San Diego— Thirty-six years ago, ComicCon started out, appropriately enough for science-fiction and fantasy genre fans, in a downtown San Diego basement where a core group of 300 devotees gathered to share their comic book passion.
The four-day event, now in the city’s convention center, has since exploded into the largest comic and pop-culture extravaganza in North America, featuring nearly 600 hours of programming and close to 1,000 exhibitors. It’s the genre mecca for horror, fantasy, science fiction, gaming and animation enthusiasts.
The convention broke attendance records this year — a rumored 113,000 pre-registrants, a rich brew of the planet’s most committed and passionate cult-entertainment fans. Everyone wants in on the action now — movie studios, A-list actors and aspiring animators.
Cable networks, some for the first time, were there in force to tap this key audience and launch initiatives from the ComicCon platform. Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Sci Fi Channel, G4, Spike TV, Black Entertainment Television, ABC Family, Independent Film Channel, Nickelodeon and others deployed up to 100 personnel each to manage the effort. Most flew in show stars to sign autographs and participated in the moderated panels, formatted to give fans an opportunity to ask questions.
“They’re a very loyal fan base.” Spike TV senior director of communications Debra Fazio said from atop a two-story, metal corrugated booth plastered with Spike’s tagline, “Get More Action.”
Fazio says that in terms of size, commitment and money, ComicCon is Spike’s top promotional event. “We’ve made a commitment to this audience. We can actually talk to the audience in person,” she said. “It’s that interactivity. Just look around. There are all these people, dressed up. They’ll wait in line for hours for autographs. And for the talent we bring here, they’re just blown away by it.”
In their first public appearance, the entire cast of Blade was flown in from Vancouver to attend a panel session and sign autographs at the booth.
Spike is harnessing the interactive hunger. It’s an audience that produces reams of fan fiction and lovingly creates artwork based on their favorite characters. Partnering with Marvel Comics — Blade is a trademarked Marvel character — Spike sponsored a Blade-themed graphic novel contest, posted on the Marvel Web site. Users voted on their favorite novel and the winner, Eric Yonge, was flown to ComicCon.
Newbies to the convention, Spike aggressively rolled out themed initiatives over the weekend. The network will team with ComicCon, creating the “Comic-Con Icon Award,” to be presented to an individual or group instrumental in driving awareness of comic and related pop culture forms. Spike also announced its new Scream Awards, set to tape on Oct. 7, honoring horror sci-fi, fantasy and related genre contributors in a variety of categories.
In Room 5AB, Cartoon Network connected with fans during a Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy panel. Young viewers quickly pinned creator Maxwell Atoms over continuity issues. “Why does Grim say his Dad is eaten, then in later episodes his Dad’s alive?” asked an 8-year-old. “If Grim has a pet fish, why haven’t we seen his pet fish?” wondered another child, probably not more than seven.
More than 2,000 fans of all ages showed up for the Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends panel; many others were turned away. “The creators were absolutely ecstatic,” said Brian Miller, senior vice president and general manager of Cartoon Network Studios. “Especially in animation, there aren’t that many opportunities to interact with fans.”
Like Spike and ABC Family, this was Cartoon’s first ComicCon foray, at least in terms of mounting a booth. Fans lined up for applications of airbrushed tattoos of Cartoon characters. The net handed out magnets stamped with an e-mail address and encouraged attendees to submit pitches. Network representatives prowled the convention floor, chatting with small-press publishers and collecting artwork.
“These are the future creators,” said Miller. “There’s a tremendous talent pool here.”
Miller estimates the studio had at least 100 people on the ground at ComicCon, including talent. The studio flew in creators from as far away as Vancouver and New York. From the studio perspective, he said, ComicCon is “the tent-pole promotional event for us. And in some ways it’s a giant focus group.”
Pandemonium erupted as 6,000 fans crowded the doors of Ballroom 20, awaiting Sci Fi’s Battlestar Galactica panel, attended by stars Edward James Olmos and Lucy Lawless (who appears in an upcoming 10-episode third-season arc). Executive producer David Eick and Olmos, caught up in the rock star atmosphere of cheering fans and cameras flashing by the hundreds, were soon tossing spoilers like candy, to the consternation of the network.
Sci Fi, in its seventh year here, is ComicCon’s cable veteran. But even Sci Fi is occasionally taken by surprise.
Fans overwhelmed the “Sci Fi Friday” screening hosted by Colin Ferguson (Eureka) and the channel was forced to turn away several thousand. “That’s, I guess, all for the post mortem,” said Blake Callaway, the channel’s vice president of brand marketing, taking a break from mingling at the network’s Saturday night, rooftop party held at the consciously hip Hotel Solamar’s Jbar.
“It’s hard to believe this party started out seven years ago as 20 people having dinner,” Callaway mused. Now, he says, ComicCon is planned nine months out and “in terms of consumer events, it’s the channel’s biggest. This is the one that delivers the most for the channel.”
Like Cartoon Network, Sci Fi Channel’s ground presence easily approached 100.
The channel rented even more convention floor space this year, Callaway said. They distributed branded superhero capes and 10th-anniversary Stargate SG-1 key chains, and scheduled autograph signings with talent from Who Wants to Be a Superhero, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. Chase was there to sign up customers for the Battlestar Galactica credit card and fans seemed to be willing to cough up Social Security numbers in exchange for a free Battlestar t-shirt.
The activity was managed from the network’s signature booth, a sweeping aquamarine-translucent structure that looks like the creature from The Abyss. (The booth was designed by Graft, a Germany-based company, and was featured in Interior Design magazine last year.)
The channel also installed a bank of Internet-connected Apple monitors and keyboards. Fans could be seen logging onto their My Space pages with posts like “reporting direct from ComicCon” or “I’m here at the Sci Fi booth updating my page.”
“Time and time again I hear from fans, 'I’ve got my own blog,’ ” Callaway remarked. “These fans advance a story like no one else. They’re knowledgeable and passionate about the genre. They save shows from getting cancelled. They’re the ones who talk and chatter the most in the marketplace. That helps us get our news out.”
But ComicCon isn’t just about driving word of mouse any longer. It’s is so big the event itself influences scheduling. “We used this as a launching platform for Who Wants To Be A Superhero,” Callaway said. “We timed the debut to coincide with ComicCon.”
Another big cable Kahuna at ComicCon was G4. The channel’s Attack of the Show has covered the convention since 2003, but this year the network amped up coverage considerably, sending about 50 people, about 30 of them production types.
The young male-targeted network broadcast a live two-hour special from the convention floor on Friday, July 21. It aired two additional one-hour specials on Monday and Tuesday (July 23 and 24). Content included interviews with Samuel L. Jackson (in house to promote Snakes on a Plane), cast members from Boondocks and Robot Chicken and the cast of Lionsgate’s upcoming Crank. The net combed the con floor to report on indie comic books and toy companies.
The payoff was big: for the Friday special. In the young-male target demo of 18-34, viewership jumped 184% for the time period. It was G4’s second-highest-rated special this year. The week of July 17 became the channel’s highest-rated in history.
The G4 booth featured marketing ploys typically found at ComicCon: autograph signings with AOTS hosts Kevin Pereira and Olivia Munn, free souvenir bags, trading cards, and a Toyota Yaris painted with images from the comic Fear Agent.
Network president Neal Tiles said G4 parted ways with other cable nets in terms of their approach to the event. “We don’t have a booth, we have a set,” he insisted, “We don’t look at this as a marketing opportunity to promote other shows on our network. We use this as a platform for content because we believe that’s what ComicCon is. [Other networks] are here trying to promote their shows. But we’re saying, hey, ComicCon is the show.”
'A GREAT EXPERIENCE’
ABC Family’s schedule is genre rich this year with Three Moons Over Milford, Kyle XY, and Fallen (a series of three two-hour films) so the channel stepped a little gingerly into ComicCon. Everyone declined to talk budgets for their ComicCon push but John Rood, ABC Family’s senior vice president of marketing, said expenditures can easily approach big numbers “if you do all the things that are possible.” He said “we’re spending less than that but it’s feasible that any cable channel that’s interested in reaching this audience could quickly spend a million dollars and it wouldn’t be foolhardy.”
Rood summed up many cable-network comments: “ComicCon is always a great experience for our executives. It gets me reinvigorated about our business to see folks so excited about what we do.