Over the course of a few weeks (or, more accurately, months), we at OTF diligently prepared for the nerd onslaught that is San Diego Comic-Con International as it quickly approached. Despite our best efforts merely to sit back and enjoy the ride, SDCC actually requires a significant amount of planning, scheduling, assigning, and bookkeeping to keep everything in check - even for a smaller outlet like ours. Hundreds of emails flood the inboxes - all promoting brand new properties, looking for a little exposure. What do we keep? What do we toss? Did this email receive a confirmation? Does this appointment conflict? What panel do we attend, and who covers X when we're at Y?
As I've been looking back at the 120 straight hours of awesome craziness now behind us, I've been noticing an interesting trend: with each passing year, more and more of the most exciting events are not actually in Comic-Con. Rather, they're being taken over by splinter groups - websites, magazines, studios, and production companies all coordinating meetups, tweetups, signings, and general fan interaction. Fans want that level of immediate interaction - who wouldn't want to hang out with their favorite nerd celebrity? - in a less-crowded place, where "standing in line" is replaced with "sitting by the bar" or "playing a video game."
Just a few years ago, most con-adjacent events were secondary to the con itself - novelties to help promote a brand and get a little breathing room from the tension the crowded floor. American-style restaurant Maryjane's was transformed in Eureka's "Cafe Diem." Cartoon Network took over a pizza joint to promote Adventure Time. Sure, more than a few high profile events/parties took place every night, but those were usually reserved for people who could get beyond a velvet rope.
Since then, the Gaslamp District surrounding the convention center has become an extension of the con itself. Some have even started holding high profile events normally reserved for SDCC, many not requiring an elusive con badge: this year's second annual Nerd HQ welcomed all nerds to intimate Q&A sessions with some of Comic-Con's biggest names. Wired opened the Wired Cafe to press and VIPs, with fan readers getting invites for the very first time. IGN Editors chatted with their readers in the IGN Oasis at the Hard Rock. Warner Bros. showcased celebrities and artists on their outdoor stage. Felicia Day's Geek and Sundry took over Belo for nearly all of their fan events. A boon to those unlucky enough not to have a badge since they get to still partake in the fun.
That list barely scratches the surface. But why the trend?
Most would argue that the frustration with the convention itself is the biggest cause. Last year, attendee registration had be shut down a few hours after registration went live due to server overload, only to be restarted a few months later with similar server hiccups. This year's process went a little more smoothly after implementing a virtual waiting room to mitigate traffic, but was still not without fault due to a faulty hyperlink in an email sent out to potential registrants. And even then, all badges sold out in a little over an hour, leaving thousands only with aggravation and a sense of wasted time. At that point, what choice do they have to get a taste of Comic-Con, but to visit Nerd HQ and the others?
Those chosen few with badges are not immune from frustration, either. The exhibit hall on Saturday is the definition of chaos, where "breathing room" is so rare, it could conceivably be a currency. Ravenous fans succumb to the basest orange avarice, when "one giveaway per person" turns into a "how many can I get to sell on eBay?" game. Outside of the exhibit hall, hundreds of people stand in lines FOR DAYS outdoors (and, this year, in the rain) for a glimpse into the biggest panels at Hall H and Ballroom 20, only to be turned away when max capacity is reached. Even the most zen-like of attendees can lose their patience under conditions like that (read: me), ultimately prompting them to leave the con floor and seek entertainment elsewhere.
Exhibitors plan events, giveaways, and sales, hoping to rope in as many people as they can. However, they are restricted to the tiny sliver of floor space afforded them, forcing many to mitigate and limit the long lines that naturally come from popular signings and exclusives. To accommodate for more foot traffic, they're also looking out of the convention center and into the Gaslamp.
Then why do we keep going? What makes SDCC so appealing? Well, it's hard to put into concise words - it's the experience of being there that is indescribably fulfilling. The people you meet are all there to celebrate the same stuff you love, and you can have full on debates about whether or not Magneto is really a villain. You can see your favorite celebrities walking the street, and you can hear the news about next year's biggest movie, television, and comic blockbusters. Then, when the exhibit hall closes, you can collect wristbands as you hit up parties all over the Gaslamp District with fans, press, celebs, and creators alike. That may not sound like much when read out loud, but the experiences and memories you collect along the way at those events are unmatched. Where else can you get a preview of next season's Young Justice in the morning, talk Green Lantern with Jim Lee at noon, buy a one-of-a-kind Collector's Edition of a comic book in the afternoon, argue over the "Court of Owls" conclusion at dinner, and run into Elijah Wood back the hotel bar in the evening? And then repeat that kind of awesomeness every day over 5 days. That's why we keep going back. And that's also precisely why the better times at SDCC are had outside of the convention center - you can't have these experiences when thousands upon thousands of people are pushing their ways through the halls. If you try to stop and enjoy it, you only get in the way.
The above experiences are incredible, but there is a point of diminishing returns. At some point, the frustrations of the convention will outweigh these stories. Natural expansion - somehow, amazingly, growing from the 130,000+ attendees from this year - means that the bad things will become worse, but that these amazing experiences won't necessarily get better. But when a manageable number of people came together to celebrate something great, it becomes incredible. In a few years, the convention center itself may end up taking a secondary note to the offsite events. When places like Nerd HQ offer the panels many crave without the adrenaline rush of the crowded floor, people will be naturally drawn to it - and not Comic-Con itself.
(Be sure to check out our SDCC-centric episode of the Fridgecast for more about our thoughts of SDCC!)