How San Diego Comic-Con Assembled Its Make-Or-Break Return to a Live (and Masked) Convention

Fans wait in line to get
Denis Poroy/Invision/AP

After two virtual ComicCon@Home conventions and one mini “special edition” event last Thanksgiving, San Diego Comic-Con is finally returning for its first full-on, in-person con in three years. The team behind the biggest fan convention in North America says it’s “burning the midnight oil” to get ready for Comic-Con, which begins with its traditional “preview night” at the San Diego Convention Center on Wednesday and runs through Sunday.

On Friday, Amazon Prime Video will continue its year-long marketing effort with a panel for its upcoming fantasy epic series “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” Not to be outdone, on Saturday, HBO will debut its first look at the “Game of Thrones” prequel series “House of the Dragon.” Paramount+ will have a panel for three of its “Star Trek” series: “Strange New Worlds,” “Lower Decks,” and “Picard.” And to cap off things late Saturday afternoon, Marvel Studios is expected to make another blockbuster presentation of its upcoming slate, including expected first looks at “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.”

“It’s an emotional experience, but it is a pleasantly emotional one,” David Glanzer, chief communications officer and strategy officer at Comic-Con Intl., told Variety. “We can’t wait to see people face-to-face.”

Deciding how and when to bring those faces back together is something Comic-Con execs has been discussing for years now, since SDCC was called off for the first time in the event’s then 50-year history in 2020 due to the pandemic. The choice to hold Comic-Con 2022 in person was finally made this spring, following the December decision to bring back Anaheim sister show WonderCon in April, which went off as planned.

“We saw surges and we saw different cities having different kinds of COVID criteria by which to follow,” Glanzer said. “So we really didn’t know. We were asked by so many people, what are your plans? How many people do you expect? And it was at a time when we didn’t know. Did we hope to have an in-person show? Sure. Would we be prevented from doing that because of city/state guidelines? We didn’t know! So the conversations, unfortunately, were really all over the place. But we’d always moved forward with kind of a two-pronged approach. One is, if we have to do this online again, let’s think of that. And if we’re able to do it in person, let’s plan according to that, as well.”

Comic-Con will be back to its usual attendance of more than 130,000 guests (all required to be masked up) this year. With a few exceptions, these ticket holders didn’t actually pay for badges for the 2022 show, as tickets have now been rolled over both for those who bought passes for the 2020 show, which was sold out in 2019, and then for those people who again had their tickets rolled over for 2021, when the show still did not go on.

“Because of life circumstances, there are people who have requested refunds. Not a huge amount, but we had some cancellations,” Glanzer said. “We didn’t have enough to do another ticket sale, which sometimes we’ve been able to do in the past, but we had enough that we put some tickets up on eBay as a fundraising effort for our new Comic-Con Museum. So while technically there are no tickets available for purchase, there were a very limited number through eBay.”

With the nonprofit organization Comic-Con International making most of its money from booth and ticket sales annually, the company hasn’t seen significant revenue coming in for three years. That let up a bit over the last 12 months with purchases for the November special edition of Comic-Con in San Diego and this year’s return of WonderCon. But other than that, Comic-Con has been pinching pennies to make a year-long safety net — the amount of time it had estimated it could survive without an in-person Comic-Con — go for three years.

“Comic-Con has always been very fiscally responsible and we had enough of a war chest that we knew if the situation ever arose where something catastrophic happened, where we had to cancel the show, that we’d be able to make payroll and meet our obligations,” Glanzer said. “And we were able to do that. We never realized that it would turn into a two-year situation. And as you know, we get most of our money from booth sales and ticket sales. Well, two years of no shows meant that revenue didn’t exist.”

Comic-Con got by with government loans and companies that stepped in as partners for the virtual and smaller editions.

“We were very lucky and fortunate that we had our online Comic-Con@Home, we were able to sell some limited sponsorships for that,” Glanzer said. “So we’re very grateful for companies taking some of these sponsorships. Then Comic-Con Special Edition helped to fill our coffers a little bit. And we have a lot more sponsors for the first Comic-Con in July in two years. And hopefully later this year you’ll see us selling tickets for the 2023 show. So the the simple answer is, yeah, it was tough. We were able to weather it and things seem to be trending upward.”

Despite budget cuts here and there, including the elimination of the iconic SDCC registration box and pin that have long been sent out with badges, when it comes to the actual return to show this year, Glanzer says con-goers will largely see Comic-Con “look pretty much it has in the past,” with the exception of the mask mandate and vaccination/COVID-testing protocols in place.

“You’ll see a lot of signage. You’ll see a lot of people,” Glanzer said. “The registration [badge] box was something that went away. I don’t know that we’ll bring it back even if we become super flush in cash, only because I think, while we’ve always been fiscally responsible and a little conservative, maybe we can do a little bit more to make sure that we don’t create expenditures that could cost more money and it’ll put us in a tricky situation down the road, should we see another event like we experienced the last two years. I don’t think anybody expects that. I don’t either.”

Meanwhile, Warner Bros., usually a massive presence on the Comic-Con show floor, declined to purchase a booth this year, part of the general belt tightening happing across the newly formed Warner Bros. Discovery. The film studio’s Saturday presentation in Hall H — which has run as long as two-and-a-half-hours in past years — will run just an hour and is only expected to focus on films set for 2022, including “Black Adam” and “Shazam! Fury of the Gods.” And while Warner Bros. TV is giving its long-anticipated “Sandman” TV series its own showcase in Hall H on Saturday, Netflix — which is streaming the show — will be otherwise MIA at Comic-Con.

Instead, Netflix will hold its own virtual fan event, Tudum, in September. Disney is holding its in-person D23 Expo that month as well where Marvel is expected to make even more major announcements. And Disney’s Lucasfilm held its annual “Star Wars” convention in May — part of a growing trend of studios preferring their own bespoke fan events over omnibus ones like Comic-Con.

“If the end result is that the fans benefit, then it’s really a win situation. I know that sounds like a PR response, but it really isn’t. We’re fans,” Glanzer said. “We produce the type of shows that we want to attend. If it means some of these outlets may not be at our shows, then maybe one day we’ll see our show get smaller. But what I will say is, and I think these other companies realize this, is we have a very giant tent, a very big umbrella. So that if you like Batman, you can come to Comic-Con and see Batman stuff. If you like Spider-Man, you can see Spider-Man stuff. Independent comics publishers or book publishers, toy manufacturers, gaming companies. We have a diversity of properties on the floor because we have a diversity of companies involved.”

Glanzer continued: “But if you want to go to a convention event that is specific to one property, there’s nothing wrong with that. I love Star Wars. And would go to Star Wars conventions or Star Trek conventions and that didn’t keep me away from Comic-Con. It’s just meant more fun stuff for me to do. If the fans benefit, then it’s all good for everybody. And if we ever take our eye off the prize, if we ever end up doing something that the fans don’t like or can’t meet their needs, then they’ll let us know. And that will probably ultimately be our fault, and we’ll have to take responsibility for it. But luckily right now, fans seem excited for the show.”