At least one headline afterward called it a disaster. It was 2016, and anybody could have predicted that the panel for Batman: The Killing Joke at San Diego Comic-Con was going to get dicey. The R-rated Warner Bros. Animation title was based on Alan Moore’s notoriously edgy comic. The post-screening Q&A soon got heated. One reporter shouted at the panel that young Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, was “using sex” to seduce her father figure, Bruce Wayne, then stormed off. “Wanna say that again, pussy?” screenwriter Brian Azzarello shot back from the stage. It was a cringey, headline-making exchange, something that occasionally happens in the Wild West of Comic-Con — and precisely the type of thing a studio publicity team hopes doesn’t occur when fans, press and creatives are thrown together.
Fast-forward to four years later. The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of SDCC and the video game industry’s E3 Expo, so Warner Bros. decided to try a new tactic to promote its burgeoning DC slate. In August 2020, the studio launched its own fan event, titled DC FanDome, with online panels for upcoming movies, shows, comics and video games. The result was like an eight-hour virtual in-house Comic-Con, complete with trailers, interviews with directors including Zack Snyder and James Gunn, and first-look photos. Many burning fan questions were answered — so long as they were questions producers and publicists wanted to address.
And fans, seemingly, loved it. One site, ScreenRant, enthused that FanDome “set a gold standard for all future online events.”
“While it was created because of the pandemic, through the process there were so many [lessons] about going straight to the fan base, launching globally all at once and the value of keeping it within the DC Comics branded banner,” recalls former Warner Bros. TV Group president and chief marketing officer Lisa Gregorian, who helped spearhead the event. “Suddenly, we had the technology tools, access to talent and audience participation to go live ourselves, and the question became: How do we create something really special to super serve the fans globally?”
Other studios followed suit. Netflix rolled out WitcherCon, an online event devoted to all things in The Witcher universe that included an hour-long interview with star Henry Cavill, in July. At the end of August, Netflix announced another, even bigger online fan event, the rather awkwardly titled Tudum, which will highlight more than 70 shows and films on Sept. 25. Disney+ announced Disney+ Day, a “companywide cross-promotional campaign,” for Nov. 12, marking the streaming platform’s two-year anniversary. Paramount+ has its Star Trek Day set for Sept. 8, celebrating the 55-year anniversary of the original series and featuring a day of panels live from the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
Studios launching their own fan-outreach events is nothing new, of course. Lucasfilm debuted Star Wars Celebration in 1999; it’s now run by Disney along with its own annual D23 fan-club event, which premiered in 2009. But this flurry of new online fandom events does raise the question: As we (hopefully) move out of the pandemic, are in-house virtual events going to take the place of live third-party fan events like Comic-Con, just as streaming services are increasingly taking eyeballs away from linear TV and movie theaters?
“I would hope not,” says Comic-Con spokesman David Glanzer, whose organization tried its own hand at an online event with Comic-Con @ Home in 2020. This year, the free virtual event returned in July with panels that included such shows as The Walking Dead, Rick and Morty and Lucifer, and a pared-down, in-person Comic-Con Special Edition is set for Nov. 26 to 28. Adds Glanzer: “There is probably enough room in the fan community for different kinds of conventions and events. We’ve long said one of the great things about Comic-Con is the vast cross section of things to discover. A fan of comic books can also spend time exploring toys, games, movies, television, costuming and other various forms of art. We are not limited to one producer. Instead, we offer great forms of art from different creators.”
Studio marketing insiders agree there’s distinct value in Comic-Con events as a press magnet and, particularly, a way for new, lesser-known genre properties to draft attention off larger established titles (whereas with streaming, an event tends to largely draw fans who already are invested). Still, one industry insider points out that these new virtual events will be competing for the same marketing dollars: “There’s going to be some type of compromise about where you’re spending the money. We were already having the conversation about whether the expense was worth it [for live events before the pandemic].”
And virtual panels don’t come cheap. Doing a few livestreamed show panels can easily run six figures. “It’s not like a normal Zoom call,” says one insider at a major streamer. “You need to hire production people, you need hair and makeup, you need an editor. It can easily be as expensive as in-person.” The price of having a presence at Comic-Con varies more widely depending on how big of a splash a studio wants to make. A standard show panel can run upward of $100,000, including cast travel costs. If you tack on experiential activations, build-outs and promotions, the price can rise into the millions — not to mention the months of logistical planning required. San Diego Comic-Con typically charges fans for tickets (roughly $250 for a four-day badge to the original live event and $150 for the new special edition), and travel and lodging can be costly, while studio virtual events are usually free — for now, at least.
Some major players seem to be adopting a wait-and-see attitude. A Netflix insider describes Tudum as an extension of its social media efforts and notes that no decision has been made on whether it will return in 2022. Disney is similarly unwilling to publicly commit to Disney+ Day becoming an annual event, and it could merely be a one-off effort to boost yearly subscription packages that are set to expire.
FanDome, however, has its next event scheduled for October. Star Trek Day, too, is coming up on its sophomore year. And there’s one thing about their events you can bet on: For better or worse, anything controversial will be left on the cutting-room floor.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.