Soaking for four days in pure, unadulterated fandom can take a lot out of you. But if you care enough, it’s worth it. That’s the feeling I got watching the doors close at the Convention Center on the last day of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. This annual epicenter of fan culture is changing, but for the people it matters most to, it’s exactly what it always needed to be.
Comic-Con doesn't exist for Hollywood's sake
Comic-Con 2016 was a smaller show this year, though it remains the biggest fan convention on the planet. An estimated 130,000 attendees mobbed the city’s streets (though tallies vary, going as high as 170,000), markedly fewer than the 160,000 fans who came to the convention last year. Significantly, the event lacked the studio presence of years passed, with both 20th Century Fox and Sony opting out of the lineup entirely. But as the Sun set on SDCC 2016 on Sunday, I kept asking myself one question: who cares? As Hollywood is finding more and more reason to pull away, it feels a little like Comic-Con is, slowly but surely, finding its way back to putting the fans first.
As someone who covers the event, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Comic-Con doesn’t exist for Hollywood’s sake. Despite companies like Disney and Warner Bros. colonizing the weekend, pushing superheroes and anime into the mainstream, the convention is first and foremost about the gathering of fans of all stripes. And they have different priorities.
In other words, fans are basking in a shared connection, and companies are only filling the air with experiences. If you want a picture of what that might look like, consider the Sonic the Hedgehog 25th Anniversary event. Held at the House of Blues in Downtown San Diego on Friday night, Aaron Webber, the man who runs Sonic’s hilariously demented Twitter account, hailed the event as the biggest Sonic party ever. There was no argument there; fans with everything from blue hair to full-on hedgehog costumes — some of whom came to Comic-Con strictly for Sonic — lined up around the block for the chance to eat, drink, and hang out with their favorite video game character. Sega’s Jun Senoue, the composer who has been writing music for the franchise since 1994, came out to shred on guitar, playing songs just about everyone knew the words to. There was even a human-sized Sonic the Hedgehog dabbing and doing the Nae Nae onstage.
Now, it’s no secret that Sonic fans roll deep, but seeing them in person being catered to so lovingly is a sight to behold. Sega needs rabid fans to justify new games like Sonic Mania, a game that seems made of pure 16-bit-era nostalgia. But those fans don’t need Sega to be there in full force. Their love of Sonic transcends the corporate brand.
That doesn’t mean the show would suddenly be improved if studios and creators left well enough alone. Comic-Con thrives on the full-throated investment fans have in IP. That’s why there are huge activations for Mr. Robot and South Park; it’s why Doctor Strange banners lined the streets. Overall, the show had no trouble compensating for the big draws that didn’t come to the city. Where blockbuster movies previously held sway, TV stepped in to fill the vacuum in a big way, with the trailers for shows like Luke Cage and the new season of Sherlock getting huge responses from fans online. And as ever, Marvel and DC won the show, with the news about Wonder Woman, Justice League, and Captain Marvel making the biggest splashes.
Most fans on the show floor are blissfully unaware of what's making headlines
But beyond the lines and huge crowds inside Hall H and Ballroom 20, most of the people at Comic-Con are on the show floor, blissfully unaware of what’s making headlines. They’re there to buy things, see friends, and geek out. (And play Pokémon Go.) If they bump into celebrities or catch a few really great panels, all the better. But the newsier aspect of the event is just one part of what they’re there to enjoy.
San Diego Comic-Con is at a crossroads. As major studios either leave outright to launch their own events or reduce their presence at the event, it will inevitably start to shrink. That may even be a good thing, as the city continues to struggle with its line problem. But without the draw of huge trailers, Hollywood will need to focus more of its energy on creating programming and experiences for fans. The diehard fans will keep coming no matter what. And if the entire point is building up goodwill among a group of people that can already be trusted to buy merchandise, fill theater seats, and stand in line for hours on end for things they care about, that’s a worthwhile investment.
Update 7/26 8AM ET: This article has been updated to clarify that estimates vary about the number of attendees at San Diego Comic-Con.