San Diego ’06: Viral marketing, imaginal cells

gerryluvsheidi San Diego ’06: Viral marketing, imaginal cells
The San Diego Comic-con now exists as a means to disseminate press releases to the internet. Sitting in the press room on the Friday of the show, on deadline, a group of reporters were interrupted by a press conference for an upcoming TV show. When the reporters went outside to work without distraction, a steady stream of publicists kept asking them very very nicely if didn’t they want to come in for the press conference?

Wasn’t it possible that someone didn’t want to quiz some actor or other on their upcoming geek friendly role? Well no, as the above photo shows. We’ll get back to dear, dear Gerard Butler in a moment or two, but this San Diego was notable, from my standpoint anyway, as the year I finally dealt with the “newâ€? San Diego, a world where speakers had to leave VIP tickets just so their friends could get into panels, where all press lists were controlled by movie studios, and the town was taken over by a series of exclusive Hollywood parties of the kind you might see at Sundance or Cannes, a world of mini junkets and press conferences, and endless, endless meetings.

SD2006wu02 San Diego ’06: Viral marketing, imaginal cellsIn terms of my long ago “Book of Invasionsâ€? metaphor of a few years ago, the Norman Conquest has thoroughly subjected the Picts, Tuatha, Milesians, Vikings and Saxons. For the average schmuck cartoonist without a movie deal, the “realâ€? San Diego is now as off limits as a movie premiere after party or backstage at a concert. San Diego is all that and 1000 times more. Luckily, just about every cartoonist has a movie deal now.

The big story this year was the ever expanding size of the convention itself. Guestimates are that somewhere between 20-40,000 more people attended the con this year than last, a number equal to the total attendance of all but three or four comics conventions in the US, and probably the entire SDCC attendance in 1990 or so. A few people mentioned Angoulême as the model San Diego is headed for – a vast event that takes over an entire town and leaves attendees in a hotel-starved area commuting up to 30 miles a day just to get to the festivities. We’re already very close to that.

Various bloggers and journalists have wondered what shall we do with the fans, and the answer is usually to move more events off site, further fractionalizing the show, and making it even more impossible to “do the con.â€?

Speaking only for myself, the convention is now on beyond uncomfortably crowded. It’s like getting out of a show at Madison Square Garden for four and a half days straight. If you like being jostled, the con is for you! Everyone said Preview night was like Saturday, and so were Thursday, Friday and….Saturday, which found thousands of people just lying nearly comatose in the front of the convention center. It wasn’t entirely clear what all these folks had come for. Was it the chance to see a movie star or walk through the theme park on the floor? Or the chance to see wackos in costume?

IMG 3516 San Diego ’06: Viral marketing, imaginal cellsAh, the costumes. Stormtrooper Elvis is now a celebrity in his own right. At one point I saw him posing for pictures, and that very act was drawing a big crowd. After I’d gotten my own picture taken, a women with a headphone came along and scolded ST Elvis: “When you stop to take a picture, you’ve got to just move along afterwards.â€? It didn’t even take a real movie star to clog the aisles; a blueprint draftsman in a costume would do just as well.

The Hollywood trades have been brutally frank in just what Comic-con represents now. Blogger LAist had a particularly perceptive take :

Now, of course, Comic Con has entered into a new phase. The Hollywood phase. Comic book characters have always been ripe for adaptation into movies or TV shows but it has only been relatively recently that Hollywood has moved out of its ivory towers and made the trip, en masse, down South to Comic Con. Every major (and minor) movie studio, many TV networks and several video game publishers were in attendance. All were showcasing their newest and greatest and all were also looking for the “next big thing”. This year, Comic Con looked more like the E3 or the NAB show than a comic book convention.

We spoke to many attendees and the consensus was that Hollywood is, at best, a tolerated presence. Granted, they loved that their favorite characters were being given the big or small screen treatment. However, they felt that Hollywood would most likely “screw it up” and make more films like “Daredevil”. Most of the people we spoke to commented that Hollywood had basically run out of good ideas of its own and was now desperate to “feed the machine” by looking anywhere for new blood and new ideas. Comic Con, they felt, was a great place to find those ideas as long as they were done “rightâ€?.

The piece, which is well worth reading in its entirety, goes on to paint a picture of a Hollywood that will soon be feeding the narrow tastes of the fans as religiously as the major comics publishers do:

A high-water mark was set by the soon-to-be-released “Snakes on a Plane,” starring Samuel L. Jackson. Reacting to online comments during filming, the filmmakers added more gore, more sex and more snakes biting more people.

As a reward, Comic-Con fans were treated to a 10-minute preview of the film Friday night. And they were further treated to Jackson, delighting the fans as he spewed his trademark four-syllable curse word, as in “There are … snakes on this … plane.” The 6,000-plus fans packed into the largest of the lecture rooms went wild.

And the roars of approval were heard again when Jackson told the group that the pre-release feedback that shaped “Snakes” is the future for the … movie business.

SD2006wu01 San Diego ’06: Viral marketing, imaginal cellsSan Diego is participatory entertainment. If everyone will be famous for 15 seconds, it might as well be at San Diego. I was shocked on the first day by the number of people who came up to me at Ralph’s and asked if I was “Heidi MacDonald.â€? A blogger is a mini celebrity—very very mini to be sure—but I couldn’t help feeling a little sympathy for Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan as I schlepped through a supermarket with a basket full of carrots, crackers and Cup O’ Noodles. Was this really what a glamourous blogger should be doing at the show? We need more minions, obviously.

This was the fifth San Diego I’d covered for a daily website, and my efforts seemed increasingly irrelevant. When every entertainment website and cable network sends fleets of reporters to cover the show and a group Flickr site puts up over a thousand of photos in a few days, the efforts of one little human seems pitiful by comparison.

Ah, but I wasn’t alone, I had my VIDEO BLOGGING CREW! If there’s one thing I never expected to be doing in San Diego it was wandering around with a video crew. As a video blogger, unlike my previous stints as a TV host, I got to call the shots. The good thing was that there was no director or producer to tell me what to do or how to behave. The bad thing was that there was no director or producer to tell me what to do or how to behave. The idea of having a bunch of videos of me being a smart aleck on the web until the end of time is either pretty damned stupid or mighty damned smart.

The one thing is did for sure was give me a new perspective, There were as many camera crews as baby carriages on the floor, and once you had the proper badge, you didn’t have much trouble getting into all those press conferences and mini roundtables. Without a camera crew, I was nearly a nobody. With one, I was on the fast track.

SD2006wu03 San Diego ’06: Viral marketing, imaginal cellsAnd then there was dear, dear Gerard Butler. My master plan, in the works for over a year, came to glorious fruition, the payoff captured on high res video for all to see. We got the money shot. I am happy to say that Gerry didn’t disappoint, although the webmaster of GB.net informs me I’ve been mispronouncing his name all this time. Guess it must be my Yankee accent. Sadly, my interview with director Zack Snyder didn’t go online — he’s very smart and articulate, and seemed gung ho about directing WATCHMEN, the poor fool.

Whatever my own experiences, videoblogging is here to stay, and print on the internet will have even more competition. Last year I said that it wasn’t a con until you read about it on the internet, and my last few days getting back online have given me a far more clear picture of what happened than even being there.

That brings us back to the complete Normanization of the Comic-con. Whereas in past years we could pretty much isolate ourselves into a comic book world, this time episodes of ENTOURAGE kept breaking out all around us.

Hollywood was unavoidable. Racing from dinner to the Eisners, I passed some big festy-do raging in a vacant lot on one side of the Hilton. It turned out to be a party for the film Accepted, which, you might recall, is about a bunch of kids who open their own vocational school, leading to hijinks. This is not even remotely a fantasy, sci-fi, comic book or horror movie, and what business anyone had throwing a party for it during Comic-Con is anybody’s guess, except that throwing parties during Comic-con is just the thing to do.

SD2006wu04 1 San Diego ’06: Viral marketing, imaginal cells
The LA Times summed up Hollywood’s inappropriate fascination with the con.

For established studios and indies, Comic-Con has become a must. And the fans — those derided as nerds and geeks by the jocks and cheerleaders in school — are the sought-after buzz-makers and ticket buyers.

“Comic-Con is huge,” said John Hegeman, chief operating officer of Fox Atomic. “It represents the core, the people who are just fanatic about this kind of entertainment. If you’re in the 17-to-24 age-group market, this is where you have to be.”

This is an audience that likes to be thought of as an in-crowd and now is demanding to be involved in the process of making the movies.


Meanwhile, what had the 100,000 or so people who didn’t work for production companies or publishers come to the con for? Since the broaching of Hall H a few years back the immense exhibit hall has become divided into regions, just like an archeological dig. The far end of the room, Halls A and B are basically the old convention, with dealers, back issues boxes the small press area and the DC juggernaut of a booth. Once you get past the old con, you enter the theme park section which, despite the absence of an actual LucasFilms booth, was wilder and crazier than ever before with everything from a Lego Sponge Bob to Pirates of the Caribbean memorabilia, video games, Speed Racer’s Mach 5, Captain Kirk’s chair, art deco vases, Crayon Shinchan, and a walk through snake to promote SNAKES ON A PLANE. The loudness, crowdedness and general tumult of this area can’t be overstated. It was raging off the hook like a combination of Disneyland and E3. Negotiating this area was my main occupation for four and a half days, as just getting from the press room to a panel became a half hour trek. I’m sure everyone’s experience was the same, so I won’t over dwell on it, except to say that the time and exhaustion factor from walking around is probably the main ingredient of the show now. I personally chose to only go where I had to go, with the result that I was actually fresher at the end of this San Diego than perhaps any in recent years, simply due to hours spent in the press room writing and editing as opposed to walking around and yakking with people.

trooper1 San Diego ’06: Viral marketing, imaginal cellsOn all of my journeys, however, it was immediately apparent that once you left the Theme Park, the area filled with actual cartoonists and the like — the people who had created the vast majority of the ideas behind the theme park— was much less busy. As in, almost peaceful. You could walk and talk comfortably, and it was highly reminiscent of an actual comic-con and not a casting call for Day of the Stormtrooper Locust.

Which isn’t to say it actually was peaceful – it only seemed so compared to the rest of the room. Every publisher we talked to had great sales and everyone was as busy as could be. At the D&Q booth, Tatsumi’s new book was their best selling book at San Diego ever, and Top Shelf sold out of 500 copies of LOST GIRLS without much trouble.

As we noted early on, the Trickle Down of IP was in full effect. Agents, development people, book editors, and other intellectual middlemen were roaming the floors of the small press area just with as much devotion as ever. Deals were undoubtedly struck that will see these people at the other end of the hall in a few years. In fact, once you got past the glitz glamour and clamor, it was remarkably like an old San Diego Comic-Con. Great cartoonists and idea makers were remarkably approachable, and you could chat up the likes of Mike Mignola or Geof Darrow without any difficulty. One witness reported seeing Ray Harryhausen sitting quietly during his signing for moments at a time, This is sad in one way – Harryhausen’s fantasy visions and one of a kind talent are as responsible for the ascent of nerd culture as any one person can take credit for, and he deserves to be feted to the skies. On the other hand it’s a bit refreshing to know you can still meet the actual dreammakers without paying extra. At the end of the day, Gerard Butler may be cuter, but Ray Harryhausen is the real deal, and if you feel bad for him, just know that Gentle Giant and Dark Horse presented him with a life sized statue of himself on Friday night.

Which is the irony and glory of San Diego in one shot. Yes, those 100,000 people don’t go to meet the actual people who create the myths, but enough of them do to keep the myth making machinery humming along. Yet once again I was part of the problem. Sure it was fun to meet DDGB, but in the process, I missed the chance to meet Tatsumi, and Watsuki and Koike. These were once in a lifetime chances…and I’m envious of those who got to meet the masters. Of course, my chagrin is lessened somewhat by the fact that you can listen to the entire Koike panel online. Ah technology.

 San Diego ’06: Viral marketing, imaginal cellsSo what then to do with the San Diego Comic-con?

As the entertainment industry becomes increasingly dependent on narrowcasting to specific geek cultures, it could become even more important in disseminating studios message to the fans and giving them an approachable contact they can hold in the palm of their hand.

Or it could be the next E3, whose demise as a pedal to the metal freak fest was made official this week. More than a few people pointed out the similar trajectories of E3, LA’s annual video game confab, and SDCC over the years, as increasing “Hollywoodâ€? interest and the need to constantly top itself eventually caused E3 burnout. You can’t help but wonder if the end of E3 will mean a more demure show floor at San Diego—some of the biggest loudest booths at San Diego were holdovers from E3. Without two shows to subsidize construction, there could be a scaling back on the tumult.

The continuing evolution of the relationship of the city and the con was also a major thread bubbling beneath the surface. In years past, the city of San Diego, which could be called “squareâ€? by the uncharitable, has had an extremely grudging acceptance of the event that is, in all reality, the biggest to do of the year. This year, with the city’s finances in a shambles due to a series of government screw ups, the town may finally have realized that they need this show. The amount of money it brings to city coffers is significant, and the wooing of Anaheim and Los Angeles are serious offers. But perhaps most important of all, an interview with David Glanzer at Comic Book Resourcesreveals that San Diego’s new Mayor actually came to the con, and has some comic book roots himself.

Maybe it’s because it’s a new Mayor, but the city certainly seems to be aware of our event. That’s something we’re very grateful for. I think for too long people thought of us as being a bunch of kids who don’t spend any money.

[snip]The funny thing is the Mayor actually collected comic books when he was a kid. The Mayor used to be the Police Chief in San Diego, so he was very familiar with the event and has heard great things about us. We were very honored to have him at the show.

SD2006wu05 San Diego ’06: Viral marketing, imaginal cellsHopefully the new government regime will make things a little more comfy for the big show. The Comic-con is locked in to San Diego until 2009, and there may be quite a bit of maneuvering over the next few years. Although we heard more grumbling from the locals than ever before, San Diego needs Comic-con. I’ve often said that you can’t take the con out of SD without losing the unique vibe of the show, but as it becomes more and more of a “virtual eventâ€?—with hype its main export—the setting becomes more irrelevant.

But not quite. You might be able to watch events like Deepak Chopra and Grant Morrison on the web in it’s entirety, but being there is still the best. The IFC blogger got caught up in the magic and expressed it nicely:

It was the most surreal and entertaining weekend of my life. As a comic book fan myself, it was also one of the coolest. We’d only been at Comic-Con an hour when I found myself in a small room, taking place in a roundtable discussion between Grant Morrison, Deepak Chopra, and the rest of the crew from Virgin Comics. Afterwards, I got to do some of the most fun interviews of my life, chatting up Morrison (writer of “JLA,” “The Invisibles” and my personal favorite, the brilliant deconstructionist super-hero epic “Animal Man”) about Joseph Campbell and the ancient origins of comics hundreds of thousands of years ago. Morrison is either on many drugs or the most brilliant man I’ve ever met.

As I wrote earlier, I missed most of the actual panel, but Chopra’s metaphor about the “imaginal cellsâ€? stuck in my mind. I’ve often wondered why, of all fan-created events, comic book conventions have consistently mutated into general pop culture events. Some friends say it’s because comics are inherently weak – other say its because comics are a medium, not a genre, like science fiction and horror, whose own fanfest remain small and insular.

I’m about to write something which is the soppiest, dopiest thing I’ve ever written here, and I apologize in advance, but in some ways…maybe comics are imagination. Wait, hear me out! Dancing, singing, storytelling and creating art are all natural human activities, observable in small children of diverse cultures, and captured in primitive forms from Lascaux on. Using drawings to tell stories is simple, efficient and cheap—and natural. Maybe a lot of really, truly creative people are drawn to this medium because it IS special.

Despite the increasing artificiality of the con as a PR machine, I don’t think the creative spark will go away entirely. All the indie folks at the con had strong shows and made money, and enough ideas and deals were hatched that we won’t see the end of comics as a fountain of IP end any time soon. It does seem that comic book companies are saving their announcements for other shows, where they will get more attention, and that’s a smart move. At the same time, going in to San Diego with nothing is very poor form.

In the end, a lot of people had a good time. Melinda Gebbie, the artist of LOST GIRLS was as much a star of the show as anyone, and she had a wonderful time, by all accounts. People danced and drank and flirted. And there were still memories to make. I left the con Monday, hitching a ride to LA with the McCloud family, Scott, Ivy Sky and Winter. As we drove through the now peaceful streets of the city, Scott and I discussed the psychological effect of seeing San Diego in its non con state. For the last few years I’ve stayed over on Monday and taken the red-eye home, and I find it a healing process — the return to normalcy as it were. “Well, I’m back.” Scott disagreed, finding the city in its drab, ordinary guise a depressing sight given the wonders that had just unfolded.

What can I say, I always liked All Saints Day as much as Samhain, the waking up as much as the dreaming.

The drive to LA was swift and companionable. Ivy discussed her likes and dislikes of musical theater — Avenue Q is a current favorite. Sky, a new model kid who uses Powerpoint as an extension of her thinking process, listens to the iPod while carrying on conversations, and grows edgy when separated from the Internet, explained why I should watch Veronica Mars. Winter, almost 11, uses her cell phone more confidently than most adults. Scott recalled his childhood in Lexington, Mass, a suburb of MIT where everyone had a mad scientist in a lab coat for a dad. It was before D&D was invented, but kids already amused themselves with rules for magic realism.

We made our way to Encounter, the Jetsons-esque restaurant in the middle of LAX. Designed by Disney Imagineers, it fills the historic “Theme Building” which went up in 1961. An odd monument to 9/11 had been erected in the lobby, some kind of reflecting, revolving metal disk that looked cool when it wasn’t spelling out words like “brave”. Hm. Not sure how to feel about that. Neil Gaiman and his assistant Kat joined us for dinner. He was in LA for a plethora of projects which he rattled off once, and they were never discussed again. After the con, the world of showbiz seemed far too quotidian to cover; it was much preferable simply to dine with old friends I had met in a far different world. We were all, to a greater or lesser degree, architects of the world we now lived in, and the new world wasn’t so bad as long as you remembered how you got into it.
SD2006wu10 San Diego ’06: Viral marketing, imaginal cells
CREDITS: Stormtroopers reading Eddie Campbell photo taken from the First Second Blog.
Darth Kitty photo by unknown. Other photos by me.

Comments

  1. B. William says:

    Darth Kitty photo came from this thread, according to the Photoshopper “Count Dookie” on BoingBoing: http://www.thedentedhelmet.com/forums/showthread.php?t=13343

  2. Cheryl Harris says:

    Love the filename for your Gerard Butler pic, Heidi!

  3. Martha Thomases says:

    Fab post, kiddo. Thanks.

  4. I really don’t count it as an official SDCC until I spot a Waldo, dirty Wolverine and Stormtrooper Elvis. Was batting only 1-for-3 until Sunday (a better batting average than most of DC’s softball team). But Sunday made it all better.
    Missed Black Superman, but that guy always gives me a cold shudder down the spine.

  5. Paul Worthington says:

    Thanks — a nice essay on the state of the comics biz.
    I met with Jeff Newelt the next day in SF, and he said he had fun hanging with you.
    But — in response to all the ‘complaints’ I’ve read from many journalists regarding the size of ComicCon: Try covering CES every year! There are more than a dozen huge halls and pavillions, and I always have meetings also scheduled in and on hidden reception areas, different floors, and far-flung hotels… And it goes on for four days at least.
    I like it – but only once a year.

  6. Great post, Heidi! You referred to your Norman Invasion essay a couple times, I know I’ve read it but how about reposting it, updating it, or just linking to it?

    Hearing about everything going on in SD, and blogging about it from the comfort of my own living room – is there a term called niche-blogging? – reminded me a lot of the evolution of Sundance. It used to be just a film festival, now that almost seems secondary since Hollywood “discovered” it. But even with all the Hollywood trappings they’ve added, there’s still a comic con under there, we can still find the quarter bins, we can still hang out in the Hyatt bar, and we can still even find a bargain and have fun. And when it implodes or topples from being top-heavy with Hollywood and they move on to something else, we’ll still have the comics. It’ll get to the point where it’s like Yogi Berra said – “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

  7. Please don’t think what you’re doing is increasingly irrelevant. It is true that there are thousands upon thousands of individual coverage via photos and blog entries on the event by people who went there, but very few would bother to write a long, well thought out and entertaining article as this one.

    In the swiftly expanding Internet world where everyone has his or her own opinion, those few who have something really substantial to say and say it well become more and more essential.

  8. The Hollywood Phase will burn itself out in time. Not that there won’t be a presence, just that it’s bound to find itself scaled back when people realize that Snakes on a Plane and movies like it (remember when Halle Barry was promoting Gothika?) won’t have the lasting effect that a flash of lightning like LOTR or POTC have had. In 2008, none of you will care about Grindhouse or Transformers by Michael Bay.
    Right now, the nerd dollar has as much value as the pre-teen girl had in 1998 after Titanic (and while, there will always be intrinsic value, it won’t rock the world that way it has with LOTR).
    And what happens then? I’ll actually get to enjoy Saturday.
    Until then, does anyone think San Diego could use a real dirt-under-the-fingernails comic convention? Something like Emerald City or Wondercon or Heroes Con?

  9. Okay, honestly if the middle-men were looking for the next thing, I would have sold all of the 50 or so copies of issue #1 and #2 of Heroes in Birmingham (to them) from where they were at the Friends of Lulu table during the entire convention. I think that the middle-men were just as distracted by the spectacle, and yes I hope they got around to Kyle Baker’s table where he had a video segment and his comics. But were they really at the small press areas looking for the next thing? Not really. As it was I ended up media mailing most of them back to myself, along with about 40 DVDs. As I mentioned in a earlier post, what worked for me was persistent networking — the convention floor — somewhat similarly to the very similar NY Comic-Con in February did not make a place for me to meet too many fans or any industry. I did have a couple of nice conversations with fans curious about self-publishing or breaking into comics (while at the Friends of Lulu table), and got to meet a few people for the first time (or the first time in a long time) by visiting their tables (networking).
    -Rachel

Trackbacks

  1. […] Heidi posted a solid overview of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con yesterday. There’s one bit I want to address right away: This was the fifth San Diego I’d covered for a daily website, and my efforts seemed increasingly irrelevant. When every entertainment website and cable network sends fleets of reporters to cover the show and a group Flickr site puts up over a thousand of photos in a few days, the efforts of one little human seems pitiful by comparison. […]

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