The Paradox of the Incredible Shrinking Comic-Con Expansion

When people talk about "the good old days," they're mourning the death of simplicity. For San Diego Comic-Con attendees, nostalgia has always rested with the diehards who haunt the floor of the Convention Center, lining up to buy artwork from their favorite illustrators or hunting down a copy of that formative book from their childhood. They're the ones who have seen SDCC go from comics convention to infrastructure-overwhelming pop-culture pilgrimage, the ones who can't help but feel a little territorial about the movie and TV fans flooding the city.

Recent years have been a Gilded Age for those other fans, though, the ones who are here for a pan-pop spectacle. The ones who treat the overnight wait outside Hall H, the con's marquee stage, like an adventure in itself. The ones who plan their vacation time to take optimal advantage of the star-studded panels inside or just to visit the experiential "activations" that colonize ballparks and vacant lots throughout the city's Gaslamp District. For them, indulgence is the whole point—and anytime a major studio or movie skips Comic-Con, they yearn a little more for the time that J. J. Abrams led 6,500 people out of Hall H for a symphony performance.

Two camps, two philosophies. This year feels like it's shaping up to satisfy neither one.

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Granted, it wouldn't be Comic-Con without some hand-wringing. If it's not major comics retailers bailing on the event, it's Marvel or HBO. But even with one or two major omissions each year, SDCC has always seen enough infusions of new energy to balance those omissions. In 2017, Netflix came out in force to tease its forthcoming genre movies. Last year, Amazon Prime brought six projects to its inaugural panel, previewing future hits like Homecoming and Good Omens. What does 2019 have? Well, it's got Marvel in Hall H again, which is fun. It's got plenty of genre TV shows, from Snowpiercer to Batwoman. It's got Tim Miller's Terminator sequel. But those things are far outweighed by what it won't have, especially in Hall H: Star Wars. Sony. Universal. Warner Bros. Fox.

But wait! It's not like Hall H is empty during the hours that it would have otherwise hosted a major studio's presentation. Game of Thrones is back for a victory lap (that might end up being more of a Shame Nun–style pillory). Avengers: Endgame directors Anthony and Joseph Russo are doing a Hall H panel of their own, as are Endgame writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. HBO and Netflix are each hosting two (Westworld and His Dark Materials for the former, The Witcher and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance for the latter). Somehow, Comic-Con feels like it's expanding and contracting at the same time—that great paradox of the Age of Content.

What's happening here is really a combination of consolidation and balkanization. For Star Wars and Disney Animation/Pixar stuff, Disney has long known it can bypass San Diego and head straight to its own fan events, Star Wars Celebration and the biennial D23 Expo. (D23 takes place a month after Comic-Con this year.) Fox is now part of Disney—and unless Marvel risks a mass cardiac event by revealing how it might be utilizing Fox’s Marvel-related properties like the X-Men and Silver Surfer, we won't be hearing about the studio's genre properties. Warner Bros. has always capitalized on Disney's periodic absences, making its own decision this year to not give fans a peek at Joker and Wonder Woman 1984 all the more puzzling.

Meanwhile, the streaming services have gone from upstart to alphas—and have started acting like it. While they once crammed their genre fare into omnibus-style events the way Warner and Fox did, this year they're comfortable enough to break their projects out into individual panels. Amazon's adaptation of The Boys struts into San Diego for its own dedicated hour, as does The Expanse. The same goes for Netflix, which once only dared give Stranger Things its own stage; now, The Witcher and Dark Crystal, two rookie shows, get the full Hall H treatment. Big movie studios want to bail? Fine, say Netflix and Amazon and Hulu—we've got the marketing budgets to fill that void.

Attrition on one hand, proliferation on the other: If you wanted a sneak peek of what the future of television looks like, you couldn't ask for a better one than this year's Comic-Con. WarnerMedia pulls Friends off Netflix to try to attract people to HBO Max, its forthcoming streaming service; NBCUniversal does the same with The Office. Meanwhile, with its purchase of Fox, Disney buys out Comcast and takes full control of Hulu, resulting in the company owning two streaming services outright (the other being Disney+)—each with its own legacy catalog, each with its own originals pipeline. Add in Apple, DC Universe, and whatever else, and you've got some hard decisions to make.

That changes the calculation of fandom considerably. Comic-Con, at its core, is still about personal investment in pop culture, and that investment happens at all levels. You've got people dedicated to a character, to a movie, to a game, to a narrative universe—and, increasingly, to the platforms that deliver those stories and universes. Don't believe me? Read a psychographic profile of Generation Z; YouTube and Netflix far outrank Disney and Nintendo in perceived coolness. (I regret to inform you that this one, which Google commissioned in 2017, is called "It's Lit.") While that reputation is part predicated on the stuff that comes out of those pipes, the fact remains that the pipe itself has a role like never before. Just like Comic-Con, it's all getting bigger—and it's all getting so, so much smaller.


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