Monday, July 25, 2011

Is Comic-Con Too Big?

I first attended San Diego Comic-Con in 2007, and have been to three others, as well as a few other conventions of this kind, such as WonderCon and Dragon*Con. In 2007, you could still buy a four-day Comic-Con pass within a few weeks of the opening, but this year tickets sold out in January in a matter of two days, and tickets for next year were on sale at the convention, ensuring another sellout crowd. The attendance of Comic-Con is over 130,000 people, but I submit that the real capacity is actually much smaller.

It was Friday morning, I think, that was the final nail in the coffin for me. I had planned on attending the Torchwood panel as press, and had no aspirations of sitting in the front row, so I made my way over to Ballroom 20 at about 9:00 AM to get in line. After some time of being directed here and there and still having no idea where I was going, I asked one of the security personnel where the end of the line was. He pointed across the yacht harbor, and I saw a line of people stretching beyond that and around the corner behind the trees probably a half mile away. There was literally no end in sight.

I said something to the effect of “Are you s---ing me,” and after determining that it was, in fact, the line for Ballroom 20, I walked away.

Comic-Con has changed over the past five years. This year, as I passed by other people, I kept hearing the words “frustrated” and “disappointing” as they conversed with others. I saw the same thing on Twitter. I heard other attendees complain about how difficult it was to get into the panels they wanted. Friends that I had hoped to see there, both attendees and professionals, didn’t go this year. There seemed to be less of a feeling of joy and exhilaration in the crowd, and almost more of a sense of duty to be there.

And then there’s the problem with security. As you may or may not know, Rhys Ifans, who plays The Lizard in the upcoming Spider-Man movie, apparently pushed a female security guard out of the way after one of the people he was with was questioned about not having the proper pass. The security guard placed him under “citizen’s arrest” but he was later released without charges.

When I arrived on Thursday afternoon (hot and exhausted after an eight-hour car trip), the first thing I did was to walk to the back of the hall in order to pull out my cell phone so I could locate the friend I was supposed to meet up with. One of the red-shirted guards (if you’ve ever been there, you know the ones I mean) immediately took it upon herself to yell at me to move, despite the fact that I was standing there a total of about ten seconds next to several other people in the same area. I explained that I was merely getting out my phone, and she became hostile. I looked at her, clearly hot and tired, and said “Don’t. Just don’t.” Her reply was to raise her voice even more and yell at me “You don’t!” in her best “oh no you di’nt” voice. At that point, I thought it best to try and find somewhere else to stand to make my phone call.

Again, others experienced the same thing. Everyone I asked, which was a random sampling of friends, vendors, professionals and random people I was standing in lines with, said that security was a lot more belligerent and rude this year. I passed by one area where a dozen or so people were seated along a wall, and a man was saying to the nearby security person, “They get to sit there and I don’t? You just kicked me out of there!”

I’m not surprised in the least by what happened with Ifans’ group, since it was happening to less famous people all over the convention center the entire time.

The other question I asked my random sampling of attendees was, “Is Comic-Con too big?” Every single one of them, without exception, said yes. One man even applauded me. Literally. He said “thank you,” and clapped as we were standing in line for the Deepak Chopra booksigning which was across the street at the Hard Rock Hotel because there was no room in the convention center itself.

More and more of the convention is spilling out into the adjacent Gaslamp District, with many downtown parking lots being converted into party zones and the kind of spaces that companies used to have inside the convention center, which merely compounds the downtown parking and traffic nightmare. One entire parking lot was taken up with some kind of Playboy party – we could see the distinctive bunny logo on a flag from over the high security fences as we walked by.

What does Playboy have to do with a comic book convention? For that matter, why does Glee have a panel there? Why did I receive email press releases and onsite handouts for some kind of smokeless cigarettes?

San Diego Comic-Con has become a marketing machine that attendees have the privilege of paying through the nose for, if tickets can even be had at all. Once there, if you even want to get into the room for one of the larger panels, you have to camp outside in line for hours and hours. I later heard that the Torchwood line that I had been trying to get into was already 3000 people long at 6:00 AM.

Disappointingly, it looks as though Comic-Con may get even larger. A publicist friend of mine (one of the many who agrees that it’s too big) told me that there are plans to push the entire back wall of the convention center out into the current marina area, doubling the size of the hall, just for Comic-Con. I would guess that this is how the planners were convinced not to move the convention elsewhere – the promise of an even bigger San Diego Convention Center in the future.

Honestly? Count me out.

By contrast, WonderCon in San Francisco is a wonderful convention. Unlike San Diego, which doubles or even triples their hotel room rates, the flagship Marrott Hotel just two blocks away has a special half price WonderCon rate, making it accessible to most people who wish to attend. Additionally, since it is the flagship hotel, most of the talent stays there, and I had the pleasure of running into Sergio Aragon├ęs in the lobby last year.

“Hey, I know you!” I said, recognizing his trademark glasses, mustache and tropical shirt.

“Yes, hello! Nice to meet you!” he said enthusiastically, shaking my hand.

“Are you having a good con?”

“Yes, I love WonderCon. You can actually talk to people here, unlike Comic-Con. That one’s just too big.”

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