In his article on how money is changing the nature Comic Cons big and small, Jim McLauchlin quotes Fables creator Bill Willingham as stating:
“I love the fact that this thing has gotten huge and all that, but San Diego — and you can fill in any of the other big mega-conventions — isn’t really one convention. It’s like 12 smaller conventions that just happen to be taking place at the same time in the same place.”
And, indeed, the major pop culture conventions, such as Comic-Con International’s San Diego Comic-Con and ReedPop’s New York Comic Con, are large in both scale and scope. These events feature presentations, panel sessions, vendors, and activities on a wide variety of topics covering comic books and graphic novels, manga, movies, television programs, anime, costumed “cosplay” and more.
With the planned expansion of the San Diego Convention Center still a distant hope, perhaps one option for the future of San Diego and other large Cons is to “go long” — that is, spread the event over more days.
There’s precedent for this in another prominent convention: the South by Southwest festival (or SXSW as it is generally known). The annual media and popular culture event in Austin, Texas is arrayed as three back-to-back conferences : SXSW Music, SXSW Film, and SXSW Interactive.
SXSW is not currently at the scale of San Diego Comic-Con or New York Comic Con, both of which now draw around 130,000 attendees. In 2013, the Austin festival attracted roughly 25,000 participants for SXSW Music, 30,621 for SXSW Interactive, and 16,297 for SXSW Film.
Despite the smaller scale, the event extends over more days than the major Comic Cons, with the main activities for the music and the interactive festivals only overlapping on one day. For 2014, SXSW Interactive runs March 7–11 and SXSW Music is March 11–16. The SXSW Film festival — the most lightly attended of the three — spans the dates of both of the other SXSW festivals, running March 7–15 this year.
One can only imagine the challenge of booking a hotel room on the day all three festivals overlap. Nevertheless, there are advantages to separating the events by topic and allowing the audience to focus on the activities in which they are most interested.
Perhaps the big Comic Cons should try something similar. In addition to dispersing the crowd, it would mollify the comic book aficionados who bemoan the encroachment of the “Hollywood crowd” at the Cons, and allow the TV and movie fans unadulterated access to events around those interests.
Of course, many pop culture fans are “completists” who want to embrace everything related to their obsessions, so there would be those who feel compelled to stay for the entire event. But, one would hope, even their experience would be less stressful if the crowds were reduced by this niche-focused approach.
As I mentioned in a Knowledge@Wharton article a year ago [see "Comic-Con: The Sold-out Super Bowl of Pop Culture"] I believe a better approach — at least for Comic-Con International (which runs both San Diego Comic-Con and WonderCon) — would be to expand from two cities to three. If WonderCon — traditionally held in San Francisco but relocated to Anaheim since 2012 — could secure dates for San Francisco in the fall and remain in Anaheim in the spring, West Coast fans would have abundant options to sate their pop culture cravings throughout the year. Rebranding these two WonderCons as Anaheim Comic-Con and San Francisco Comic-Con would help to market the events to a broader audience. (After all, Comic-Con International’s parent company currently holds trademarks for both Anaheim Comic-Con and San Francisco Comic-Con.)
In a similar vein, this year ReedPop is augmenting fall’s New York Comic Con with a smaller event in the spring focused specifically on comic books, dubbed Special Edition: NYC. ”New York Comic Con has grown to include so much more than comic books,” stated ReedPOP Global Senior Vice President Lance Fensterman in a press release. “Special Edition: NYC will give comic book fans an intimate destination to meet with publishers and special guests.”
Whether through more cities, more dates, or a larger venue, one hopes the scale of the leading Comic Cons will eventually expand to match the demand.