Emanata: The Future of Comic-Con International

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After months of hedging, speculation and delays, Comic-Con International has announced the plan for the show’s long-anticipated potential move after 2012: it’s staying put in San Diego and its convention center (and bits of the convention center’s neighboring hotels) until at least 2015, rather than moving to either Los Angeles or Anaheim.

That’s something of a relief. Comic-Con has been comfortably ensconced in San Diego for forty years now, and as much of a mess as its logistics have become, they’re a familiar mess–moving to either of the other two candidates would have brought a host of new problems. Still, the show’s continued presence in San Diego could make the familiar mess worse. It’s long since maxed out the carrying capacity of San Diego as a city, and of the San Diego Convention Center as a building: tickets to Comic-Con disappear long before attendees even know what’s going to happen there, hotel rooms are a frustrating, expensive, time-consuming boondoggle to acquire, the show’s aisles are perpetually clogged, and downtown San Diego becomes maddeningly difficult to navigate for the length of the convention.

Comic-Con’s sitting tight means, as the organization’s spokesperson David Glanzer noted in an interview with the Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon, that the show will have flat income–and flat attendance (around 125,000 people)–for the next five years. It also means that we probably have at least five more years of Comic-Con being a logistically difficult, madly crowded environment. (It’s worth noting that that’s a fairly recent development. Nine years ago, the show didn’t fill the entire exhibit hall of the convention center; five years ago, you could walk into the convention any day of the show and buy a ticket.) According to Sign On San Diego, the number of available discounted hotel rooms will, at some point, double to “roughly 14,000.” Even assuming that out-of-town visitors uniformly stay four people to a room, that still takes care of fewer than half of Comic-Con’s attendees–and not many of the show’s attendees seem to be local.

In one sense, the convention’s long-in-advance sell-out is a slam dunk business-wise: Comic-Con doesn’t have to worry much about attracting big names to the show, or about trying to sell tickets. It’s obviously a lot more convenient for Comic-Con to stay in the city where it’s been for decades (and where its staff lives), and not to have to devote a lot of its resources to adjusting to a new city; it’s probably healthy to have it not any closer to the orbit of Hollywood than it already is, too.

(More on Techland: Emanata: When I Am King of Comic-Con)

But capping the size of a convention that’s been expanding every year, or trying to, may just make it strain more at the seams. Here are three strategies I hope Comic-Con’s organizers consider over the next five years in San Diego–and that other conventions’ organizers would do well to consider too.

1: Make some painful decisions about who Comic-Con is for. Many more exhibitors and attendees want to come to Comic-Con than there’s room for. Back when that wasn’t the case, the organization had to attract as many of both as it possibly could. Now it has to reverse its 40-year habit, and think very hard about exactly what kinds of exhibitors and attendees it wants to encourage to come to San Diego for five days in July, what kinds it wants to discourage, and how it can go about doing that. There’s not enough room in the convention center for everyone who wants a piece of Comic-Con any more, and CCI really needs to figure out what its core constituencies are. (Hint: they are not always the industries with the most money.)

2: Create casual space. Panels are great, screenings are fun, the show floor is stimulating–but what keeps people coming back to conventions of any kind is the quality of the interactions they have with each other. (Another way of putting that is that I’m sure more creative work was conceived this year at the bar at the Marriott around the corner from the convention center than at the convention itself.) Comic-Con has been gradually squeezing out and filling up the open spaces where chatting and networking happened in the past: it needs to concentrate on making itself a more comfortable place for unexpected, pleasant interactions, which make long lines and pushy crowds seem trivial in contrast.

(More on Techland: The 30 Most Awesome Notes on WonderCon 2010)

3: Move toward the regionals. CCI can’t currently expand the San Diego show beyond its current boundaries, but it’s got two other shows, both based in San Francisco: WonderCon, which doesn’t yet have much of a flavor of its own, and Alternative Press Expo, which does, but also seems very similar to the Bethesda, MD-based Small Press Expo that happens a few weeks before it. Both of them have lots of room for growth, and I’d hope that CCI figures out how to develop them carefully, being very wary of the non-comics media that have glommed onto the San Diego show. It’s probably too much to hope that that might eventually take some of the overpopulation pressure off Comic-Con, but they can at least avoid making some of the same mistakes.

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