SDCC Faces Changes, Challenges in 2021 and Beyond

SDCC Faces Changes, Challenges in 2021 and Beyond
Things are progressing slowly for San Diego Comic-Con. (Photo: Jerod Harris, Getty Images)

Comic-Con International: San Diego is coming up in a few short weeks, and that you may not have realised that seems significant. For years, San Diego Comic-Con (as it’s colloquially known) has been the crown jewel of the pop culture calendar: four days in San Diego, California, filled with comics, movies, toys, and all sorts of news that breathes life into fan passions and the pop culture news cycle. However, like all big events last year, SDCC was forced to close its doors due to covid-19, and this year, it’ll do the same. SDCC 2021 takes place virtually from July 23-25.

Last year, the non-profit organisation was one of the first to pivot to a fully online experience. As a result, the newly dubbed [email protected] had a fraction of the impact the convention usually has and failed to capture the excitement it’s long been known for. You could largely chalk that up to the situation the world was in a year ago due to covid-19, not to mention that sitting in front of a screen can’t compare to an in-person experience. But as the pandemic wore on, similar online events such as New York Comic Con (no relation), DC Fandome, and even a Walt Disney Investors Call ended up generating closer to the kind of experience Comic-Con is known for.

Now, a year later, the event is back at home and the question is: can it recapture the magic? For the answer, Gizmodo spoke to SDCC’s communications and strategy officer, David Glazer, who also happens to be its spokesperson. “Putting on an event, whether it’s in person or virtually, is still putting on an event,” Glazer told Gizmodo on a video call. “I think people thought, ‘Oh, you know what, it’s online. It’ll be so much easier.’ There’s still a lot of logistical issues to deal with as everybody, now that we’ve done the Zoom thing for a year or so, realises.”

SDCC made the decision to cancel its annual in-person event in April 2020 and the online offshoot happened in July. In such a short timeframe, pivoting a production like SDCC to a new format couldn’t have been easy. And as Glazer explained to Gizmodo, it wasn’t. “We were kind of one of the first ones out of the gate. And now that hopefully we’re seeing the end of this pandemic — fingers crossed — we may be one of the last ones … as well.” Glazer said. “But, it’s all about content. And hopefully, people have a good time and enjoy us and join us for the virtual event in July.”

A typical Comic-Con@Home panel, in this case, Family Guy from last year. (Screenshot: YouTube) A typical [email protected] panel, in this case, Family Guy from last year. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Last year, [email protected] had many issues. Pre-recorded and edited panels were unceremoniously uploaded to YouTube, making them feel rather insignificant (plus you could just skip through them). Talent all being in their homes cut back on spontaneous interactions that make the event special. And fan interaction was limited. One would hope a year later, maybe some of the panels could be broadcast live. Maybe vaccinated panelists could gather in groups for more interaction. Maybe something new and exciting would be introduced. Glazer wouldn’t flat out say how, or if, [email protected] was going to change this year but he seemed to suggest that while the company would love to do give itself an upgrade, it simply can’t.

“Comic-Con has relied on our in-person events to fund ourselves. And while we always had a buffer, a nest egg, should something happen that we couldn’t have a convention and thereby generating income, I don’t think we ever in a million years would have thought that we wouldn’t have had any events for close to two years,” Glazer said.

“Both our WonderCon shows we couldn’t have in person. Both of our Comic-Con shows we couldn’t have in person. And those are things that generate income. So while I think there are a ton of things we would love to do if we had unlimited resources and bandwidth — you might see it be a little more flashy — but I think the content is what matters. And we’ve tried to stay true to that.”

Programming for this year’s [email protected] has begun to trickle out (AMC, Paramount, Doctor Who, and DC Comics have already announced panels) with the full schedule coming July 8. Glazer confirmed, though, that most of it will be similar to last year, with panels pre-produced for YouTube in addition to certain interactive elements through platforms like Discord and Scener.

And while the team has discussed adding more elements, it’s simply not in the cards. “The reality is people have said, ‘Well, are you guys going to do live streaming?’ And, I don’t know that we really have the resources to do that,” Glazer said. “We’re a live events organisation … [and] I think that will always be your focus. But we will make the best of the situation that presented to us and we hope to do that with @Home this July.”

[email protected] isn’t the only thing Glazer and his team are working on. There’s also an in-person “Special Edition” — a name used by competitor ReedPop in NYC years ago — scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend. The announcement was met with passionate responses from many fans, all of which Glazer and the team saw. However, he explained that with the world opening up more every day, dates at the San Diego Convention Centre were filling up fast and the company felt Thanksgiving weekend, while not ideal, was its best bet.

“We really do understand that we’ve been in lockdown for a year and a half. So a lot of people are going to want to spend that time with their family and we totally understand that,” Glazer said. “And that’s why I think we made a point to name this ‘Special Edition.’ It isn’t Comic-Con. It isn’t the July show moved to Thanksgiving weekend. It’s a smaller, more intimate show, an ability for us all who are able to attend to kind of stick our toe in the water.” Plus, there’s no guarantee it happens, as health and travel conditions continue to change and the Delta variant spreads around the world. Planning also continues for SDCC 2022, which is already sold out due to tickets being transferred from the previously sold-out 2020 show.

Will we ever get scenes like this again? (Photo: Nicholas Hunt, Getty Images) Will we ever get scenes like this again? (Photo: Nicholas Hunt, Getty Images)

Looking ahead, Glazer thinks virtual events will end up having something of a positive impact in the long run. “One of the great things that we heard afterwards was the ability for people to see a lot of programs and virtually attend the show that they were never able to really do in person,” he said. “It was great that some programs that might have been in a 350-seat room were seen by a few thousand people. So that was a good thing. And I think going into it this year we’re trying to keep all that in mind … I think if there is something that we’ll see in the future, I think that is some continuation of an online presence. It’s a great ability to reach out to people who are all over the planet, some who couldn’t get tickets even if they wanted to.”

Something else that’s sure to continue in the future is more competition. For decades, SDCC has been in a class of its own. But in recent years, events like Star Wars Celebration and the D23 Expo, and newcomers like Netflix’s WitcherCon, threaten to take some of the biggest name brands out of San Diego. “Do we hope they’ll always be a part of us? We really do,” Glazer said when asked about these competing studio events. “And I think one of the things that’s unique with Comic-Con is that it really kind of is an umbrella organisation … Everybody can certainly have events about what their properties are and more power to them. But we are lucky enough to be able to have participation from a variety of different companies. And I think our fans and attendees appreciate that.”

But will they appreciate it this July? November? Next July? No one knows, Glazer especially. As a fan himself, though, he knows no matter what happens, the goal is getting back to normal. “It’s going to be somewhat emotional to actually see these people in person after not being able to see them for over a year,” he said. “There is something about the camaraderie. There is something about the community. To know that you’re among friends who share your passion or have passion and interests that you’re not even aware of, but to know that you’re in a safe environment to share that. My hope is that that’ll happen. We’ll hopefully all ease right back into it.”

[email protected] takes place on the internet-enabled screen of your choice on July 23-25; all [email protected] 2021 panels on YouTube are pre-recorded videos that will begin to go live to the public Wednesday, July 21.

The full programming schedule will go live July 9, at 3:00 a.m. AEST. Gizmodo will bring you more news and updates on that and November’s Special Edition as we know it.