Ask a fan when San Diego Comic-Con International started to go off the rails, and you’ll get a lot of different answers. Some will point to the Twilight saga as the reason waiting in line for a 90-minute panel became an overnight activity; others may cite Harry Potter or the influx of mainstream TV shows. But strip away the franchise allegiances, and it all basically comes down to the same thing: Comic-Con is an overstuffed, oversaturated mess, and it’s all Hollywood’s fault.
But for an event that has become so synonymous with superhero and sci-fi movies, this year’s Comic-Con is looking remarkably quiet. When things kick off this Thursday, only two major studios — Warner Bros. and Marvel — will be holding the traditional Hall H extravaganzas, and while Paramount is having the world premiere of Star Trek Beyond in San Diego, it’s otherwise staying away. With so few of the major studios participating, 2016 looks like the year that movies have finally had their fill of Comic-Con — and depending on how this year’s show goes, they may never come back.
Originally started in 1970 — back then it was called Minicon, and 145 people showed up for the inaugural get-together — Comic-Con grew steadily over the ensuing decades, largely by focusing on its hardcore base: comic and genre fans. On those merits alone it had already shown remarkable growth, boasting over 50,000 attendees in 2001. (Those days you could still walk up on the day of the show and land a ticket; in the modern era, Comic-Con sells out online in moments.) It didn’t take long for movie studios to realize the convention was an ideal location for them to promote films that catered to that same audience, and a quick symbiosis formed. Studios brought footage reveals and filmmaker panels to hype the faithful, and the exclusivity and unabashed fandom gave Comic-Con a kind of nerdy gravity, turning it into ground zero for a geek culture that was simultaneously transforming into mainstream blockbuster movie culture.
Run that formula for a couple of years, add Marvel’s extraordinary success, and you get the Comic-Con we saw last year. An estimated 160,000 fans attending, with people camping out overnight and sleeping with cockroaches just to hear director Zack Snyder talk about how sweet Batman v Superman was going to be.
But a promotional event is only worth its ability to, you know, actually promote, and despite the adoration Batman v Superman received in Hall H last year it didn’t live up to box-office expectations. The same can be said for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Pan, Warcraft, or Crimson Peak — all films that had their moment in the spotlight last year, but seemed to receive no bump from the investment their respective studios put into taking them to the event.
If there’s a lesson there, it’s one that is being learned — albeit slowly. The first time the entertainment industry really seemed to feel the sting from Comic-Con was back in 2010. That year, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World set the convention crowd on fire, and the reaction to Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch made it seem like Warner Bros. had a hit on its hands. In both cases, the films flopped spectacularly, calling into question just how much influence Comic-Con buzz actually had on a film’s opening. That same year, Disney released Tron Legacy, a film it had promoted so heavily at Comic-Con that it built a full arcade in San Diego two years in a row — but even then, the film barely earned back its $170 million budget in the US.
Studio attendance has been on the decline since 2010
The following years saw a steadily increasing number of studios foregoing the show in various years. Disney was one of the first, skipping Comic-Con in 2011 for both for its own films and Marvel’s. (Disney, Pixar, and Marvel instead all presented at D23, the company’s own biennial convention dedicated to its properties.) Fox, Paramount, and Universal also tested skipping Comic-Con in subsequent years, but what’s making 2016 so interesting is that if you group Marvel and Lucasfilm under the Disney banner, it’s the first year that more major studios are turning their back on Comic-Con than actually attending.
The big differentiator is 20th Century Fox. Last year the studio started the buzz for Deadpool with a raucous Hall H panel that also showed off an early trailer. That footage — intended as a Comic-Con exclusive — was almost immediately leaked online, and according to reports piracy concerns are what have encouraged Fox to stay away this year. That could make sense, under certain circumstances — say, if a studio has films that have only just started shooting, or aren’t particularly suited to Comic-Con audiences.
But in the case of Fox, the opposite is true. They have Assassin’s Creed scheduled for a December 21st release, and a new Wolverine film coming next March. Those are usually the exact kind of timeframes that would encourage a studio to show off footage — even if it had to wait a few weeks for the online release — and it’s hard to not look at the decision and infer that the value of showing up at Comic-Con in the first place must be in question. (The same can be said of Sony, who’s releasing The Magnificent Seven and the sci-fi film Passengers this year, and has The Dark Tower in February.)
With so many studios pulling out over the last few years, it should come as no surprise that Comic-Con is looking for ways to make itself more appealing in order to keep the momentum moving in the right direction. Earlier this year, it partnered with Lionsgate to launch its own streaming video service called Comic-Con HQ, which will be home to original programming and live-streamed panels from Comic-Con itself. It’s certainly an intelligent move; the convention can hopefully address some of the ticket and line issues it faces by bringing people into the fold through their computers and TVs, instead, and it can then convince studios to bring their panels to Comic-Con because they will now reach that many more people.
That’s trying to extend the lifespan of something that may already be on its way out, however. When it comes to using fan events to break news and create hype, Disney has already shown the way forward by going its own way — and arguably doing it better than Comic-Con ever has. With the Star Wars Celebration expos, Disney has brought cast and filmmakers out to fans, shown them footage, and generally done whatever it’s liked, because it controls the event from top to bottom. (And, except for the recent Rogue One trailer sneak peek, Disney’s exclusive footage always goes up online immediately.) The same is true for D23, and it’s easy to imagine a future where Disney turns D23 into an annual convention so it can just permanently drop out of Comic-Con altogether. Why force Marvel to share the spotlight with Warner Bros. and DC, when it can throw its own party?
What’s ultimately going to dictate the future of movies at Comic-Con will be, of course, the money. There’s something intoxicating about being around that much concentrated fandom, and the energy inside Hall H when a big piece of news is announced or a surprise clip is shown is a singular experience that I’ve never had at any other event or show. But a movie studio doesn’t function based on good vibes, so it will take a real sense that there’s a financial return coming from the Comic-Con investment for trends to reverse themselves. It could happen. Depending on how Comic-Con goes this week, we could see a film emerge as the shining example of why the convention is still vital, relevant, and worth being part of.
If not, there are plenty of television shows just waiting to take those Hall H spots.