Kendall Whitehouse, Knowledge@Wharton’s technology and media editor, regularly attends various Comic Cons and reports on trends in entertainment and pop culture. Here, he takes a look at the hubbub surrounding the San Diego event and considers how the show might expand in the future.
Tickets for San Diego Comic-Con 2013 went on sale this past Saturday, and one need look no further for evidence of the increasing popularity of nerd culture. It was a mad dash for those hoping to attend the annual celebration of comic books, movies, video games and all things pop entertainment, with badges for the full four days of Comic-Con selling out in less than an hour. Within 93 minutes, all tickets — even single day tickets — were gone, leaving many disappointed fans. And this is an event with an attendance of approximately 130,000. One of the many unofficial Comic-Con blogs has a blow-by-blow description of the hope, panic and, in some cases, disappointment of the day.
The roughly 90-minute window during which tickets were available was a repeat of last year’s ticket scramble. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, although San Diego Comic-Con traces its history back to 1970, the first sell-out for the event was a mere five years ago.
Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans, and Friends!, a 2009 history of the event by Comic-Con International, the non-profit organization that hosts the San Diego show, excitedly proclaimed that in 2007, Comic-Con experienced its first-ever sold out days. And in 2008, the entire event — both four day tickets and single day tickets — sold out “weeks before anyone set foot in the building” (as if that were something amazing).
Now — just five years later — tickets sell out as soon as they’re available.
More Than Comic-Con
The desire to be part of the Comic-Con experience is so intense, it has spawned a swarm of related events that fill San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter to accommodate those who don’t have a ticket (or who want to party all through the night).
Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch tally of off-site events not run by Comic-Con International (or “things to do in San Diego without a badge”) for last year included The Walking Dead Escape in Petco Park, the traditional downtown zombie walk, and various activities sponsored by Warner Bros., NBC and the Cartoon Network. And the list doesn’t include events such as Nerd Machine’s Nerd HQ or Geek and Sundry’s offsite activities, both of which are multi-day mini-conferences in themselves. For those planning ahead for this year, the OutsideComicCon Twitter stream proclaims: “Avoiding the lines, the closed rooms, and the general mania, we uncover all the amazing events & happenings planned in downtown San Diego during Comic-Con!”
While the demand for Comic-Con badges shows no signs of abating, it’s not clear what can be done to address the supply side of the situation. The event not only occupies the available space of the San Diego Convention Center, it has outgrown the venue, expanding into ballrooms of the adjacent Hilton and Marriott hotels on both sides of the convention hall.
Although other cities offer larger venues, Comic-Con International is reluctant to leave the event’s longtime home. Last fall, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders announced that Comic-Con International extended its existing contract to keep the convention in San Diego through 2016, noting that the event adds $180 million to the city’s economy.
Some fans — and perhaps Comic-Con International as well — are pinning their hopes on a proposed $520 million expansion of the Convention Center, plans for which have faced challenges from labor and environmental factions. Even if the plans proceed, the enlarged convention center is still years away.
With the demand for tickets greatly outstripping the supply, basic economic theory would dictate that the ticket price is too low. Yet significantly increasing the ticket price would change the character of the event. Unlike many of the similar conventions hosted by commercial enterprises, Comic-Con International is a non-profit organization which describes its mission as “creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular art forms.”
Ticket prices did increase from $105 for a four-day pass in 2011 to $150 in 2012 and 2013. But this did little to dent the demand. Compared with tickets to the Super Bowl with a face value of $850 to $1,250 (and often a much higher resale price), tickets to Comic-Con are a steal. While there may be minimal audience overlap between the two events, San Diego Comic-Con is, in a sense, the Super Bowl for pop culture fans.
Whither WonderCon and Other Cons?
While there are dozens of local comic book and pop culture Cons run by different organizations across the U.S. and around the globe, none provide the scope and breadth of programming as the annual Comic-Con International event, which is what keeps fans streaming into San Diego each summer. It’s simply the place to be for anyone interested in comic books, video games, and science fiction movies, television and literature.
The best way to relieve the growing pressure on San Diego to carry the full weight of nerd-dom each year may be to provide more high-quality Cons throughout the year.
And, indeed, Comic-Con International runs a similar annual event known as WonderCon. Traditionally held in San Francisco in the spring, scheduling difficulties relocated the show to Anaheim in 2012 and 2013. Comic-Con International has stated it plans to return to San Francisco when possible.
Sometimes called the “kinder, gentler” Comic-Con due to its smaller scale, WonderCon is nonetheless a major pop culture show with roughly 50,000 attendees (compared to Comic-Con’s 130,000).
Given their similar character, one wonders whether part of why WonderCon doesn’t foment the same fervor as San Diego Comic-Con is simply the name. Comic-Con International holds a trademark on the name “Comic-Con,” yet continues to maintain the WonderCon identity for the spring conference — while other non-related events identify themselves as a “comic con” (without the hyphen), comiccon, or comicon. Although the show was recently officially renamed “Comic-Con International Presents WonderCon Anaheim,” that appellation doesn’t have the pithy allure of “Anaheim Comic-Con.”
My suggestion to maintain sanity in nerdland: Bring WonderCon back to San Francisco in the fall, continue to host the event in Anaheim in the spring, and rename both shows using the “Comic-Con” moniker. With a San Francisco Comic-Con, Anaheim Comic-Con, and San Diego Comic-Con — all run by Comic-Con International — the West coast should be covered, at least for the next few years.
Meanwhile, for those with a ticket to this year’s San Diego Con, the pre-event madness isn’t over. Comic-Con attendance saturates hotels from San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter to the airport and Mission Valley. Next Tuesday is the hotel lottery (also known as “hotelmageddon”) to determine who gets a room from the large number of pre-booked blocks held for the convention. Let the games begin.