Blog / A Decade of San Diego Comic Con: The Fall of the Mega-Studio & the "Twitter Effect"

I fondly remember my first San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) in 2003. It was back when you could still buy a pass on site, get into the main hall without camping overnight, and feel just enough embarrassment about it all to report to your coworkers that you were simply “on vacation” in San Diego. Even then, I noted to myself that this was the most forward-looking comic convention I had ever attended. Many conventions focus on past glories and retrospectively celebrate fan favorites; but SDCC has always been out in front -- spreading the word about the next and newest projects in the pipeline.

Having just returned from my 9th consecutive year attending the massive media bacchanal that is SDCC, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect (after a brief rest to regain my strength) on some of the industry changes, trends and patterns I’ve noticed over the past decade.

In its early days, companies, artists and creators came in droves to SDCC to preview, test, and market their upcoming works directly to their core audience. It was a place for attendees to gain bragging rights by getting the scoop on next year’s lineup of movies, TV, comics, games and toys. Creators tried to woo fans with teaser information, free swag and celebrity appearances to give their properties the edge before release.

Fast-forward to 2009/2010 -- or what I call -- the high water mark for “traditional” marketing at SDCC. I came home those years with more t-shirts, squeeze balls, key-chains, posters, masks, giant bags, knickknacks, and bobbles than I had ever seen. I checked in an extra piece of luggage to bring it all back with me. I even arranged giveaways among local fan groups to disperse my haul. The problem? All that mostly unwanted, expensive marketing bling didn’t really work. Massive pushes for projects like Scott Pilgrim, Tron and Sucker Punch did not show box office results; even mega-hits like Iron Man did not attribute their success to the fact that I was provided a free t-shirt 6 months before release.

In 2011, major studios like Disney, Marvel Entertainment, Warner Brothers, and DreamWorks decided to skip SDCC. The high cost of marketing to the fans through these methods seemed ineffective, and worse, it ran the risk of backfiring if the crowd didn’t respond well. A project could be killed by the massive amounts of tweets, blogs, shaky phone videos, and media write-ups coming out of the famous “Hall H” before the project was even finished. Companies responded; my bags came home much lighter that year.

None of this quelled the demand for the event, which always seems to be increasing. For two months, San Diego Comic Con pops up in mainstream press of all varieties. Even my Mom’s friends know about it and ask her questions about my trip: “I hear Tom Cruise was there. Did she meet him?” My answer: No, but he did walk on stage to deliver a personal message to me and 5,000 of my closest friends.

Even though major studios are taking on a more minor role, why does the frenzy continue? SDCC 2012 brought us TV properties vastly overshadowing movies, new powerhouse players emerging from the game industry, online projects, and most significantly, independent creative initiatives. It also became clear that the new focus is on advertising through participatory events, virtual campaigns, and as always, providing attendees with bragging rights as they preview new content and meet the creators. Big companies have realized that fans will talk about their properties without expensive chotchkies if they woo them properly and provide them with an experience of exclusive access -- real or staged. Small companies simply don’t have the budget for large items and have always had to be more creative within their limited means.

A most notable change, however, is the role of Twitter: it cannot be overstated. Twitter has completely changed the landscape of the convention. Most people stay glued to their feed to find out where the next unexpected hot panel or celebrity guest will appear. Companies have been able to gather crowds and buzz for off-site events that would have been impossible a few years ago, and the smart promotions and giveaways are now tied to tweeting -- “Tweet to win”, I call it.

The last ten years have seen SDCC shift away from major movie studios and parading A-list stars. TV shows routinely gather the biggest crowds, but video game companies have an ever increasing real-estate in the exhibition hall and programming schedule. Independently led projects are also filling the side rooms. The industry training side of the convention is also thriving -- with panels on pitching, copyright law, creating, and selling your independent works. Somewhat sadly though, comics themselves claim only a small piece of the event that was originally created to showcase them.

All these changes have undoubtedly influenced my own behavior and coloured my perspective. I’m now shying away from multi-hour lineups for the top tier programming (though I still returned home with more giveaway and promotional items than necessary). This gives me time to focus on the smaller rooms, where I often discover the most innovative -- but currently unknown -- new projects. Some things are so early in creation that they both preview and die before release. Still, there’s something so thrilling about participating in that birth process that keeps me coming back each year. It fuels the crowd frenzy. Big or small, behind each door is someone’s dream being put on parade for public scrutiny. The crowd in turn elevates or stomps on each one, with ever decreasing lag time from type to screen.

The recent changes in technology and its impact on social behavior and creative innovation in the context of SDCC has been massive in the last few years. In Part 2, I will explore the impact of social media more closely, and examine the role of Augmented Reality at the 2012 SDCC. This year saw the introduction of truly innovative projects and campaigns, and I will introduce and focus on some specific projects that emerged at this year’s event.

(Part 2 coming soon…)

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