San Diego Comic-Con Is Overcrowded. Let’s Make It Bigger
The world’s biggest pop culture convention has become its least enjoyable, but it doesn’t have to be
San Diego Comic-Con is a one-of-a-kind experience that everyone who’s excited about pop culture — which is just about everyone — should attend once. And that should be the last time. One visit is all you’ll need to realize that despite the stars, the festival, the crowds, and (to a much lesser extent) the comics, the event has gotten so big that it’s not just bloated — it’s broken.
But it doesn’t have to be. And it turns out that the way to fix a big and bloated pop culture mega-event is to make it even bigger.
To anyone who’s waited hours in line in hopes of attending a hot panel at Comic-Con, or tried to find a place to have dinner in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter after the show, this may sound crazy. After all, the world’s biggest pop culture expo’s main problem is that there are simply too many people here. The issue goes beyond long lines, of which there are plenty. The con draws a reported 135,000 attendees to the San Diego Convention Center, which has a capacity of 125,000 — and this attendee number doesn’t count the thousands of guests, exhibitors, staff, and media personnel who also have to squeeze into the convention center and its environs.
At its busiest, on Friday and Saturday, you can quite literally get swept away by the nerd herds roaming the aisles.
San Diego Comic-Con takes a ridiculous amount of time and effort to actually attend. The 67 “official” hotels — positioned within an eight or so mile radius — can only be reserved through a lottery, held in April, in which all rooms are booked within a minute. (No exaggeration.) If you’re not one of the lucky few to end up within walking distance of the San Diego Convention Center, you have to drive through bumper-to-bumper traffic to get to the marina, and then battle for parking. (ACE, owner of many downtown garages, has its own, unofficial lotto to use its spaces.) And once you’ve finally managed to arrive, the fighting really begins.
Half of the Comic-Con experience is entering its giant exhibit hall, where studios and networks hawk their newest projects, and companies like Hasbro and Lego sell their goods. At its busiest, on Friday and Saturday, you can quite literally get swept away by the nerd herds roaming the aisles — except for the elaborate booths for companies such as Lucasfilm, in which people won’t be moving at all. If you’re hoping to see or buy anything popular, you’ll have to fight the con’s tremendous crowds to get there. Going to panels is primarily a series of waiting in lines: Want to hear Marvel talk about its Phase 4 plans? Buy the show’s countless toy exclusives? Get signatures from the guests? Eat food? Go to the bathroom? Expect to wait.
In fact, if you’re looking to get into Hall H — the convention center’s largest seating area, containing room for 6,500 attendees, which amounts to less than 5% of the con’s total attendees — expect to wait a lot. Hall H is where the con’s biggest studios show off their upcoming projects, including Marvel. Last year, the line formed on Tuesday, two days before the show even started — and the most anticipated panels are usually held Saturday evening. Worst still, you can wait in line for all those days and still be told there’s no more room in the hall when you finally get to the front of the line.
The solution isn’t making the con smaller — it’s making it bigger.
In all cases, the problem is that there are too many damn people in too damn small an area, and it’s been a problem for years — despite the San Diego Comic-Con capping its attendance since 2007, out of necessity more than largess. Lowering the cap would make the con’s offerings more accessible, as well as allow for some badly needed breathing room, but it’s unrealistic. Fewer people attending means fewer reasons for studios and companies to bring exclusives for attendees, and that means fewer reasons for people to want to deal with all the hassles that come with attending the show in the first place, and so on. It’s a spiral that doesn’t end well for anyone.
So the solution isn’t making the con smaller — it’s making it bigger. We can start by having San Diego Comic-Con run Monday through Sunday. A longer show means more attendees, which means more sales and more people to be marketed to — and these are all good things.
The real solution is to divide the seven-day con into two reasonably distinct halves. Thursday through Sunday would be Comic-Con business as usual. Before it would be a second, separate opportunity to attend Comic-Con, but from Monday to Thursday. Fans could have the option to buy a full, weeklong pass if it was absolutely necessary, but there would be no real benefit to it. There’s only so much disposable income fans bring to the show, and they can spend it in three days just as easily as seven. (Actually, they can spend their nest egg in 30 minutes with a little effort, and many of them do.) As someone who has attended many times, I can heartily assure you no one needs to be at Comic-Con for more than four days unless they’re working there.
Even if it’s perceived as “Comic-Con Lite,” I’m confident there will be a real appeal in a less intense Comic-Con experience, perhaps for those who need more scheduling flexibility, or aren’t interested in fighting the crowds of the weekend, or might be more budget-minded. These qualities would surely appeal to some of the normal Comic-Con crowd, which would alleviate the density issues of “Part 2” somewhat, meaning attendees could move around more easily and potentially get a seat at a San Diego restaurant without walking two miles from the convention center.
The obvious problem is that making the con longer means the costs for the con — and the exhibitors — rise. The San Diego Convention Center charges rent, after all, and the marketing teams who have to monitor their booths and shopkeepers selling goods all have to be housed and fed throughout the event. Making the show’s attendees more comfortable is nice, but it doesn’t make a profit, nor does it raise brand awareness.
But the dramatic increase of people attending an extended con would be enough to entice those studios and booths and sellers to tack on a few extra days to their trip, especially if Comic-Con cuts them a deal to do so. A few well-placed discounts could also be enough for some of the exhibitors to move some of their panels and events to earlier in the week, at least while “Part 1” is getting off the ground.
Some panels could even be run twice, and potentially attract twice as many viewers. There’s no way Marvel Studios would wrangle all 5,000 stars of Avengers: Endgame to two separate panels on two separate days, even if they could. But it doesn’t seem to be out of the realm of possibility for HBO to have a Westworld panel on Tuesday night with a couple of the show’s supporting actors, then bring stars Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright out for a second, bigger panel on Friday night.
Here’s the other reason I’m certain this could work: It already has, kind of. Although San Diego Comic-Con traditionally (and officially) runs for four days, it began offering a Wednesday “preview night” to press and guests in the early 2000s. In 2012, it began charging fans for the opportunity to get this early access to the exhibit hall, and they’ve been buying it ever since. Comic-Con is essentially five days long already. What’s another two days, especially when there’s a chance to grab so many new attendees?
I don’t see who loses here — except the poor souls who have to work there, either for the convention or for the exhibitors. (I know a few of them, and if they’re reading this I am dead certain they’ve either crossed me off their Christmas card list or are scouring the dark web for assassins to take me out.) Unfortunately for them, I highly suspect San Diego Comic-Con will continue expanding no matter what, sooner or later. It won’t be too long before “preview night” stops being an unofficial con day and becomes official. Eventually, someone will have the bright idea to have a Tuesday preview night, for the exact same reasons the Wednesday preview night was created the first place — and then they’ll rediscover fans will pay for early access. So on and so on.
It’s as inevitable a truth as the San Diego Convention Center’s 125,000-person maximum occupancy, so why wait? With the proper planning, tens of thousands of new people could finally enjoy the one-of-a-kind experience of attending San Diego Comic-Con. And if they actually have the ability to do what they want there, they’ll probably have fun, too.