When Comic-Con began 38 years ago in San Diego, it was just a small show for comic book collectors and sci-fi freaks. By last year it attracted a crowd of 125,000, including enough TV networks and producers that now the show's organizers, fearful that Comic-Con will lose its original flavor, are deliberately limiting the number of TV-related companies they'll allow to attend. They've also refused to give several networks and studios bigger booths.
This year, when the show happens on July 24-27, the exhibit floor will have approximately 14 TV-related booths, up from 12 a year ago. But space is at a premium.
“We've been trying to expand our footprint on the floor and there's a waiting list,” says Neal Tiles, head of G4, which will again broadcast live from its location. “You have to basically wait until someone cancels their booth space to even have a chance to expand your presence there.”
Also limited are the number of panels that conference executives will turn over to networks and studios to showcase their content, as organizers look to preserve diversity and some semblance of the event's roots.
“It would probably not be difficult to have every room filled with just television programming,” says David Glanzer, head of publicity and marketing. Glanzer adds, however, that Comic-Con works closely with programmers “to accommodate them as much as we can,” based on their needs and the level of high-profile programming to display.
Following successful promotions of Lost and Heroes, Comic-Con became a popular launching pad for new series. Turner's Adult Swim and Cartoon Network will tease one of the most heavily anticipated new series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Says Brenda Freeman, head of marketing for the networks, “We kind of consider Comic-Con an upfront for consumers.”
While the increasing number of series in the sci-fi/fantasy/mythology genres will have a steady presence, networks are increasingly looking to the event as a general way to reach young males, with panels for comedies such as NBC's The Office and FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia season debuts, and Comedy Central's returning Sarah Silverman Program.
Some 3,000 members of the press attend, skewing heavily toward fan sites and bloggers, who can create a snowball of interest on the speed-of-light Internet.
“Word-of-mouth is not friend-to-friend now,” says Lisa Gregorian, who heads television marketing at Warner Bros. “The world has changed so dramatically because of technology that it's one-to-many.”
Networks and studios say the attendees are passionate fans and tastemakers, and if they come away appreciating a new series or further inspired by an established one, they will become evangelists for it.
“It's a live social network where these people share their love for entertainment, and when they get what they really like, they spread that information out virally,” says Mark Pedowitz, president of ABC Studios.
The Comic-Con buildup as a promotional vehicle has been going on for the last five years or so. It may have reached an inflection point last July 25. At the annual Television Critics Association gathering in Hollywood, ABC Entertainment head Steve McPherson at first refused to release details of a much-hyped announcement about Lost—he wanted to save the news.
McPherson finally told the critics that a key character would be returning. It wasn't blockbuster stuff, but the message was clear: Comic-Con, in some ways, had become the platform of choice to bypass the journalistic gatekeepers and go directly to the 18-to-34-year-old males who attend the booming event en masse. Considering that many TCA critics work for newspapers where the median age of readers is over 50, it's easy to understand McPherson's reluctance—and Comic-Con's appeal.
“That was a delicate thing to manage,” says ABC marketing chief Mike Benson. “But there are a lot of things that have just become more important to us from a marketing standpoint for exceedingly-difficult-to-reach audiences.”
Benson's belief in Comic-Con was even further validated during this season's May 29 Lost finale. ABC used precious on-air real estate—reaching 12 million—for a murky 15-second spot announcing that a fictional “Octagon Global Recruiting” firm would be in San Diego on July 24-27 (Comic-Con time). The spot directed viewers to a Website that still provided few details, except to say the “firm” would be in San Diego looking for volunteers for a research project well-known to Lost viewers. The recruitment will form the basis for a sort of unbranded, interactive booth on the Comic-Con floor.
IT'S IN THE BAG
Comic-Con attendees crave “exclusive” items. In Warner Bros.' case, last year it gave out 75,000 collectors' bags for The CW's Smallville that caused a frisson; this year, it will offer different ones each day for four separate series. During a BET panel, entertainment president Reginald Hudlin will unveil clips of the animated The Black Panther series coming in 2009.
G4 will offer a behind-the-scenes peek at how the daily Attack of the Show! comes together, “the writers' meeting, the source materials, where the inspiration comes from,” according to the network's Tiles. And executive producer Seth MacFarlane will lead a table-read for a yet-to-air American Dad episode, offer a sneak peek at an unseen Family Guy episode and discuss the new Fox spinoff, The Cleveland Show.
Premiere screenings draw large crowds, and this year will include the pilot of Fox drama Fringe and the season three debut of Sci Fi's Eureka. Exclusive clips also create a thrill, so much so that Sera Gamble, executive story editor for The CW's Supernatural, recently overheard executive producers Eric Kripke and Robert Singer debate what to show at their panel. Kripke argued hard for the first 10 minutes of this fall's season four to please the fans. “They deserve it,” he said. But Singer nixed the idea partly because “10 minutes later everyone on planet Earth will know about it” via the blogosphere.
The three MacFarlane series come from 20th Century Fox, which is an example of a studio that uses Comic-Con not so much to promote its shows on networks, but to reach the passionate fan base that buys its DVDs and helps drive other ancillary revenues. “Our success is becoming more dictated by intensity of following than just volume of following,” says studio chairman Gary Newman.
Much of the television business' recent fascination with Comic-Con comes from the success that first Lost and then NBC's Heroes have had. While many forces are in play, both pilots were shown publicly for the first time at Comic-Con and anticipation skyrocketed.
NBC marketing head John Miller says the network had done very little with the convention, but took a flyer in the summer of 2006, booking a small panel room for Heroes. But people were turned away in droves, and those that made it in were captivated.
“The buzz was exponential,” Miller says. NBC's commitment to Comic-Con has it unveiling a new version of the KITT attack car from Knight Rider this year, not to mention holding the Office panel, with the show's writers and moderated by star Rainn Wilson.
Just about all panels have question-and-answer sessions where fans often veer off into suggestions. (Most are loaded with stars and blue-chip producers such as 24's Kiefer Sutherland and former Buffy the Vampire Slayer show runner Joss Whedon, now behind new Fox drama Dollhouse.) Autograph sessions are also a major draw, with the 2006 line for a signing from Ghost Whisperer star Jennifer Love Hewitt stretching outside the building, disrupting traffic and causing security to get involved.
Comic-Con “puts us in touch with the fan inside us and it does inform the decisions we make,” says Rob Tapert, an executive producer on new fall syndicated series Wizard's First Rule. His partner on the show is Sam Raimi of Spider-Man fame, who last year donned a bearded disguise so he could wander the exhibit floor anonymously.
In light of the younger, tech-savvy audience, networks are also promoting their Internet offerings. For the first time, IFC is using its booth to focus solely on its original Web series. The network's Lauren Burack says, “A lot of people get all their information and entertainment from the Web—and we're aware of that.”