Unlike Fans, It’s Past Time for Comic-Con to Grow Up

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The massive convention has become about a lot more than comics - and a logistical nightmare

This might be tough news to deliver to a venue full of middle-aged people decked out in full “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” regalia, but it’s time for Comic-Con to grow up — not the attendees, mind you, but the convention itself.

Much of Hollywood will descend on San Diego next week, and the general attitude toward the by-now-obligatory ritual tends to be a mix of excitement and dread. Excitement because Comic-Con International — with 130,000 attendees, many of them colorfully clad and almost all passionate about movies, TV and entertainment — has become the center of the pop-culture universe. It’s a huge promotional opportunity, a giant buzz-creating machine oiled with the sweat (sometimes literally) of the media’s most ardent fans.

The dread part has to do with the logistics of the July gathering, which has become a giant, sprawling mess. And that’s where Comic-Con hasn’t adapted from its roots as a confab with several hundred comic-book collectors in a hotel ballroom into the big-business proposition it currently represents.

Comic-Con is still run by a nonprofit entity, San Diego Comic Convention, which describes its mission statement as “creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular artforms, primarily through the presentation of conventions and events that celebrate the historic and ongoing contribution of comics to art and culture.”

Understandably, “making you hate throngs of sweaty people crowding you in line” was omitted from the fine print.

Despite its shortcomings, the event has been getting by on the fidelity of its fan base and the burgeoning popularity of its key genres. As a result, it has outgrown not just many of the ballrooms — where people are packed in like sardines, and hundreds or even thousands sometimes turned away — but the very notion such a sprawling showcase can be organized like a ragtag group of rebel fighters.

Comic-Con needs the military efficiency of a Disney theme park, the organizational rigor of a playoff football game. An entity with larger ambitions and skin in the game, frankly — as opposed to a nonprofit — might be what’s ultimately required.

Instead, the four-day marathon is heavily staffed by volunteers, whose answer to every question generally seems to be either a shrug or simply directing you to go stand in yet another line.

For a convention-goer lacking the wherewithal of Warner Bros. or Sony, Comic-Con can easily become a logistical nightmare. Finding a hotel room within hailing distance of the convention center is always a challenge. The flow of people into and out of major sessions — especially those within the cavernous, 6,500-seat Hall H — is chaotic at best. Food available within the venue is lousy, expensive and the lines are usually long — a rare triple whammy.

Yet Comic-Con has endured and thrived, in part because it’s an annual occurrence. One suspects customers would never stand for it if the whole thing happened more frequently. As a once-a-year pilgrimage, veterans have come to accept these indignities as part of the convention experience — their eagerness trumping the abundant headaches.

The main problem is there’s little incentive to address the problems. The studios probably have the leverage to pressure organizers but have a very specific agenda to promote and don’t really care about the fans as long as they bring their credit cards and dutifully fill the halls.

Just to provide some perspective, this assessment comes from someone who began attending Comic-Con long before anybody paid me to do it, having watched the convention grow from a relatively intimate gathering at the Grant and El Cortez Hotels (the event shifted to the Convention Center in the 1990s) to the massive construct it is today — one where bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 5 freeway is merely a harbinger of the malodorous jostling to come.

As cranky as this diatribe might sound, it’s delivered in the spirit of improving Comic-Con — a plea for a structure worthy of the behemoth into which the 43-year-old enterprise has been transformed.

Until that day comes, if your enthusiasm for Comic-Con begins feeling tested shortly after you set foot inside the convention center, as they say outside Hall H, get in line.

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  1. Aaron Vanek says:

    I disagree with the author’s opinion. Comic-Con’s crowd size is a testament to its success. I run fan events myself, and I *wish* I could turn people away. Instead, I have to practically beg to get butts into the seats. The difficulty in getting the four day badges is part of the appeal; you get a little glamour dusted on you if you can get one, and a little more if you are on panels and can dole out free 4-day badges (I used all my comps and extra purchases people, sorry).

    The food sucks? I would never know, because I never buy food in the convention center; I pack my lunch and snacks (which they turn a blind eye to, which I doubt a for-profit corporation would do), and if I need to get away from the crowd, I enjoy a nice lunch or dinner outside the halls with an old and/or new friends I met at the convention. I found that getting away from the center itself for a few hours helps a lot.

    I also don’t try to get all the big panels, the ones in Hall H or Ballroom 20. I might try to get into one or two, otherwise, I now spend more time in artist’s alley, the film festival screenings, the gaming room, etc. Now there are also TONS more stuff going on outside the convention that you can check out–disclosure: I am running a sci-fi game as a charity fundraiser at Gam3rCon, which is outside Comic-Con.

    Annually only is plenty, it’s like the nerd Hajj: you have to do it at least once.

    There was talk about having Los Angeles host it so a few more thousands could attend, which I would like for proximity to me, but I think it would lose some magic if that happened.

    Finally, I may be biased because in all my nine consecutive SDCC visits, I have always had a pro badge, plus, some close friends moved to SD about six years ago so I don’t have to deal with hotels any longer.

    Can SDCC continue to improve? Yes. Still, I think they are doing a STELLAR JOB of managing the con (I think they have excellent crowd control, and their volunteers do a great job as well), and I would absolutely boycott the con if a for-profit entity was running it.

    I look forward to attending again next week.

    Now, if you want to rant about how movies/TV are taking over and cutting out the comics, please do. I’d start by asking why Variety is even covering San Diego Comic Con.

    • Jouster says:

      So you’re guarantee a pro badge for all four days, and you have free always-available accommodation? Yeah, sorry – your opinion doesn’t count.

  2. Delaney says:

    My least favorite part of it is actually getting tickets. Virtually impossible if you are a fan or like myself independent creator looking to make connections. I’ve been twice in 2003 and 2006. I last tried in 2010, true story; booked my flight and hotel room, went to purchase advance tickets (7 months in advance mind you) and there were none. I was told I’d be put on a waiting list. Long story short, money was lost, and I learned a valuable lesson. Comic Con is about film and tv now. I haven’t even bothered looking into it the past few years.

    • Gordy66 says:

      I totally disagree with this article. Comic Con was created by fans and now it’s being ruined by greedy capitalists! I cant get in this year thanks to people like Brian Lowry!

  3. Disagree on it being a for-profit and non-volunteer based event. It is already big enough why let it become hijacked by those who only care about making a buck. Let it continue to run by those who care about it most and who do it as a labor of love but not as their high paid job. Put pressure on the City of San Diego who contracts the horrible catering companies and to expand the convention center once and for all. They are the ones who stand to gain the most from the taxes paid on revenue.

  4. Reblogged this on The Collective and commented:
    For those of us still bitter about not getting Comic Con 2013 badges, here are some tangible reasons why the EPIC badge system sucks so much.

  5. leodavinci1 says:

    Obviously, ageism is alive and well… and has no shame. References to the author’s age clearly show the bias of youthful naivety and ignorance. So, if comments are moderated, why are the majority of commentators allowed to showcase their ageist bias?

    Well, some here might want to get a clue, do a little research and educate themselves. Mr. Lowry didn’t bring up anything that hasn’t been discussed and debated (ad nauseam) by comics/media fans, pros, industry insiders, and CCI people throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s… when I was attending nearly every other ComiCon. During that time, along with much of what Mr. Lowry discusses, I also witnessed a gradual decline in disabled services along with CCI support for volunteers who helped disabled fans. Many of those dedicated volunteers were disabled themselves, and the morale of these wonderful people was just terrible.

    Acting as though CCI is just peachy-keen perfect and can do no wrong is not exactly a testament to an adult level of maturity (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with age). CCI doesn’t need anyone to defend them from criticism, particularly valid criticism. They’re adult enough to deal with it, I’m sure.

    • Rob says:

      As the writer of the post below which referred to the author as an old guy, my intention was to be facetious, but tone does not come across well in print.

      I am probably not too far behind the author in age (43 y.o.), and in hindsight, the author may not be old. But he is a troll.

      His article served no practical purpose. He put forward the worst stereotypes of the Con, without one mention of how they are easily resolved. It’s crowded, people don’t get into everything they want to, the food on site is awful, the volunteers don’t care, and Comic Con International does not care. Whhhhaaaaaaa! Keep I mind, I had four days with preview last year, and got only Thursday and Sunday this year. I was bitter, party of one for a while, and then I got over it and am looking forward to exploring the stuff outside of The Con on Friday and Saturday.

      The Con is about the attitude you bring to it. I was in the prize room a couple of years ago, and someone (who seemed new to CC) was throwing an epic hissy fit because they had run out of stock of the prize he wanted. Someone near him said, “Whoa, man. This is Comic Con. We don’t do that here.”

      It’s not about thinking that things are peachy keen. It’s about being fair about was is said. This article did not do that.

      • Jouster says:

        You can’t bring any attitude to it if you have virtually no chance of getting a badge.

    • M Scintinal says:

      Hear hear, and the attitude you describe as “CCI is just peachy-keen perfect” reflects something a lot more significant to the industry’s relationship with the comic geek that is going to bring down studios if it’s not addressed before it explodes into hundred million dollar losses. The fanboy is not representative of mainstream audiences. They will dominate forums, shout down and bully anyone who suggests a Chris Nolan movie is less than good, or a game like Arkham City for that matter. They create a false picture of a movie, character, plot or director’s actual appeal to a mainstream audience, and with the price tags ever increasing, it is only a matter of time until there’s a Cleopatra that ends not just individual careers but entire studios. Set up a booth and have your fun, by all means, but don’t ever tailor content to the comic readers. There lies madness.

  6. Mike B says:

    Brian Lowry- Sounds like you need to do your homework before you go!! Anything this size & scale is going to have some complications, but CCI provides enough material for everyone to find what they need. I have been going 4 years in a row now & absolutely love it!

    If it’s gotten too big for your tastes, why don’t you go to a smaller con? There are tons of them out there, don’t go to the biggest one in the world, then complain that it’s too crowded! They provide a great, entertaining venue for a very reasonable price. Not to mention all the free stuff that is given away by all the companies that come to advertise their products.

    Perhaps you have just gotten too old to attend CCI. I’m sure VARIETY has many young, aspiring writers who would enjoy the show & would portray it much differently in their own op/ed piece!

  7. Jenn says:

    “this assessment comes from someone who began attending Comic-Con long before anybody paid me to do it”

    So does this mean the author wouldn’t be attending the convention as it currently is if he wasn’t being paid?

    ================
    Disregarding that…

    Would a For-Profit organization be able to generate enough revenue to cover the yearly salaries for the number of people that currently volunteer their time to help plan and run the convention?

    Are all workers expected to know what’s happening outside of their assigned duties and area for any organization? If not, why would you expect this of volunteers that are assigned a specific task/area?

    If the convention moved and allowed more people to attend in a larger space, would that reduce the crowding or just mean even more people would compete for the same thing? People won’t equally distribute over a larger area. It’d even get worse with more attendees. Wouldn’t some areas overflow and other areas will be sparse.

    Just some things to think about ;)

  8. Eric Wadsworth says:

    Don’t change a thing. The hassles of the event separate the wheat from the chaff, ensuring the continued vibrancy and energy that only hardcore enthusiasts can bring whilst warding off the beige latte set that would inevitably dilute a wash away everything that made Comic con a success. E

  9. Robb says:

    They need to move to a bigger venue or somehow expand the San Diego Convention Center. I’ve gone 10 years in a row and now what should have been my 11th year I am not going due to being shut out by the overwhelming demand of too many people and those of us who have been going can’t even get in.

    • Brian says:

      With all due respect, this year has been the easiest year to get tickets in the past half-decade. Hopefully next year will go smoothly for you.

  10. Rob says:

    Oh great! Another article by an old guy complaining about how big Comic Con has become. For someone who claims to have experience with the Con, your article does a disservice to the event and to the volunteers.
    Some of your complaints are easily resolved. You complain about not finding a hotel room near the Con. That’s a fair point, but you fail to mention that shuttles run continuously to take convention goers to their hotels which are located throughout the entire city.
    I have been attending the Con for four years and am amazed with the organization of getting people in and out of the rooms. You come in on one side, and you leave on the other side. I have not seen the “chaos” which you refer to. Nor are people “packed in like sardines”. We do have a fire marshal in San Diego.
    It’s true that not everyone gets into every panel they want to. That is not in the fine print either, but if you are have experience with Comic Con, and the proper attitude, then you accept this and still enjoy the day. Or you plan accordingly to be in line. There are plenty of smaller panels which are fascinating to attend. There is a world beyond Hall H and Ballroom 20.
    The attendance for last year’s Comic Con was 126,000 people. That would make the area around the San Diego Convention Center the size of the fifth largest city in San Diego County. For all those people, being in that area, people are amazing polite, gracious, and giving. If only the world approached disappointments and setbacks like the real Comic Con fans do, the world would be a better place.
    This includes the volunteers. Many of these young people are helpful, engaging and extremely bright. For them, volunteering is the only way they can get into the Con. They do a great job. Lay off them.
    True, the food at the Convention Center is not the best, but this is not the fault of the Con. However, we do have grocery stores in the downtown area of San Diego. Bring a backpack and stock up on food for the day. If you go there, you can pick up these things called fruit, which also come in a package you can eat. You are also in the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego. Go support one of our local restaurants. No one says you have to eat the food at the Con.
    It is a shame you are paid to be there. We could do with fewer people who approach the Con the way you did in this article and as you probably do in person.
    As cranky as this may sound, it is provided with hope that you can improve your own Comic-Con experience.
    Thanks.

    • … been attending Con for 4 years, that’s sweet! I’ve only been going since 1985, that’s 28 years. And now I go not only as an attendee but as staff (not a volunteer, but staff), along w/ myself there are many a veteran attendees (several on staff as well), several dealers, & even, believe or not, a couple of “BIG” name promoters who totally agree w/ what he has said in this article. What you fail to see is that he’s NOT complaining, he’s making a point by stating facts, that’s all. nothing more, no bitching, no whining, just doing a public service trying to help better an already awesome event (& blessing to San Diego’s economy) by putting the word out there … but then again I don’t expect you understand until you hit puberty (that you’re prepubescent is, of course, an assumption based on the fact that you took this article as an personal attack on your Con experience)

      • Rob says:

        Reverend Gofigan,
        I was in the midst of the puberty when you started to attend Comic Con and am long past that stage. If the author attacked anyone, it was the volunteers, rather than myself or my CC experience.
        That said, the author stated facts without offering solutions. Even worse, he did not mention solutions which are currently in place.
        What is the answer for not having enough “hotels within hailing distance of the Convention Center”? Provide an answer beyond the shuttles and trolleys which already ferry the convention goers.
        In the short time I have been attending the Con, I have seen the participant perspective of “Mine, mine, mine” become more prevalent. The author perpetuates this notion with the fact that not everyone gets to get into every panel they want to. What is the solution? Since you favor San Diego’s economy being the benefactor of this convention, then moving to Anaheim would not be on the list of potential solutions. The Convention Center expansion is in the works. Are there other solutions to allow everyone to get what they want when they attend the Con?
        Lastly, if the issue raised about CC volunteers is a fact, what role to you play in improving that issue as a staff member?
        Given your role, I would appreciate any information you could provide.

    • Hagish says:

      I love that this guy is whining that CCI is “still a non profit”, because you know everything is better once all you care about is your bottom line. The fact that this guy is listed as a “TV Columnist” should have been enough to tell me right then he would have no clue what he was talking about. He makes rookie mistakes blames the host and does not even ask they why its like that. I make a call to any person that wants to right a cynical review of CCI should first have to attend the Talkback panel held every year on Sunday. I also love how he blames the traffic on the 5 as an SDCC issue, there is always heavy traffic on the 5 in the morning.

      • Walt kovacs says:

        What’s the point of having a
        Talk back when you don’t listen and won’t make changes. Every change that the con has instituted has come from crisis management, not that panel

      • Rob says:

        Great point about the Talkback Panel which is held on Sunday afternoon every year. It blows a hole in the assertion that CC does not care about what the fans want.

        As far as the traffic goes, the trolley lets people off right in front of the CC. Wow, this guy sounds like he is a real veteran of the CC.

  11. Brian says:

    Was this article written by someone who has been to another large comic convention like New York Comic-Con? SDCC is probably the most organized convention out there. If you can’t handle the long lines then maybe you just cant handle it and bashing the people who do come prepared doesn’t help gain sympathy from anyway.. Patience is the most important tool you need to have at SDCC, if you do have it then you will have a blast.

  12. Brian K. says:

    Your frequent reference of smells calls into question whether or not you’ve actually mired in the throngs on the convention floor? It’s a cheap shot to say geeks/nerds/dork all have poor hygiene. I contend that you put 130,000 people in ANY confined space and there will be smells ,but not all due to body odor — there’s a mix of those same people breathing in and exhaling the same stale air (as on a plane but on a much larger scale, obviously), and the food carts/cafeteria smells. Yes, some people smell… they smell in crowds at the Rose Bowl or the Hollywood Bowl and at SDCC.

  13. General Pepper says:

    Don’t count out nonprofits — there are some really big ones out there.

  14. C R says:

    Overwhelming, out of control, and crazy? Yes, yes, yes. There are many issues with this event, but I do think the organizers do the best they can. A four day badge is roughly $120, that will barely get you into Disneyland for a day. Better “service” at these events just means higher prices, which means most every day fans will end up being priced out, especially after travel and hotel costs are added in. Long food lines in the convention center, for poor food, that would happen at any convention center, and its not like there aren’t plenty of food options within a block or two, that offer discounts for attendees. Its not what it was, but for what you pay, you get your moneys worth, and then some.

  15. Steven says:

    The instant byproduct of having a corporation take over Comic-con would be a ticket structure similar to sports and concerts- The ticket prices for fans would double if not triple. I would rather keep the charming chaos going as is and let the fans dictate what they want, not another AIG.

  16. Frank W says:

    Well, we just had Supercon in Miami, Florida which I was unable to attend this year. It was the biggest con I had ever attended and it was probably 3-5 thousand people. And they had Takei. I miss the more intimate Omnicon fan gatherings in the 80s like when the BBC brought over Colin Baker’s Dr. Who in costume. Very up close and autographs were free (only paid if you bought their photo from them). David Prowse made a surprise visit at an earlier Omnicon and when told of a sick fan that had missed him, we took him up to their room and made their day.

    The movies and TV shows have just pushed out the comics.

  17. Betty says:

    These events are massive,you would think companies would want to expand buildings to hold the huge crowds. You know the huge crowds and their cash and cards. People endure the traffic jam for their passion. Expand to show you care for the people,not their money.

  18. Andrew Sims says:

    It’s probably worth noting that an expansion at the convention center is in development, even though that’s years away.

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