San Diego Comic Con 2014

sdcc 2014Convention Name: San Diego Comic Con International
Dates: July 24 – 27, 2014
Convention Reporter: Katie Cunico

San Diego Comic Con, SDCC, or simply Comic-Con: the biggest convention of its kind in the world.

Last year, I was lucky enough to attend as the guest of an industry friend and get a taste of the convention, but this year I had the chance to cover the convention for Anime Secrets.

There’s nothing quite like SDCC. I’ve been to conventions of all types—big ones, small ones, first-year conventions, conventions running for longer than I’ve been alive—but few conventions have evolved quite like this one. SDCC has gone from a comic-book-centered convention to a grand show where all the giant media players come out to promote their movies, TV shows, and video games to attendees and the world at large. The convention is essentially a week-long event: it takes over the downtown San Diego area surrounding the convention center with giant promotional displays—and even small events—as early as Monday or Tuesday. On Wednesday, the show officially starts with Preview Night, where press, professionals, and attendees who have purchased a badge for the extra day can experience the con floor and some panels a little early.

Comparing what I saw this year and last year, there are a few different ways to experience SDCC. No way is wrong or right, and you’ll get vastly different experiences out of all of them, which just speaks to the breadth of coverage the convention has these days.

The first option is the Hall H experience. Hall H is the biggest room of the con, and as such, is where all the big panels are. It’s the room where sneak-peek movie clips for Marvel and DC are shown, and it’s where the full cast Q&As are held for shows like Doctor Who and Supernatural. It’s where you want to be if you want to experience the star power that SDCC draws. But you’ll have to work for it—SDCC does not clear rooms between panels, so panel-squatting is the only way to go. If the panel you want to see is in Hall H at 8PM, you’ll likely need to sit through the entire schedule of Hall H panels. And to get to sit through the rest of the Hall H panels? You’ll need to sleep in line. This is outwardly discouraged, but at least the SDCC staff have recognized the inevitable and made arrangements—bathrooms are available 24/7, and while tents or large set-ups are forbidden, the entire Hall H line is under a portable awning. It’s become such a thing that the guests have gotten in on the experience: Lee Pace and Andy Serkis went and said hi to fans waiting for the Hobbit panel at 2AM, and Misha Collins brought coffee for the fans waiting at 6AM for the Supernatural panel. A friend of mine had the full Hall H experience this year: as soon as the round of panels in Hall H were done for the day, she grabbed a bite to eat and got back in line for the next day’s panels and did nothing but sit either in Hall H or the Hall H line. This year, to try and cut down on the number of people sitting (sleeping) in line with no hope of getting in to the Hall, SDCC issued wristbands based on the position in line and the capacity of the hall. This way, attendees could judge how fruitful their time in line would be and go enjoy more of the show (or sleep in a bed) if they decided it wouldn’t be worth it.

Similar to the Hall H experience is the Ballroom 20 and Indigo Ballroom crowd. These two halls host the majority of the TV show panels, with Ballroom 20 being the larger and more difficult to get into of the two. Overall, these are a little easier to get into than Hall H (often, you only need to squat two or three panels early) and have the added bonus of being near a lot of other panel rooms, so if you can’t get in, there are plenty of other options.

Then, there’s the Exhibit Hall and whatever-I-can-get-into experience. With so many panels going on over the weekend, there are always panels where you can just walk in and discover some really cool things. A lot of these do tend to be the more purely-comic-focused panels, but hey, I’m not going to complain. Last year, I got to walk into the Mythbusters panel, in preparation for a panel that has been a friend’s favorite for years and is my new staple: Worst Cartoons Ever. It’s a panel that digs up old cartoons, often from the 40s or 50s, that are paragons of terribleness—whether it be in animation, storytelling, subject choice, casual racism, or just plain horror-inducing (there was a cartoon about a singing monkey that did actually give me a nightmare)—and reduces everyone in the room to tears of laughter. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long, long time, and I highly recommend it if you’re around on Friday night. Outside of the panels, the Exhibit Hall is a city unto itself, taking up the entire lower floor of the convention center aside from Hall H. It’s huge and packed, and you could spend an entire day just in the Exhibit Hall if you wanted to, playing demos, perusing the boxes of old comics for a treasure or two, or shopping for new nerdy gadgets or clothes. As expected, the show floor gets pretty crowded during the day, to the point that you can’t move through the main aisles. This is made worse by the fact that a lot of the big companies hold autograph sessions for the guests they bring in (the sessions are ticketed, but the amount of people just hanging around the booth to try and catch a glimpse of the stars or snap a photo plug things up all the same), and no matter how scattered the booths are or how staggered the sessions are, the main drag around the big booths is always hell to get through. I’m really glad I’ve never tried to purchase any convention-exclusive merchandise—the horror stories a friend came back with after she tried to get a Captain America hoodie at the Marvel booth were enough.

Last, but not least, is a method that is uniquely SDCC: ghosting. Sure, every convention has a few attendees that “ghost,” i.e., just hang around the convention and convention area without a badge. Depending on the convention, this results in varying levels of success—for some conventions, the draw is the location and a chance to get to hang with friends, and the panels are secondary; some people just want to photograph attendees and cosplayers or soak up the atmosphere. However, due to the wide-spread nature of SDCC, ghosting becomes almost another convention entirely. Companies set up interactive exhibits in areas outside the convention hall: scattered behind the hall, on the lawn between the convention center and the Hilton, or across the street in the Gaslamp District. Almost none of these require a badge—last year, Legendary set up a walk-through exhibit in a warehouse in the Gaslamp District promoting Godzilla that required a pass, which could only be gained from their booth on the convention floor to enter—and are free to the public.  They vary widely, from highly-active exhibits like the parkour-esque obstacle course Ubisoft set up to promote Assassin’s Creed: Unity, to quick trips like NBC’s photobooth for Blacklist, where attendees could pose to have their picture listed as “the Photobomber” on a print-out list of wanted criminals. FX set up an entire carnival to promote their acquisition of The Simpsons, and Fox had a zipline station where attendees could zipline past a skyline cutout of Gotham and receive a gif of their trip. In addition to the exhibits set up in the aforementioned areas, Petco Park, the baseball stadium across from the convention center, is also transformed. Nerdist turned the stadium itself into a video game demo station and lounge, and the parking lot for the stadium was turned into an extension of the Exhibit Hall floor. Many of the exhibitors who had interactive booths took things up a notch, featuring truly interactive activities that included everyone’s favorite: free food (thanks to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a pizza launcher).

One thing I noticed this year was not only the increase in interactive events, but in the sharp rise of exhibits that featured the Oculus Rift, as well. The Oculus Rift is a virtual-reality headset, intended for gaming or training simulations, which was put into use on the SDCC floor by no fewer than six exhibitors. Legendary had a setup for Pacific Rim that put the attendee in the seat of a Jaeger pilot; CBS brought Sleepy Hollow to life by giving attendees a run-in with the Headless Horseman. Fox made the best use of the Oculus Rift, in my opinion, putting attendees in the wheelchair of Professor X and letting them “operate” Cerebro on a hunt for Mystique on the convention floor. For many of these, reactions while the attendee was wearing the headset were filmed; I know Fox intended to put together a video of the best reactions, and I got a good laugh out of the exhibit staff when I almost fell off the stool at the Sleepy Hollow experience. I didn’t get to try (or even find) the other three, but the Oculus Rift headsets I did find were a huge draw for all three booths, and they were a ton of fun, both to experience and watch others experience.

With SDCC firmly planted in pop culture (the banners advertising the convention around the city read “Celebrating the Popular Arts”) and being so strongly utilized as a Hollywood promotional machine, it’s easy to wonder how anime fits into all of it. Sure, anime has been a part of the convention for decades—a portion of panels, showings, and guests have always catered to the anime industry and fans—but if it’s anime you want, should you even bother? I say, yes.

While SDCC takes place close enough to Anime Expo that there aren’t really any new announcements from the industry, there is still plenty of anime presence. Viz and Funimation have booths right in the center of the action, on the main avenue of the exhibit hall floor, and many vendor booths sell anime merchandise or Japanese pop-culture-related items (I always find new Alpacassos for my purse at SDCC, and Hello Kitty has had a booth on the floor for years). Adam Sheehan, Senior Marketing Manager for Funimation, told me that Funimation has held their space—a fortuitous position sandwiched between Lionsgate (The Hunger Games), AMC (The Walking Dead), and Fox TV’s booths—for years and have no intention of moving or giving it up anytime soon. Viz, who have been stepping up their convention presence in the past few years, moved to double their booth space from last year, now stretching from the entrance to the main avenue.

Both companies held panels discussing recent acquisitions, and Viz held additional panels talking about drawing manga for kids, as well as a guest panel for Junko Takeuchi, a major voice actress known for roles like Naruto Uzumaki. Viz also hosted a panel to talk about Sailor Moon specifically, and in the wake of the Sailor Moon events held at Anime Expo earlier in the month and the news of Sailor Moon Crystal having a chance to settle, the panel was packed. I arrived at the panel area a panel-and-a-half early, and the line already stretched down the hall and almost doubled back. Thankfully, I did get in to watch the panel (tip: if you plan to go to any panel that might have a line, bring your DS—huge numbers of street passes, and the crowds will run down your phone battery all on their own at every chance). There wasn’t a lot of news that hadn’t already been announced at Anime Expo, but we were treated to a few clips of the new English dub, fresh from the studio. Everyone was fantastic, and it was great to hear Sailor Moon getting the treatment in English we all know it deserved. I also got a chance to sit down and talk with Charlene Ingram, Senior Brand Manager at Viz, about Sailor Moon, and to hear how Viz is moving forward with the series.

Aside from industry panels, when SDCC screens episodes or series, they’re usually anime—so between floor presence, guests, panels, and screenings, SDCC actually feels quite a lot like an anime convention, if you have no interest in Western media. The show floor even had a decent ratio of cosplayers from anime to cosplayers from other media (Shingeki jackets and Dangan Ronpa cosplayers were not a rare sight), resulting in a really well-mixed convention.

All in all, SDCC is an intense experience. Getting a badge and hotel might be a fight—badges and rooms sell out within hours of going on sale—but it’s become such a pop culture experience that, if you have the chance to go, you should go!