Dr. Geek: What’s the Point of Comic-Con These Days?

A long, long time ago, in a land by the bay, a group of comic book nerds, fans, geeks, aficionados got together and created a convention to highlight their hobby, their passion, their love.

And now, Hollywood has co-opted it to sell their products.

I attended my first Comic-Con in 2001, and again in 2002.  At the time, there was, of course, a sizable presence by Hollywood; in that, on the seller’s floor, many booths were set up for various films, television series and digital games.  But for some reason, it did not register with me what I was seeing: the cooptation of a fan-created convention, about comic books, by non-comic book producing corporations.  This lack of recognition may have been because I was partially part of that industry working to co-opt those fans.

In going back in 2006 and 2007, Hollywood’s presence had increased; and, being trained to recognize these things through graduate school, I took notes and wrote down ideas about what I was seeing.  I was first of all seeing massive crowds, as it was the beginning of the sellout registrations for Comic-Con.  The swag offered by Hollywood booths to promote their productions were big commodities — perhaps more important to attendees than the comic books and similar wares that are traditional con offerings.  Groups of fans would strategically plan their panel visiting, staking out good seats in the larger auditorium halls used by Hollywood for their premiere panels and presentations — even if it meant staying in the room for hours and sitting through panels they did not care about.  The energy levels of fans, cosplayers, panelists, promoters, producers — if any green energy technician could tap into it, I’m sure it could power all of San Diego for at least a month.

The con funk alone would make a great fuel source.

 

In 2011, it appeared that Hollywood was pulling back from San Diego’s Comic-Con, as talks to move the convention from its originating location to Anaheim – aka Hollywood’s backyard — were tossed around (it ended up with WonderCon appearing in Anaheim this past spring.)  For this year’s Comic-Con, which occurred July 12-15, there does not appear to have been a huge draw down of attendance, either by the fans and reporters or by the industry professionals.  The industry was well represented for all its scifi/fantasy/horror genres across comics, television, movies and games.  From the roof-raising presentation by Marvel to the why is M. Night Shyamalan still directing questions, there was more than enough thrills, chills, and swag to satisfy the 100,000+ fans who dressed up and showed up in the crowded halls of the convention center.

But why?  Why does it all matter?  What do the fans get out of it?  What does the industry get out of it?  Why does either invest the time and effort in four days of crowded exhibition hall space, panel room space, and hall space?

Answering the question of what fans get out of it is the easier part: they get to be surrounded by and partake in activities and objects that pertain to their passion.  They get a crack at exclusive goods, such as the My Little Pony Derpy/Ditzy toy, not to mention all of the free swag industry booths pass out.  They get to dress up as their favorite character, and revel in the idea that their favorite stars like to do the same.  They get to attend panels and screenings to have access to information that no one outside of that room does — for at least a couple minutes before everyone uses their smartphone to share the information with the rest of the world.  They get to meet people they adore and idolize, such as when Robert Downey Jr. surprised the kids competing in an Iron Man costume contest.

 

Going to any convention can be a thrill for a fan.  Going to the really big ones, like Comic-Con, can stir the same emotions as making a great pilgrimage to a holy site.  You spend a lot of time planning and preparing and dreaming, and then you step into that convention hall and you are surrounded by things and people you love.  There may be no other experience quite like it to the true devotee.  It’s like crawling back into the womb, being encircled by the arms of someone you love, of taking a bite of that perfect strawberry ripe from the sun’s kiss.

Okay, so, maybe I’m glamorizing it a tad.  There are downsides, mostly due to the crowds — and with Comic-Con, that downside has gotten worse over the past decade thanks to Hollywood’s increasing presence at what was once just another of many fan conventions.  So why does Hollywood go in there and whip up the fans into such a frenzy?

As if there is any other answer than it being all about the money.

Fandom is important in a fracturing mediascape because it means, for the industry, the creation and maintenance of loyal consumers to ensure a demonstrable revenue source, whether for direct sale of goods or for audience-as-commodity to sell to advertisers.  Fans are loyal in their repeated returning behavior: repeatedly returning to any product covers the gamut from the “loyal viewer” to the “obsessive fan”.  These behaviours include combinations of cognitive, affective and physical actions/reactions/orientations toward the object of affection: the type and amount of such behaviours varies depending on the attachment felt for the object.  Which is to say, a fan is someone who will continually watch, read, play, buy, drink, eat, wear anything that is related to their fandom.  So if you are the producer who manufactures goods that satisfy all those actions, then you want to make fans and keep fans to keep them buying.

And, yes, you can basically thank George Lucas for this relationship between the industry and the fans (photo courtesy of Wired Magazine).

 

A fan can either be created or maintained by the industry through a number of techniques (this does not include fan-produced items and communities not officially affiliated with the industry).  First, the industry can manipulate the text to propagate repeated returnings by having, for example, dangling storylines, or cliffhangers, that leave questions unanswered.  Second, they can offer online content to further the experience with the object, such as streaming episodes, promoting fan discussions and productions, offering “fan games” (such as those I discuss in my article on gameplay marketing), providing additional background information unseen in the original object, and shopping for ancillary goods.  Third, there is the continuation of offline offerings, such as the rise in importance of Comic-Con to Hollywood, collector issues of magazines, and the proliferation of toys and other marketed ancillary goods.  These are all techniques employed by the industry to create and maintain a “fan audience”, one loyal to an object and willing to invest time and money into the relationship they have with the object.

In a sense, the industry can co-opt the passion of the fans for their fandom and utilize it for ways that service their bottom line.  All of the viral marketing and gameplay marketing that have risen in the past decade are based on this idea of fueling marketing campaigns with the passion of fans.  The industry has found a renewable fuel source, some “lightning in a bottle”, and fans are willing to give it up because they are getting something in return.  They are getting insider information, special limited offerings of goods, the sense of being part of something larger than they are.  For a fan wants nothing more than to see the propagation of their fandom, as it helps to further their sense of self-worth.  If they can see the result of their actions as meaning more people come to know, and perhaps love, their fandom, then their job is successfully done, and the industry can reap the financial rewards.

However, this does not mean that fans are being manipulated into being consumers.  The industry puts forth a number of objects from which the media user chooses to engage.  Fans are not moths inextricably drawn to the flame of the object: there has to be a combination of desire from the person and quality (at least perceived as such) in the object.  But these objects are nets: their structure helps to ensure that once the person chooses to engage, and to engage with passion, then it can become harder to disengage.  For those fans who become more involved with the object, the industry can offer more and more related objects and goods to further the involvement.

Yet, at any point, the fan can decide to continue or stop the engagement.  Although the overall format of Lost did not change (in that there were many questions, much scifi quirkiness, popular characters), and the producers added the game The Lost Experience to further the experience with the object, the audience began to stop engaging as the series went on.  Dwindling audience numbers could be a reason that ABC finally gave the end date for the series.  Through their engagement with the object, the audience has always had some power to tell the industry what, or more accurately what not, to produce.

Captions aptly sum up the end of “Lost”.

 

A fan-based audience can have even more power if they are positioned as an important financial source to the producers.  And given the need for many producers of high budget films and television series to recoup any production and marketing costs through ancillary goods, then the fan-based audience becomes an important commodity to create and maintain.  Hence the “outreach” at places like Comic-Con to foster goodwill, to promote products, to expand experiences with objects, and to outright sell ancillary goods.  Hence the cooptation of Comic-Con, and increasingly other cons, by the industry.

So what’s the point of Comic-Con these days?  For some it is still about the comic-books, but undoubtedly that is a smaller percentage than when it started in 1970.  For many it has become the holy pilgrimage, the chance to experience the surround sense of being one with those who are most like you, no matter where in this great big world you come from.  It’s sharing the holy commune of Twilight, Star Wars, Iron Man, Batman, My Little Pony.  And I doubt we will see a true draw down of Hollywood’s presence any time soon — unless WonderCon stays in Anaheim, and people actually can be enticed to go to Anaheim.  As long as there is money to be made from fans who are willing to spend the time and money, then the relationship between industry and fan will continue on the path that has been developing this past decade.  A symbiotic relationship that would make any scifi writer proud.

avatar

About CarrieLynn Reinhard

I've been a scifi fan all my life, so I figured I should actually make money being so. And since I've always wanted to be a scientist -- at one point I was convinced I knew how to clone dinosaurs from their hollow bones -- the career path of being a scientist who studies fans and their media obsessions made the most sense for a woman obviously way too influenced by Jurassic Park. I've been all around the world studying fans, superheroes, virtual worlds, digital games, the media industry, and various media technologies. Now I'm an assistant professor in new media studies and audience reception studies at Dominican University just outside of Chicago, and discuss my research and other issues in the world of geekdom at my blog, www.playingwithresearch.com.