In a Post-COVID World, Does San Diego Comic-Con Still Matter to Hollywood?

The first true San Diego Comic-Con since 2019 faces a sense of the unknown: Will a presence at Comic-Con actually generate fan interest in a tangible way? Does Comic-Con, which kicks off Thursday and runs through the weekend, even matter anymore?

Comic-Con has long been a key component to the marketing of modern blockbusters. While the convention might have once been about the art of comic books, it has become something far more commercial. This is where studios and networks come to show off first-look footage, present activations designed to ignite awareness and make announcements of upcoming projects in the splashiest way possible — usually with a judicious sprinkling of star power and some big surprises meant to send fans reeling.

But this year, some major studios are sitting the convention out completely. Sony (which has an ambitious slate of “Spider-Man”-adjacent projects in the works), Universal Pictures (concluding its revamped “Halloween” franchise this fall) and Lionsgate (where they’ve already started hyping the “Hunger Games” prequel, due next Thanksgiving), are all foregoing major panels despite having a presence in years past.

Warner Bros., Disney’s Marvel Studios and Paramount, meanwhile, are back in Hall H — the massive convention hall that fits nearly 5,800 fans and the most highly coveted location in all of Con.

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Hiram Garcia, president of production at Seven Bucks Productions (which is bringing “DC League of Super-Pets” and “Black Adam” to the convention), thinks the journey to San Diego is still worth it: “What we’ve been working on has taken so long to get here and to now be so close to the finish line, it’s just one of the things you want to be able to share with the fans, and do it in a really big, fun, explosive way.”

How big and how explosive, of course, remains to be seen.

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Once upon a time in Hall H

San Diego Comic-Con 2019, the last true version of the event, was full of the kind of pomp and circumstance that has defined the event in recent years. Tom Cruise came out and surprised the crowd at Hall H who had assembled in anticipation of a new “Terminator” film (one that opened, quietly, and was almost immediately forgotten about), with a brand new trailer for “Top Gun: Maverick,” a movie that, in our current time-is-a-flat-circle existence, feels like it only opened a few weeks ago. The “Riverdale” kids had yet to slip into an alternate dimension; “Picard” still hadn’t returned to our televisions.

During their showstopping Saturday night panel, Marvel Studios announced an ambitious slate of streaming and theatrical content under the banner of “Phase 4.” Most of those projects have already come out, to varying degrees of success. But being in the room that night, far away from feelings of oversaturation and the awkwardness of the streaming series format (Disney+ wouldn’t even debut until that fall), things felt limitless.

But that lack of success of some of these Marvel projects and the failure of bigger studio bets like “Terminator: Dark Fate” speak to the unpredictability of San Diego Comic-Con. Things that play great in the room oftentimes suffer from a lack of wider commercial success.

“I don’t know that anybody really treated Comic-Con as a meaningful way to promote a movie,” a franchise film producer said. “’Scott Pilgrim,’ ‘Fright Night,’ ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ and ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’ had huge presence at Comic-Con yet they all ended up not translating into box office in the real world.”

Similarly hyped Comic-Con favorites that didn’t produce actual results include “Elysium” and “Blade Runner 2049.”

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While Marvel Studios’ Hall H presentation remains a mystery, Warner Bros. has been very upfront about Dwayne Johnson and his DC projects being front and center. Both of these projects are free of the kind of built-in fan base that something centered around more mainstream characters would carry with it. Luckily, there’s nobody that knows how to sell a movie with as much enthusiasm as Johnson. And he led the charge on this year’s Comic-Con.

“For us, doing events like Comic-Con is always a big deal and DJ is as good as it comes to being in front of live audiences,” Garcia said. “Obviously that’s where it all started from, whether you say from the football field or wrestling, so he loves to be in front of a crowd. It’s always a priority for us to get over there and he really drove this initiative to get to Comic-Con. He was very aggressive about saying I want to take ‘Black Adam’ to Comic-Con, I want to take ‘Super-Pets’ to Comic-Con, I want to do something special over there and I want to be with the fans.”

Still, the San Diego Comic-Con of yesteryear might be gone for good. “Whatever presentations and stars are there are just to appease the fans,” a top talent agent told us. “The crazy Comic-Con era of the late 2000s-early 2010s is never coming back.”

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A different Con

Instead of an emphasis on long-term planning (in 2019, the Russo Brothers’ AGBO unveiled a slate of projects that, incidentally, have yet to see the light of day) or big event movies, this year’s Comic-Con leans heavily on TV titles that are coming to the small screen relatively soon. This includes streaming shows like Netflix’s heavily hyped (and long in-the-works) adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” (debuting on the platform on August 5), HBO’s inaugural “Game of Thrones” spin-off/prequel “House of the Dragon” (coming August 21) and Amazon Prime Video’s eagerly anticipated, ultra-expensive “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” (September 2).

All of these shows are coming out so soon it’ll be hard to discern what (if any) bump they got from their elaborately staged and marketed appearance at San Diego Comic-Con.

And if the Comic-Con of lore is over, what is it for now?

Unsurprisingly, it became more inwardly focused, at least according to a franchise film producer. “Comic-Con really became a place for agents and executives to get away on the company card for a few days,” the producer said. And then, almost ruefully: “The sad thing is that once Comic-Con started to be about the movies, not the comics, most of the comic creators were tragically given short shrift by the Con.”

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Another Comic-Con mainstay was themed parties thrown by various companies, which combined over-the-top excess with an attempt at building awareness and buzz. While a few of these parties are still happening (Fandom is throwing a big bash, there’s a tavern experience themed to Paramount’s upcoming “Dungeons & Dragons” movie and a yacht party meant to evoke A24’s upcoming horror romp “Bodies Bodies Bodies”), the lavish parties and all-night ragers that used to dominate the nighttime hours during the convention is also a thing of the past.

“It’s not the same anymore. Agencies used to throw huge parties. Stars with no affiliation to any of the presentations used to go there,” a talent agent told us. “That era is gone.”

Not that everyone is spelling doom for Comic-Con and its importance when it comes to rolling out a new project, such as Garcia, who always has a new venture in the works.

“For us, it’s just about this is the fun of making these kinds of movies and starting with the people that are so passionate and so fired up and are dressed up in costumes and are begging every day for more footage,” Garcia said. “There’s just something very fun and organic about going to a place like this. And honestly, we always believe that you put the work in the film and you make something special.”

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The Disney of it all

This year’s Comic-Con is like 2019’s in another key regard: It’s taking place a few weeks before D23 Expo, Disney’s version of Comic-Con. (This year, it takes place September 9, 10 and 11 at the Anaheim Convention Center, across the street from Disneyland.) But unlike 2019, Disney will have a huge presence at Comic-Con. They aren’t saving everything for their own event.

Disney will have a whopping 18 (!) panels at San Diego Comic-Con. Marvel Studios, typically the biggest panel of the weekend with a prime Saturday night slot, will have a supplemental panel on Friday morning dedicated to all things Marvel Studios Animation (focusing on “What If …?,” spin-off “Marvel Zombies,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”-inspired short films “I Am Groot” and undisclosed future projects). There are panels dedicated to Disney animated series like “The Ghost and Molly McGee” and “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder.” There will be a special Sunday morning screening of Pixar’s recent “Lightyear.”

And, as a PR email breathlessly proclaimed, “Disney+ is heading to Comic-Con for the first time ever!” Of course, the last proper San Diego Comic-Con convened before Disney+’s November 2019 launch. But Disney’s supersized presence at Comic-Con, which also contains a dedicated activation themed to Chris Hemsworth’s upcoming National Geographic show “Limitless,” also has to do with a change in leadership.

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When CEO Bob Iger left the company, so did Zenia Mucha, described by the New York Times as the company’s “powerful” and “combative” chief communications officer. She was also one of the driving forces behind (and fierce protectors of) D23, the official Disney fan club and the basis of the all-important D23 Expo. Mucha was the one who made sure there was as little crossover as possible between the two events and insured that D23 Expo would have the bigger, louder presentations (in everything but Marvel Studios, which remained a Comic-Con mainstay). When Mucha left, she sent out parting gifts to various journalists, some of whom she had loudly warred with. The gift was an unsold D23 goodie, a personalized goodbye note from Mucha in place of the membership card.

With Mucha gone and less emphasis (and corporate pressure) on D23, Disney is able to fully engage with the Comic-Con audience. Maybe with so many studios dismissing Comic-Con’s importance (or not showing up at all), Disney can win over some of those hearts and minds. At Comic-Con, stranger things have happened.

Adam Chitwood and Umberto Gonzalez contributed to this report.

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