Aug 4, 2014

The Continuously Growing San Diego Comic-Con - SDCC 2014

I love Comic-con!  I have been attending since 1997 and plan to keep going as long as I can.  My passion and love for Cinema and Comic books get a huge boost, I meet so many great people, and business-wise it's the place to be to see what's hot and what's not and what new trends are on the rise or old ones on the decline - not to mention all the sneak peeks of films some of which have just started shooting and others that are merely in the planning and development stages.

Anyone that has been attending the show regularly can tell you much it grows by leaps and bounds yearly.  I like to think of Comic-Con as an excited dog straining at its leash, on the verge of running wild but is kept in check.  This year I found there were times it came close to getting lose as the number of events and people really seem to be pushing the show to the breaking point.

Having attended for so many consecutive years, I like to observe the evolution of the show and it's fun to watch the first timers react.  Here's what 2014 did to add to the beast that is the San Diego Comic-Con.

That's pretty much the view all weekend - a sea of humanity

Just when you think it couldn't get any bigger and more crowded, IT DOES!

For the last 4 or 5 years, Comic-con has been slowy pushing beyond the boundaries of the convention center and the surrounding hotels, and taking over the nearby Gas Lamp quarter.  One of the first examples of this was in 2009 or 2010 when Disney had taken over a building to recreate Flynn's arcade from Tron: Legacy, and with a special Flynn's token, you gained access to a fully functional 1980s arcade complete with costumes and props from the film.  They did something similar with Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland, with special invites to a Mad Hatter Tea Party.  At first you had to kind of hunt for these places (although they were pretty easy to find) but that is no longer the case.  Last year, Warner Bros. and Legendary created an app that acted like a Geiger counter to help attendees locate the off-site Godzilla Experience. This year there were so many off-site venues that a map was posted online with full descriptions and locations.  The great thing about these is that you don't need a badge to get in, offering people the chance to experience the convention who were unable to get their hands on those increasingly hard-to-get entrance badges.  The word is that in addition to the almost 200,000 official attendees, there was well over 100,000 without badges roaming around the off-site attractions. 

 Outside the convention center is just as busy

Comic-Con is starting to resemble Disneyland...

...which is ok by me because I love Disneyland and have been an annual passholder.

Not only were there more off-site attractions, but more and more of them became rides and very theme park-like.  For the upcoming TV series Gotham, there was a zipline.  Petco park was overrun with zombies for a Walking Dead attraction where you could be chased by...well...zombies.  Adult Swim had a Meatwad (from Aqua Teen Hunger Force) experience and Assassin's Creed: Infinity had an obstacle course.  There was a Terminus BBQ (again from The Walking Dead), the Homer Dome (from The Simpsons) with great swag handed to you once you exited.  Many of them were using a FastPass system to handle the large crowds wanting to experience these.

In the convention hall, studios like Fox and Legendary utilized Oculus virtual reality technology to take attendees on a thrill ride.  Fox promoted X-Men: Days of Future Past by putting attendees in Professor Xavier's Cerebro helmet to locate Mystique on the convention floor while Legendary simulated piloting a Jaeger against a Kaiju like in Pacific Rim.

Oh yeah and the thousands of Cosplayers who stop for photos feel more and more like the Disney characters that walk around entertaining guests.

 A Star Wars display at the Lucasfilm booth

Star Wars day seems to have quietly disappeared

Ever since I have been attending Comic-con, Friday has always been Star Wars day.  That's when all the Star Wars panels would happen, and legions of Stormtroopers, Darth Vaders and slave outfit Leias would converge on the convention center.

A couple of years ago - and this was before Disney bought Lucasfilm - I noticed that Star Wars day was not on the menu.  This year, it seemed even less so.  This could be Disney holding back for their own branded D23?  This would be a smart move since Star Wars will send that show into the stratosphere, although there were still costumes from a Galaxy far, far away and the ever-present Lucasfilm booth was in full effect.  It also didn't help that J J. Abrams decided to sit out Comic-con (they are still shooting in London, and the Harrison Ford injury did set them back) with no Episode VII updates at all.  I was ok with this as Comic-con is crazy enough and that panel - and it could still happen next year - will send it into even more of an overdrive.

Perhaps Star Wars day is still in effect, but with so much else going on it just doesn't stand out.

Doctor Who Cosplayers

There are more security guards than ever, and their presence is felt

In years past, the security team, usually wearing red shirts (an intentional Star Trek reference?) were around, but never really had to show much muscle outside of catching the odd shoplifter, and ensuring than people trying to get in had a valid badge.  Not so any more.  With over a quarter of a million people milling about, the security is a mobilized army shouting instructions and keeping the flow of human traffic moving which isn't always easy.  They have a MUCH tougher job now, and their stronger presence is much needed. I was kind of worried after last year because it seemed that you couldn't even stop at a booth to look at something without being told by a security guard to move along.  Not so much the case this year (except the high volume areas where there were signings like at Fox or Marvel) and I noticed that all of them were generally more friendly and approachable even with the occasional person yelling at them and trying to pull fast ones.  Personally, I'm glad they are there as with so many people, a light security force would just be asking for a disaster to happen.

Not only is there the security force, but a significant number of Homeland Security and San Diego Police Officers, as well as Fire Department and Medical teams standing by.  I saw more flashing police lights and people being cornered by officials than I have in previous years.

Hall H enforcers also took a zero tolerance policy to people trying to film footage on the screens.  In the past, they would pull you aside and make you erase it with a warning and then let you return to your seat (for the record I have never tried, nor have I wanted to try doing this - I want to watch it not annoyingly record it).  This year, friends of mine witnessed two males getting busted trying to record the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice teaser and ejected immediately for it.  This is a smart move. There are some companies and individuals who hate coming to Comic-con because of the leaks, and it just ruins it for everyone.  Besides, it sucks for people who camped out for hours - and sometimes days - to have what they passionately went to see exclusively made available to anyone with a computer.  Plus, it just doesn't play the same outside of Hall H, and sometimes the studio will release trailers and footage on their own shortly afterwards. 

 The Nickelodeon Booth

The Fire Marshall is like a Phantom Menace waiting to shut things down

More and more you hear the statement "by order of the Fire Marshall" at Comic-con.  Hall H especially with people roaming the aisles as they are trying to seat people.  In one instance a few years ago a gap between presentations caused the Hall H crowd to start vacating their seats, only to have them plop down in the aisles when footage started to play on the screens which did not go over well with security.

This year it extended to the Sails Pavilion where you couldn't loiter by order of the Fire Marshall, and the hallways outside of the ballrooms.  There was a day when you would see people just relaxing in between panels sitting off the to side going through their bags or just reading a book or comic.  No more.  You stop for more than 10 seconds out of a designated area you are told to move, and signs are everywhere telling people the Fire Marshall doesn't want them sitting there.  Makes sense though given there is so much more foot traffic, and keeping things clear is essential.

Batman and Superman statues at the Sideshow Collectibles Booth

There are no more "low traffic" areas

Every inch of exhibit hall space has people now and areas where I knew the traffic to be light and the restrooms practically always empty and quiet are no more.  There are people everywhere!

The Hall H line early Saturday morning

The exhaustion level of attendees is rising, and with it comes more cranky and easily irritated people

People now line up to get into Hall H sometimes more than 24 hours in advance.  Friends of mine got in the line for Saturday - which starts at 10am and goes straight through until 7pm - at 3:30 Friday afternoon (!!!) and even then they were at least 3 or 4 thousand people back in line for a hall that seats 6,500. 

Camping out to get into the big events is now virtually a necessity.  The Con instituted a wristband policy this year where you had to be in line by at least 1am which allowed people to actually leave and get refreshed, but also prohibited people from just showing up moments before and cutting in with friends who had held their spot all night.

The result of this though is that now Hall H is a room full of 6,500 people who have barely slept or eaten - possibly for multiple days and it was starting to show.  The energy level in the room was much more strained than it has been in previous years as even the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice teaser did not elicit a roof-bringing-down crescendo of appreciation as it once would have.  I saw more and more people arguing over stupid things like seats.  People around me erupted in a full on yelling match late in the day Saturday over the fact that a couple was trying to commandeer a woman's seat (she had left momentarily for the restroom) for their son who had to sit in a different area.  This brought security in as well as Eddie Ibrahim, the head of Comic-con programming to address the situation.

The exhaustion was also visible in the exhibit hall as I heard many of the generally upbeat con attendees complaining, snapping at security, vendors or people around them and just generally looking as though they were about to collapse.  I also witnessed several people having to be attended to for doing just that.  This is something that is not going to improve in coming years, but is going to get worse.

 Channing Tatum talks about his role in Fox's Book of Life in Hall H

Celebrities are still around on the exhibit floor - in costume

One year I entered a nearly empty exhibit hall after exiting Hall H at the end of the day and spotted Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Buffy, The Vampire Slayer) standing mere feet away, by himself, on his cellphone.  I'm going to say this was around 2005/2006 as he was standing in front of a display for Superman Returns.  I snapped a discrete (although he knew what I was doing) picture and went on my way.

Joss is like  god to most geeks at the show, so to see him standing unmolested in the middle of the exhibit hall was astounding.

Other years I have stood beside Michael Madsen while buying comics, have run into Anthony Head (Buffy, The Vampire Slayer), Rob Corddry (Children's Hospital) and Gene Simmons (KISS) just roaming around on their own taking in the sights. 

Not so much anymore.  Any celebrity that dares go onto the floor now does so in costume, and the trades like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter all do features on it.  In past years, Sigourney Weaver dressed as Batwoman, Bryan Cranston as...well..himself by wearing a Heisenberg mask, and Hugh Jackman went as (who else) Wolverine (he was even told he looked just ok, but people had seen better).  This year, Daniel Radcliffe dared it as Spider-man while Peter Jackson dressed as a jester and Samuel L. Jackson wore a cool mask.  I'm sure the security force is happy they now do this.

A whacked out fan asks a pretty dumb question after rambling incoherently in Hall H on Saturday

Audience Q&As were much shorter, and sometime non-existent

For me the only full-on painful element of Comic-con is when the panels allow regular fans to ask celebrities questions.  In the beginning, moderation and screening of the questions was limited which resulted in a lot of dumb requests like "can I have your name card" or "would you hug me" or "I'm a writer with a project about...." with the worst being a man that pestered Halle Berry to be the spokesperson for his charity, almost trying to guilt her into it with her looking panicked around for someone to bail her out as the crowd boo'd and threw things at the guy (that was in 2003).  Now all questions are screened, but that doesn't stop stupid things from slipping through.  Sometimes this can be fun like when Chris Hardwick is on stage or comedians are on the panel as they often will mock the costumes, or play with the questions in an entertaining way.

This year however, I noticed many panels opted out of the Q&A which...I was ok with.  They usually drag things out painfully (although give me a chance to tweet and post pictures).  Marvel usually makes the Q&A with fans a major thing, but this year didn't do it at all.  I was guessing they wouldn't during Ant-Man to avoid the inevitable "so why was Edgar Wright released" especially since the Comic-con crowd loves him so much. 

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice brought out Zack Snyder, Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot only to have them say nothing at all with no questions from anyone.  While many - including the trades like Variety - have blasted this, to me it made sense.  The movie is due out in 2016 and they just started shooting so it's not like they can really say anything about what they are working on without spoiling it.  They'll be back next year.

A cool booth in the exhibit hall

There are like 4 or 5 different Comic-cons within Comic-con going on - and the chances of sampling everything now is impossible

Comic-con has something for everyone - comics, movies, TV shows, games, video games, cosplay, parties - and in the past, it was possible (over the 4 days at least) to sample a little of everything if you were so inclined.  Not so much anymore.

Now many people come to Comic-con for 1 thing and one thing only.  There are those who only camp out in Hall H, and those who only stay in Ballroom 20 (primarily, the TV panels are there with some bigger ones now in H like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones). Some only come to buy exclusives while others just to cosplay.  There are others with Comic-con badges who only make it to the con floor momentarily after registering, only to spend all their time in the industry hospitality suites like the Wired Cafe and after-hours parties thrown by the studios, etc. 

I prefer to do a little of everything, although my desires are also now very focused as they have to be to fit in everything you feel you need to experience.  This year was the first time though that I found out about things afterwards I had no idea about that I had missed, but my schedule was so overstuffed as it was that I couldn't have made it to them anyway.

Swag from the Shout Factory Booth

Swag is tougher to obtain - you have to work for it

The minute you get to Comic-con, there are always significant swag items that you see everyone walking around with that make you instantly want it.  For instance, once year virtually everyone had these annoying 300 shields from Warner Bros. that afterwards were impossible to store (I ended up tossing mine).  Also there were bags everywhere from different vendors and people would often work to get just the bags for their collections.

This isn't the case anymore.  Warner Bros. now exclusively gives out a Con bag when you register eliminating the need for anyone else to do so (unless you purchase something from them).  This year I noticed a bunch of people with a Sharknado 2 foam chainsaw, but they weren't as ubiquitous as promotional items in the past.

Same can be said with T-shirts, pins and posters.  Many vendors now make you stand in line for such items, or go through their booth and some - like the Marvel booth - become a feeding frenzy, a mass angry ocean of humanity fighting to get their hands on a mini-poster or button which will likely end up in a bin in a closet somewhere.  I just recently purged items from all the Comic-cons I have attended (when I did it, I had just been to #15) and while I ended up with 6 trash bags full of fliers and random stuff, I still had 3 crates of things I kept left over.

The Hall H panels now provide you with a ticket to go to a fulfillment room to claim them later.  That room is a nightmare.  Off-site, the line is ridiculous and people in it are cranky as they usually wait until the last day to collect their swag.  You can, on certain days, spend a couple of hours just waiting in line to claim your free items. 

 Dwayne Johnson invites Hall H to an advanced screening of Hercules

Movie screenings have changed dramatically, and the Anime screening rooms are now way off to the side

During one of my earliest Comic-con visits, I stepped into the "Movie room" to rest and caught a significant portion of The Last Starfighter which was being screened from a 16mm print.  That room operated all day showing older and some newer (one year I caught a bit of Minority Report in there) and a few of the nearby hotels - namely the Marriott - had films showing well into the night.

Later this evolved into digital projection with screenings running not only at the hotels but the convention center as well.

Those days are now gone.  With so much programming occurring, parties, and panels now running well into the evening, nobody has time to sit through a movie (or if they do, they'll dose off).

Now the screenings are more exclusive with studios renting out theaters for advanced showings.  This year some of the titles were Paramount's Hercules (although that was opening nationwide the next day), Fox's The Maze Runner and Warner Bros.' Into the Storm.  This makes more sense, especially with the new costs of attending and the fact that Hollywood is using SDCC as a marketing and testing platform.  I mean, Legendary even said that without the audience reaction to the exclusive teaser in Hall H, their Godzilla movie would have never been made.

There also used to be two rooms continuously screening anime up in the ballroom area.  I loved these rooms as it was a cool chance to sit down and relax after walking around so much, and it introduced me to some great anime which I now watch regularly.  I would never have been privy to A.D. Police or Cowboy Bebop had I not discovered them there.  This year I couldn't locate those rooms at all, as it seems they have been shuffled off to some corner of one of the off-site hotels.  This is a true shame, but I also get freeing up space to handle the crowds in that upstairs area.

Hall H is not always jam packed

The campers outside can be misleading.  There were people camping out on both Wednesday nights (for Dreamworks Animation featuring Benedict Cumberbatch) and Thursday night (for The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones) which would make you believe that getting into Hall H at anytime meant standing hours in line.  Not so.  I managed to walk into both the Paramount (Thursday) and Fox (Friday) panels without a wait.  Saturday was another story, but it has always been the biggest day with the biggest events usually starting with Warner Bros. and ending with Marvel and well, it is COMIC-con so Marvel outside of being awesome is always a draw.

It just shows that you can't show up with just anything at Comic-con and get a sold out house.

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill on the Hall H stage following a surprise teaser for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

The surprise announcements were not as mind-blowing this year as they have been in past years

Last year had to be a real tough act to follow.  It seemed that all the big studios had some huge announcement that sent Hall H into a frenzy.  Warner Bros. announced Batman v Superman, Fox showed the first footage from X-Men: Days of Future Past and brought the entire cast out on stage and Marvel well..they were just being Marvel with Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier updates and the official Avengers 2 title - Age of Ultron.

This was the first year I saw a big title announcement fall absolutely flat.  Legendary, much like they did with Godzilla, started to screen a mysterious trailer that everyone thought was going to be a sneak look at Jurassic World which they are partnering with Universal on.  Ahh not so.  It ended up to be Skull Island, a King Kong sequel, and you could hear the disappointment in the Hall H reaction.  Paramount did sneak a new trailer for Interstellar which was great, but Fox had nothing at all.  Marvel announced Guardians of the Galaxy 2, but it was hard to get excited about a sequel to a film none of us had seen yet.

The retailers are still there, but are losing ground to the bigger brands

The comics and collectible retailers have always been a part of Comic-con.  They are still present and have their section of the exhibit hall.  They are however losing a lot of ground to the bigger companies who are taking up more space with more elaborate booths and I have to say I was ok with this - although the retailers have been understandably upset.

I have found that most of the retailers overcharge for products at the show given they feel they have a captive audience willing to buy anything at whatever price.  One store that specializes in soundtracks and posters had CD scores for double the price they are from the original sources.  Anyone who buys from that booth is getting seriously ripped off.

One famous retailer who has been there every year since the beginning and posts a daily update from the show was very vocal in his displeasure at the amount of "exclusives" that the publishers and companies were offering directly that he feels were killing his sales.

The truth is that there is so much at Comic-con though that these retailers have to realize they are no longer the center of the show, and pointing out how well other booths are doing - whether it's a publisher they get their supply from or not - just sounded like sour grapes.  Con-goers love their exclusives, and if a publisher or brand can cash in by providing them directly then godspeed to them.

Zombies snap at attendees at the Walking Dead booth

Comic-con is still growing and will continue to grow and evolve into some other show manages to steal its thunder somehow.  I don't see that happening anytime soon, especially with years of super-hero and comic-themed movies in production and development and planning, and I hope it continues because it truly is the best show out there.

Me, I will always go and accept the chaos as part of the experience as deep down the passion, energy, announcements and excitement of everybody who attends make this a show I never want to miss.

The ABC Castle

 Batman suits at the DC Comics booth

 The Power Rangers pose for pictures at the Shout Factory booth

 An exclusive Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Blu-ray set available for pre-order at the Fox Booth

 One of the many outside attractions - a vehicle featured in the upcoming Dumb and Dumber, To

 Jurassic World may not have had a panel, but a prop vehicle was parked outside where you could get an exclusive poster

 Colin Firth talks Kingsman: Secret Service during the Fox panel in Hall H on Friday

 The outside of Petco Park, site of a Walking Dead zombie experience

Chris Hardwick cosplays as Marty McFly while introducing the Warner Bros. and Marvel panels in Hall H on Saturday

 One of the great surprises at Comic-con, footage from Warner Bros.' Mad Max: Fury Road creates buzz

Peter Jackson talks The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies during the Saturday Warner Bros. panel in Hall H.

Fan Q&A during the Boxtrolls panel in Hall H on Saturday

 Michael Douglas talks Ant-Man during the Marvel panel on Saturday in Hall H

 The Avengers take the stage in Hall H on Saturday for the Marvel panel