Monday, August 11, 2008

SDCC Topic 3: The Future of Comic-con

By all accounts it was the biggest year ever for Comic-con, but there were troubling signs mixed in with all the good news. The convention had record attendance, but fewer and fewer of those convention-goers were actually interested in comics. The biggest rooms were generally reserved for media panels, and the lines for those panels began hours before the panel and in one case, I am told actually overnight. The convention floor was bigger than ever, but even more space was taken up by things only tangentially related, or not related at all, to comics. And from the reports I hear, two of the mainstays for such a large comic convention are being priced out—given the cost of the high-demand floor space, comic retailers and artists are unable to afford the space. All of this leads to the general feel that it's not a comic convention any more, and the signs around San Diego would seem to indicate the same: they described it as a "convention for the popular arts."

There are some benefits to this: a lot of people who would otherwise not be exposed to comics had the opportunity to talk to creators or see what they are all about, but there are no real numbers to know how many folks took advantage of the opportunity. It's very easy to stay on one end of the convention floor and never get beyond games and media companies, and I suspect that a lot of people who were there for the Lost panel never made it to the convention floor, let alone to see what the latest offerings from Boom or IDW might be.

I find myself taking an awfully conservative stance on the issues that affect Comic-con; while I was happy to go to some of the media panels when I started going to the convention, they were rare and they were easy to get into—there was always space in those rooms. But they were a momentary alternative for the reason that I was actually there. It appears that in the minds of the organizers and PR folks, the audience for comic books is the same audience for science fiction movies, and even less corresponding TV shows like Prison Break and Bones. But those same organizers would have a difficult time weeding out the least related media events, since the media has been encroaching very slowly into the schedule of the con. If they had started out with a firm stance against such things, they might be able to support such a position now, but the door has been flung open, and while those media things may not meet the original goal of the convention, they bring in tons of money, both in payment for booths and by the convention-goers they bring as well.

An unfortunate effect of this unprecedented growth is the inability to find rooms in San Diego for the week. Fortunately Mrs. Speculator works with hotels and travel agents as part of her regular job, and so knows how to find her way through the labyrinth of obtaining rooms at convention rates at our favorite nearby hotel. But if she did not know how to do this, the timeline for us getting a room would generally work like this:

  1. As we are checking out, ask about the availability of a room for the following year. The answer is always either that they can't reserve rooms that far in advance, when the better answer should be that we have to get the rooms through the convention planning service when they are made available for the entire convention.
  2. Come February, the reservation system is opened up and we find that very few rooms are available because companies coming in from out of town are wealthy enough to not have to pay convention rates and thus have booked rafts of rooms.

The problem, as it is with most processes, is in consistent enforcement of the rules. Some hotels do allow early reservations at con rates. Some hotels apparently don't make as many rooms available as they promise to—and who can blame them? Given the choice between renting a room for full rates and convention rates, I would do what I could to maximize my income as well. But a good friend of mine has reservations for next year at the con rate, while if we're not careful, the Speculator household will have to struggle to find a place to stay within easy transportation range, because we're using a hotel that, explicitly at least, is following the rules.

And, lest my devoted reader thinks that I am a lone voice in the wilderness, it's clear I'm not. There are open conversations about the growth of the con and the pressure it is putting on the resources of not only the convention center, but of San Diego itself. And searching through blogs, it's clear there are more than a few people displeased with the influx of media stuff and movement away from the tradition of the con. What to do? I humbly submit some suggestions, in no particular order.

  1. Move the convention. There are actually a lot of folks who believe this is going to happen anyway. The convention's contract with the city of San Diego runs out in 2012, and the names you keep hearing are Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Personally, I don't like this solution. San Diego is a gorgeous city, even when 100000 nerds and geeks descend on the city's Gaslamp Quarter and trash it. Part of the beauty of San Diego is the weather—on the last day of the con this year, the high was 69 degrees (F) and the humidity around 20%. Los Angeles would be much warmer, much more humid, and smoggy, and I can't imagine the mass of people who move at the convention now walking their way through downtown LA and its traffic issues. And I want nothing to do with Las Vegas in the last week of July. I just love San Diego and would live there if I could, but neither of the other two cities make me excited about just travelling to them.
  2. Expand into San Diego proper. I've heard rumors this may be happening, where the convention decides to move panels into local hotels. This will take some thought on the part of the organizers, such as grouping related panels in local hotels, recognizing that the ones that are generally less-well attended will just die if they are not in the convention. While there are a number of hotels within easy walking range of the San Diego Convention Center, it's already a long walk from one end of the building to the other, and not many people would be willing to make the trek to the convention center and then have to wander off into the city. And frankly, the convention center usually runs perilously close to chaos, and they would have to get a much firmer grip on security and organization if they were to have outlying panels.
  3. Expand the convention center. I've also heard rumors of this being considered as well. There isn't a lot of space to expand however. On one side of the convention center is the bay, and opposite it is Harbor Drive. On one end of the convention center are hotels, while there is a courtyard on the opposite, between the center and the parking for Petco Park, the home of the San Diego Padres. I guess the convention can expand into that courtyard, but it was used as an overflow area for the massive lines for the media panels. So if it is taken away, the organizers are going to have to think carefully about safe places for those overflow lines. But the real problem with this proposal and the one before it is that while it addresses crowding at the convention, it doesn't address crowding in the hotels. In fact, those proposals would potentially increase the attendance at the hotel, making the housing crunch that much worse.
  4. Start enforcing standards of what is allowed at the convention.
    This is supposed to be a comic convention. Of course, there are things that are tangentially related to comics and its fandom, such as science fiction and fantasy, but there are things at the convention that have nothing to do with any of that. While we are big fans of Bones and The Office, they have no place at a comic convention, and those rooms could likely find other panels more closely related to what the convention is supposed to be about. Outside of role-playing games, think seriously about removing the gaming booths. Why I had to bull my way past a display of a karaoke game at a comic convention escapes me, but it had a huge crowd and really large speakers.
  5. Along those lines, split the convention up. Take all the media and gaming panels and booths and move them to a sister convention that is being held at the same time, say in Los Angeles. Or just put the non-comics and non-SF things in LA, trying to maintain the tradition of what Comic-con is supposed to be about.

Ultimately, the solution to the issues is not going to be an easy one, and I don't envy the decisions facing the organizers. All I want, selfishly, is my comic convention, in San Diego, and the panels I want to see. Without being a sardine on the floor of the convention. Come on Comic-con; make this happen.

1 comment:

  1. I would add that perhaps if they backed off on the ballroom TV and movie presentations, folks who kinda like comics or who have read comics in the past would drift back in to some of the comic panels and perhaps they would re-connect with comics or even graphic novels or trades. I know during the con I have trouble deciding between seeing the big flashy Hollywood presentations or hearing a not-so-ubiquitous artist or writer or designer talk about their craft. Case in point - the Syd Mead panel last year. We decided to go to the Syd Mead panel instead of the Paramount panel in the ballroom after much discussion and fretting (on my part - the fretting anyway). I felt like I wouldn't be missing anything by not going to the Paramount presentation on the new Star Trek movie where Matt Damon was in attendence, but I would not likely have another chance to hear the truly brilliant Syd Mead talk about his art and work designing the futuristic look of the iconoclastic Blade Runner. This is the dilemma that I think many folks face. There were probably only 20 people in the audience of the Syd Mead panel and yet I think of that panel as one of my favorite all-time things I've seen at any Comic-Con. I have to wonder how many potential new or recaptured comic book fans are being lost to the easier choice of standing in line for six hours to see a preview of a movie they are going to be able to see in theaters several months later. One of the greatest disappointments in this year's Con was the line to see the preview of Watchmen. Folks who have no clue what a brilliant book that is were standing in line for six hours to get into the panel while fans like me, who decided to go to panels instead of standing in line, were not able to get into the room at all. We were later told by booksellers on the exhibit floor that after the panel, copies of Watchmen flew off shelves. One bookseller brought 200 copies and sold out. He told us there was not a copy to be found anywhere in hall by the next day. Yay Alan Moore and comics! I love the fact that the moving is driving folks to read the most brilliant book written - however, I'm still unhappy that it would have taken me 6 hours of waiting in line to enjoy what the noobs got to see. If I sound a little bitter, I am. It'll go away March 6th. I've already scheduled the day off.