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This was the year San Diego Comic-Con was supposed to crash. After all, with Hollywood studios folding and stars unable to promote their work, all because of the actors’ double whammy and the writers’ strike, why should people bother attending?
Well, about 150,000 attendees showed up anyway. There were no mass hotel cancellations nor mass refunds issued for badges, which were purchased months in advance. And an interesting thing happened on the way to the Comic-Con apocalypse. There has been a renewed focus on comics and other graphic arts, even as Hollywood has shown up in reduced capacity.
“This year, more than ever, it seemed like the real focus was on the talent behind the origins of so much of their entertainment,” says Jimmy Palmiotti, a writer-artist who has worked for Marvel and DC and created the comic. Painkiller Janewhich was adapted into a SyFy series in 2007.
By all accounts, the floor has had the most foot traffic in years, and retailers, artists and creators have benefited from increased sales and exposure. Anecdotally, Pamiottit said that there were entire booths sold out and they had to restock graphic novels and comics.
“Creators like Adam Hughes and Billy Tucci have told me they had their best year ever. It was such a joy to see the people who created the comics once again being at the center of the scam created in their name,” said Pamiottiti.
Sales were up significantly for Funko, which doubled its footprint from last year, as well as Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics and Lego, according to sources. DC, selling exclusives for the first time, enjoyed steady lines and sold out most of its offerings. Retailers that have established themselves outside the convention center have also enjoyed a sharp increase, such as BoxLunch Treats, which has seen lines go down three blocks in downtown San Diego.
And Hollywood still came in many forms. We couldn’t miss the skins wrapped outside the hotels, which promote shows like the one on Showtime Yellow jackets or FX Shogun. And studio panels, instead of having writers and actors front and center, let the footage do the talking for them.
Paramount, one of the few studios to show up at Comic-Con, showed twenty minutes of footage from its upcoming film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Chaos. For its presentation of Star Trek Universe, Paramount and CBS dropped an entire episode of Strange new worlds, which made some in the audience dry their tears. Starz did the same, teasing the debut of the wrestling show’s second season Heels. A24 had to turn away hundreds from its offsite selection by Speak with mehis next horror film which had a panel with only the directors of the film, Danny and Michael Philippou.
A fan he spoke to DAY, Will, came from New York and attended Comic-Con more than 10 times. He took the Star Trek Room H panel after just five minutes in line for it. (In previous years, people would camp overnight to get into a Hall H panel.) Will, who declined to give his last name, admitted it was less exciting than it would have been under normal circumstances. “It would have been nice to have the cast there, but the footage they showed from Star Trek it was amazing and the energy from the crowd was fantastic,” he said.
However, not everyone was enthusiastic. “It was a bit of a shame about the (Family Guy panel) that basically just showed clips,” said William, a San Diego resident who had been to Comic-Con four previous times and pointed out that he probably wouldn’t have attended that panel had he known it was going to be just a screening. He also found that the convention generally felt more crowded than in previous years: “Not having too many of those famous Hall H panels maybe drew people to smaller panels.”
Because of the strikes, some Hollywood creatives attended the convention without the pressure of interviews or without giving much enthusiasm. Simon Kinberg, the writer-producer behind several X-Men and Deadpool movies, enjoyed a weekend with his 14-year-old son, Oliver.
“It felt like the old Comic-Con,” said Kinberg, who has been onstage at Hall H many times. “You still had video games and hi-tech pop-ups, but it was definitely Comic-Con based on comics and toys. We walked for days.” And they made time for the Barbenheimer phenomenon, controlling both Oppenhimer AND Barbie on two separate days.
Kinberg was just one of many creatives who attended the convention solely for the love of pop culture. Among them was It screenwriter and Annabelle returns home writer-director Gary Dauberman, who brought his 13-year-old son, also named Oliver.
There were times when the writers’ and actors’ strike took center stage, including an appearance by SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland. Along the commuter tracks outside the convention center, local SAG actors posed for a solidarity photoshoot with cosplayers. Inside, two separate Saturday panels provided voice actors and writers an opportunity to discuss many of the key negotiating issues from their unions’ perspectives, including the impact of artificial intelligence and synthetic voices, the financial implications of episode order reductions, and where union protections end, and where federal or even international law may need to step in.
During a panel, Crabtree Ireland summed up the struggle voice actors — and arguably, by extension, writers — are facing amid the threat of the studio’s interest in artificial intelligence, pointing Disney The little Mermaid“the story of a little mermaid and the sea witch who literally steals that mermaid’s voice”.
“I remember seeing it for the first time and thinking how awful it was,” said Crabtree-Ireland. “Voice acting is cutting edge and it’s the tip of the spear as it relates to how AI can be used to lift people up and improve the opportunities that actors and others have or be used in a very negative way to steal their voices, to squash human creativity.”
For attendees familiar with seeing charismatic top stars or writers deliver witty banter and insider information, this year’s panels probably didn’t hit the same highs, and the people on stage don’t always seem to enjoy the spotlight. While on a panel for TBS’ American fatherdirector Jennifer Graves was asked what she wanted to share and joked, “I have nothing to say, so I don’t know why we’re here.”
During a meeting with directors, Gareth Edwards, advertising his original sci-fi film The creatorand Justin Simien, promoter Haunted househe pointed to the elephant in the room.
“We’re all on the side of the writers and the actors,” Edwards said. “We are contractually obligated to promote our films.”
“Yes, we were told to be here,” Simien said, chuckling, adding that he wished he were home. “No shade for you guys,” he added.
And some stars who have also worked in non-studio endeavors, like David Dastmalchian and Patton Oswalt, both of whom have written and created comics, had to navigate deftly and avoid any questions about affected studio projects. When a Dastmalchian panel moderator introduced the Q&A portion, emphasizing that one could not talk about past or present work, the very first question from a fan was about the actor’s work in The dark Knight, made by studio hit Warner Bros. A pivot followed and a memo that couldn’t be argued about. (The Hollywood ReporterBorys Kit of moderated the panel, and both he and Dastmalchian reminded the host that striking work was forbidden.)
Congressman Robert Garcia, the former Long Beach mayor who caused a stir when he was sworn into the House of Representatives with a vintage copy of Superman No. 1, headlined a Comic-Con panel on a popular arts caucus he’s leading in Washington. He noted that the concern and chatter caused by Hollywood’s so-called silent presence only underlines the importance of the convention.
“This just goes to show the huge impact the medium of comics has on the broader entertainment industry,” said Garcia, who has watched the show on and off since the ’90s. “And that’s what happens every year at Comic-Con.”
Without the oxygen-sucking in-studio panels, over 900 other panels and over 2000 hours of other programming have seen increased interest and attendance. “Before the show, people who had never been to the show wondered what the impact of the strikes would be,” said Comic-Con’s head of communications and strategy. David Glanzer. “But there is so much to see and do, that we were fine. Hollywood is the icing on a multi-layered cake.”
Kinberg, along with many others, believe Hollywood will be back in strength next year, when the job issues are likely to be resolved.
Kinberg said, “As wonderful and pure as it was, I know many fans would have been thrilled if Marvel had come to Hall H and blew up Comic-Con. There is still hunger for it. It’s the social media explosions around these ads where you really see the impact of Comic-Con. This is an amazing engine.”
—Ryan Gajewski, Abbey White, and Aaron Couch contributed to this story