Comic Con: Careful What You Wish For Edition
Every year I start to get calls around this time asking whether I am going to attend comic con. As you may have read in last year's post about the rise and fall of the con, I've been going for over twenty five years and have seen some change. This year I am noticing the change in the people who are calling and I am starting to wonder whether it is a good thing. I used to get calls from artists or comic fans who could not afford to pay the fee. Then I got calls from writers and directors who did not know where to look to get a badge. Now I get calls from game folks, agents, executives, all thinking I can get them a badge to the sold out show. Sure, hold on a second, I'll just lift Shakespeare's head, push the button, and pull one out of my ass, just give me a second to clean it up for you. Let's just stop right here for a second. Sold Out. For years, Pre-Hollywood Takeover, tickets were always unspokenly voluntary. By that I mean you never really had to buy them. We would buy tickets because it supported the Con, but if you didn't and just kept walking, the security guards never stopped you. Because in the PHT days, the Con was inclusive. The concept of fans being turned away from a convention where sales in the tens of thousands of units are celebrated is somewhat wacky.
The more I thought about where the Con is today, the more confused I got. I started to over analyze and tried to reconcile my bitching about opening the game business and E3 to the mainstream with derision of Comic Con for successfully allowing itself to be embraced by the mainstream and leveraging it into the pre eminent pop culture show in the world. It could be I am a geek and feel a need to scream "sell out" if too many people like the thing I like. It could be jealousy for a brilliant expansion of the show into an internationally relevant venue. Or, it could be that the Con, has pimped out its constituency to Hollywood like a bunch of runaway teens on Hollywood Boulevard. When I see James Cameron sitting where Jeff Smith used to be, in front of a full house, I kind of think it is the latter. If you know who Jeff Smith is, you probably agree with me. Hollywood sucked the soul out of the Con and the Con let it happen. I am afraid of what will happen when Hollywood realizes the people who drew them to the Con are no longer there. The new Con attendee has not become a part of the Con, they are simply encapsulating it and sucking out its soul. Any mixing is more like oil and water than milk and ovaltiner We don't have to look any further than the relative coverage to prove my point.
The Hollywood sites, like Nikki Finke's
highlight Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, Terry Gilliam and a few comic guys. The official Con site highlights Sergio Arogones, Stan Freberg, Jim Lee and Mike Allred.
These Hollywood panels are first come first serve, for attendees who do their best impression of an open seating Springsteen concert at Asbury Park for every panel that promises a film clip or a Mythbuster. But this type of stampeded and multi-hour wait in the San Diego sun would not be appropriate for a very busy agent/producer/entertainment attorney/headphone wearing publicist type who doesn't really know what happens on the first floor of the con, so they are escorted into the front of the room just prior to the panel.
The Con started as a place where comic vendors got together to exchange books with each and collectors. It was a bunch of tables around a room. The smarter artists and publishers started to attend so they could talk about their craft and promote their books. The only movie star in attendance was Leonardo Dicaprio - he was not a star yet, his dad was a vendor. As the Con grew it turned into a place where creators shared their craft and advanced the medium, new talent could meet editors and creators with hopes of breaking in, and fans could listen to their favorite authors and artists talk about their craft. They also had the chance to dress in costumes, attend midnight showings of cult movies and debate the merits of various incarnations of The Green Lantern. Exactly ten years ago, PHT, I was consulting to Universal for the film Mystery Men. When, I suggested they promote the film at the Con they looked at me like I had three heads and two of them were speaking Chinese - and not even common dialects. They told me the Con's attendance was small and the people who were there were just a bunch of smelly, costumed, geeks. Yeah, so? Silly me, why would I think the Con was a place to promote a film based on an obscure cult COMIC BOOK? In the end, with a bunch of prodding from Lloyd Levin, they producer, they parked the Herkemer in the corner of the show. The fans loved it. These were the pre-blog and pre Spiderman days and the voice of geeks did not really permeate mainstream culture. When Spiderman hit, all the Hollywoodies had to get them some of those comic thingees. At the same time, the blogs started to promote the things the Hollywoodies looked at and talked about beyond the four walls of the con. It appears that in the eyes of the Con, standing in the corner wearing their "I heart chess club" t shirts, the captain of the cheerleading squad not only asked them on a date, but took them for special time under the bleachers. In the blink of an eye, the organizers forgot the witty, smart, simple girl who supported them the best she could for the first 20 years.
The new chick doesn't like the old chick, or the Con's old friends, and so long as the cheerleader pays attention, the Con will listen. The exhibitors can't get the prime rooms for panels anymore, they can't get the badges they used to be able to get for their friends and the fans can't even get tickets. Adding insult to injury, the exhibitors can't even get into the panels to see the people speaking in the rooms they used to fill - and still could. Sure, you may come back and say it is good for the industry, but it isn't. These people are carpet baggers and will care no more about the Con they leave behind than the cheerleader feels about the hollow shell of the geek left behind at some point in every high school around the world. Their presence increases the number of bodies at the show, but it does not advance the industry or promote sales. PHT, at the launch of Image, comics were selling in the millions. Books were cancelled if they sold less than half a million. Today, publishers are happy with sales in the tens of thousands. The Hollywood infiltration has not changed the unit sales or profile of comics. They are simply there to get the fans to promote their films on line. Cameron's speech to four thousand attendees will have a bigger impact on the core audience for Avatar than the marketing campaign. All those bloggers and twitterers will tell their friends, providing strong referrals and first hand accounts of how cool the film is. Cameron's appearance will vest the attendees in the film's success because he took the time to be there.
I may be a bit of an alarmist, but it only comes from love. I remember the late nineties when the Con almost died, so I understand the value of the additional bodies and revenue - this year's sponsorship is Google, Fox, Showtime, Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers, Starz, EA and THQ, no comic companies - in a way, they allowed the Con to survive. But as fans look at a sold out sign and those who attend do not have access to half the show I have to wonder about the expense of survival. Is this really where we wanted to be? They are not our friends, they are only being nice to us because our parents are out of town. Our friends are the people who were there when the Con was down. The ones who bought tickets when you could walk in for free. The guy in the Klingon costume, standing in the hot sun rolling milk crate full of comic books waiting to be signed by his favorite artist. If the rumored move to Los Angeles happens in 2012 , I wonder if they will take us with them.