The size of a pop culture event depends on how you count
This year ReedPop’s New York Comic Con reportedly reached a new record high attendance: 200,000. However, it’s difficult to know the actual size of the event relative to other fan conventions — or even to the previous year’s New York Comic Con — due to vagaries in how attendance is counted.
New York Comic Con is unquestionably huge. Several years ago the annual fan fest outgrew the confines of the Javits Center and now hosts additional programming sessions in the The Manhattan Center’s Hammerstein Ballroom, the Theater at Madison Square Garden, and Hudson Mercantile.
The Javits seemed particularly crowded this year due, at least in part, by having less available floor space than in past years. Javits North, traditionally the site of Artist Alley, was closed due to construction, forcing the show’s artists to relocate from the 80,000 square foot hall to the 45,000 sq ft. room 1E on the ground floor, a space used for vendor exhibits in the previous year.
Ways to Count
While fan festivals both large and small routinely report specific attendance numbers, what they mean is less clear. There is no industry standard for attendance calculations at pop culture conventions. In practice, at least three methods are used:
(1) Counting unique individuals, where each person counts as one attendee, regardless of the number of tickets they hold or days they attend.
(2) Counting the number of tickets sold (whether for a single day or multiple days)
(3) Counting the number of people who enter each day and totaling it for all the days of the event.
For example: An individual with two single-day tickets (say, one for Friday and one for Saturday), would count as one attendee using the first approach and two using the second and third. On the other hand, someone with a single four-day ticket would count as one attendee using the first and second methods, but four using the third.
The third method is sometimes referred to as a “turnstile” count, although this term introduces an additional confusion. Most events allow you to leave and return later the same day, so an actual count of the number of turnstile entrances would further inflate the number, making this a potential fourth method of counting attendance (although I know of no event that actually uses this approach).
Which Con Uses Which Numbers?
When a convention reports attendance figures, it’s often not clear which method is being used. All these approaches are valid, but they’re different, making comparisons fraught with uncertainty.
Comic-Con International’s San Diego Comic-Con reportedly uses the most conservative approach: a count of unique individuals, regardless of the number of days each person attends. The attendance at that event has been capped by space constraints for several years and is reported each year as around 130,000.
When New York Comic Con reported a significantly higher number — 151,000 — in 2014, it sparked a flurry of articles breathlessly reporting that ReedPop’s event had surpassed the Comic-Con International convention. The confusion was compounded by ReedPop’s identifying the number as a “unique attendee” count. Reporting by the SDCC Unofficial Blog, however, clarified that ReedPop was counting tickets sold (using method 2, above) not unique individuals (method 1).
The key takeaway is that comparing attendance figures from events run by different organizations — Comic-Con International (San Diego Comic-Con and Wondercon), ReedPop (New York Comic Con, Chicago’s C2E2, Emerald City Comic Con), Wizard World (events in dozens of cities) or others — is highly dubious.
Assuming the method for each event remains the same, however, at least year-over-year increases could provide a reasonable proxy for the relative growth of a single event. Alas, this year New York Comic Con — which, remember, tallies the number of tickets sold — changed their ticket sales policy to no longer offer a four-day ticket. People were able to attend all four days only by buying four single-day tickets. Thus, even with the same number of attendees, the number of tickets sold would be expected to increase irrespective of any growth in attendance.
New York Comic Con and Comic-Con International: San Diego are both enormous pop culture events, with an broad array of activities and large numbers of attendees. Until the industry adopts a standard accounting method, however, the relative size of each will remain obscure.
Mr. Robot’s Alternate Reality Game at San Diego Comic-Con
At San Diego Comic-Con last year, the offsite marketing event for USA Network’s Mr. Robot cleverly blended a physical environment with a virtual reality experience. This year, Mr. Robot eschewed the virtual in favor of physical constructions and encounters with live actors. Some aspects of the experience were clearly visible. Other elements were revealed only to fans who participated in a complex alternate reality game (ARG) to solve clues scattered around downtown San Diego.
Clearly Visible: The Bank of E and the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ
While the climax of the experience was cleverly hidden, much of this year’s Mr. Robot activation (as these marketing events are termed) was apparent to anyone strolling around San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
On Fourth Ave, a short distance from the Convention Center, fans could see the storefront of the Mr. Robot Repair Shop. Last year, the shop was the entrance to an elaborate reconstruction of the fictional retail establishment from the TV show, complete with old mid-1990s computers. Moving down a hallway, fans then entered a recreation of the apartment of Elliot Alderson, the show’s protagonist. From there, participants donned VR headsets and entered a 13-minute virtual reality experience written and directed by showrunner Sam Esmail. [For more on the 2016 marketing experience, see: “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media”
This year, the repair shop was abandoned. The closed storefront displayed a condemned sign and a notice for eviction. An ad for the E Corp Online, the AOL-like online service of the show’s mega-conglomerate E Corp, could also be spotted. (More on this ad later.) Graffiti was splattered over much of the storefront.
Next door, the Bank of E had a small branch office where fans could sign up for an account from the fictional bank and receive a charge card loaded with 20 Ecoin, the Bank of E’s cryptocurrency. People could also sign up online on the Bank’s website, e-coin.com. While the bank may be fictional, Ecoin worked as an effective pseudo-currency throughout much of the Gaslamp during Comic-Con. Signs declaring “Ecoin Accepted Here,” where fans could use their newly-acquired Ecoin card to purchase souvenirs and snacks, were scattered around downtown San Diego.
Next door to the Bank of E was the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, where Bank of E customers could receive a complimentary pulled pork sandwich (supplied by local favorite Phil’s BBQ) along with chips and a shake.
While the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ appears only obliquely in the previous season of the show — appearing briefly as a takeout menu in one episode — it will reportedly play a larger role in the upcoming third season.
These physical recreations of locations from the show allowed many fans at Comic-Con to enter the world of Mr. Robot. There was, however, a mystery hiding in plain sight.
Following the Clues
While many people were blithely enjoying lunch at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, observant fans noticed clues to something deeper behind the Mr. Robot activation. [For many of the details in this section, I’m indebted to the redditors in the /r/MrRobot/ and r/ARGsociety/ subreddits, particularly B-Cipher, Cornelius55555555, and britter2]
At the Bank of E, a video screen running promotional ads for the bank would occasionally glitch and display a black screen with red lettering saying:
SOMETIMES TO SEE CLEARLY, YOU MUST CLOSE YOUR EYES.
ISE IARI CHI EIVE RIY WIH IERE
Removing the Is and unnecessary spaces, gives: SEARCH EVERYWHERE
Some of the Ecoin Accepted Here signs included the following text at the bottom:
Use Ecoin to unlock the mysteries of the universe!
Don’t wait… EVERY SECOND COUNTS!!
The gibberish at the bottom is an anagram for:
USE PROMO CODE ENLIGHTENMENT
Entering ENLIGHTENMENT as a promo code on the Ecoin website showed a black screen with white text that read:
so, you decided to bank with e corp.
you’re on your way.
you need a job.
ask an employee at red wheelbarrow if they’re hiring
hope to hear back from you soon.
When asked, staff at the Red Wheelbarrow would hand out a job application form to prospective hires. Applicants were told to be observant and look around both inside and outside the Red Wheelbarrow. Staff also pointed out the application number at the top right of the form: 619. This is the area code for San Diego.
A number of letters were missing from words in the application form. Listing the missing letters gives: “find and assemble the pieces enlightenment calls.”
At the top left of the application, above the Red Wheelbarrow logo, were three circles, the first of which was filled with the other two empty.
On a chalkboard at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ was written the William Carlos Williams poem from which the establishment takes its name:
So much depends upon
a red wheelbarrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens
– William Carlos Williams
Underneath was a speech balloon saying “follow us!” above one of a pair of stickers of white chickens.
A white chicken sticker could also be seen on the closed Mr. Robot Repair Shop.
Looking closely at the shop’s E Corp Online ad revealed additional clues. At the upper left, three circles could again be seen. In this case, the middle circle was filled with the two outside circles empty.
The first sentence of the text read: “A world of enlightenment is just a click away with E Corp Online!,” with the bold “enlightenment” harking back to the earlier clues.
Elsewhere in the text, a number of words, representing numbers, were in all caps:
The World Wide Web is what’s happening now, and EOL brings it right to your computers. Sports, Shopping, Travel and more… over FOUR categories of content all at your fingertips.
And thanks to E Corp’s cutting edge technology, connecting with the people and things that you love has never been easier. Our new high connection speeds will have you online in less then THREE minutes!
BONUS: Order now, and receive ONE free hour to check out E Corp Online!
This text thus adds to 619 three numbers: 431.
White chicken stickers led down 4th Avenue and across the street. An abandoned building displayed a street art poster with four marionettes on strings. In the upper left were three circles, with the first two empty and the final circle filled.
The text of the poster read:
If you pull the right strings,
a puppet will dance any way you desire.
A later version read:
The real you is not a puppet
which life pushes around.
The real, deep down you
is the whole universe.
The work was signed “Enlightenment.”
In one hand, each of the figures was holding an object: a noose, a white rose, a cell phone, and a knife. With the other hand, each of the marionettes displayed a number of fingers. In order they were: 2454
Putting together the three sets of numbers gives a San Diego phone number.
A number of people reportedly had problems calling the number, receiving a busy signal or a recording telling them to call back tomorrow.
When the call was completed, the person on the other end said, “If you pull the right strings…” A wrong response would be answered with “Your journey is not complete. Follow the chickens.” If the caller answered correctly with “A puppet will dance any way you desire,” they were congratulated on following the correct path, asked their name, and given the time and location at which to appear. (In some accounts, they were told they could bring one friend.)
At the appointed time and place, the participant was met by someone who asked their name and led them to a doorway for the final segment of the experience.
The End of the Journey
It turned out the entrance to the final chapter of the Mr. Robot Experience was located next to the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ. A glass doorway was covered with newspapers which, in a clever bit of misdirection, appeared to be more relevant to Superman than to Mr. Robot. A Daily Planet newspaper placed in multiple locations on the door trumpeted the headline “Mysterious Crisis Strikes City!” and discussed shocking developments in Superman’s home town of Metropolis.
The newspaper included a crossword puzzle with odd clues:
Although I didn’t see this when I was there, apparently at one point the crossword puzzle on one of the pages was filled in with a series of backward and forward words:
Unscrambling and rearranging these gives: “Find The Right Number to Unlock Enlightenment Behind That Door.”
The door led to a dimly lit hallway with graffiti on the walls. A woman in a hoody was standing midway down the corridor. I was told I needed to turn over my cellphone before proceeding. I objected. As a compromise, I turned off my phone and promised to keep it in my pocket.
The door at the end of the hall led to a darkened room — one that looks virtually identical to the interrogation room encountered by Angela (Portia Doubleday) in the penultimate episode in season 2 of Mr. Robot (titled “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z”).
As in the show, the room contained a dimly lit table on which sat an ancient Commodore 64 computer along with a few 5-1/4-inch diskettes. Also on the table was a red telephone. The only other object in the room was an illuminated fish tank, whose glow provided ambient light in the room.
While the physical environment closely matched the room seen in the show, there was one striking difference: While Angela was interrogated by a young blonde girl — looking much like the Angela would have looked at that age — in the room at Comic-Con, you were facing a person wearing the mask of the ominous Dark Army.
After being directed to sit down, the questions began.
“How many times have you lied today?”
“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?”
The series of questions apparently varied somewhat. One account reported being asked “At what age did you realize you are alone?”
The final question was:
“Are you afraid of the dark?”
At that point, the masked figure slid forward a mechanical light switch. When switched on, the lights went off and the room turned . A black UV light revealed graffiti scrolled on the back wall that included the phrase, “What do those in darkness desire?”
To avoid the obvious I initially answered, “Truth.” The masked figure shook his head. I then responded, “Light.”
At that point, the black light switched off and the dim room lighting returned.
One account reported that the fish tank began to slowly drain, echoing what happens during the similar sequence in show. When I spoke with one of the developers of the activation, he told me the original plan was to drain the tank, but it was taking too long to refill between sessions, so this was dropped.
The red phone then rang. When answered, the distinctive voice of Whiterose (BD Wong) began to speak. “No, no. Please don’t talk. I have allotted precisely one minute and twenty seven seconds for this conversation.” The character then went on to provide hints about the upcoming season of Mr. Robot, the main thrust of which (as well as I can recall) was that things were in motion that were much deeper than E Corp president Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) and others currently realize.
After replacing the receiver at the end of the call, my interlocutor said I had earned the right to see something. He handed me a manila envelope and said I had 30 seconds to review the contents. Inside were a series of photos from season 3 of Mr. Robot.
After viewing the photos, I returned them to the envelope and handed it back. I was then told I could leave and was shown the door.
Once in the hallway, participants who turned over their cellphones had them returned. I exited the hallway to return to the bustle of San Diego’s 4th Avenue and the crowd blissfully dining at the Red Wheelbarrow.
Worlds Within Worlds
The final phase of this elaborate marketing activation was a haunting experience. Being placed into a bizarre situation from the show — not as a digital simulation, but a physical environment interacting with human performers — is an eerie experience.
It’s striking how much effort went into the hidden elements of the marketing experience that would be seen by only a few fans of the show. A representative from Civic Entertainment Group, the company that helped to develop the activation with USA Networks, told me the final act of the experience took about 8 minutes. Allowing for buffer time between each session, this implies that only six or seven people per hour could go through the experience. As mentioned above, draining of the fish tank was dropped in order to decrease the time to cycle between each session. And some people were reportedly told they could bring a friend, which would double the number of participants. Even so, it’s a large effort for a limited audience.
In a way, this echoes the structure of the Mr. Robot TV show itself. Many viewers simply watch each hour-long episode. Others pick up on the obscurereferences and hidden “Easter eggs” that reveal additional story details or lead to otherwebsites or videos for a deeper experience.
The Comic-Con Mr. Robot Experience was a rich interactive component to the show’s layered, transmedia content.
Comic-Con International: San Diego or, as it is more commonly known, San Diego Comic-Con or simply SDCC, is a massive event. Each year presents attendees with a challenging exercise to determine which of the many simultaneous activities they can afford to miss. Comic-Con scheduling is particularly vexing in my case since I wear multiple hats. For Knowledge@Wharton I’m on the lookout for emerging business trends, which frequently sends me to many of the offsite marketing “activations” (as they are known). As a photographer for TwoMorrows’ Comic Book Creator and other magazines, I attend many of the comic book panels and autograph signings. And, of course, there are things of which I’m personally a fan, which often send me to the mammoth Hall H for the major movie and television properties.
Here is an overview of San Diego Comic-Con 2017 from my perspective. [Click on the images to view full photo albums.]
The Big Panels in Hall H
The most popular programming sessions at Comic-Con are held in the 6,500-seat Hall H.
On Friday, the cast of Twin Peaks: The Return took to the stage for “Twin Peaks: A Damn Good Panel.” Moderated by Damon Lindelof, the panel included Kyle MacLachlan, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Dana Ashbrook, Kimmy Robertson, James Marshall, Everett McGill, Matthew Lillard, and Don Murray.
Following the Twin Peaks panel, I was able to do a brief photo shoot with the cast of Twin Peaks before an autograph signing in the Entertainment Earth booth.
Saturday typically hosts the biggest panels to Hall H. This year, the day began with Warner Bros. and concluded with Marvel Studios.
For the first Warner Bros. panel, Ready Player One, the curtains on the side walls pulled back to display a huge 180-degree video display that wrapped around the audience. Following a trailer for the upcoming film, moderator Chris Hardwick brought to the stage director Steven Spielberg; writers Ernest Cline and Zak Penn; and actors Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, and T.J. Miller.
The Blade Runner 2049 panel began with a display of a timeline of the events between the period of the first film (2019) and the upcoming sequel (2049). A version of this content can be seen at roadto2049.bladerunnermovie.com. Following this, the film’s trailer was screened, followed by a hologram-like projection of actor Jared Leto. Moderator Chris Hardwick then introduced director Denis Villeneuve; actors Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, and Lennie James; producers Andrew A. Kosove and Broderick Johnson; and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green.
The final Warner Bros. presentation was for Justice League, which began with the stars of the forthcoming film charging down the center aisle past the Hall H audience to ascend the stage. Moderator Chris Hardwick first introduced Aquaman‘s Jason Momoa, who danced around with his trident like Jimi Hendrix on the guitar. Next up was Gal Gadot, followed by the rest of the cast: Ben Affleck, Ray Fisher, and Ezra Miller.
After Warner Bros., next up in Hall H was the “Women Who Kick Ass” panel. While this annual panel typically includes a group of female actors, this year it highlighted a single performer: Charlize Theron. After an extended clip from Atomic Blonde with Theron in an intense fight scene, the actor was interviewed by Sara Vilkomerson.
The Stranger Things panel showed a trailer for season 2 of the popular Netflix series and then brought to the stage an enormous panel of cast and crew: series creators Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer; actors Natalia Dyer, Shawn Levy, Joe Keery, Gaten Matarazzo, David Harbour, Caleb McLaughlin, Matthew Modine, Noah Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, Dacre Montgomery, Millie Bobby Brown, Paul Reiser, and Sadie Sink; and moderator Patton Oswalt. Midway through the panel, Shannon Purser, who played Barb in the show’s first season, emerged from the audience to join the cast on stage.
The Westworld panel included a trailer for the upcoming season of the series and featured a large cast including showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy; actors Shannon Woodward, Luke Hemsworth, Angela Sarafyan, Ben Barnes, Jimmi Simpson, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Rodrigo Santoro, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Simon Quarterman, and Tessa Thompson; and moderator Reggie Watts.
Capping Saturday in Hall H was Marvel Studios. Moderator Chris Hardwick first introduced Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. Before introducing other cast members, Comic-Con International Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim presented Kevin Feige with an Inkpot Award.
The first part of the Marvel panel then focused on Thor: Ragnarok. Joining Fiege and Hardwick on stage were director Taika Waititi and actors Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, and Jeff Goldblum. An exclusive trailer was shown.
Following Thor: Ragnarok, Feige brought to the stage the cast and crew of Black Panther: writer/director Ryan Coogler and actors Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis and Winston Duke. Exclusive footage from Black Panther was also debuted.
Although Fiege had initially stated the session would cover two films: Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, when Fiege began to sum up after the Black Panther cast exited the stage, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth, Chadwick Boseman, and Mark Ruffalo returned to egg Fiege on for more — pointing out there were three Avengers on stage. Responding to the rising audience demand for additional material, Fiege, playing along, relented and showed the first public footage from Avengers: Infinity War.
While the footage shown in many of Saturday’s panels was released to the public shortly following its debut in Hall H, the Marvel Studios footage remained unavailable elsewhere. While it’s a shame to keep the content from fans who couldn’t make it into Hall H — and it’s likely beneficial to the studios to have the material seen by the largest possible audience — I’m pleased Marvel is upholding the tradition of showing exclusive content to the fans who who camped out for hours (or even days) to get inside Hall H.
Comic Book Panels, Signings, and Awards
This year marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of famed comics artist and writer Jack Kirby. A number of this year’s comics-focused panels honored his legacy.
On Thursday, the panel “Jack Kirby’s Consciousness, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, Barry Ira Geller, and the Real Argo” featured Barry Ira Geller and artist Mike Royer discussing Kirby’s work on a planned movie and science theme park based on Roger Zelazny’s novel, Lord of Light. While neither the movie nor the theme park materialized, the unproduced movie script and artwork were used as part of the scheme to rescue American diplomats who were in hiding in Iran following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, events portrayed (in a fictionalized version) in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning film, Argo.
Mark Evanier moderated a separate spotlight panel with longtime Kirby inker Mike Royer. In comparing his inking style with that of another noted Kirby inker, Joe Sinnott, Royer said, “Joe Sinnott inked Jack MGM. I inked Jack Warner Brothers…. MGM was glossy. Warner Brothers was raw, and to the point.”
TwoMorrows’ publisher John Morrow, editor of Jack Kirby Collector Magazine, was featured in a spotlight panel on Friday. At the outset of the panel, Morrow was awarded an Inkpot Award by Comic-Con International’s Gary Sassaman.
Also on Friday was the “Jack Kirby: Friends and Family” panel with Kirby decedents Jeremy Kirby, Tracy Kirby, Lisa Kirby, and Jillian Kirby, along with artist and family friend Mike Thibodeaux and moderator Mark Evanier.
The “Spotlight on Paul Dini” panel featured the writer in conversation with his friend, writer/producer David Mandel.
“The Women of Marvel” panel included Sana Amanat, Lorraine Cink, Margaret Stohl, Rainbow Rowell, Christina Strain, Alanna Smith, and Mariko Tamaki, moderated by Judy Stephens.
Beyond the panels, comic book creators are available throughout much of Comic-Con — in Artist Alley, at signing events, and simply browsing the con with the other attendees.
And, as always, Friday evening brought the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Ceremony, which is a wonderful event honoring the women and men who create comics. Among the many awards given that evening, the members of the Kirby family accepted the Bill Finger award given to Jack Kirby for his writing.
Science Fiction Meets Real-World Science
While Comic-Con often features panels that look at the scientific underpinnings of fictional worlds of movies and television like Star Trek or Star Wars, this year saw a number of panels and events focusing on science in the real world.
New at Comic-Con this year was the Futurism and Tech Pavilion (an expansion of last year’s VR Con) with demonstrations of a wide range of immersive entertainment technology including virtual reality, 4D VR motion controlled chairs, and augmented reality goggles.
In the “Science Fiction, Science Future” panel, science fiction writers, including The Martian‘s Andy Weir, discussed the synergies between science fiction and science fact with scientists and engineers.
“No Tow Trucks Beyond Mars” featured engineers and scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) discussing how the space program works to anticipate and avoid problems in interplanetary travel.
The “2017: The State of Iron Man Tech” panel, moderated by Dent the Future’s Steve Broback, featured inventor Richard Browning (who has developed a prototype jet-powered exosuit), actor and stunt woman Zoë Bell, NASA engineer Chris Gerty, and venture capitalist Adam Draper. That evening, Dent the Future hosted an informal get-together with Browning and Bell at San Diego’s Mission Brewery. While billed as an opportunity to see Browning’s jet suit, there were hints during the panel that Browning might do more than merely model the suit. And, indeed, midway through the gathering, people were given earplugs and asked to assemble outside the brewery where Browning flew around the parking area in his jet suit.
Marketing: From Ubiquitous Banners to Immersive Environments
Advertising takes over nearly every square inch of San Diego during Comic-Con. This year’s award for Most Ubiquitous Ad Campaign would likely go, as in other recent years, to TBS. This year the network was promoting People of Earth (replacing the Conan ads from the past two years). Ads promoting the series appeared on everything from the stairways and baggage carousels at San Diego International Airport to the large building wrap covering the upper floors of the Marriott Marquis.
The companion real estate on the Hilton Bayfront was occupied by wrap for FX’s Legion, which mercifully replaced the creepy banners for The Strain that occupied that location in the previous two years.
The most significant marketing activity at SDCC occurs on the large-scale activations that take place around San Diego. Virtual reality was all the rage at many of the immersive marketing events in recent years. While VR was still in evidence, several of the most popular marketing activations this year were geared toward physical installations and real-world interactions. Scavenger hunts were featured in the activations for The Tick and Mr. Robot. Meticulously constructed physical environments populated with actors formed the core of the events for Blade Runner 2049 (which also included an optional VR component), Mr. Robot, and Westworld.
The Tick Takeover, promoting Amazon’s forthcoming series, was a two-part activation. In the first section, fans could work the controls of the large tick antennae that towered over the sidewalk and rest on sofas while viewing the pilot episode of the series. In the second part, fans are first led into a reconstruction of a convenience store and are then whisked away into another room for a competitive scavenger hunt. Throughout the event, fans are required to answer a number of surveys in order to get free schwag.
More immersive was the Blade Runner 2049 Experience. Located in a large temporary structure, this event was also presented in two parts. The first was a 4D virtual reality experience — 360-degree video and sound with a synchronized motion chair. In the simulation, you’re piloting a spinner, the flying car in the show, in pursuit of a runaway replicant. The chase soars between the skyscrapers in Los Angeles of 2049, eventually ending with both vehicles crashing to the ground.
Once the virtual experience ends, you remove your headset to see the wall previously in front of the room has disappeared and you walk into a large scale reproduction of a street scene in Los Angeles 2049. The entire scene is suffused with a foggy haze. Actors wearing outrageous fashions interact with you. A chef prepares dishes at a noodle stand. Police keep an eye on things and, at one point, insist you submit to a Voight-Kampff test to verity you’re a human. There are also props from the film on display and, in an adjacent room a place to pick up noodles or drink vials of Johnnie Walker whisky.
Perhaps the most exclusive marketing event at this year’s Comic-Con was the Westworld Experience, which reportedly accommodated only 12 people per hour. The lucky few who were able to sign up for an appointment, were able to participate in an in-depth physical immersive experience. After being interviewed by a host, you were given a western hat — either white or black. Guests were then led to a full scale replica of the show’s Mariposa Saloon.
Also built around physical environments, along with a mysterious scavenger hunt, was this year’s Mr. Robot Experience. As with the Westworld Experience, this year’s event stood in contrast with last year’s Mr. Robot Experience, which combined a VR experience with a physical environment. That year’s hybrid experience reconstructed the Mr. Robot Repair Shop and the apartment of the show’s main character, and then launched into an extended, 13-minute virtual reality experience. [See On Technology and Media, “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media.”]
This year, the Mr. Robot Repair Shop was closed, with condemned notices posted on a reconstruction of the building’s exterior. Open next door was the Bank of E, where fans could get a bank card loaded with 20 ECoin, the show’s fictional digital currency, that could be used to buy food and other items at many locations throughout San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. At the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, an establishment only hinted at in season 2 of the show but reportedly playing a larger role in season 3, fans could enjoy a pulled pork sandwich (supplied by Phil’s BBQ) with chips and a shake.
As if this weren’t enough, observant fans discovered hints that led them on a hunt to decode additional clues around town. When all the clues were collected, they revealed a phone number that directed participants to the final stage of the activation. Past a secret doorway, guards confiscate your cell phone to prevent photos or recordings, and then lead you down a hallway to a dark room that is a near-exact replica of the interrogation room in which Angela finds herself in season 2 episode 11. You’re seated in front of a table with a red telephone and an old Commodore 64 computer. A few 5-1/4 diskettes are scattered around. At the rear of the room is an illuminated fish tank. But where Angela was interrogated by a young girl, you’re sitting across the desk from a masked representative of the Dark Army. He asks a series of odd, somewhat intimidating questions: “How many times have you lied today?” “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” “Are you afraid of the dark?” “What does one in the darkness seek?” After the interrogation, a phone rings. When answered, you hear the voice of Whiterose giving you a cryptic message that may contain clues about the direction of season 3 of the show. You’re then handed a manila envelope and told you have 30 seconds to review the contents. Inside are photos from the upcoming season of Mr. Robot.
While these immersive marketing events relied on real-world environments populated by actors, rather than virtual simulations, next year may reveal whether this was a single year deviation or the beginning of a trend. [For additional commentary, see Knowledge@Wharton, “Marketing at Comic-Con Gets Real (Again).”
SDCC 2017 ended for me, as it does each year, with the Talk Back session, in which Comic-Con International President John Rogers listens to feedback from attendees on what went right and what went wrong (mostly what went wrong) at that year’s Comic-Con. In addition to the usual complaints about long lines and over-zealous security staff, this brought a new concern: allegations of counterfeit Hall H wristbands. Although these reports were unconfirmed, it was clear something went terribly awry regarding Hall H access on Saturday. After the 6,500-seat room was filled for the opening Warner Bros. panel that day, a significant number of fans with wristbands — which should have guaranteed access to the room — were still outside waiting in line. Rogers made it clear that Comic-Con International needs to “look into the security of the wristbands and how we tie that into people going forward.”
Reports on San Diego Comic-Con always read like the story of the blind men describing an elephant. The scope of the event is so broad, its scale so large, that each attendee can only experience a small sliver of the long weekend’s activities.
This was Comic-Con International: San Diego 2016 from my perspective.
Because of my interest in the media marketing that accompanies Comic-Con, Wednesday afternoon before Preview Night provided a good opportunity to explore the branding and the media installations around the Convention Center and throughout San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
Back in the real world, it was time to head to the Convention Center for the official opening of the con with Preview Night. For many, Preview Night is a mad rush to get first dibs on exclusive collectible items. I use it as an opportunity to visit the comic book creators in Artist Alley and elsewhere before the crush of the crowds in the subsequent days of the con. [See, “Be a Con-trarian: Go Against the Flow at Comic-Con.”] While San Diego Comic-Con attracts numerous high-profile movie and TV celebrities, I always enjoy the opportunity to meet the men and women who write, draw, and publish the comic books that form the basis of so much of our popular culture.
Thursday began with a second opportunity to experience Sam Email’s immersive Mr. Robot 360-degree film. Rather than taking place in the reconstruction of Elliot’s apartment, this second viewing was in Petco Park with cast members Rami Malek, Christian Slater, Portia Doubleday, Carly Chaikin, and Grace Gummer viewing the virtual experience along with the audience. At one point, while the audience members were still in the virtual world, Malek left the stage and sat in the crowd, surprising the adjacent audience members once the simulation ended.
First Timers and Old Regulars
Given the 47-year history of San Diego Comic-Con, it’s surprising to discover major popular culture icons who have never attended the event. This year a number of notable artists made their first appearances at San Diego Comic-Con.
Oliver Stone made his inaugural appearance at Comic-Con to promote his forthcoming film, Snowden, along with cast members Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, and Zachary Quinto.
Similarly new to Comic-Con this year was Luc Besson, who brought producer Virginie Besson-Silla and actors Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne to present concept artwork and early footage from his film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Comic-Con International Senior Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim presented Besson with an Inkpot award for his contributions to popular culture.
Also appearing at Comic-Con for the first time was famed cyberpunk writer William Gibson. Gibson also received a Comic-Con International Inkpot award for his contributions to science fiction.
In contrast to these Comic-Con newcomers, Friday brought back to Hall H longtime fan favorite, writer/director Joss Whedon, who answered audience questions and hinted at future projects. He gave scant details about his current project, other than to say it was something new — neither a sequel nor a franchise piece. In response to an audience question, he reiterated his intention to eventually produce a follow-up to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, stating it would not be a prequel but, rather, focus on events following the original series. Work on this project isn’t imminent, however, since other members of the creative team (like Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancheron) are currently busy with other projects.
Following Whedon, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone discussed their 20 years of working on the animated series, moderated by host Chris Hardwick.
Friday evening always brings the annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards ceremony, honoring the work of comic book writers, artists, and publishers. With industry notables and surprise guests, the event is always a high point of Comic-Con for me each year.
Big Shows in Hall H on Saturday
While each day in Hall H brings panels with notable celebrity appearances and exclusive content, Saturday is the day coveted by the major studios for their showpiece events.
With a number of major movie studios, including 20th Century Fox, Paramount Studios, and Sony Pictures, skipping Hall H this year, on Saturday the room was dominated by two studios: Warner Bros. at the start of the day and Marvel Studios at day’s end (before the annual Kevin Smith panel). It’s worth noting that although they skipped Hall H, Paramount made a big splash in San Diego this year with the world premiere of Star Trek Beyond, Sony brought a Sausage Party screening and cast appearance to the Horton Grand Theatre, and Fox television programming had a significant presence at Comic-Con.
Arriving late in Hall H that day, I missed most of the Warner Bros. panel. As I entered the cavernous room near the end of the WB presentation, I almost ran into Eddie Redmayne as he raced around the floor handing out magic wands to fans to promote Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
After Warner Bros., the panel celebrating the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek television series brought together cast members from several generations of the TV series: William Shatner, Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn, Jeri Ryan, and Scott Bakula in a session moderated by Bryan Fuller, showrunner and co-creator of CBS’ new forthcoming Star Trek series.
The panel following Star Trek marked another anniversary of a popular science fiction franchise: the 30th anniversary of Aliens. On stage for the event were Aliens writer/director James Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd, and cast members Sigourney Weaver, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Michael Biehn, and Carrie Henn (who portrayed Newt in the film).
Next up in Hall H was the annual Entertainment Weekly: Women Who Kick Ass panel moderated by EW’s Nicole Sperling, featuring an array of women who portray strong female roles on television and the movies: Morena Baccarin, Melissa Benoist, Nathalie Emmanuel, Lucy Lawless, Tatian Maslany, Connie Nielsen, and Ming-Na Wen.
Marvel Studios then capped the day with a session that featured cast members and exclusive clips from several of the company’s upcoming feature films introduced by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and moderated by the ever-present Chris Hardwick.
Appearing first was the director and cast of Black Panther: director Ryan Coogler and actors Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, and Chadwick Boseman.
Smoke then filled the stage and sides of the auditorium along with abstract patterns of projected light. The smoke cleared to reveal Doctor Strange actor Benedict Cumberbatch at center stage. Joining Cumberbatch was Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson and cast members Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Clyde Kusatsu. The Doctor Strange presentation included new footage and the debut of a new trailer.
Next up was Spider-Man Homecoming actor Tom Holland, joined by director Jon Watts and cast members Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Jacob Batalon, and Zendaya. A brief comedic video segment showed scenes of Peter Parker trying to balance his daily life at school with his responsibilities as a superhero.
Director James Gunn next took the stage — along a cadre of fully-costumed Ravengers — for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Gunn then introduced cast members Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kurt Russell (who was revealed to be playing Peter Quill’s father). Gunn also announced that Disney would be opening a theme park attraction based on the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. The Hall H crowd also saw a clip from the film and a new trailer.
Finally, Feige confirmed the long-held rumor that Brie Larson would play Captain Marvel in the movie slated for Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Larson joined the cast members from all the films for a Marvel family portrait.
Wrapping Up on Sunday
Sunday provided the opportunity to visit some of the marketing activations I hadn’t yet seen, including the Timeless time travel ride (built around that old amusement park classic, the Gravitron), Adult Swim on the Green, and the Son of Zornrock climb and giant leap into an air bag (the latter pair of which I merely observed rather than participating in). After the virtual reality experiences of Mr. Robot and The Man in the High Castle, these decidedly non-virtual activities were an interesting change of pace.
Sunday’s final Hall H panel was originally slated for a much smaller room. Back in April 2016, Comic-Con International was coordinating with gaming company Niantic to present a panel on their augmented reality game Ingress. When the programming schedule for Comic-Con 2016 was released — as usual, just two weeks before the event — Niantic was scheduled to speak about Ingress and a new game they planned to launch, Pokémon GO. Shortly afterwards, Pokémon GO debuted and quickly became the hottest thing on Internet. Comic-Con International quickly changed the schedule to move the panel from its Thursday time slot in a modest 480-seat room to the last available spot on Sunday in the 6,500-seat Hall H. While this initially seemed like overkill, it proved otherwise. The enormous auditorium was packed on Sunday afternoon.
Host Chris Hardwick interviewed Niantic’s CEO, John Hanke for the session. Fans’ expectations that Hall H events bring big surprises caused many to assume that a special, rare Pokémon creature would appear in the hall for attendees to capture. But, alas, CEO Hanke seemed somewhat taken aback by the amped up expectations of the Hall H crowd, and no special creatures were to be found.
As in past years, my final session at Comic-Con was the Talk Back session in which Comic-Con International president John Rogers responds to questions and complaints from attendees. This year, Rogers and Comic-Con International Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim made a valiant effort to keep the session on schedule, only running roughly 15 minutes over the allotted one hour time slot in contrast to the two-plus hour sessions in past years. While the Talk Back can be a rather dour way to end the con, it offers insights into the choices made by Comic-Con International in running the complex event. For a good recap of the key points from this year’s Talk Back session, see the report from ConShark.
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.
While 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. #Hotelpocalypse”
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.
This year’s Comic-Con International: San Diego was a mix of the new and the familiar, the wonderful and the weird, the carefully planned and the unexpectedly serendipitous. Here are highlights of Comic-Con 2015 from my perspective.
As last year, the marketing onslaught started shortly after stepping off the plane. The staircases and baggage carousels at San Diego International Airport were covered with ads for Conan O’Brien’s TBS program Conan. The Conan ads continued in town with banner wraps covering trains, buses, and the upper floors of the Marriott hotel.
The trend of wrapping buildings in large ads seemed to have subsided slightly last year, with no wrap on the prime real estate of the Hilton Bayfront hotel that year. The building wraps were back in force this year, however, with multi-story ads on both the Hilton Bayfront and Marriott Marquis and — for the first time this year — with a pair of banners on the Hilton garage as well. In addition, the usual barrage of building-covering ads appeared throughout the Gaslamp Qaurter and around Petco Park.
As I outline in my Knowledge@Wharton article, the early appearance of these advertising installations triggers a flurry of social media activity that allows brands to tap into the pent-up excitement as fans await the start of Comic-Con. [See “Building Buzz: How Comic-Con Turns Froth into Frenzy” ]
This year, the pre-Preview Night afternoon also offered time to explore The Art of Comic-Con exhibit presented by Comic-Con International at the San Diego Central Library. The gallery included illustrations and documents covering 45 years of San Diego Comic-Con as well as Comic-Con International’s sister shows WonderCon and APE (the Alternative Press Expo).
After picking up my badge and connecting with a reporter from NPR to be interviewed for a piece on All Things Considered about immersive marketing [see “Want To Get Inside Your Favorite Show? Go To Comic-Con“], it was time to head the Convention Center to hit the show floor for Preview Night.
Preview Night has become one of my favorite parts of Comic-Con. The lack of competing programming that first evening means you can browse the exhibition hall floor without fretting about all the other activities you’re missing.
While I typically skip the nighttime parties at Comic-Con, on Wednesday evening I had two post-Preview Night events in my calendar: The Enchantment Under the SDCC party from the SDCC Unofficial Blog and the Game of Bloggers Meet Up hosted by Crazy4ComicCon’s Tony B. Kim. Despite a long day, I made it to the former, but only for a brief visit and fewquickphotos. As much as I wanted to stay longer and to stop by Tony’s meet-up, I wearily headed back to the hotel to get ready for the con to officially begin the next morning.
Panels: From Grant Morrison and Geek & Sundry to Jack Kirby and the Culture of Comic-Con
On Thursday the con begins in earnest. My personal Comic-Con schedule typically lists four or five simultaneous events for any given time slot. The plan is to make on-the-fly judgments about what to attend based on line lengths, expected wait time, and conflicts with other activities.
Thanks to a fortuitous tweet alerting me to a short line for Thursday’s opening panels at the Hilton Bayfront’s Indigo Ballroom, the day began with Grant Morrison in conversation with Graphic India’s Sharad Devarajan. Morrison discussed 18 Days, his retelling of the central battle from The Mahabharata, and Avatarex, a super-hero series placed in contemporary India. It was interesting to hear Morrison, who once penned one of the darkest Batman tales — Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth — talk about the current need for more optimistic narratives in comic books.
Between Morrison and the later Geek & Sundry panel in the Indigo Ballroom were two additional programming sessions. Director Sanjay Patel and producer Nicole Grindle presented an early screening of Disney/Pixar’s Sanjay’s Super Team, a heartfelt, loosely autobiographical piece based on Patel’s relationship with his father and his Indian heritage. In addition to showing the short film, the presentation included a touching clip of Patel showing the film to his father. The panel was a surprise highlight of the day.
Next up in the Indigo Ballroom was the Geek & Sundry panel with Felicia Day, her brother Ryon Day, Wil Wheaton, and Geek & Sundry performers Laura Bailey, Matthew Mercer, Jessica Marzipan, and Hector Navarro. It was a rollicking session with Ryon Day and Wil Wheaton going out of their way to repeatedly embarrass Felicia Day.
The other days of Comic-Con included an eclectic mix of panels —
Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson had to leave the Women Artists During WWII panel early to participate in Twisted Roots of the Comics Industry which overlapped the earlier panel by 30 minutes. The Twisted Roots of the Comics Industry panel also featured Michael Uslan, Danny Fingeroth, Gerard Jones, and Brad Ricca.
The Annual Jack Kirby Tribute Panel was, as always, hosted by Mark Evanier, and this year included J. David Spurlock, Marv Wolfman, Rob Liefeld, and Paul S. Levine discussing the work of the late Jack Kirby.
Photography is a major focus of mine at Comic-Con, not only for my work for Knowledge@Wharton but, as well, for my roles as Convention Photographer for Comic Book Creator and ACE (All Comics Created) magazines, and as contributing photographer for the annual Bleeding Cool Power 100 List.
On Saturday, I helped photograph the Agent Carter flash mob that convened in the lobby of the Convention Center and, in a pre-arranged scheme, paraded to the Marvel booth to meet Agent Carter lead actress Haley Atwell.
And, of course, grabbing shots of creative cosplay is always fun. Among my favorite costumes this year was a flawless implementation of Steve Ditko’s Mysterio from The Amazing Spider-Man #13. Also intriguing were the time- and gender-shifted Rococo X-Women.
The Eisner Awards Ceremony
The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Ceremony is always a highlight of my Comic-Con experience, and this year was particularly noteworthy. Comic Book Creator, a publication for which I serve as Convention Photographer, was nominated for Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism. (The Eisner went to the well-deserving Comics Alliance.)
Philadelphia comic shop and publisher Locust Moon was nominated in two categories — Best Anthology and Best Publication Design — for Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream, and was awarded the Eisner for both.
In addition to the celebrity introductions and the always entertaining antics of Jonathan Ross, the main focus of the evening is on recognizing the work of those who create comic books. Seeing Shannon Watters and Noelle Stevenson accepting multiple awards for Lumberjanes was one of several high points of the evening.
Planned Activities and Random Encounters on the Show Floor
Signings in the vendor booths on the show floor provide ideal opportunities to capture portraits of key comic book creators. This year, I snapped portraits of Grant Morrison in the Legendary booth, and Joss Whedon and Chuck Palahniuk in the Dark Horse booth.
There’s typically a point during Comic-Con at which I decide to ignore my carefully-planned schedule and just wander the exhibition hall floor. This frequently elicits unexpected, serendipitous encounters.
Strolling across the show floor I also ran into Marvel’s head of television Jeph Loeb , which provided the opportunity to tell him how much I loved his 1998 series, Superman for All Seasons.
Talking Back and Heading Home
My last session at Comic-Con each year is the annual Talk Back session, during which Comic Con International President John Rogers sits alone at long table and listens to a long line of attendees with comments, complaints, and suggestions about Comic-Con.
This year’s Talk Back was relatively subdued. The long lines to access Hall H, the event’s largest venue where many of the high-profile Hollywood presentations take place, are a recurring topic during each year’s Talk Back. There was little mention, however, of this year’s most significant logistical change — the introduction of the “next day line” for queuing for wristband distribution for Hall H on the subsequent day. By distributing several waves of color-coded Hall H wristbands early in the evening and allowing people to leave the line once they have a wristband (with the ability to rejoin a similarly-banded friend holding their place in line or joining the end of the banded line), the new scheme essentially supplants the previous requirement to camp out all night with extended wait time during the preceding day. Given the lack of attendee commentary on the “next day line” during the Talk Back, expect this practice to continue next year.
At the airport the following morning, the trip ended much like it began, with an advertisement for TBS’s Conan show appearing on the television monitors showing CNN in the airport. “Hope to see you next year!” the ad declared and, indeed, I hope to be back again for another Comic-Con International: San Diego in 2016.
San Diego Comic-Con, the largest popular culture festival in the U.S., is exciting, illuminating, and crowded. Very crowded. And it’s confusing. With so many overlapping events competing for an attendee’s time, planning your schedule and determining the optimal time to queue up for specific events requires the logic of a chess master. [See Knowledge@Wharton, San Diego Comic-Con: Best Laid Plans.]
While there is no corner Comic-Con that isn’t crammed with people, there are benefits to be gained from being a contrarian. Going against the flow can lead to wonderful moments and a less stressful con experience.
Preview Night: More than Exclusives
For folks lucky enough to have a ticket for Preview Night, the evening is typically a mad dash for Comic-Con exclusives. Preview Night lets fans get first dibs on these only-at-Comic-Con action figures and souvenirs from companies like Hasbro, Funko, and Mattel. Yet the full show floor is open that first Wednesday evening. While crowds mob the vendor booths, the comic book creators in Artists’ Alley and the booths of many publishers are relatively quiet Wednesday night.
Last year I strolled past the Avatar Press booth to find George R. R. Martin quietly chatting with at fan. I walked right up, asked for a photo, and had a brief chat with famed Game of Thrones author. During the rest of Comic-Con, autograph sessions with Martin required waiting in a long line. Over in Artists’ Alley, creative couple Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner were goofing around and greeting fans who wandered over to the far end of the hall that houses Artists’ Alley. Many comic book creators were more relaxed and accessible during Preview Night than at any other time during the con.
Every Day is a Big Day in Hall H (and Elsewhere)
Friday and Saturday typically feature the most popular panels in Comic-Con’s infamous Hall H. Access to these events involves camping out for most of the night in order to secure a seat in the cavernous auditorium.
However, in recent years, after the morning crush for the best seats, Thursday has been a relatively easy “walk in” day in Hall H. You still needed to get in line and wind your way through the entry chutes under the tents, but by midday the line flows freely, providing access to the vaunted Hall H after only a short wait.
And while the Friday and Saturday panels feature the most popular panels, the Thursday and Sunday events are nevertheless always noteworthy.
In 2014, Thursday saw the first Comic-Con appearance of director Christopher Nolan for the Insterstellar segment of the Paramount Studios presentation, which also featured actor Matthew McConaughey. Both were a surprise — neither was mentioned in the Comic-Con Program Guide — and access to the hall was relatively easy that day.
Panels like these would be highlights at any other fan fest. Only at San Diego Comic-Con do sessions of this magnitude pale by comparison to the even bigger studio events on Friday and Saturday.
Although Hall H typically hosts the most high-profile events of the con, don’t judge the quality of a panel by the size of its venue. Outside of Hall H and Ballroom 20 are many fascinating presentations. The smaller room may mean a long line (or even the need to attend the preceding panel in order to get a seat), but these sacrifices are minor in comparison to camping on the grass all night to gain entrance to Hall H. And these smaller panels often bring great guests and compelling conversations. [See Comic-Con Movies: From Tentpole to Shoestring.]
Beyond the Convention Center: Offsites
As the crowds flood into the San Diego Convention Center, other events around town provide often less-crowded alternatives as well as viable options for days for which you don’t have a ticket for Comic-Con.
As a fan of the work of Felicia Day and the team at Geek & Sundry, I typically stop by the offsite event for the annual meet-and-greet and autograph signing with Day. NerdHQ provides a full range of programming with each event ticketed separately in an intimate venue. The Petco Park Interactive Zone is filled with fun activities, such as last year’s Sleepy Hollow virtual reality experience. This year the San Diego Public Library presents an exhibition on The Art of Comic-Con. Other engaging marketing activities for movies and television programs are sprinkled throughout San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. [For a comprehensive look at offsite events at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, see the calendar at on the SDCC Unofficial Blog: http://sdccblog.com/events/2015-07/
Finally, don’t be afraid to abandon your carefully planned schedule and just wander around. Peruse the show floor, check out the cosplay in the Sails Pavilion (where the bright but diffuse sunlight makes for great photos), or stroll the activities and exhibits on the lawns adjacent to the Convention Center.
By resisting the gravitational pull of the most popular events, by not following the crowd and going your own way to smaller, equally interesting events, you can have a fun and less stressful Comic-Con.