years since the birth of Will Eisner, who was honored in a number of panels, including Denis Kitchen in conversation with Danny Fingeroth discussing Kitchen’s long associated with the influential artist/writer.

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Paul Dini.

The “Spotlight on Paul Dini” panel featured the writer in conversation with his friend,  writer/producer David Mandel.

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“The Women of Marvel.”

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.

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Comic book creators.

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.

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The Eisner Awards.

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.

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“Science Fiction, Science Future.”

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.

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“No Tow Trucks Beyond Mars.”

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.

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Richard Browning demonstrates “The State of Iron Man Tech.”

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.

For more on the real-world science in evidence at this year’s Comic-Con, see Knowledge@Wharton, “Science — No Longer Just Fiction — at Comic-Con.”

Marketing: From Ubiquitous Banners to Immersive Environments

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‘People of Earth’ on the Marriott Marquis.

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.

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The Tick Takeover.

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.

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Blade Runner 2049 Experience: VR segment.

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.

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Blade Runner 2049 Experience: physical construction.

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.

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‘Westworld’ player piano.

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.

This year’s physical construction stood in sharp contrast to the Westworld activation at last fall’s New York Comic-Con, which used a physical entry point for a VR experience. [See Knowledge@Wharton, “Entering Westworld: VR Marketing at New York Comic Con.”]

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.”]

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Mr Robot’s Bank of E and Red Wheelbarrow BBQ.

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.

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The interrogation room in ‘Mr. Robot’ episode 2×11, nearly identical to the one at the Comic-Con experience.

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).”

Cosplay and Talk Back

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Creative cosplay.

While I don’t photograph cosplay as extensively as many of the photographers at Comic-Con, I love original costumes and clever mash-ups. Highlights from this year included a combination of Sailor Mercury and Freddie Mercury, a Day of the Dead costume, and Dr. Strange with his floating cape.

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John Rogers responds to attendees at the Talk Back session.

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.”

For a gallery of 1,100+ photos from Comic-Con International 2017, see the Flickr photo album: San Diego Comic-Con 2017:

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The image from the Mr. Robot is from a copyrighted television program, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the show’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. All other photos are copyright © 2017 by Kendall Whitehouse.

Wizard World Philadelphia 2017: Looking to Expand the Fanbase

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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.

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Wizard World CEO John Maatta.

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.

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The cast of Riverdale.

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 casting a wider net for celebrity appearances, this year’s crop seemed to offer a bit less star wattage. The “stars aligned last year” to bring a slate of A-list talent Maatta told me. And, indeed, last year’s Wizard World Philadelphia included top flight talent including Civil War‘s “Team Cap” of Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, and Anthony Mackie; Arrow’s Stephen Amell; Thor‘s Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston; the entire Back to the Future cast; David Duchovny, Mitch Pileggi, and William B. Davis from The X-Files; and Agent Carter actors Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper. That year’s headliners appeared in the Philadelphia Convention Center’s 4,300-seat Terrace Ballroom, which was packed for many of the events. This year, the largest panels were in the 2,500-seat Ballroom AB, which had ample seating available throughout the show.

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.

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White Wedding performs hits from the 1980s on the Entertainment Stage.

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.

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John Maatta inducts Rob Liefeld into the Wizard World Hall of Legends.

In addition, Wizard World Philadelphia introduced a new initiative, the Wizard World Hall of Legends, to celebrate “the artists, writers, and insiders” who have contributed to the industry. The inaugural award went to writer/artist Rob Liefeld in a ceremony with CEO Maatta hosted by Aaron Sagers.

“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:

Riverdale-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400All 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-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400Jesse Eisenberg discussed his roles in Batman v Superman, The Social Network, and other films with Aaron Sagers.

Famke-Janssen-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400Famke 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-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400John Cusack spoke with Aaron Sagers about his many film roles from Say Anything…, and High Fidelity to Being John Malkovich, and 1408.

Michael-Rooker-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400Wizard 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 onebyone down the line to spend a moment with each fan.

Gene-Simmons-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400.jpgKISS 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.”

Chuck-Norris-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400Chuck Norris and wife Gena O’Kelley discussed the actor’s long career with Aaron Sagers.

Billie-Piper-and-Billie-Piper-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400.jpgAaron Sagers also hosted a conversation with Doctor Who companions Billie Piper and Pearl Mackie.

Kristy-Swanson-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400Kristy Swanson hosted a Q&A session following a screening of her 1992 film, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Indie-Comics-Creators-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400.jpgThe “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.

Danny-Fingeroth-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400Danny Fingeroth also gave an overview of the entire history of Marvel Comics in the panel, “From the Golden Age to Guardians of the Galaxy: Marvel at 75.”

Exhibition-Hall-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400The 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.

JG-Jones-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400Comics artists and writers and were also available to chat with fans, autograph their works, or create original artwork.

Brit-Bliss-WizardWorldPHL-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400And, of course, there was cosplay in evidence throughout the show, from both fans and featured performers like Britt Bliss.

For 300+ photos from Wizard World Philadelphia 2017, see the Flickr photo album “Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con 2017“:

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New York Comic Con 2016: Recap and Photo Highlights

New York Comic Con 2016. Photo by Kendall Whitehouse.

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.

Still Expanding

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.

Javits Center at Dusk - New York Comic Con 2016. Photo by Kendal
The Javits Center is still aglow as dusk falls on New York City.

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.

While fans were thrilled that San Diego Comic-Con this year included material from Marvel’s Netflix series, New York Comic Con has featured panels on Marvel’s Netflix shows for several years, introducing the full cast of Marvel’s Daredevil at New York Comic Con 2014 and bringing the casts of both Daredevil season 2 and Marvel’s Jessica Jones to the 2015 con (along with a surprise showing of the entire first episode of Marvel’s Jessica Jones). This year, Marvel’s Head of Television Jeph Loeb again brought a powerhouse presentation to New York Comic Con featuring upcoming Marvel Netflix features.

Marvel's Iron Fist - New York Comic Con. Photo by Kendall Whitehouse.
The cast of Marvel’s Iron Fist.

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.

Marvel's The Defenders - New York Comic Con 2016. Photo by Kendall Whitehouse.
The Defenders: Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, and Finn Jones.

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.

Sam Esmail and Courtney Looney - New York Comic Con 2016. Photo
Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail and Courtney Looney.

A launch event for the publication of the book Mr. Robot: Red Wheelbarrow included a Q&A with Mr. Robot showrunner Sam Esmail and writer Courtney Looney, followed by a book signing by both.

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Marc Tyler Nobleman and Athena Finger discuss Batman & Bill.

The session on Hulu’s Batman & Bill showed the first part of the forthcoming documentary about Marc Tyler Nobleman’s quest to get Batman writer and co-creator Bill Finger the credit he was long denied for his contribution to the character. The panel included Nobleman, longtime Batman fan and movie producer Michael Uslan, attorney Alethia Mariotta, the documentary’s directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce, and Bill Finger’s granddaughter Athena Finger. [For more on Nobleman’s quest for acknowledgement for Finger, see Knowledge@Wharton, “The Dark Knight’s Dark Secret: Bill Finger’s Uncredited Role in the Story of Batman.”

Gale Anne Hurd and Aaron Mahnke - New York Comic Con 2016. Photo
Gale Anne Hurd and Aaron Mahnke.

The “Amazon Prime Video Presents” panel included the cast and creators of The Tick, Sneaky Pete, and Lore, including Producers Gale Anne Hurd and Barry Josephson, Lore podcast creator Aaron Mahnke,  screenwriter Graham Yost, The Tick creator Ben Edlund, actor Giovanni Ribisi, and moderator Jamie Hector.

Additional Panels: Comic Books, Industry, and Culture

Marvel’s presence at New York Comic Con extended beyond the company’s large booth on the show floor and the celebrity-filled Netflix series panel to include its comic book properties as well.

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Black Panther writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Don McGregor.

On Friday morning, Marvel celebrated “50 years of the Black Panther,” with a panel featuring an impressive array of creators from different eras of the groundbreaking character. Byron Pitts moderated the session with current Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and former writers Christopher Priest and Don McGregor, artists Brian Stelfreeze and Alitha Martinez, Run–D.M.C.’s Darryl McDaniels, stage actor James Monroe Iglehart (best known for the role of Genie in Aladdin), and Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso.

Celebrating Will Eisner and Jack Kirby - New York Comic Con 2016
Charles Kochman, Rand Hoppe, Paul Levitz, and Danny Fingeroth.

In the session “Celebrating Will Eisner and Jack Kirby: Two Centuries of Genius,” panelists Charles Kochman, Rand Hoppe, Paul Levitz, and Danny Fingeroth discussed the enduring contributions of two of the seminal creators of sequential art and narrative.

Joe Pruett and Mike Marts - New York Comic Con 2016. Photo by Ke
Joe Pruett and Mike Marts talk AfterShock Comics.

The panel on “AfterShock Comics: Past, Present and Future” included AfterShock Publisher and CCO Joe Pruett; Editor-in-Chief Mike Marts; SVP for Digital-Creative Mike Zagari; writers Brian AzzarelloFrank Tieri, and Adam Glass; and artist Juan Doe.

Vivek Tiwary - New York Comic Con 2016. Photo by Kendall Whitehouse.
Vivek Tiwary at the ICv2 Insider Talks.

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.

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Carrie Goldman and Chase Masterson lead the End Bullying panel.

Carrie Goldman and Chase Masterson hosted the “End Bullying: Be a SuperheroIRL!” panel which featured moving personal stories by Batman Executive Producer Michael Uslan and others.

Marketing Events

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.

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Welcome to Westworld.

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.

As we’ve seen in recent years, virtual reality was a major component of many of the marketing installations. [See Knowledge@Wharton, “Marketing at Comic-Con: Virtual Reality Gets Real” and “Marketing at Comic-Con: Virtual Reality Melds with the Real World“] A room in the lower level of the Javits Center, dubbed the Experiential Zone, was dedicated to immersive interactive environments.

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.

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A Westworld host greets you.

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

Jean-Claude Mézières and Luc Besson - New York Comic Con 2016.
Jean-Claude Mézières and Luc Besson.

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.

For a photo gallery of comics creators at this year’s show, see the Flickr album, “Comic Book Creators: New York Comic Con 2016“:

Comic Book Creatores - New York Comic Con 2016. Photo by Kendall Whitehouse.

And… Cosplay

Cosplay - New York Comic Con 2016. Photo by Kendall Whitehouse.
Cosplay at New York Comic Con.

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“:

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[Click to new photo gallery.]

From the Real World to the Virtual: Westworld at New York Comic Con

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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.

Entrance to the Westworld VR Experience.
Entrance to the Westworld VR Experience.

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.

Westworld entrance.
Welcome to Westworld.

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.

Westworld host.
Your host greets you.

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.

Entering Westworld

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.)

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Inside the Westworld simulation, the sheriff approaches.

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.)

As I previously discussed in Knowledge@Wharton [“Marketing at Comic-Con: Virtual Reality Melds with the Real World“] the approach taken by the Mr. Robot VR Experience may offer a more effective model for this type of marketing event. The 13-minute Mr. Robot simulation was launched at San Diego Comic-Con through a similar hybrid physical/virtual environment. [For more on the Mr. Robot Experience, see “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media.”] The video was also available during an online simulcast for users with home VR systems such as Google Cardboard. Subsequently, it has been made available online in multiple formats for VR gear, mobile devices, and desktop systems.

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.

 

A version of this article also appears in Knowledge@Wharton: “Entering Westworld: VR Marketing at New York Comic Con.”

Image from the Westworld VR Experience is from a copyrighted work, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the production company and/or distributor. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. All other images © 2016 Kendall Whitehouse

The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media

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Virtual reality was a significant presence in the marketing experiences at Comic-Con International: San Diego this year. Both at the booths inside the Convention Center and the offsite events throughout downtown San Diego, a number of movie studios, television networks, and video game companies presented VR experiences designed to generate buzzworthy excitement in attendees. From Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle to Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty to Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham VR, fans throughout Comic-Con were donning virtual reality headsets.

Among the most impressive of these was the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience written and directed by Mr. Robot creator and showrunner Sam Esmail, and developed for USA Network by Here Be Dragons and Within.

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Rows of fans immersed in the Mr. Robot VR experience in Petco Park.

For an advertising piece, the VR experience ran a surprisingly long 13 minutes. One of the constraints of this type of marketing event is throughput — the number of people who can cycle through the event each hour. Of course, Sam Esmail is famous for turning in episodes of the Mr. Robot television program that run longer than their intended time slot, even going so far as to apologize on Twitter recently for doing so.

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Cast members view the Mr. Robot VR experience at Petco Park.

The Mr. Robot VR Experience was available from several locations during San Diego Comic-Con, including in white Uber vans designed to resemble Mr. Robot repair vehicles driving around the Gaslamp Quarter and at an event with the show’s cast at Petco Park. It was also broadcast live during the Petco Park event, allowing fans not attending Comic-Con to share the experience (in what an NBC/Universal press release described as “largest-ever co-viewing virtual reality simulcast event”). Subsequently, the VR segment has been made available for on-demand viewing on home devices, mobile phones, and desktop systems.

The most effective venue for the virtual reality experience, however, was a pop-up installation constructed in downtown San Diego that featured a physical, real-world environment that cleverly blended with the virtual content.

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The sign above the Mr. Robot repair shop in downtown San Diego for Comic-Con.

USA Network converted the exterior of a downtown San Diego building into a recreation of the Mr. Robot repair shop run by Elliot’s late father in the show. On entering the building, circa mid-1990s era computers, parts, and advertisements continue the illusion. A corridor at the rear of the shop leads to another room, a reconstruction of Elliot’s apartment as seen in the show. While waiting for a VR headset to free up, you can explore the details of Elliot’s life scattered around the room: his desktop computer, circuit boards, and even bills from New York City utility companies. This is familiar territory, a place we’ve seen many times in the television show.

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From inside a reconstruction of Elliot’s apartment, you enter the virtual world…

After taking a seat and putting on a Samsung Gear headset and a pair of headphones, the real world is replaced by the virtual. The virtual environment you initially enter is, somewhat surprisingly, Elliot’s apartment — essentially identical to the physical location in which you’re actually sitting. There’s a noteworthy exception, however: As you turn your head, Elliot (played by Rami Malek) is sitting beside you.

While narratively working as a flashback — the video covers events that occurred before the time frame of show’s first season — it is, in fact, a contemporary memory. We’re experiencing Elliot’s current recollections of a much earlier event.

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…the virtual world of Elliot’s apartment with Elliot sitting next to you.

The voice we hear, Rami Malek’s Elliot, is the voice inside his head. As he does in the TV show, Elliot is simultaneously thinking to himself and narrating his inner thoughts to us, his ever-present, but unseen, companion.

Elliot is about to go on a first date with Shayla, a character we know from the first season of the show. In those TV episodes, Shayla is Elliot’s friend, drug supplier, and occasional lover. In the VR experience, Elliot is recalling their first encounter and how deeply he wants to avoid seeing her, how painful he finds these artificially-constructed social situations.

As Elliot smokes a joint, the camera floats upward toward the ceiling and we now view the scene from this more disengaged perspective. We follow Elliot and Shayla on their date to Coney Island and join them as they ride on a Ferris wheel, the VR simulation providing a dramatic 360-degree view of the surroundings. As their relationship grows closer, the scene melds into an abstract sequence with the two characters dancing in silhouette against a color-shifting background. Finally we return back to the “reality” of the apartment in the virtual world — and, again, in the real world when we remove the Samsung Gear headsets.

In its 13 minutes, Esmail’s piece runs the gamut from realistically grounded to surrealistically untethered and back again. As the locations change throughout the piece, the mood swings from reticence to euphoria to tragic loss.

The Mr. Robot VR video assumes we’re familiar with season 1 of the show, and uses that information as a backstory to make an immediate emotional connection. (Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the first season of Mr. Robot.) Because of what we know of the series, Shayla’s plea for Elliot to remember her gains a profoundly melancholy dimension. We, like Elliot, feel sorrow and desperation as he struggles to hold on to his recollection of her as his memory falters and fades. It’s an emotionally powerful moment.

Aside from being a compelling VR experience, Email’s piece also an example of the power of transmedia storytelling. While based on what we know about the television series, it expands the narrative into new territory. It offers new details on the relationship between Elliot and Shayla and adds emotional depth to his feelings of loss and guilt. It’s a powerful work that both stands on its own as a self-contained 13-minute vignette and adds additional depth to television episodes.

Whatever it may indicate about the possibilities of VR for media marketing, the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience may also point to the future of rich, multi-threaded storytelling across different media.

 

The image from the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience is from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the film’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con 2016: Recap and Photo Highlights

Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con 2016. Photo by Kendall Whitehouse.

This past weekend, the sixteenth Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con presented a four-day festival of pop culture entertainment. Traditionally the second largest event hosted by Wizard World (second only to the one in Chicago), this year’s Philadelphia event featured panel sessions and autograph opportunities with a roster of celebrities from popular movies and television shows.

Wizard World CEO: “Amping it Up”

Wizard World CEO John Maata.
CEO Maatta: “Amping it up.”

It’s been a challenging year for Wizard World, Inc. After showing a profit of $995,000 in 2014, the company lost $4.25 million in 2015. This past April, Wizard World Entertainment president and CEO John Macaluso stepped down and was replaced by John Maatta as president and CEO, with Paul Kessler appointed as chairman of the board.

After expanding from 17 shows in 2014 to 25 in 2015, the company’s revenue per show fell from $1.36 million per show in 2014 to $916,000 per show in 2015. Wizard World recently trimmed its investment in streaming platform CONtv, a costly joint venture with Cinedigm, and appears to be cutting back on the number of events it plans to hold this year.

Newly appointed chief executive Maatta, however, appears more focused on doubling down than retrenching. When I asked about his plans to return the company to profitability, Maatta rejected the idea that the business required a course correction, stating he intends to “amp it up” with “better marketing and more content creation.”

The programming during the four days of the Philadelphia event showed no signs of scaling back.

Exhibitors: Artists and Autographs, Comics and Telecom

Thursday is the shortest of the four days of Wizard World Philadelphia, running from 3 PM to 8 PM. Unlike Preview Night at San Diego Comic-Con, during which there are no panel sessions, Wizard World Philadelphia provided a full slate of programming content on the show’s opening day. Nonetheless, Thursday’s relative calm before the arrival of the weekend crowds presented an ideal time to explore the exhibition hall.

Comic books…

As in past years, the show floor included the usual assortment of vendors of comic books, action figures, and pop culture goodies. In previous years, it was jarring to see vendors unaffiliated with popular culture exhibiting at a comic con. [See Knowledge@Wharton, “Consumer Brands Go Geek at Comic Con”  and “Philadelphia Comic Con: Batman, Buffy and … Bath Fitter?“] This is now a common sight at Wizard World shows and, to a lesser extent, at ReedPop’s New York Comic Con as well. Comic-Con International’s San Diego event is an outlier among the larger conventions in keeping the show floor focused exclusively on products related to pop culture.

… and telecom services…

Telecom companies were in abundance at this year’s Wizard World, with booths by Comcast Xfinity, T-Mobile, and Sprint looking to connect with the pop culture audience. Insurance companies, including State Farm and Geico, and home improvement firms, such as Power Home Remodeling and Bath Fitter, were also anxious to attract the attention of the large crowds attending the show.

For fans interesting in comics, however, there were vendors offering single issues, graphic novels, and services such as grading and encapsulation (aka “slabbing”).

…and artists like Bob Camp.

The exhibition hall also included rows of comic book artists and writers available to chat with fans, sign autographs, or create commissioned illustrations. The Philadelphia show included a number of noteworthy comics creators including writer/artist Howard Chaykin, artist Dean Haspiel, and artist J.G. Jones. A row of tables featuring animation illustrators included Bob Camp, Mike Toth, and Tom Cook.

Throughout all four days of the show, a series of live demos by artists provided mini-lessons for aspiring comic book creators.

Friday Panels

Friday’s line-up of programming sessions featured panels on everything from comic books and movies to literature and professional wrestling.

Dean Haspiel, Howard Chaykin, and Danny Fingeroth.

For a panel on “Two Generations of Upstarts” Danny Fingeroth ably attempted to contain Howard Chaykin and Dean Haspiel during a freewheeling conversation filled with colorful anecdotes (often stated in colorful language). The pair spoke about their long working relationship (Haspiel began his career as an assistant to Chaykin) and regaled the audience with tales of working with storied creators such as Gil Kane and Walt Simonson.

Other panels Friday afternoon included the following:

“Diversity in Pop Culture” with Tony B. Kim, Craig Liggeons, Victor Dandridge, Janice Lai, and Chelsea St. Juniors.

Tony B. Kim moderated “I’m Not a sidekick: A Discussion on Diversity in Pop Culture,” with panelists Craig Liggeons, Chelsea St. Juniors, Janice Lai, and Victor Dandridge.

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Sheamus with Mo Lightning.

Mo Lightning led a conversation with WWE wrestler Sheamus.

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Anthony Bueno and Claire Bueno discuss “Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters.”

Anthony Bueno and Claire Bueno discussed their efforts to produce the documentary, Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters.

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“Back to the Future” co-writer and co-producer Bob Gale.

In “(Almost) Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Back to the Future,” author Michael Klastorin spoke with Back to the Future co-writer and co-producer Bob Gale about the long road his story took from conception to completion. The initial impetus for the film, Gale explained, arose from the observation that predictions of the future unfailingly miss the mark. Gale showed a series of wildly fabulous — and hugely impractical — images of previous extrapolations of the world of tomorrow. The film’s plot didn’t gel, however, until Gale saw a picture of his father in an old high school yearbook and began to wonder what his father was like as a teenager. What would it have been like to have met him back then, he wondered? Gale and director Robert Zemeckis then began to speculate on what their mothers might have been like in high school, and the basic outline of the screenplay was formed.

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Tony Miello and Bill Pulkovski discuss Edgar Allan Poe.

Tony Miello and Bill Pulkovski from Rocket Ink Studios led a discussion on the continuing influence of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.

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“Honest Trailers” with Andy Signore, Dan Murrell, and Spencer Gilbert.

Friday concluded with a panel by the “Honest Trailers” team from ScreenJunkies, Andy Signore, Spencer Gilbert, and Dan Murrell. The session featured screenings of a couple of yet-to-be released trailers. The team also discussed their coup in getting Ryan Reynolds to perform in their Honest Trailer for Deadpool.

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Celebrity Saturday

Saturday brought out the big-name talent at a series of celebrity panels, many of which filled the Philadelphia Convention Center’s 4,300-seat Terrace Ballroom. The day offered interviews and audience Q&A sessions for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, several popular television shows, and one classic film from the 1980s.

“Team Cap”: Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, and Chris Evans.

The day began with three members of Civil War‘s “Team Cap” — Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, and Anthony Mackie — in conversation with Andy Signore from ScreenJunkies.

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Stephen Amell.

Stephen Amell spoke with Pure Fandom’s Lindi Smith and answered audience questions about his role as Oliver Queen in Arrow, including what to expect in season 5 of the show. Amell also half-jokingly (yet half seriously) encouraged everyone in the audience to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, in which he plays Casey Jones.

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Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston.

Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston spoke with Mo Lightning about their roles as warring brothers Thor and Loki. Hemsworth also described playing the quite different and “completely wacky” role of Kevin in the upcoming Ghostbusters film. In response to a question from Hiddleston, Hemsworth admitted that while Thor was one of his greatest acting roles, Kevin was much closer to his actual personality. Hiddleston, for this part, was anxious to downplay rumors that he might be cast as the next James Bond, telling the crowd, “I don’t think that announcement is coming, but I am very gratified to hear the enthusiasm. Your guess is as good as mine, to be honest.”

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“Back to the Future” with Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, and Christopher Lloyd.

The Back to the Future panel featured Bob Gale, the co-writer and co-producer of the popular 1985 film, along with actors Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, and Christopher Lloyd in conversation with Michael Klastorin, author of Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History. Gale described a number of details about the genesis of the film, including the difficulties getting Michael J. Fox for the role of Marty because of his prior commitment to the television show Family Ties.

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David Duchovny, Mitch Pileggi, and William B. Davis with Tony B. Kim.

For fans of The X-Files, actors David Duchovny, Mitch Pileggi, and William B. Davis spoke with moderator Tony B. Kim about the original television program and the recent six-episode revival series.

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Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper.

Closing out the day, Pure Fandom’s Liz Prugh hosted the panel with Agent Carter actors Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper. While both actors are attached to new series — Cooper’s Preacher and Atwell’s forthcoming Conviction — much of the conversation centered around the recently canceled Marvel’s Agent Carter, with fans expressing the hope that the show might be revived on a platform such as Netflix.

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Creative Cosplay

No con would be complete without seeing costumed characters roaming the hall. Wizard World hosts number of professional cosplayers including Jackie Craft and Brit Bliss. Most of the costumed characters strolling around the venue, however, were fan creations.

Elizabethan Superheroes.

Some clever costumes were mashups from different cultural contexts. A pair of cosplayers who could perhaps be described as Ronald McJoker and Hamburiddler showed a version of McDonald’s characters who might be found stalking Gotham City. Time-shifted Marvel superheroes on the show floor included Elizabethan versions of Captain America, the Winter Soldier, Thor, and Loki.

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For a complete photographic overview of this year’s event, see the Flickr album: Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con 2016

Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con 2016. Photos by Kendall Whitehouse.
[Click to view photo gallery]

Mysteries of the Comic-Con ‘Hotelpocalypse’

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Due to the enormous popularity of San Diego Comic-Con, acquiring a ticket to the annual pop culture event is difficult. If you are lucky enough to snag a ticket, however, getting a hotel room may be even more challenging. In both cases, the demand far outstrips the supply. In the case of hotel rooms, confusion over how the sale process works exacerbates the situation. This past week, the quest to secure rooms for San Diego Comic-Con 2016 — affectionately (or not so affectionately) known as “Hotelpocalypse” — left many attendees confused and frustrated.

When Demand Exceeds Supply: Randomize!

As with most large conventions, Comic Con International, the organization that runs San Diego Comic-Con, arranges for blocks of hotel rooms to be available for attendees throughout San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter and as far away as the airport, Mission Valley, and Coronado Island. This year travel planning agency onPeak managed the annual hotel sale for Comic Con International.

Hilton-Bayfront-SDCC-20150-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-480x480While rooms are available outside this system, the high demand drives prices to astronomical levels. When booked through Comic-Con’s travel agency, onPeak, a room at the popular Hilton Bayfront costs $308 per night. (For comparison, on weekends other than that of Comic-Con, rooms at the Bayfront go for as low as $169.) If you book the same room outside of the onPeak sale during the weekend of Comic-Con, the price is $1095 per night (plus the usual taxes and fees). Understandably, many want to acquire rooms through the Comic-Con sale.

To apply for a room, attendees submit a form with their top six hotels choices listed in order of preference, enter their personal data, and specify what should happen if none of their six hotel selections is available: book a room in any hotel on the shuttle route, book a room at any hotel in the area, or discard the request.

In previous years, the form went live at a specified time and requests were processed in the order submitted. It was a mad dash to complete the form as quickly as possible. Getting a room in one of the popular downtown hotels required racing through the multi-section form in less than a minute or two. The high peak demand on the system led to numerous technical problems such as pages not loading or submissions inexplicably lost.

Tickets to San Diego Comic-Con were once similarly allotted on a first-come, first-served basis, with equally problematic results. Two years ago, Comic Con International switched to a system of randomized ticket sales. During a recap of the previous year’s event, CCI President John Rogers noted that the earlier approach had little advantage over a random lottery, stating, “There are so many people hitting the system at the same time that, in fact, it is random.” (“See Comic-Con Ticket Sales: Systematizing Randomness“)

This year, Comic-Con International decided to randomize the submission of hotel forms as well. Users were given a three-hour window to access an online “waiting room” and then, at the appointed time, were randomly placed in a queue to gain access to the hotel request form.

While this seemed to go well on the day of the hotel sale, there was a great deal of uncertainly about the details, particularly when attendees started getting the results a few days later.

People reported having relatively low numbers in the queue, yet failing to receive any of their hotel selections. Reports filtered in of friends with later spots in the queue getting rooms at popular hotels while people earlier in line got none.

Confusion over Sequence, Timestamp, and Duplication

While those who failed to get the room they wanted were obviously disappointed, much of the frustration arose from confusion about how the process worked.

The early word was that, even with the randomized queue as a gating factor, requests would still be processed in the order of the timestamp when they were submitted. Thus, as in past years, once the form appeared, many raced to complete it as quickly as possible, risking the possibility of making critical errors that would invalidate their submission. After the sale closed, a tweet from onPeak stated that forms would be handled in the order of the user’s assigned place in queue rather than the submission timestamp. Some anecdotal reports seem to contradict this, however, leaving it unclear how the forms were sequenced for processing.

Users were also told that duplicate submissions would not increase the odds of getting a specific hotel and, in fact, it would likely decrease one’s chances since “only the most recent submission received will be the one processed.” What qualified as a “duplicate submission” remains unclear, however, with reports (or speculation) of requests being disregarded for myriad reasons, including forms with the same mailing address, or with the same phone number, or for no apparent reason whatsoever.

A parody Twitter account, “Fake onPeak,” appeared shortly after the sale lampooning the organization behind the process, issuing tweets like: “Reminder: As you call us today, you’ll be placed in a random order. Call twice and we will have to ignore your request.

Hotel Allocation Schemes: Sequence and Preference

Another aspect of the system is unclear: What is the exact method by which hotels are allocated based on people’s sequence in the randomized list and their priority selections?

A common view is that the Comic-Con hotel sale works something like this: People’s requests are first randomly ordered and then the system goes through this list and examines each person’s six selections in the order given to look for an available room.

In other words, the system starts with the first person in the queue. If a room at their first choice hotel is available, they’re allocated that room. If not, the system looks at their second choice. If a room in that hotel is available, they’re granted that room. And so on through the set of their six hotel options. If none of these is available, the system follows the option specified for this situation such assigning the person to another arbitrary (randomly selected?) room on the shuttle route or in any available room. (The details of how this subsequent selection process occurs are also mysterious.)

While this system is simple to understand and relatively easy to implement, it can lead to potentially sub-optimal outcomes. For example, let’s assume that when my slot in the sequence arrives, my first five selections are unavailable and there is one room left at my sixth choice hotel, say, the Omni Hotel. I would get the room at the Omni. If the next person in the randomly-ordered sequence selected the Omni as their first choice, they would not get the room.

You can argue that this is fair, since I was randomly placed ahead of the other person wanting to stay at the Omni. But it’s unfortunate that someone who wants the Omni as their first choice loses out to someone who cares only slightly for that hotel (particularly since the selection was made randomly).

An alternative approach would seek to maximize the overall satisfaction of all participants by following a different algorithm. Rather than looking through all six hotel options for each individual before moving on to the next person, the system could fill each hotel by looking through the ordered list of all the requests by priority first. In other words, start with a hotel (in order of size or popularity — or simply alphabetically), then go through the ordered sequence of users looking for those who made this hotel their first choice before looking at the second-choice selections for this hotel

For example, when looking to fill the rooms at the Hilton Bayfront, look through the ordered list of people to identify those who listed the Bayfront as their first choice. Proceed through the requests in the ordered sequence – looking only at each person’s top choice — until either the Bayfront is filled with people who picked it as their first choice or the end of the list of people is reached. If the system gets to the end of the list of first-choice selections and rooms are still available, it then starts over at the beginning of the list looking for people who selected the Bayfront as their second choice. Continue in this way for each hotel until all the rooms are filled.

This approach would assure that each hotel is filled with those who are most desirous of that location. The randomized sequence would still be important, but it would carry less weight relative to the individual’s prioritization of the hotels.

Until Next Year

Because the demand exceeds the supply — particularly for the popular downtown hotels — there will inevitably be complaints from those who failed to get the room they wanted. But the lack of transparency about how the process works exacerbates the problem. Hopefully, for Comic-Con 2017 attendees will know more about how requests are sequenced, when they might be rejected, and how people’s hotel priorities are allocated.

This year’s Comic-Con International: San Diego takes place July 21 through 24, 2016, with a Preview Night on July 20.

Update 2016 April 13:

The SDCC Unofficial Blog has an update that clarifies some of the issues surrounding this year’s Comic-Con hotel sale, with a few technical details that will no doubt be helpful for next year’s Hotelpocalypse: “CCI, onPeak Offer Insight to San Diego Comic-Con General Hotel Sale 2016.”

Update 2016 April 26:

An analysis of the results of this year’s hotel sale based on data supplied to the Friends of Comic-Con forum provides additional insight into how the process worked: “SDCC 2016 Post Hotel Lottery, a Statistical Analysis.”