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.