This was the year that San Diego Comic-Con was supposed to collapse. After all, with Hollywood studios pulling out and stars not able to promote their work, all due to the double whammy of the actors and writers strike, why would people even bother to attend?
Well, about 150,000 attendees still did indeed show up. There were no mass hotel cancellations nor mass refunds issued for badges, which were purchased months in advance. And an interesting thing happened on the way to the Comic-Con apocalypse. There was a renewed focus on comics and other graphic arts, even as Hollywood showed up in a diminished capacity.
“This year, more than ever, it felt like the real focus was the talent behind the origins of a lot of their entertainment,” says Jimmy Palmiotti, a writer-artist who has worked for Marvel and DC and created the comic Painkiller Jane, which was adapted into a SyFy series in 2007.
By all accounts, the floor had the most foot traffic in years, and retailers, artists and creators benefitted with increased sales and visibility. Anecdotally, Pamiottit said there were entire booths selling out and having to restock graphic novels and comics.
“Creators like Adam Hughes and Billy Tucci told me they had their best year ever. It was a real joy to see the people that created the comics once again become front and center to the con created in their name,” said Pamiottiti.
Sales were up significantly for Funko, which doubled its footprint from last year, as well as for Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics, and Lego, according to sources. DC, selling exclusives for the first time, enjoyed constant lines and sold out a a majority of its offerings. Even retailers that set up outside the convention centre enjoyed a major bump, such as BoxLunch Treats, which saw lines that went down three blocks in downtown San Diego.
And Hollywood still showed up in many forms. One could not miss skins wrapped around the outside of hotels, promoting shows such as Showtime’s Yellowjackets or FX’s Shogun. And studio panels, instead of having writers and actors front and center, let footage do the talking for them.
Paramount, one of the few studios to show up to Comic-Con, showcased twenty minutes of footage of its upcoming movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. For its Star Trek Universe presentation, Paramount and CBS dropped an entire episode of Strange New Worlds, which had some in the audience wiping away tears. Starz did the same, previewing the season two debut of wrestling show Heels. A24 had to turn away hundreds from its offsite screening of Talk to Me, its upcoming horror movie that had a panel featuring only the movie’s directors, Danny and Michael Philippou.
One fan who spoke to THR, Will, flew in from New York and has attended Comic-Con more than 10 times. He caught the Star Trek Hall H panel after a mere five minutes in line for it. (In previous years, people would have camped out overnight to get into a Hall H panel.) Will, who declined to give his last name, admitted that it was less exciting than it would have been under normal circumstances. “It would have been nice to have the cast there, but the footage that they showed from Star Trek was amazing, and the energy of the crowd was great,” he said.
Not everyone was thrilled, however. “It was a little unfortunate for the [Family Guy panel] that it was basically just showing clips,” said William, a San Diego resident who had been to Comic-Con four previous times and pointed out that he probably wouldn’t have attended that panel if he knew it would just be a screening. He also found that the convention generally felt more crowded than in previous years: “Not having too many of those popular Hall H panels maybe drew people to smaller panels.”
Because of the strikes, some Hollywood creatives attended the convention free of pressure from interviews or delivering major buzz. Simon Kinberg, the writer-producer behind several X-Men and Deadpool movies, enjoyed a weekend with his 14-year old son, Oliver.
“It felt like old Comic-Con,” said Kinberg, who has been on the Hall H stage many times. “You still had video games and hi-tech pop-ups but it was definitely a comic-based and toy-based Comic-Con. We strolled for days.” And they made time for the Barbenheimer phenomenon, checking out both Oppenhimer and Barbie on two separate days.
Kinberg was just one of several creatives checking out the convention purely for the love of pop culture. Among them was It screenwriter and Annabelle Comes Home writer-director Gary Dauberman, who brought his 13-year old son, also named Oliver.
There were moments where the writers strike and actors strike took center stage, including an appearance by SAG-AFTRA national executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland. Across the commuter tracks outside the convention center, local SAG actors posed for a solidarity photo-op with cosplayers. Inside, two separate Saturday panels offered voice actors and writers the opportunity to discuss several of the main negotiating issues from their unions’ perspectives, including the impact of AI and synthetic voices, the financial implications of episode order reductions, and the line where union protections end and where federal or even international law may need to step in.
During one panel, Crabtree Ireland summed up the fight voice actors — and arguably, by extension, writers — are facing amid the threat of studio interest in AI by pointing to Disney’s The Little Mermaid, “a story of a small mermaid and the sea witch that literally steals that mermaid’s voice.”
“I remember seeing that for the first time and thinking how horrifying,” Crabtree-Ireland said. “Voice acting is on the cutting edge of and is the tip of the spear as it relates to how AI can either be used to lift people up and enhance the opportunities that actors and others have or be used in a very negative way to steal their voices, to crush human creativity.”
For attendees familiar with seeing charismatic prominent stars or writers providing witty repartee and insider intel, this year’s panels likely didn’t hit the same highs, and the individuals featured on stage didn’t always seem to relish the spotlight. While on a panel for TBS’ American Dad, director Jennifer Graves was asked what she wanted to share and quipped, “I don’t have anything to say, so I don’t know why we’re here.”
During a directors on directing panel, Gareth Edwards, touting his original sci-fi movie The Creator, and Justin Simien, promoting Haunted Mansion, pointed to the elephant in the room.
“We all stand with the writers and actors,” said Edwards. “We’re contractually obliged to promote our movies.”
“Yes, we were told to be here,” said Simien, chuckling, adding he would have rather been at home. “No shade to you guys,” he added.
And some stars who also have work in non-studio endeavors, such as David Dastmalchian and Patton Oswalt, both of whom wrote and create comics, had to navigate deftly and avoid any questions about struck studio projects. When the moderator for a Dastmalchian spotlight panel introduced the Q&A portion, noting that past or present work could not be talked about, the very first question from a fan was about the actor’s work in The Dark Knight, made by struck studio Warner Bros. A pivot and a reminder that it could not be discussed followed. (The Hollywood Reporter’s Borys Kit moderated the panel, and both he and Dastmalchian reminded the guest that struck work was off-limits.)
Congressman Robert Garcia, the former Long Beach mayor who made waves when he was sworn into the House of Representatives with a vintage copy of Superman No. 1, led a Comic-Con panel on a popular arts caucus he is spearheading in Washington. He noted that the concern and chatter caused by the so-called muted presence of Hollywood only highlights the importance of the convention.
“This just shows how there is an enormous impact that the comics medium has on the broader entertainment industry,” said Garcia, who has been attending the show on and off since the 1990s. “And that’s what happens at Comic-Con every year.”
Without studio panels taking in a lot of the oxygen, over 900 other panels and over 2000 hours of other programming saw a rise in interest and attendance. “Prior to the show, people who had never been to the show were wondering what the impact of the strikes would be,” said Comic-Con’s chief communications and chief strategy officer David Glanzer. “But there is so much to see and do, that we were okay. Hollywood is icing on a multi-layered cake.”
Kinberg, along with many others, believe Hollywood will back in fill force next year, when the labor issues are likely to have been resolved.
Said Kinberg: “As much as it was a wonderful and pure experience, I know a lot of fans would have been hyped if Marvel came to Hall H and blew up Comic-Con. There is still a hunger for that. It’s the social media explosions around these announcements where you truly see Comic-Con’s impact. This is an amazing engine.”
—Ryan Gajewski, Abbey White and Aaron Couch contributed to this story