COMIC-CON Talks San Diego Sell-Outs & Solutions

Before 2007, attending Comic-Con International: San Diego was as simple as showing up and buying a pass at the door.

It’s grown exponentially in popularity since, and this past Saturday, all four-day and single-day passes available for this year’s convention (happening July 21-24) sold out within a matter of hours after online registration was successfully opened up to the public. The sales were conducted through third-party ticket-selling system TicketLeap, after multiple failed earlier attempts this past fall.

Newsarama talked via telephone with David Glanzer, Comic-Con’s director of marketing and public relations, about Saturday’s one-day sellout, the San Diego Convention Center’s planned expansion, how to deal with demand greatly exceeding capacity, and what may be in the convention’s future.

Newsarama: David, obviously Comic-Con has been selling out earlier and earlier each year, but was a one-day sellout of all four-day and single day passes expected on your end?

David Glanzer: I think we certainly thought that the four-days would go in a matter of a few hours. I don’t think that we anticipated that all the one-days would go in one day. I think that if you had asked us Friday, we probably would have thought those would have lasted at least a few days, if not a week. In that respect, it was a surprise.

Nrama: Obviously the four-day passes that include preview night were sold out at last year’s show, plus there are still tickets reserved for pros and press. And I assume at least some were sold during the previous attempts at opening up registration?

Glanzer: The first few times I think there was really not more of a handful. I don’t even really know if they were in the double digits. The system crashed, twice, and effectively it didn’t work. The third time, we tried our test run, we made a thousand badges available, and we were able to process that thousand although there were glitches with that system as well.

Nrama: So given all that, if you have that information, how many tickets were sold on Saturday?

Glanzer: I don’t, actually. We don’t typically release that only because that can be fluid in terms of how many pros we have, press [registration] is going to open soon. Our 125 or 126 [thousand] number includes all of those people, including volunteers, and things of that nature.

Nrama: Several users reported glitches and load problems when trying to purchase tickets when things first opened up on Saturday, but at this point, are you happy with how it all ended up?

Glanzer: No. I have to tell you, I can’t even find the words for it right now — our level of frustration, I can’t even begin to convey. It’s just something we hoped would not happen, we’re incredibly sorry that it did. There’s no excuse for having to have people sit in front of their computer for four, or six, or even more hours, to try to buy a badge. As frustrated and as angry we are on this end, we know that it really doesn’t even compare to the frustration of those people who were sitting there trying to do that.

People effectively were trying to simply give somebody money to buy a badge, and they were having difficulty doing that, and it shouldn’t be that way. We’re incredibly sorry about that, and we’re incredibly grateful that we have people who want to attend our shows. Our attendees have always been incredibly patience, and gracious, and I think we really taxed them this time, and you can’t blame them for being upset. Saying “sorry” isn’t enough. Those words don’t convey the level that we feel here. We’re still analyzing things, but I think all of us are just very unhappy.

Nrama: So, to that end, will Comic-Con continue to look for other distribution methods for tickets?

Glanzer: I believe everything is on the table, but at this point, it’s not fair to say anything really beyond that only because we don’t have all the information that’s coming back. It would be horrible if what ended up happening ended up being something that was truly not foreseeable. We just don’t know yet. I will say that our ticket-seller has been very forthcoming in compiling information, they’ve been able to answer some of our initials questions, and we’ll get a full, detailed report. We look forward to getting that, and then trying to find out exactly what happened and why it happened.

Nrama: Do you think there’s any specific reason why this year would sell out so fast, other than the fact that it’s been selling out earlier and earlier each year?

Glanzer: I can only imagine it’s that. Internally, we didn’t treat the announcement any different than we have in any previous years. In fact, I think this year we probably even downplayed it a little bit more. We certainly let people know that registration would open on this day, and that was pretty much it. In the past, we had run some web banner ads on various online blogs and sites that announced that. We didn’t do that this year. We didn’t issue any press releases about registration opening. We really wanted to downplay it a little bit.

But I think social media is at a point now, too, where information is instantaneous. It gets tweeted and retweeted, and maybe that had an effect. It’s amazing, because we don’t have any programming scheduled for the show yet — it’ll be months. It’s still a blank canvas. But we’re grateful that people had a good time at the show before, and it was very important for them to try and get passes to the show. We’re incredibly sorry about the turn of events on Saturday, it was just really pretty inexcusable.

Nrama: My best guess is that are a lot of really big comic book and genre-type movies scheduled for 2012 (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Superman reboot), and people are anticipating that there will be programming based on at least some of those.

Glanzer: I think you’re right, I think people will anticipate what may show up, but it’s not that uncommon for obvious choices not to show up at Comic-Con. I think a couple of years back there was a studio that didn’t show up and so much was made of it. Sometimes a studio doesn’t come. Paramount didn’t bring the Star Trek people to Comic-Con, they went to WonderCon, but they didn’t come to San Diego.

Nrama: I don’t think The Dark Knight had any panel at Comic-Con.

Glanzer: No, it didn’t as well. So it isn’t always a given. It’s just the nature of the beast, sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I think people understand that there’s a lot of amazing things at Comic-Con — not only the movies, and games, and toys and all that, but comics. We have an amazing comics guest list. There’s really a lot going on, and I think people who have attended the show before realize that, and try to plan for the show without even seeing the schedule beforehand.

Nrama: And it was reported a few months ago that land had been approved for an expansion to the San Diego Convention Center. Obviously that’s at least a few years away, but hearing about the one-day sellout makes you wonder, are there any updates to that situation?

Glanzer: There isn’t. When we made our decision to stay in San Diego, we didn’t factor in that expansion, because we knew it wouldn’t be done until after 2015, which is when our new contract would expire. But we’ve seen plans for that, it’s an amazing layout, they’ve acquired the land. I think they’re moving forward with it, it’ll afford even more exhibit space, and even greater ballrooms. There’ll have a retail component to it, there’ll be an outdoor park, another additional hotel. There’s just a lot going into that. But it still has to be paid for.

Some people thought the expansion was made for Comic-Con. I think Comic-Con can benefit from that, but the city will benefit even better. If you go to convention cities like Orlando, they have massive convention centers that can hold multiple conventions without anybody bumping into each other. That has the benefit of a) occupying space, and b) selling hotel rooms, and c) filling restaurants. I think if San Diego expands their convention center, or when they do, they’ll be able to accommodate large events, but probably more importantly, they’ll be able to, throughout the year, accommodate multiple smaller events — I think that will be a benefit in revenue for the center and the surrounding businesses.

Nrama: So given that expansion is still years away, what kind of thought has Comic-Con given to dealing with the issue that clearly capacity is much lower than the number of people who’d like to attend the event?

Glanzer: Well, one of the things that we’ve been exploring in the last couple of years that seems to be working out is expanding out footprint. In the past, where we’ve been mostly in the confines of the convention center, and maybe one room at an adjacent hotel, we now have utilized some of the ballrooms over at the Bayfront Hilton. We’ve reached agreements with hotels to start using the ballrooms and meeting spaces at those as well, and maybe utilizing some public space, also. I think there’ll be more of a campus-like atmosphere. 120,000 people is a huge amount. Trying to have them all fit in one facility just isn’t realistic, so by utilizing those hotels and meeting spaces it should decrease that crowded feelings, and make things run a little bit smoother, we hope. And also could have the benefit, I hate to say this, but allow a few more people to attend the show.

Nrama: I talked to Mark Millar recently about the Kapow Comic Con in London, and they’re broadcasting some of their panels and programming online. Has Comic-Con given any consideration to that?

Glanzer: We’ve been asked about that, and it’s something we consider every year. One of the great things about Comic-Con is that you have an opportunity to experience something unique. There are some things at times that we will simulcast, like the masquerade, but that’s all done in-house. The task, sadly, that we have, is not even having a place to simulcast. It would be great it we could have another 3,000-person room, but just right now we don’t.

But, again, all options are open for everything. Each year we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how best to make sure our attendees can be inconvenienced the least, which is another reason why I think Saturday was so frustrating for us.

Nrama: And on the general issue of crowding, has any consideration been given to limiting the number of pro and press badges?

Glanzer: Yes. In fact, this year I think we have limitations on both of those. Just because it’s important for the attendees who want to attend to be able to attend. We have a lot of professionals who give up their time and expertise and we’re very grateful for that. Press, who come in and cover the show and talk about what’s going on is great, too. But yes, there has been some talk of limiting that. In fact, without our department, we let members of the media know that it may be curtailed this year, and that if they are not sure they could register for press, they should make alternate plans.  

Nrama: That seems like a difficult thing to tackle, because obviously you want the people who should be there to be there, but at the same time, there’s been a perception that it’s fairly easy to get a press badge.

Glanzer: I think there is that perception, and there was a time when I think it was very easy, but also that’s because we’ve always treated our mainstream press as bloggers, podcasters, people who write for fanzines, and things of that nature. While there might be national or international press that cover the show, typically they’ll write about us once a year. So for us, the most important people, in terms of press, were sometimes student newspapers. Or people who had their own fanzine, or there own blog. I think that gave the perception of, “Oh, you know what? All I have to do is do this, and I can get in.” Well, if you met the criteria, constant coverage and all that, you probably had a better chance of getting in than some others. We never want to eliminate those people who are really the backbone of the fan industry. It’s a delicate line that we have to walk. Our mainstream press has always been very different than what the norm might consider mainstream press.

Nrama: Obviously for several years now people have made the accusation that Comic-Con isn’t really about comic books anymore. Which frustrates me, because I always tell people that there are more publishers than any other convention, and more pros make it a must-attend than any other convention.

Saying that, we don’t know for sure, but I think the general assumption is that the frenzy of people buying passes on Saturday were largely the “newer” crowd of attendees who camp out at Hall H and are more interested in the movie and TV programming.

Glanzer: Actually, I don’t know. Before Hollywood came in, one of the reasons we started Wednesday night’s preview night was because there was such a crush of people on Thursday mornings that they would lineup at about 3 a.m. And those are for the comic panels. Being a long-time convention-goer, even before I started working for Comic-Con, I was pretty hardcore about waiting in line. It was not uncommon for us to sit in the street and wait for the doors to open.

You’re right, there’s no way to know who it was who bought the majority of these passes on Saturday. Comic-Con has more comics publishers than any other convention in the United States. It has more comics professionals than any other convention in the United States. It has more comics panels and programs than any other convention in the United States. I would argue even maybe the world. There are some events that have more people through the door, but in terms of an event like Comic-Con, when you can have seminars with these people, or workshops and all that, a lot of [other shows] don’t necessarily offer that. It’s a unique event.

Even if a majority of these people were non-comics fans who bought these passes, Hall H only seats 6,500 people. And while there may be another thousand people in line, that still leaves roughly 115,000-plus people who are doing other things.

Nrama: I think the convention has just gotten bigger in every way — it used to be that while movie and TV panels would fill up, comic book-specific ones were still pretty easy to get into, but now even those attract long lines.

Glanzer: And that’s frustrating for us, too, because you want those people to have as diverse of an audience as you can. Our reason for being is to introduce a wider group of people to an industry that for so long has been not embraced. When you consider comic books as an American art form, it’s silly that they’re held in such a higher regard in Europe, or in South America, or Asia, then in their own backyard.

We love that we have to put our comics programming in even larger and still larger rooms, because I think there’s the belief that if you like a superhero movie, you don’t like comic books. Or if you like comic books, you can’t possibly go to the movies. That’s not the case. I think we have incredibly well-rounded people who like gaming, who like toys, who like movies, who like comics, who like art, who like technology. It’s a diversified group. The psychographics of the group are amazingly diverse. I think there’s always the misconception that if you’re a movie fan, you can’t possible like comics, and vice versa, but our analysis has shown that’s just not the case.

Nrama: I think it’s fair to say that in the last few years the growth of interest, popularity and cultural influence of Comic-Con has been exponential, and Saturday reflects that. Just from your own experience as someone that’s heavily involved in the convention, do you see things continuing in that direction indefinitely, or maybe level out and return to relative normality at some point?

Glanzer: I have been the person who has always said, “Sometimes it can be too much of a good thing.” People ask, can we have maybe a five-day event, or one that encompasses two weekends. You’re asking people to leave their stores for a week, you’re asking pros to not work on stuff for a week. I think there’s probably more negatives than positives.

Will it always be this way? I don’t know if it will. Especially when you have situations where people are so frustrated. Somebody had said to me recently, “Wow, you must be so excited, you guys sold out.” No, we’re not excited. You never want to have an event that people can’t get to. Like I said before, yeah, there’s 126,000 people who will be there this year, but how many people couldn’t come who wanted to come? It frustrates me that everybody who wants to come to Comic-Con can’t.

What’s the future for Comic-Con? I don’t know. I hope our fans stick with us. They’ve always been gracious and patient, we’re incredibly sorry about the turn of events that happened, and I hope they stick with us for the long-term, because without them we don’t have a show.

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