The future of comic cons shouldn’t be digital

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It will be a revelation to no one that the global pandemic and mass gatherings are a bad mix – it has been a fact of life since the world went into lockdown in early 2020, with comic opposition and other fan events becoming casualties of Covid There were 19 worlds.

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Bringing together thousands of people from all over the world, squeezing them into tight indoor spaces and inviting them to mingle is traditionally part of the con experience. But it’s not a great idea when there’s a contagious novel virus out in the open and even in non-pandemic times, people coming home with the undefined “con flu” move in with the area.

Movie studios and streamers were quick to adapt to the new world order, coming up with alternative plans to ensure the upcoming release remained part of the fan conversation. Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen an explosion of virtual events including DC Fandome, Star Trek Day, Netflix’s Tudum, and most recently Disney Plus Day, as well as San Diego Comic-Con, the online-only version of Comic-Con. @House.

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Like their live-action counterparts, these virtual events have unveiled new trailers and footage, announced upcoming projects, and gathered stars and creators to talk about their projects.

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They were a great way to maintain a sense of connection when most of us were stuck in our homes. But, now that the world is headed towards pre-coronavirus normality – with live events on the calendar – it would be a shame if online-only events became the norm. Yes, the convenience of participating on our phones, tablets and laptops is a bonus – but we’ll lose much more than we gain.

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the real thing

Seeing the original Avengers make their first live appearance at San Diego Comic-Con was a real “I was there” moment.

Viruses aside, live-action events are not without their drawbacks. Thousands of people queuing for the same destination translates into a huge carbon footprint, while capacity restrictions remain in place even in the largest of places. That means cons are inherently exclusive, the kind of events most people experience through a lucky few who tell you how good they were. Learning that attendees in the massive Hall H of the San Diego Convention Center have been treated special, the never-before-seen clip from the next MCU movie is a strangely brutal form of torture for a fan.

But the ‘real thing’ is far more rewarding than sitting in front of your computer, watching a montage of famous faces on YouTube, or monotonously tapping refreshed until the next Twitter update appears.

Just as live music and comedy are infinitely more enjoyable than watching a gig on TV, the crowd’s shared enthusiasm—for lack of a better word—can be infectious. Being in San Diego When Kevin Feige first unveiled the original Avengers line-up on stage, there was a genuine “I was there!” Moment. It is a shared experience, where the audience engages with what is happening in the room rather than sharing their attention across multiple screens or responding to an announcement on social media.

then there’s everything else that happens at conventions Distant From presentations on the main stages: performances and floors filled with obscure merchandise you never knew existed, or a chance to socialize with like-minded fans or collaborators. Events such as San Diego and New York Comic-Con are where a significant amount of business is done. Sure, the lockdown has proven that most of this stuff is possible on Zoom, but the curated, ‘everything under one roof’ ethos of a good conference online is nearly impossible to replicate.

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take back control

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Perhaps the most important development in the era of online-focused events, however, is the fact that each company can handle its own bespoke conventions.

This is nothing new for Disney, which has been hosting its own D23 live event for years. But with notable, fan-friendly exceptions like the Star Trek franchise, few other media entities have a large fan base and are engaged enough to make similar celebrations worthwhile. On the face of it, going online lowers the bar for admission.

But it is not as great a democratization as it appears. Instead, you risk the ‘survival of the fittest environment’, where audiences happily tune in to Disney, Netflix and Warner/DC productions, but younger players struggle to watch. One of the best things about a large, non-brand alliance is the tradition that you can shuffle between genres and studios—sometimes you can learn about a really exciting indie project once you’re into that. Blockbusters are waiting for the attraction you came for. If you only get to see the franchises you already know, you’ll never find anything new.

And as attendees shift from participants to audience, the line between conventions and keynote presentations begins to blur. Disney’s Investor Day in December 2020 – featuring Kevin Feige and Kathleen Kennedy, the respective overlords of Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm – never hid the fact that it was business-oriented. It gained several column inches as a convention — announcing several Marvel and Disney projects are going to have an impact — but was certainly not a convention. A thief should do much more than just provide you with information, and having a fan in the room adds to the experience.

asking the right questions

Online Star Trek Day organizers know fans will come if they make it.

Of course, the practical benefits of going digital are obvious to a studio. Telling loads of stars and creatives to spend an hour in front of a web cam is much easier than driving or flying them across the country or even around the world. They also get to deliver carefully managed PR messages.

But if the participating geniuses only answer pre-organized questions, you end up with a more clean, boring presentation. In fact, you can rest assured that attending reporters and fans will ask a moderator more interesting questions than a fed up — even “I can’t answer that…” is a bad question. The answer might tell you something. And no, submitting your query in advance through an online forum is not the same as asking in a live auditorium.

Conventions can learn a lot from the online experience, and inviting fans to watch the action from around the world is one of the benefits of a connected digital world. But as soon as an event is online only, and fails to replicate that instant human element, you can no longer call it a hoax. Online events have been a great way to get us out of lockdown, but they should be seen only as a stop. As long as live, in-person events are safe and practical, they should go back to being the norm – with online bits and bobs as a handy bonus.

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