The biggest panel at this year’s Comic-Con International happened before the event even began.
Technically, Wednesday night is “preview night”—there are events, but the big panels, where stars make appearances to talk about their movies or TV shows, don’t start until Thursday. But last night, before some convention-goers had even picked up their badges, Conan O’Brien took the stage at the Spreckels Theater in San Diego and introduced the A-list cast of It Chapter Two: Jessica Chastain, James McEvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransone, and Jay Ryan. The group, along with director Andy Muschietti, then held court, showing clips and sharing stories, for an hour and a half—longer than any single movie typically ever gets at Comic-Con.
The event was the third such ScareDiego, a presentation of New Line Cinema to showcase its upcoming horror offerings. Last year, in a much smaller theater, the same event brought James Wan to the stage to talk about the next Annabelle movie long before he went to the convention’s Hall H to talk about his marquee film, Aquaman. The event isn’t an official Comic-Con event—fans snagged tickets online—and in a year when New Line parent company Warner Bros. somewhat famously bowed out of their big Hall H presentation slot on Saturday, it says something about the state of the event.
For years, Hollywood studios—Warner Bros., Marvel, Paramount—charged into San Diego in an attempt to get the crowds hyped for their comic-book adaptations and genre fare. It worked. Comic-Con has long been a necessary stop on the movie marketing circuit, as essential as splashy red-carpet premieres.
But as the con got saturated, it became harder to stand out. Enter: activations. Every studio and network worth its salt started setting up experiences around the San Diego Convention Center. Virtual reality installations, re-creations of Blade Runner 2049 sets, people in Panem costumes milling around the Hard Rock Hotel to promote the latest Hunger Games movie. Non-studio entities also got in on the act. Kevin Smith started holding interviews on IMDb’s IMDboat. Entertainment Weekly set up its own con, dubbed Con-X, in 2016 and held panels with the casts of Teen Wolf and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
This year, the off-site attractions continue. Once again, NBC has posted up in the Gaslamp Quarter to promote shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Superstore, and The Good Place. There are Watchmen augmented-reality activations. But also, Comic-Con is shrinking. Marvel is coming to Hall H, but a lot of the studios—Fox, Sony—aren’t around. Much like the attrition seen at events like E3, studios are seeing the benefits of having their own events, instead of participating in the ones that already exist. And when they do participate, they do it off-site.
This year, the bloodletting seems particularly noticeable. Thursday morning, as the con opened with its first big Hall H panel, Comic-Con programming director Eddie Ibrahim took to the podium to give his usual address to the crowd. It’s the convention’s 50th, and Ibrahim took a moment to thank the crowd for showing up and making the event what it is. What he said without entirely saying it, though, was that its popularity is also its detriment.
“The first [Comic-Con] had 300 people. This room alone way outdoes 300 people. So it’s really exciting to see how it’s grown,” Ibrahim said. “But I think, more so, what’s exciting is the fact that we have always been fans of these things. We’ve been fans of comics, movies, television, games. And now it’s cool to be a fan of that, and a lot of you out there are a lot of the shepherds that let that happen. We are now the shepherds of stuff that is cool. We hope that Comic-Con will continue to help spearhead that.”
Now that’s a new hope.
More Great WIRED Stories