San Diego Comic-Con International is the pop culture Mecca. Each year, about 130,000 nerd-pilgrims attend to geek out on their favorite franchises. The entertainment industry seizes on Comic-Con as an opportunity to market to this core fan base and build buzz for their upcoming releases.
I spent three days at this year’s Comic-Con as part of an independent study project with Rob Salkowitz. The goals: to observe how the entertainment industry engages with its core fan base, to study how the biggest franchises leverage transmedia storytelling, and most importantly, to film interviews with comic industry professionals.
Here are three of the key industry observations I took away from this year’s Comic-Con:
1. Serious business goes down at Comic-Con
On a Saturday morning train to San Diego, I sat next to a development executive representing a Hollywood studio. She was prepping for a meeting with an author of a major fiction franchise, in which she and her team would pitch a feature film adaptation of his works. Our train ride conversation showed me that these types of meetings happen all over the convention. It makes sense. Creators from around the world attend Comic-Con, and LA is a relatively short trip away.
As part of my own project, I had the privilege of interviewing comics veteran Denis Kitchen. Denis has attended Comic-Con for more than 40 consecutive years. He doesn’t attend for the cosplay, or the movie sneak peeks in Hall H. Denis describes Comic-Con as the one time that everyone in his industry gathers in the same place. Therefore, he packs his schedule with back-to-back meetings.
Most of the 130,000 attendees experience a weekend full of costumes and celebration. For industry professionals, it can be the most important business event of the year.
2. Attendees value immersive experiences over schwag
Comic-Con is a cacophony of commercialism. Every company competes for attendees’ attention. Schwag is everywhere: tote bags, mini-comics, posters, flyers. All this stuff gets lost in the shuffle. When stuff comes free, it feels valueless.
Immersive experiences, on the flip side, made for promotional successes. It was impossible to miss Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Experience, a giant medieval obstacle course that brought gameplay to the real world. Similarly, fans lined up for hours to participate in Pacific Rim’s Occulus Rift experience, in which users could pilot a Jaeger and engage in virtual battle with a kaiju. That’s about as immersive as entertainment gets.
3. Strategic publishing can boost Internet buzz
The biggest Comic-Con news comes from Hall H, where major studios unveil exclusive trailers and assemble star-studded panels. During their Hall H block, Warner Brothers premiered a first clip of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and a picture of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. They kept the clip exclusive to the live audience, but released the picture online. The Internet went crazy over the picture, but mostly shrugged off the exclusive footage.
Compare this to the Mad Max: Fury Road trailer. Warner Bros premiered the trailer to the Hall H crowd and published it to YouTube immediately after. This pleased the crowd, who could retain bragging rights for seeing it first, and it encouraged them to share the promo. This dual-release plan, premiering the trailer for the audience and then immediately publishing to YouTube, was a winning strategy for Warner Brothers. Going into Comic-Con, Mad Max had only minor buzz. Now, it’s the trailer to beat, with over a million views in its first five days.