By Bon Alimagno
I hadn’t been to San Diego Comic-Con in five or six years. I swore it off when I was walking through one of the halls, one that had become largely consumed by video game companies. The crowd those vendors attracted choked the aisles. I wanted to turn around to find the booth for some TV show, Heroes I think, but feared that any movement against the direction of the crowd that was carrying me away might get me trampled. In the years since I’d been encouraged to hear that crowd control and traffic movement were getting better. And having been out of comics for nearly two years I decided it might be time to finally experience Comic-Con’s particular brand of insanity from the perspective of a civilian, instead of one whose job for years had been to think that show floor was a suitable working environment.
So, to the bafflement of many of my old friends in the comics industry, I decided to vacation at Comic-Con, though focusing on the happenings outside the convention center – San Diego WITHOUT THE Comic-Con. I spent hours watching people dodge and weave around a zombie-laden obstacle course that took-over four levels of Petco Park. (Here’s a bit of the end of it.) I watched a dance party break out in front of two story balloons of the Teen Titans. There were events at nearby hotels, like the Xbox Lounge, and at pop-up spaces like the Godzilla Experience. A ship docked at the marina was turned into an Assassin’s Creed themed pirate vessel. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan did a signing at a hat store selling the infamous Heisenberg hat that completed Bryan Cranston’s villainous look.
I did eventually go onto the show floor in pursuit of only two things: the hardcover edition of Jeremy Bastian’s Cursed Pirate Girl and that new Metroplex Transformer with the nifty Con-exclusive Phil Jimenez box art. While I was successful at the first, I was defeated in the second by Hasbro’s bizarre Wait-In-A-Line-To-Get-A-Ticket-To-Wait-In-The-Real-Line system. All in all I spent three hours on the show floor, which was all I could stand to be there. The problem though wasn’t that the show was still as big and crazy as it had always been. It was indeed better managed than I remembered it. The problem is that San Diego Comic-Con isn’t big enough — it needs to get bigger. Much bigger. It needs more people, more exhibitors, more spectacle. It needs more of San Diego.
People will complain that Comic-Con’s biggest problem is that it’s become a celebration of movies more than comic books. I think Comic-Con’s biggest problem is that it’s become a celebration of wasting time. The reasons anyone would go to a comic book convention usually involve meeting and greeting, buying and selling, discovering something new and cherishing unique experiences. But you need space for that. And you need time. So how to create more of both?
Now, I have come to view myself as a bit of a “Fixer.” People, whether at my current employer or out of it, might come to me with a problem, looking for a solution. I always start the conversation by asking what resources are available to address that problem, and when and how we can make use of them. In the case of San Diego Comic-Con, it’s most valuable resource is San Diego itself.
San Diego’s downtown is a perfect cocktail of waterfront, lively downtown and public transit that makes a city takeover not just possible but enjoyable. Unlike, say, New York Comic-Con, you won’t have to trudge blocks to get to the heart of the city, it’s literally across the street. And unlike most Cons the ridiculously pleasant year-round weather makes taking advantage of outdoor spaces like the Marina and Petco Park much more doable.
For too long the conversation about fixing San Diego has revolved around just building a bigger convention center – making it the center of the Comic-Con experience with everything outside of it in a kind of secondary orbit. Now is the time to flip that model over completely, to not fight the creeping of Comic-Con out into the city, but to encourage and enable it, to unleash it across the entire city, every available or underutilized part of it.
The one size fits all, buffet style badge isn’t going to work when you keep adding more and more things to the buffet. Instead choices need to be made about what absolutely belongs in the convention center and what could benefit and even flourish outside of it. With that in mind, let’s create two kinds of Comic-Con badges with differing levels of access.
First, create a new class of 50,000 badges for people who can experience only out of Convention Center events and exhibitors. These badges will be targeted at folks already thinking of not returning to the show, ones who would’ve been exhausted by the scene at the Convention Center and are looking for better access to publishers, toy companies and creators. Next, move those vendors out into the city. For starters, move all comic book publishers to Petco Park, perhaps even on the field itself with appropriate staging protecting the infield. Artist Alley could be moved either to concourses at Petco or situated somewhere along the waterfront, a sort of Artist Marina.
Next, how about the Con partner up with the city to facilitate the adoption of blocks or even streets by the major publishers, movie studios and toy companies? Imagine Marvel and DC, Image and Dark Horse filling unutilized spaces with pop-up storefronts, or galleries for signings, workshops and other meet and greet events. Imagine Hasbro and Mattel with their own pop-up stores for convention exclusives – selling goods the way Goorin Bros. teamed up with AMC and Breaking Bad to sell the Heisenberg hat. Have anchor points set up around the city like at the renovated Horton Plaza mall where panels and screenings can find an audience they wouldn’t otherwise at the convention center due to lack of space and priority.
All the above would be tied together with a San Diego Comic-Con Without the Comic-Con badge, which would be lower priced, but at the same time entitle badge holder access to all of these unique spaces and events.
Meanwhile, reduce the actual San Diego Comic-Con badge count and cap it around 90,000. Give these badge holders access to all the “Without The” spaces as well but essentially charge them more for access to the Convention Center itself. Actively take advantage of the fewer attendees by creating more room to maneuver with wider aisles. Emphasize the Convention Center as truly owned by the movie studios and video game companies, letting those exhibitors create even bigger, more spectacular booths and experiences.
Though Comic-Con is officially a non-profit, it’ll still need money to run all of this. I figure the ability to sell the new class of “Without The” Comic-Con badges would make up for the lost income from capping attendance at the Convention Center itself. Agreements can be made with restaurants, bars, etc. licensing the ability to act as official venues for “Without The” events, allowing them to gain customers they wouldn’t have otherwise. (Tavern Bowl, where the Tr!ckster pop-up was hosted and where I held #Tweetfolio Live, is an excellent example of a place of business getting increased traffic by relatively direct association with the Con.)
This is of course easier said than done. But I think if the show started actively questioning which exhibitors and events should actually be at the convention center and which could find a better home outside of it, you’d transform the entire experience into something more enjoyable for con goers and more fruitful for the city. If a set-up like this had been in place this year perhaps I would’ve gotten that Transformer after all.
Got ideas for how to transform San Diego Comic-Con? Tweet them to me at @karma_thief! #Tweetfolio returns next week with the recap of the #Tweetfolio Live event at SDCC.
The Elite Beat Staff is a trained squad of ninja masters.