Op/Ed - Five Ways to 'Save' San Diego
Nearly three weeks after the 2008 Comic-Con International: San Diego wrapped, the debate continues over whether the show’s multi-media reinvention is good or bad.I happen to think the show’s all-encompassing nature is a good thing. But that’s not the point of this article. It’s become clear the show has reached the tipping point in many ways. So how can San Diego be 'saved'? Nobody asked me…but here are five things I would suggest if they did: 1.) STAY IN SAN DIEGO We’ll start with the obvious. The show needs to remain in sunny SD. It’s a gorgeous city with perfect weather, though I suspect most of the Con crowd doesn’t enjoy it much since we’re trapped inside the Convention Center for the better part of four days. Let’s not forget the plentiful bars and restaurants in the Gaslamp District. Most important, the locals roll out the red carpet and make conventioneers feel welcome (once again, I caught great vibes from everyone I encountered, from the cabbies to the coffeehouse workers). You’ll lose that camaraderie if you move the show to LA or Las Vegas. Not that the folks in those cities aren’t friendly. But Vegas gets a massive convention every week. It would be business as usual there. And if you think having thousands of people dressed up as comic book characters will turn heads in Vegas…well, then you haven’t been there during the porn industry convention. But those cities do have something San Diego lacks right now – space. Comic-Con has badly outgrown the Convention Center and the surrounding hotel room space. Expanding the convention center and adding more nearby hotel rooms will lure more attendees with money to burn, all over town. More space means fewer long lines and congestion on the Con floor, which will help those visitors get in a much better mood to drop stupid money on swag. 2.) TICKET HALL H The centerpiece of the Con’s movie coverage, Hall H just isn’t big enough to handle all the mega-panels that traipse through San Diego each year. The lines to get in to Hall H on Friday and Saturday this year were inhumanely long, stretching several blocks. Part of the reason was that panels that appealed to the same fans were scheduled back to back, like “Heroes” and “Lost” on Saturday. My solution: make all Hall H panels ticketed events and clear them out at the end of each panel. Give them away first thing in the morning. Once all 6,500 tix are gone, hand out a couple hundred standby tickets for seats that may go unfilled. Those with tickets can line up knowing they’re getting inside. The fans who like to camp out all day in Hall H won’t like this plan but anything’s better than having a wall of humanity clogging up the entrance doors. Besides, how much fun can it be to wait in line for hours on end, for anything?!? And I have a way to appease panel junkies – set up more giant TV screens in certain parts of the convention center. That way those exiting Hall H can watch the next panel (except for the film clips, which get blacked out from any feeds going outside the hall). Also, programmers should spread out presentations with overlapping fan bases so you don’t have to make the hard choice between your favorite TV shows.
3.) RECONFIGURE THE CON FLOORFoot traffic was a nightmare every day of this year’s show, even Preview Night. I’m convinced the floor layout has a lot to do with that. The floor at this year’s show was positively schizophrenic, with comic art dealers like All Star Auctions, Albert Moy, and Romitaman next to manga dealers and the Sony Pictures booth. I’m an original art collector who likes to browse the tables, but I couldn’t make it to most of the dealers I know because they were spread too far across the floor. Put the comic book and comic art dealers next to the publishers’ booths, so when you leave the signing at the Marvel booth, you can search for back issues. Artists Alley should be nearby too, instead of buried way in the back. Same for movie studios, video game companies, and toy firms. Divide the floor by genres, place big banners from the ceiling to identify those areas, and let people plan their day accordingly. That way, comic fans won’t have to fight their way through the gauntlet of collectors who jam up the toy booths for limited edition goodies (Those BSG Toasters and “The Office” bobblehead dolls sold at the NBC Universal booth clogged up the middle of the convention floor every day!) Different people attend SDCC for different reasons. Why not make it easier for everyone to find what they want?
4.) MANAGE THE MEDIA HORDESWas there anyone at Comic-Con who didn’t have a press pass? This year no doubt surpassed the 3,000 media badges handed out in 2007, as TV outlets, bloggers, and radio personalities converged on Pop Culture’s Prom Night. It’s clear SDCC organizers aren't sure how to handle the now-massive press contingent that converges on the Con now. When covering a Hall H event you have to decide whether to watch the panel or wait around for the interview. You can’t do both. (I tried and it cost me an interview with Mark Wahlberg for REEL TALK after the Fox panel showing of Max Payne. I had to exit the convention center, re-enter and run upstairs to the concourse where the press line was taking place. By the time I arrived he had left). When your job is to talk to an actor or director about their project, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want to be able to watch and listen in on the panel, before you do the interview. At Comic-Con, you don’t have that option. That leads to the same 3-4 questions being asked over and over again on the press line...“So, Mr. So-and-so, tell us about your movie? How do you like the Con so far? Were you a comics fan growing up?” Con security and the studio reps should both have coordinated lists of journalists cleared for interviews. They should cordon off the front right side of Hall H near the stage (so they don’t block people’s view) so reporters cleared for post-panel interviews can go upstairs to join the press line, instead of having to exit the building and re-enter. For panels taking place in smaller halls, they should section off a portion of the room (not the best seats, but maybe off to the side) for media members. They should set up more media rooms with direct feeds from various panels. I popped in and out of one such room this year and it allowed me to check in on other panels I couldn’t attend. SDCC also needs to tighten up its press pass guidelines. Badges should be assigned based on coverage plans (TV, online, radio) and viewership (or readership). Having one blanket credential for all journalists is a recipe for disaster. Huge events like the Super Bowl, Sundance, or the Olympics all assign credentials on a tiered access system. The needs of a TV crew are different than a blogger, just as the needs of a radio guy are different than a print reporter. Having a blog doesn’t necessarily make you a journalist. It’s time Comic-Con recognized that fact and adjusted accordingly.
5.) CHARGE MORE $$, SELL LESS TICKETSMy final suggestion will probably be the most unpopular, but raising ticket prices may be the only way to ease the Con-gestion. Raise the price of a 4-day pass from $75 to $100 (and perhaps increase the individual day tickets a smaller amount), sell a few thousand less tickets and you should, in theory at least, have cut back on the body count without sacrificing revenue. Is it a great solution? No, it’s not. And I realize it’s easy for someone like me, whose press pass doesn’t cost a penny, to write about hiking ticket prices. But until SDCC’s showrunners and city officials figure out an expansion plan (and that’s still a big ‘if’), something has to be done about the crowds at Comic-Con. I think this makes the most sense and is the easiest to implement in the short term. I understand SDCC is a mega-event, but I’ve been in mosh pits with more elbow room than I had on the convention floor Friday and Saturday. San Diego is still the Con to end all Cons and a great experience overall. But with growth come growing pains. How organizers deal with those issues is something to watch closely as the 2009 edition approaches. (Michael Avila is the producer for the nationally syndicated movie show “REEL TALK” with Jeffrey Lyons and Alison Bailes. Check local listings @ www.reeltalktv.com)