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To Comic Effect

It's the return of the Jedi — and the Iron Men, the Wonder Women and the Jokers — as Comic-Con gears up for another year here. While the costumed characters, fans, geeks, writers, artists and Hollywood types make for some fascinating people-watching downtown, San Diego fights to keep the convention from flying off.


At the corner of Fifth and G, Spider-Man and a Wookiee are having an animated conversation. They don’t even acknowledge a small army of storm troopers and clone troopers making their way down the sidewalk, although a gaggle of Princess Leia lookalikes in metallic bikinis warrants a brief stare.

As the San Diego Convention Center draws nearer, the sidewalks of Fourth, Fifth and other access streets become increasingly crowded with strange-looking characters — and not all of them are wearing costumes. Two young men, one of whom could pass for Hurley from the TV show Lost, are sweating and breathing hard as they power down the sidewalk. “The Battlestar Galac­tica panel is on in five minutes,” the Hurley guy says to his friend. “We’ve got to hurry.”

San Diego Comic-Con International returns to the convention center July 22-25, and that means the streets of downtown will be overrun with geeks and freaks — 120,000 or more of them. The majority are young adult males who’d rather play video games, read comic books or surf the Web than, say, play football or go surfing.

 Comic-Con was launched 40 years ago at the U.S. Grant Hotel as a swap meet for comic book collectors. Since then, Comic-Con has grown — or rather, exploded — into a geekfest of almost unimaginable proportions. The annual event, which outgrew several downtown homes before settling in at the convention center in 1991, has become a proving ground for Hollywood. It routinely attracts A-list stars, directors and hangers-on who want to tap into the pop-culture zeitgeist that can come only from attracting so many rabid sci-fi, horror, fantasy and anime fans who immerse themselves in worlds of their own making.

“Comic-Con brings together an extraordinary group of fans and media in one setting,” says Ron Sanders, president of the home entertainment division of Warner Bros. “It’s really a unique opportunity for them to interact with our content, and usually results in a tidal wave of awareness and publicity.”

David Glanzer, director of marketing for Comic-Con, says even in the beginning, organizers reached out beyond comics to highlight science-fiction, fantasy and movies.

“But it has grown beyond our wildest imaginations,” he says. “It may be regarded so well because it’s an opportunity for creators of comics, games, toys, movies and TV shows to actually meet the end user. Many times, industry professionals gather at industry events that are peer-to-peer. But Comic-Con allows the creators to actually discuss [their creations] with those who will ultimately buy their products, tune in to their shows or buy tickets to their movies.

“And for Comic-Con attendees, it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn, firsthand, why a comic series has taken a new direction, or why movie directors or television writers have made the choices they have.”

In recent years, Comic-Con has drawn such celebs as directors Bryan Singer and J.J. Abrams, stars Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp and filmmaker James Cameron, who came to last year’s gathering to preview a new fantasy movie he was making called Avatar.

Much of the action takes place on the show floor, where every studio, large and small, now has exhibit space. Many set up elaborate displays visitors can walk through, such as Walt Disney Studios’ life-size pirate ship (to promote Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) and Lionsgate’s gruesome Devil’s Rejects horror tableau.

Fans also flock to some 400 seminars, workshops and panel discussions on such topics as DVD and Blu-ray Disc special features, new comic book characters and trends in graphic novels.

But Hollywood’s keen eye is focused on the previews of upcoming films and, specifically, Comic-Con fans’ reactions to them. If the crowd likes something, it’s a fair bet it will be a hit. The geeks among us don’t just set trends; they fuel them, through countless hours spent blogging, in Internet chat rooms and on social-networking sites.

“The Comic-Con crowds, or ‘fan-boys,’ have become an extremely influential constituency of early taste­makers for a variety of content coming from Hollywood — and elsewhere,” says veteran Hollywood publicist Steve Feldstein. “Appealing to these tastemakers doesn’t guarantee a success, but they are not a group anyone can afford to ignore. That’s why studio participation increases each year. And it’s really not just studios — it’s all kinds of content creators and distributors, from gaming to films to home entertainment to 3D.”

Not surprisingly, then, San Diego has come to view Comic-Con as a badge of pride. Comic-Con gives our town an edge it otherwise would not have, a feeling of influence over Hollywood, which translates into a sense of hipness — a quality San Diego has long strived for but seldom attained. And for a city that’s accustomed to living in the shadow of Los Angeles — at least in a pop-cultural context — that’s not something to be taken lightly.

The Comic-Con contract with the San Diego Convention Center is due to expire in 2012, and organizers have made no secret of their frustrations with the center and its shortage of space. San Diego’s quest for a three-year extension of the contract, made in the hopes of buying some time to expand the convention center, is by all measures generous. The bid includes an offer of 300,000 square feet of free meeting space at three nearby hotels and an expanded block of discounted hotel rooms.  In late April, San Diego sweetened the deal, offering to throw in $500,000 in hotel tax revenues if the contract is extended until 2015.

“Comic-Con is the largest single convention we have in San Diego,” says Joe Terzi, president and CEO of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It has a long history, with an ever-increasing positive economic impact to the city. But it is not just the economic impact that’s important to us — it’s the unbelievable national and international press coverage. San Diego takes center stage with live broadcasts and featured articles in high-profile magazines, newspapers and online distribution systems. The positive impact and associated value of all the coverage and PR totals in the millions of dollars. You could not buy the coverage we get.”

Los Angeles and Anaheim also have submitted bids. Anaheim tourism boosters are being especially aggressive, playing up that city’s far bigger convention center as well as the large number of nearby hotel rooms. Both the Anaheim/Orange County Visitors & Convention Bureau and the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau have launched Facebook pages in hopes of swaying Comic-Con organizers through a huge outpouring of civic support. The “Bring Comic-Con International to Anaheim, CA” page had 3,107 fans as of early May; “2013: Los Angeles Welcomes Comic-Con” had 2,777.

Anaheim’s Charles Ahlers says Comic-Con organizers contacted them about the possibility of moving the show there. “They’ve been in contact with us for several years,” he says. “They have been up here numerous times to see if we have the capacity, and just last January their entire board came up for the NAMM [National Association of Music Merchants] show.

“That was a real eye-opener for them. They saw us host a show with 90,000 attendees pretty comfortably. We offer them three things over San Diego: more space, better affordability and a better housing bloc.”

 Ahlers estimates bringing Comic-Con to Anaheim would contribute “north of $60 million” to the local economy. And he’s undaunted by the fact that San Diego Port commissioners unanimously approved a multi­mil­lion-dollar land deal that clears the way for a $753 million expansion of the San Diego Convention Center, a move tourism boosters believe will persuade Comic-Con to remain in town.

 “Saying you’re going to expand and actually expanding are two different things,” Ahlers counters. “And even if San Diego ends up keeping the show, this isn’t the end. We’ll always be interested.”

At press time, a decision on Comic-Con’s fate had not yet been reached, although a verdict was expected by the end of May. Regardless, Comic-Con has at least three more shows in San Diego, and the 2010 fest has been sold out since the beginning of the year.

As usual, much of the color will be on the show floor, courtesy of the attendees, many of whom come in costume. In prior years it’s been customary to find clusters of storm troopers, clone troopers, Jedi, Wookiees and even Mighty Morphin Pow­er Rangers — not to mention dozens of fans dressed as superheroes ranging from Spider-Man and Batman to Wonder Woman and Iron Man. Anime characters also are well-represented, while the biggest contingent seems to revolve around the current and recent hottest movies. Thus it was that last year’s show saw an abundance of Jokers and Transformers; if tradition holds this year, expect plenty of Avatars, Mad Hatters and maybe even an Alice or two.

Two years ago, the G4 television network sponsored a Princess Leia bikini contest on the show floor. Dozens of shapely young women (and some who were neither shapely nor young) participated, including Attack of the Show host Olivia Munn.

Comic-Con’s David Glanzer, who began attending the show back in the 1970s, started volunteering in the 1980s and joined the staff in the mid-1990s, has fond memories of early conventions.

“There were some instances that certainly gave me pause,” Glazer says, laughing. “One instance I remember clearly involved an independent television series shooting an episode at Comic-Con. Because of the crowds, we had to schedule the shoot at night when no one was in the facility. They were restricted to one specific area, and I turned to find a very agile crew member climbing a large exhibit to affix a light for the production. I nearly had a heart attack. 

“The production [crew] made it a point that they were insured, as if that was my main concern. I asked them, in as nice a voice as I could muster, to please not scale exhibits that are 30 feet in the air and never made for climbing.”

One year, Glanzer recalls, Comic-Con got a call from a movie studio, asking if they could land a helicopter on the roof of the Convention Center. “They could not,” he says.

“And I do remember a year when we had these huge inflatable robots that stood watch over the Convention Center,” Glanzer says. “I don’t know that there is much available ground space these days to accommodate that sort of thing.”

Too many Wookiees, storm troop­ers and Princess Leias on the ground for that now.

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