In April 2020, geeks mourned when San Diego Comic-Con announced that for the first time in its 50-year history, the flagship convention was canceled. Now, a year into the novel coronavirus pandemic, Comic-Con organizers have charted a path back, declaring that an in-person event will take place over Thanksgiving weekend, Friday through Sunday, from Nov. 26-28.
Rather than a warm welcome, March 27’s announcement sparked an instant backlash on social media, and a quieter one in Hollywood, with multiple studio, publishing and publicity sources telling THR a pushback is brewing.
“We love San Diego Comic-Con and would love to support, but what actor or producer is going to give up their first post-vaccine Thanksgiving holiday with family to travel to San Diego to publicize a project?” says a rep for a studio that has hosted Hall H panels in the past.
Adds another: “During the pandemic, we’ve had Wonder Woman and The Mandalorian, but what we haven’t had is a hug from our parents and grandparents. Talent are not going to want to give up time with their families at Thanksgiving this year of all years. I have no idea what the organizers are thinking.”
A PR rep with clients who have appeared in Hall H panels notes their talent is, so far, “refusing” to attend, though the rep adds they would likely come around if ordered to by a studio.
There are also questions of safety. As one veteran producer who is a staple of Comic-Con notes, “I would never ask anyone to do anything that was remotely dangerous, but it’s the studio that does the asking. And I would tell them I side with any actor that doesn’t feel comfortable.”
One studio source suggests that rather than Thanksgiving, Halloween would have been a better time for a Comic-Con return. Currently, it’s open on the San Diego Convention Center’s schedule.
Further complicating matters is that in November, people may still be required to quarantine after travel, and anything that goes wrong at Comic-Con could put productions at risk and force costly delays.
“We’re finally starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel in the pandemic and to put people in danger of being in groups this big in the midst of production?” fumes one flack who works directly with productions.
The decision to host the event over Thanksgiving weekend wasn’t made easily. Sources say the subject was hotly debated within the board of Comic-Con International, the nonprofit group that runs San Diego Comic-Con. Rather than their typical four-day event that draws 160,000 people from around the world, the board envisions this year’s con as a regional gathering that might attract 30,000 people. No studios were consulted ahead of the announcement, according to sources, though the group did ask local hotels for advice, who noted the Thanksgiving weekend was typically wide open around the San Diego Convention Center, the site of Comic-Con.
Though Comic-Con had a virtual gathering last July and has another online con on the books this year, those were not the revenue-generating events the organization is used to.
“The bottom line is they haven’t had a dollar coming in for over a year,” says a source with knowledge of Comic-Con International. “They need money.”
Because the news hit many unawares, artists and dealers who have been convention mainstays are still processing the news, with many undecided on their course of action.
One factor in their decision-making is the reorientation of businesses online. In order to survive during the pandemic, artists and dealers focused their attention online to sell prints, originals, vintage comics and more. Some have weekly sales or host fire-sale auctions on YouTube, Facebook or Instagram.
Neal Adams, the legendary DC and Marvel artist who year after year has a sizeable imprint at San Diego, has not just survived but thrived during the pandemic, managing to keep businesses on both coasts running well thanks to a big pivot online. In fact, he says it makes more sense for him to forgo the run-of-the-mill conventions and continue that focus.
“I’m not going to give up one of my good weeks for some convention in the Midwest,” Adams says.
San Diego, because of its size, however, is a different story. But health is still very much on his mind, even if he and his wife are vaccinated.
Says Adams: “Every artist, me included, is asking, ‘Do I go there and endanger my family for the sake of selling a few more comics?’ We’re still trying to figure that out. There are definitely certain states that are more dangerous than others. And what will California be like then?”
While the event doesn’t start until the day after Thanksgiving, the schedule would require talent with Friday panels to travel on the holiday. Those participating would also need to load in for the event on the holiday, with run-throughs also slated for Turkey Day. In addition to talent, there are unsung heroes who handle the technical aspects of Comic-Con, from mic checks and beyond, to make sure panels go smoothly. That work would need to be done prior to Friday, as well.
Some fans, too, would also likely eat Thanksgiving dinner while spending the night in line for programming panels.
Thanksgiving is the most expensive travel holiday of the year, which would also add costs to companies who have already seen their bottom lines hit hard by the pandemic. On top of that, studios and comic book companies have already set their event budgets for the year, and moving money around would be a headache.
“Who has the money?” asks one comic book company president. “That money has already been allocated.” This president adds that the people who do end up participating will likely be younger and have fewer family ties: “The big brands are going to hate it, but this visibility is mission-critical for some artists and writers.”
December and the months following include big films such as Sony’s Spider-Man: No Way Home (Dec. 17), Warner Bros.’ The Matrix 4 (Dec. 22), 20th Century’s The King’s Man (Dec. 22) and such TV shows expected in early 2022 such as Amazon’s Lord of the Rings and Paramount+’s Halo. Some of those could use the platform to boost visibility.
Or, as one comic industry player notes, this could be a chance for New York Comic Con to step in and make an in-person play for brands and artists by offering them a non-holiday date. The convention could also be the middle ground between the West Coast and European talent.
In fact, that may already be happening at some level. Certain dealers and companies were asked in recent weeks by ReedPop, the organizer of NYCC, about their interest in doing an in-person event. The show is currently being planned as an in-person event for Oct. 7-10 at the Javits Center, with a virtual element planned for at the same time, a ReedPop spokesperson tells THR.
Comic-Con International seems aware of some of these issues. In a statement released March 29, the group acknowledged the growing unhappiness.
“As longtime fans ourselves, we have attended many conventions over that holiday weekend, opting to spend Thanksgiving day with family and the rest of the weekend with friends and our families of choice. While this is not unusual in the convention trade, we understand this choice is not optimal for everyone,” read the statement, which went on to cast doubt on the event occurring for certain. “Currently we do not know whether having this event in November is even feasible as we are still in the midst of the pandemic.”
Reps for Comic-Con International did not respond to THR‘s multiple requests for comment.
Sums up one veteran PR rep: “Practically, strategically and emotionally, it doesn’t feel right.”
March 31, 8:45 a.m. Updated to note New York Comic Con is planning an in-person event.