The Death (And Coming Rebirth?) Of Comic Con

Comic Con 2011 saw fewer big movies, more jam-packed TV panels and a curious lack of buzz. Could this down year be a sign that the Con is dying… or that it’s about to become much more interesting?

That’s Hunter S Thompson talking about the death of the 60s counterculture, but it could be applied to the death of the geek culture - and especially Comic Con. The convention may have become a victim of its own success, leading to this year’s event being underwhelming, plastic and often plain bad. But could this also be what saves Comic Con?

The complaints about the mainstreaming of Comic Con have been happening for years, but that doesn’t make this year’s complaints any less true. A few years ago there were almost no paparazzi in San Diego’s streets during the Con, but this year they were omnipresent. And they were joined by hordes of celeb-seeking civilians, thronging the barricades outside of swank parties. This year Playboy threw a party at Comic Con. Playboy.

This is a pretty important sea change because it speaks to how massively the relationship between Comic Con and Hollywood has been altered. In the past seeing a celebrity at Comic Con was a wonderful treat, but now it’s an expectation - when celebs don’t show up there’s a feeling of being ‘slighted.’ But what’s more, Comic Con used to feel like something of a vacation for the celebrities who did make the trek; the general feeling for many people was that this was a getaway and a return to loving movies/pop culture/nerdiness as opposed to the scenes and fakeness of Hollywood. But now the scenes and the fakeness are here, with the hottest Comic Con parties getting written up just as much as the panels and the presentations.

Comic Con has no one but itself to blame for this; over the past few years the convention has been eager to sell its soul to Hollywood, getting bigger and better coverage and attention in the process. That peaked with Iron Man, a movie that many - most of all director Jon Favreau - thought was made at Comic Con. In the years that followed Hollywood threw everything they had at Comic Con, but more and more it became apparent that little of it was sticking. Comic Con doesn’t appear to be the hit-generating wonder everybody hoped it was.

But it took years to figure that out, and in the intervening years Hollywood just took over the whole shindig - and the whole downtown. The tenor of the parties changed completely, and now it’s simply Hollywood South - the same goons with ear pieces at the door, the same half-dressed women looking to walk red carpets, the same douchey producers making their deals. That summer camp vibe has been snuffed out.

This year some comic creators were so sick of being treated as second class by Comic Con they started a Slamdance to the big show’s Sundance - Trickster. Ironically they chose the year when Hollywood sort of wised up. The celebs still came - maybe more than ever - but they were in San Diego for parties and events. The studios didn’t much bother with Hall H, traditionally the center of movie programming at the Con. Warner Bros and Disney had nothing at all, Universal and Paramount had what felt like almost perfunctory presences. For the first time in years it was very, very possible to get into Hall H almost all the time.

But something else weird happened, and it was a little magical: smaller movies got their shot in the big room. Guillermo del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn headlined a panel for their new films Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Drive, but rather than just spew promotional bullshit they actually had an interesting conversation about filmmaking. Refn declared genre cinema the new progressive cinema, an exciting statement that we genre fans have always sort of held true. It was a great panel, and a treat to listen to these two talk openly and with engagement.

Then there was the panel for Knights of Badassdom, a movie that doesn’t even have a distributor. What a cool way for a smaller film like this to build buzz; it was certainly helped by the fact that director Joe Lynch had a cast who was much more exciting today than it was two years ago when he first started. But it wasn’t the celeb-factor that made the panel winning, but the footage and the surprise at seeing something most in the room had never heard of before. That was sort of the pop that Iron Man got back in the day, with the footage really surprising everybody who saw it.

Finally there was Francis Ford Coppola doing a weird and exciting and awesome live movie remix, bringing his experimental cinema ideas to the same room that had previously hosted Twilight and Snow White and the Huntsman and the Total Recall remake. The room was more than half empty, but who cares? The two or three thousand in attendance got to watch a living genius, a master of his craft, being playful and imaginative and creative right there in front of them. What an incredible experience, so much better than canned footage carefully chosen by marketing coordinators.

In fact the highlights of many of the other film panels were not the footage but the sense of connection that occasionally bridged the gap between the stage and the audience. That’s an old Comic Con feeling, that you’re in the room for a personal experience, not just to see footage, and it’s one that was made possible by the slowdown of big spectacle.

While it was nice that the lack of big studio panels allowed strange, unique things into Hall H, Comic Con found itself with its pants down when it came to TV. TV, always the neglected little sibling of movies, was where all the excitement was this year. Peter Dinklage sat in Hall H for Knights of Badassdom, a movie nobody knew anything about and that has no release date or distributor, while 7,000 people were turned away from seeing him in Ballroom 20 for Game of Thrones. This isn’t a diss on Knights, which looks great, but an example of how Comic Con didn’t know what they were doing this year. Game of Thrones would have packed them in in Hall H. And even when TV did get to Hall H, on Sunday, reports said that 3,000 chairs had been removed from the room.

What’s interesting is that TV really engenders the sort of fan/creator interaction that used to be the hallmark of Comic Con before Hall H became all about a parade of shitty novelty question askers like Bob Stencil and those fucking twins. We feel closer to TV stars because they come to us so often, and TV creators have an ability to listen to fans in a way that film creators simply can’t. There’s more back and forth in that world, something that really lends itself to the convention atmosphere. TV and comics aren’t THAT far apart, both being forms of longform serialized storytelling.

What was strange about Comic Con this year was how (relatively) empty it was. The show floor was, as always, way crowded on the side of the building where all the movie and game and TV stuff is, but even that section felt slightly subdued compared to previous years. The vibe was lower key in general, and there was very, very little buzz coming out of just about anything at all. The show sold out, so there must have been as many people this year as there were last, but it felt emptier. Maybe folks were off doing other things, disappointed in the lack of studio product. It’s hard to quantify a ‘vibe’ at an event that draws tens of thousands, and maybe others who were in other parts of the convention have a different perspective. But coming from the movie geek side of the con, this was a down year and I don’t just mean in product displayed.

I think Comic Con for film geeks is essentially over. The studios won’t return en masse. Disney will probably never be back in any meaningful way, as they have D23 in August. Universal might be back next year, but I wonder if the coming flopping of Cowboys and Aliens, which had its big premiere at the Con (at Favreau’s insistence - he really thinks Comic Con has made his career) will be the straw that breaks the studio’s back. They haven’t had much luck at the Con in recent years, and they didn’t even bother bringing Battleship at all this year. Sony was the only studio going all in this year, so we’ll see what happens next. I suspect that Paramount doesn’t even give a fuck anymore. They flew a Captain America banner over the show all weekend.

But I think Comic Con for film geeks could be reborn! This year’s show was an intriguing glimpse at what Con could be for film. Cede Hall H to TV for most of the show, and then have a film track in Ballroom 20 that focuses on real stuff, interesting movies, small films. Use the del Toro/Refn conversation as a template for something that isn’t marketing driven. Film at Comic Con doesn’t have to be a marketing assault, it can be a conversation between filmmakers and the audience. There’s a smart and committed base of people out in that audience who crave something more than being marketed towards; this isn’t as sexy and doesn’t attract as many Vanity Fair reporters as having Twilight panels, but it could create something sustainable and real and that actually celebrates pop culture.

If none of that happens, if Comic Con can’t figure out how to roll with the changing times and keeps hoping that Warner Bros is going to finally bring Christopher Nolan to San Diego, maybe the good news is that the film stuff will pretty much die away, leaving Comic Con again for those people who felt the need to leave the grounds and set up a competing event.

I believe in Comic Con, but unless the folks behind the convention realize they’re at a turning point they’re going to run their show into the ground. With some forward thinking and some smart moves they could really take the huge profile they’ve built and turn their show into something that transcends what we think conventions are. It could be one part con, one part film festival, one part dweeby TED talks. It could be more than Hollywood parties and skimpy cosplay outfits. It could be the true, beating heart of American pop culture. Or it could die.