Entertainment

Comic-Con Uplugged? SDCC Scales Down Expectations For Thanksgiving ‘Special Edition’


After two years of COVID quarantine, San Diego Comic-Con will be running its first in-person event this coming weekend. But fans expecting the high-wattage star power, massive megabooths and crushing crowds that typify SDCC’s usual summer spectacular should be warned: SDCC Special Edition is promising a more intimate, scaled down experience.

Think of it as “Comic-Con Unplugged:” part reunion for longtime (vaxxed and masked) fans; part lagniappe for locals who, for the first time in decades, might be able to get a ticket to their city’s world famous event; and part stopgap to help the beleaguered organizers get back in the game and staunch the financial bleeding that has drained the coffers of the multimillion dollar nonprofit after missing four of its massive revenue-generating events (two San Diego Comic-Cons and two WonderCons).

Since SDCC:SE was first announced, it’s been beset by questions. How can this kind of live event be run safely under current conditions? Can Comic-Con live up to its outsized reputation without Hall H, without the big Hollywood and entertainment industry presence, and without tentpole exhibitors like Marvel, DC and Lucasfilm? And for the love of all that’s holy, why Thanksgiving weekend?!

I spoke with Comic-Con Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer David Glanzer for answers. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rob Salkowitz, FORBES contributor: When people hear “San Diego Comic-Con,” they think of the big event over the summer. How is this “Special Edition” going to be different?

David Glanzer, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer, Comic-Con International: We’ve really tried to let people know this is not the summer show. This is a smaller, more intimate gathering. We call it Special Edition because it really is special: our first in-person show since 2019, but it will only be two and a half days instead of the usual four-and-a-half days, with less programming, fewer exhibitors and lower attendance. To be honest, it’s an attempt to dip our toes back in to the water in terms of doing a live event, especially with all the different guidelines and rules.

RS: What specific measures are you taking to protect attendees regarding COVID regulations, and what kind of enforcement can we expect to see?

DG: We are adhering to federal, California and local San Diego guidelines and erring on the side of caution. We require proof of vaccination or a recent negative test. Full details are on our website. Our main priority is the safety of our attendees. This is new ground for many of us.

RS: There was a lot of grumbling about the Thanksgiving dates, not just among fans but also professionals, because SDCC is such a must-do event. Why did you pick those dates, and how do you think it has affected exhibitor participation and attendance?

DG: We didn’t ask for those dates; we asked what was available in terms of getting both exhibition space and meeting rooms, and providing enough time on either side of the event for setup. Sadly, those were the best dates available. There were other dates with no move in move out, which means it would have had to be a 1-day show. There’s a lot to do for planning, logistics and we didn’t think that was a good option. Some dates didn’t have as much meeting space, which would mean compromising on panels and programming.

[Having a fall show] is result of a lot of fans asking if we’re doing a show this year. Because Comic-Con takes so much planning and lead time, we had to decide to cancel summer show with what we knew in early January, and at that time, it was not clear that vaccines would roll out or be effective. But then as vax rates increased, we got questions about whether to mount the summer show. We couldn’t. So we thought, could we do a fall show? If so, what dates? We came up with this. We knew about social distancing mandates, so we knew it would be smaller, as it should be.

So is this optimal? No. But among fans, it’s not unusual for shows to be held over Thanksgiving. We’d like to say, spend Thanksgiving with your family, then spend the rest of the weekend with your friends.

RS: What kind of attendance numbers are you expecting based on pre-sales? Is it still possible to buy a badge?

DG: We are hoping for 40-50K unique attendees. We’re trying to limit the number of people, so there hasn’t been a lot of promotion. Our hope is to have walk-ups. Though that hasn’t been the case at Comic-Con in a while, it’s still possible to buy badges day-of-show for WonderCon, so we know fans appreciate that. Badges are still available as of now.

RS: One of the big announcements this year is the unveiling of the Comic-Con Museum. What’s going on with that, and will fans have a chance to take a look at the new facility?

DG: That’s big. So we have two big stories: Special Edition and the opening of the museum. As a nonprofit, we focused on celebrating comics as a popular art. This is a great endeavor to be able to have a permanent facility. Comic Con comes and goes, and when it ends, we always wish we had more time to focus and talk. The Museum allows us to do that.

It’s a soft opening starting on 11/26, with the grand opening in summer of 2022. We want to be sure we have best practices in place. There has been lots of construction on the exterior and interior over the past few years. The building reflects the color palette that was originally on the building in 1935. The interior features lots of great exhibits, with retail space that includes not just Comic-Con Museum merch but also SDCC merch.

Fans that come to San Diego can take part in that. It’s a separate ticket from SDCC and tickets are available now.

RS: SDCC typically relies on armies of volunteers and short-term workers to pull off the event. How has the timing, the pandemic, and general labor market conditions impacted that?

DG: We have a lot of volunteers and we are very grateful for their support. Because Special Edition is more intimate, there’s less need for support staff. We’ll have plenty, we do rely on that, but not as many as over the summer. Also, by having a smaller show running for fewer days, that lets us not have to tax our volunteers as much as before.

RS: As of the last public disclosure for 2019, SDCC had something like $28 million net assets, with revenues accounting for just about the exact amount of expenses incurred in running the shows. I imagine that’s less now after two years of no revenue. How significant was the impact of the pandemic on SDCC’s finances and operations?

DG: Significant is the proper word. People don’t realize we have a war chest that we amass every year. It allows us enough seed money to cover the expenditures in case of catastrophe. We are a very financially conservative organization. We always assumed we’d have the buffer if something happened: weather, force majeure. We didn’t foresee a worldwide pandemic that would shut down everything for 2 years. That’s had a significant impact. We’ve been able to keep our employees employed and mount this show, but it’s tight. This show will hopefully serve as a fundraising effort for us, to replenish our coffers a bit and move forward.

RS: The pandemic has hit the whole events industry hard, and at least one major player is taking the opportunity to invest heavily in the space through acquisitions and partnerships. Has SDCC been approached by anyone seeking to take over operations of the show, and is that something the Board would even consider?

DG: The Board has an obligation to consider any serious inquiry on any number of matters. That’s not new. Within the events industry, with our branding, people have talked with us over the years. The pandemic hasn’t changed anything. The Board looks at any inquiry soberly. I don’t know there’s anything new or unique that’s happened since the pandemic.

RS: What does success look like for Special Edition?

DG: This may sound trite, but just people having a good time. Comic-Con isn’t just celebrating and promoting popular art that we believe are artistic, deserving wider recognition. One of the great benefits is community. When we did at home events, it was to keep our fanbase connected, even via the screen. A successful show is fans attending and having fun. We also want revenue to keep us moving forward of course.

RS: Once you get past Special Edition, what’s the outlook for WonderCon and SDCC in 2022?

DG: We’re going to have to move fast. This is the first con we’ve had in the fall since Alternative Press Expo (APE) many years ago. This is larger than that and takes more attention. Then, WonderCon in the spring in Anaheim and Comic-Con for next July. That’s our goal, not just for commerce sake, but for health, safety and comradery. I hope this is behind us by next year.

We’re looking at full on comic con for summer. It’s a fluid situation, can change in an instant. What we’ve heard from healthcare folks, we should be on good footing for the return to a regular summer event. I’m looking forward.



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