SAN DIEGO COMIC-con, changes are upon us
By Brian Friedman, Guest Contributor
Photo Credits: Brian Friedman
Comic-Con. These days it seems like every major city in the United States has some variation of one. But to many people when you say those words, it refers to only one event, San Diego Comic Con (SDCC). SDCC has existed now in various iterations for 49 years. Over the past couple of decades, especially, it has transformed from "just another convention" to be the most well-known and important pop culture convention in the entire world.
Major film studios routinely use the convention as a platform to make huge announcements and show the first public footage of some of the year's most anticipated tent pole and genre films. Television shows routinely show a sneak peek of upcoming seasons.
The biggest names in pop culture art come to sell their artwork. Major companies release collectibles exclusive to the convention. And one of the most important cosplay competitions in the world, “The Masquerade,” also takes place during the convention.
Whether you call yourself a geek, a nerd, a pop culture junkie or any of the dozens of fandom-specific monikers, SDCC is, in essence, the Holy Grail of conventions. And much like the quest for The Holy Grail, the quest for SDCC is filled with trials that will test your patience and belief.
Having gone to SDCC for the past eight years, I’ve become something of a veteran of how the Con works these days. But lest we get too comfortable, Comic-Con International (CCI) the company behind SDCC, likes to throw us a few curveballs every year. The changes, though always well-intentioned, are sometimes better in theory than application. In fact, this year saw the most sweeping changes in several years. Here are the biggest ones.
1) Shut It Down: Although the convention spreads into downtown San Diego’s “Gaslamp District,” the center of the convention itself is, of course, the San Diego Convention Center. It is located on a major and extremely busy street called Harbor Drive. This year, for the first time in history, the city of San Diego shut down Harbor Drive during each day of the convention.
This was massive. There were shuttle buses running all day between the various hotels and the convention center. In the past, they would have to sit on the long driveway just in front of the convention center. This, in turn, meant people could only move on the sidewalk in front of the doors. Given the number of attendees, this meant a human traffic jam all day, every day. By closing Harbor Drive down, they were able to move the shuttles over to Harbor Drive and free up the space they had parked in the past for use as a walkway. This made getting from one end of the convention center to the other significantly easier.
The other bonus is that it made the Gaslamp District more accessible. Generally, in order to cross from the convention center area to the Gaslamp, there are two crosswalks and one pedestrian bridge. Between sheer volume of attendees and heavy traffic, there was always a massive backlog at the crosswalks on both the Gaslamp and convention center sides. By having Harbor closed, human traffic was able to move back and forth far more quickly, smoothly, and safely.
2) All That Glitters: One of the biggest scandals in SDCC’s history occurred last year. Historically, the largest panels take place in Hall H of the convention center. Saturday is typically the most important day, as it often features Warner Bros/DC, important panels from HBO, the biggest films, and of course Marvel. These days the line for access to Hall H on Saturday begins a good two days out. Last year’s Saturday Hall H lineup was particularly big with DC promoting Justice League, Marvel promoting Infinity War, as well as panels for Stranger Things, Westworld, and the annual “Women Who Kick Ass” panel with a special focus on Charlize Theron. The night before, CCI hands out wristbands with letters A-D on them. Having a wristband means there is a seat for you in Hall H provided that you are back in line once they start letting people in. Sounds simple enough, right? However, last year, people managed to use counterfeit wristbands to gain access to Hall H meaning that some people with legitimate wristbands didn’t actually get into Hall H. This was a big enough deal that CCI ended up giving those people tickets to this year’s convention for free.
So why mention all of this? Excellent question! The wristbands up through last year were pretty simple, one of the things that made them relatively easy to counterfeit I’d imagine. Starting this year the wristbands had special holograms on them to ensure authenticity. Was this routinely checked? No clue. But I also know there wasn’t an issue with counterfeit wristbands this year.
3) Is That Really It?: Of course, one reason there may not have been an issue this year is because by and large the Hall H Saturday lineup was considered by many to be the weakest it’s been in years. Although mainstays Warner Bros/DC and “Women Who Kick Ass” were present, both HBO and Marvel decided to skip the convention this year. The Fox Entertainment Group mainly skipped as well, though there was a panel for the release of the special edition of Deadpool 2. Although that panel was hilarious, it was still an odd year for Hall H Saturday. This one wasn’t a change that CCI was directly responsible for, but the overall lack of enthusiasm for the day compared to previous years has been well documented.
4) They Did What!?: As I’ve noted, one major draw for SDCC attendees are exclusives. You get ones from big names like Hasbro, Mattel, Lego, Marvel, Xbox, and Playstation. But you also get them from the most recognized names in pop culture collectibles such as Funko, Cryptozoic, Quantum Mechanics, Mondo, Bluefin, UCC Distribution, etc. These exclusives are highly sought after by both actual collectors and by people who are buying them solely to turn around and flip them for profit. In the past, there have generally been two ways of getting these exclusives. For some companies, it’s just about getting to their booth as fast as possible when the convention floor opens. For others, though, there were drawings or tickets handed out in a part of the convention center called the “Sails Pavilion.”
Now, in either case, if you wanted a chance at those exclusives, it meant lining up the night before. This was particularly important if you were interested in the exclusives from Lego, Hasbro, or Funko. Naturally, this method led to bitter complaints from a segment of fans who didn’t feel they should have to spend the night in line like everyone else. In addition last year there was a major problem with people skipping the actual line and sneaking in through the back of the convention center to cut the line. This led to a great many people who had camped out not even having the opportunity to draw for the chance at collectibles.
So what CCI did this year was have an online lottery for some of the most popular booths, Lego, Hasbro, and Funko, as well as UCC Distribution. They also instituted this lottery for many of the more popular cast signings. For those that didn’t want to put forth any effort this was the answer to their prayers. For those of us who were willing to put in the time and effort to earn the right to go to those booths and signings, it was downright demoralizing.
And what were the end results? Although I’ve seen nothing official, there was indeed a problem with the lottery. Namely that when something requires no effort you tend to get people signing up for it that have no real interest in the thing they signed up for. As a result, there were countless no shows forcing some lottery booths to open to the public lest they are unable to sell the items they brought. Meanwhile, countless people who genuinely wanted access to those booths and signings were denied.
In addition, there was an issue with polarity. While most people won zero lotteries, there were some people who won multiple times; even up to five times. Perhaps needless to say, that created a problem. How CCI will deal with this next year remains to be seen. Personally, I am adamantly against lotteries for the very reasons that ended up being issues.
5) Say It Ain’t So: Funko is a brand that more than any other manufacturer of pop culture collectibles is famous for its direct interactions with their hardcore fan base, the Funatics. In both 2016 and 2017, Funko gave exclusive access to their booth on preview night to Funatics who had been especially active on their online forum. Obviously Funko did not need to do that and the Funatic base rejoiced knowing they would actually be able to get into the Funko booth. However, this year, due to the switch to lotteries, preview night access also became a lottery instead of exclusive access for Funatics. A lot of Funatics were saddened by this, me included. However, as a result, it meant that you were free to do other things on preview night. For me, that turned out to be the best possible outcome. When you’re forced to switch up your routine you never know what good may come from it.
Look. I realize that it’s impossible to make everyone happy. It’s not worth even trying really. All you can do in a situation like CCI is faced with every year is attempt to make it as fair as possible. Was it technically “fairer” this year? Technically I suppose yes. But exclusives with in the past, your odds were 50/50. You won or you didn’t. This year, your odds were one in however many people signed up. Given the number of attendees, those odds aren’t looking so good.
Now, some of this year’s changes impacted me more directly than others. Knowing in advance that I wasn’t going to get access to Lego, Hasbro or Funko was demoralizing but on the upside, this meant I could spend less time in certain lines. It also freed me up to spend more time going to panels than I had the past few years. Ultimately I’m glad that it did, as it allowed me to see Jodie Whittaker’s first public appearance as “The Doctor” during the Doctor Who panel, see the first footage from Shane Black’s new Predator film, and be able to attend John Barrowman’s panel which is something everyone should do at least once. Though fair warning, if you are easily offended or of a more conservative ideology, I’d give the Barrowman panel a (very) wide berth. For anyone else, I’d just say prepare to laugh your ass off and leave being reminded of what a treasure he is.
I can’t say I spent a ton of time in the Gaslamp this year, but not being confined to the narrow sidewalk in front of the convention center was wonderful. On the flipside, though my hotel was on Harbor Drive, it made getting a car or food delivery much more complicated.
Sure this wasn’t Saturday Hall H’s most banner year, but it also meant I was able to just walk in that afternoon and get to thoroughly enjoy the “Women Who Kick Ass,” and Deadpool panels. Did I mention the Deadpool one was hilarious? Seriously, watch it online.
And frankly, the hologram on the wristbands was a no-brainer. It’s just a shame that it took people counterfeiting them last year to make the change.
So those are my thoughts on the convention and the major changes implemented this year. Despite the grousing over the exclusives situation, I must admit I had an amazing time this year. I do every year. Because at the end of the day there is nothing (I’m talking to you here New York Comic Con) that can compare. It’s what makes all the sleep deprivation, malnourishment, and countless hours of waiting worth it. For those of you who have gone before, I’m pretty sure you know exactly what I mean. And for those who have not, you don’t know what you’re missing.