When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 San Diego Comic-Con, it was the first time in the 50-year history of the fan convention that it would not take place.
“It was really a heartbreaking decision,” says David Glanzer, chief communications officer and strategy officer at Comic-Con Intl., the organization that oversees SDCC and its sister event WonderCon in Anaheim, Calif., which also had to be canceled. “People in the office were crying.”
After the March cancellation of WonderCon, which was scheduled to take place the following month, the Comic-Con International team put together a small-scale series of videos and links that Glanzer characterizes as “kind of last minute.” So when they canceled Comic-Con in April, organizers decided they had to try to salvage the event in a much more robust fashion online.
“We wanted to do something,” Glanzer says. “But then came the second half of that thought: Can we do it?”
With over 130,000 attendees annually since the late 2000s, SDCC has long been one of the most momentous pop-culture events of the year. Its signature panels have helped to sustain die-hard fandoms for blockbuster franchises like “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “The Twilight Saga” and, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while the colossal convention floor has been a delightful cross section of all manner of pop geekery.
For months, Glanzer says Comic-Con organizers strived to recreate all of it on a virtual stage for what they’ve dubbed Comic-Con@Home. The event will run on its original dates, July 22–26, with many familiar elements — from panels for popular TV and film titles to a costume contest and masquerade ball — transposed to an assortment of digital outlets, including YouTube, Amazon and IGN, rather than a single partner.
“We felt there were some platforms that lend themselves better to programming videos, some to exhibit tour stuff, some to community engagement and watching as a group,” Glanzer says.
Several well-known titles have scheduled panels, including all the “Star Trek” series on CBS All Access, HBO’s “His Dark Materials,” and all three “Walking Dead” shows, and fandom luminaries like Charlize Theron, Joss Whedon, and Nathan Fillion all have scheduled one-on-one panels. But Glanzer says convincing studios and networks to participate in Comic-Con@Home wasn’t a no-brainer.
“Many of them asked, as they should, ‘Okay, who will be watching this?'” he says.
Indeed, almost no feature films announced panels for Comic-Con@Home. Paramount, Sony, and Universal are sitting out the convention entirely, while WarnerMedia’s DC Entertainment elected to launch their own virtual fan convention — DC FanDome on Aug. 22 — to promote its suite of film, TV and comic book properties.
The biggest blow for Comic-Con@Home, however, is arguably the lack of participation from marquee Comic-Con participants Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm, which aren’t bringing any of their features or live-action scripted TV series to Comic-Con@Home. Fans had been especially anticipating first looks at Marvel Studios’ upcoming slate, including theatrical releases “Eternals” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and Disney Plus series “Falcon and the Winter Solider” and “WandaVision.”
All of those titles, however, have faced major production disruptions or delayed releases due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And with little-to-no certainty about when filming can start up again and theaters can reopen, there’s little sense in promoting blockbuster titles without a clear picture of when audiences will actually get to see them. (Lucasfilm’s “The Mandalorian,” by contrast, is still aiming to debut its second season on Disney Plus this October, but most streaming services have often elected to promote their A-list titles much closer to their debut.)
Amid all the unpredictability, Comic-Con@Home’s organizers made the obvious decision to keep the event free to everyone — even though that puts Comic-Con International, a non-profit organization, in a precarious financial position.
“We always had this [monetary] buffer, so if we had to cancel the show for some catastrophic reason, we’d have enough money to meet our obligations and a little bit of seed money the next year,” Glanzer says. “I don’t think we ever thought we’d have to cancel two shows. It was really, really frightening.”
Comic-Con brought in a reported $19 million in revenue in 2017, and according to the San Diego Convention Center Corp., the event generated an estimated $149 million for the region in 2019. But even if COVID-19 testing and treatments improve, it’s profoundly uncertain when, or whether, any fan conventions could reach those heights again.
“If this were to continue and we weren’t able to have a convention, I don’t know what the future would be,” Glanzer says with a deep sigh. “It’s possible that [Comic-Con@Home] is laying the groundwork for something that could exist in the future. We’re learning a great deal.”