With the worldwide pandemic still raging, San Diego Comic-Con had a difficult decision to make. Should they just cancel outright, putting off the mass gathering of fans and celebrities for another year? Or should they try and put something together within the restrictions of lockdown?
In the end they went for the latter, debuting virtual event [email protected] in the SDCC slot and bringing a host of TV show, movie and other pop culture panels together through video-links to simulate their usual event, complete with surprise trailer reveals and special guests.
But how successful was it? Opinion online was mixed. While some applauded the greater accessibility of the event, with every panel free and easy to stream online as opposed to the hefty price of the usual SDCC passes, others noted a singular lack of atmosphere in what amounted to a series of awkward video-chats from distant actors and creatives.
[email protected] was also notable for an absence of big announcements and film panels, with both Marvel and Warner Bros declining to make appearances (Warner Bros’ DC films will have their own separate virtual event, DC FanDome, later in the summer) meaning that the schedule looked a little thinner than usual.
Of course, there’s an extent to which [email protected] was an experiment, and the organisers’ ingenuity should be applauded, managing to bring some semblance of SDCC to the masses in the face of an unimaginable turn of event. But there are also clearly lessons to be learned here, both for future conventions eyeing their own futures in the age of coronavirus (we’re looking at you, New York Comic-Con) and for conventions in general.
In the short term, the biggest lesson has to be that the world is getting a bit tired of the videochat panel format. When the world was locked down and everyone was hungry for any scrap of normality, a “that’ll do” mentality meant that virtual versions of TV shows and press events were accepted, even enjoyed – but as the novelty wore off, it became clear that the limitations of the form (both technically and atmospherically) weren’t sustainable for its long term use.
On TV, that meant a return to the studio for various programmes that had tried to do an at-home version. At Comic-Con, it probably means that going forward organisers should at least attempt to get guests in the same room for a recording, even if it’s not possible to do the panels live or have an audience. You’d at least have some atmosphere and a little of that Comic-Con magic, rather than essentially relying on everyone sitting on yet another Zoom call on top of all the ones we’ve been a part of over the last few months.
Without big announcements from the likes of Warner Bros and Disney this issue was more keenly felt, with smaller panels and discussions that might have got by on charm and chemistry “in person” struggling to spark in quite the same way online and without the call and response of a live audience.
On the flip side, [email protected] did bring a new side to Comic-Con that would be good to see extend beyond the pandemic – greater accessibility. Obviously it wouldn’t be viable to stream every panel and event for free under normal circumstances, and part of the point of Comic-Con is that exclusivity – to be part of the atmosphere and have access to first-look reveals, you need to pay to be in the room where it happens (or at least, Hall H).
But exclusivity can become exclusionary when you consider the number of fans who simply couldn’t attend a big event like this for financial, accessibility or simple geographical reasons.
In future years, why not offer some sort of subscription service to watch the panels online as they happen – or, failing that, why not put them online for free a day after, so fans at home can enjoy the panels and people who paid to be there can still get that inside scoop? They already do this with trailer reveals, after all – they’re screened in the room first, then put online.
Overall, there’s plenty [email protected] can teach us, even if it isn’t an exact blueprint for similar events going forward. Fingers crossed other similar events are taking notes as we learn more about how long we’ll be living with some sort of “new normal”.
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