Is Comic-Con Still the Place for Building Blockbuster Buzz?

This year's fest is not devoid of tentpoles, but it's certainly feeling thinner.
The scene outside San Diego ComicCon last year   |   Getty
This year's fest is not devoid of tentpoles, but it's certainly feeling thinner.

Is Hollywood's love affair with San Diego Comic-Con fading?

In a smart story on ScreenCrush in June, writer Matt Singer discussed some of the reasons this may be the case. In short: After a brief pinnacle where studios and fans enjoyed a happy medium of access and promotion, the crowds grew too big, more and more companies tried to establish a presence there and the cost of rising above the noise and getting people’s attention became too great.

That Disney would not be attending to offer anything new related to its Marvel Cinematic Universe films certainly got a lot headlines, and deservedly so. The Avengers movies in particular have a history of using Comic-Con to get fans excited, introducing the full cast of the original movie in 2010 and then bringing out new additions to the heroic or villainous lineup in 2014 for Age of Ultron and in 2017 for Infinity War.

That’s a big hole in this year’s schedule and a major beat that won’t be hit for 2019’s still-untitled fourth film. It also means no panels to start hyping Captain Marvel, which is surprising. Fox, which has two X-Men movies out next year, is coming, but it's not bringing those pics. 

This year’s convention won’t be devoid of tentpole releases, of course. As of right now, here are the movies still making an appearance:

Sony: Venom and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Fox: The Predator and Alita: Battle Angel
Warner Bros: Aquaman, Shazam!, Wonder Woman: 1984, Godzilla: King of the MonstersFantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies
Universal and Blumhouse: Glass and Halloween
New Line: It: Chapter 2 and The Nun
Paramount: Bumblebee
NEON: Assassination Nation

While the crowded playing field has certainly made grabbing the audience’s attention problematic and expensive, there are a number of other reasons that studios may be reconsidering how valuable Comic-Con truly is in their overall marketing plans.

Changing Release Patterns

The tentpole release cadence is now year-round, meaning Comic-Con, which happens in July, could be literally anywhere in a movie’s promotional cycle. It could be two years out, it could be six months, it could be three weeks. Making a big deal about a pic that comes out in August is a very different decision than doing so for one that comes out in December.

Embracing Direct-to-Consumer

More studios and other entertainment companies are deciding they can capture more of people’s attention by holding their own conventions (like Disney with D23) than they can as being a small part of a bigger show. It’s also similar to the logic driving those same companies to launch their own OTT subscription services (again, Disney with its forthcoming service) instead of licensing shows and movies to Netflix. Pulling the perspective out even further, it’s in line with the trend across consumer retail categories to sell their own goods and not rely on curated retailers like Target to sell on their behalf, keeping a chunk of the revenue for doing so.

More Niche Conventions 

San Diego Comic-Con is a big show. A lot of entertainment coverage focuses on those star-studded Hall H panels, but there’s a whole exhibitor area that spans the entire length of the convention center. It’s hard getting from one place to the next there as the crowds are wedged between booths for Fox Television, LEGO, Weta Workshop, Hasbro, Star Wars and countless others, not to mention all the major comics companies. There’s a lot to see and do, and much of what’s there is aimed at a broad audience.

Over the last couple years, studios have found that creating experiences and otherwise sponsoring smaller, more niche conventions allows them to achieve the desired return on investment in a more targeted and engaging way.

Of particular note is VidCon, the popular gathering of video creators and the industry that loves them. This year, movies like Alita: Battle Angel, The Darkest Minds, The Hate U Give and Eighth Grade all sponsored panels or set up immersive real-world experience at VidCon. For Alita, it was its second show of the year following SXSW, where it and Ready Player One were both promoted with set recreations to take people inside the world of the movies. In previous years, Trolls, Pixels, Jem and the Holograms and other titles presumed to appeal to younger crowds were there as well.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer with 15 years of experience in the social media and content marketing industry.