Comic-Con: The Fan Convention as Industry Space, Part 2
After a hectic five days in San Diego, I’ve experienced far more than I could ever recount here. Besides, exhaustive coverage of Comic-Con content is available all over the Internet. As I outlined in my previous post, my interests center on the industry presence at Comic-Con. With that in mind, this post focuses on one particular space, Hall H, in order to examine how the industry exerts its significant and formative power at Comic-Con as part and parcel of exclusive opportunities and rewards for fans.
Hall H is a cavernous, airplane hanger-like room at the east end of the convention center. Seating up to 6500 attendees, the room hosts panels dedicated to promoting Hollywood films, particularly blockbuster tentpoles and franchises. This year, the list of star-studded sneak previews included Ender’s Game, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Godzilla, Hunger Games: Catching Fire, X-Men: Days of Future Past, the Thor and Captain America sequels, and surprise announcements from Warner Brothers and Marvel and about the immanent team up of Superman and Batman and the title (and villain) of the next Avengers film.
The process of gaining access to the massive hall is daunting. Every year, an increasing number of attendees line up overnight. I spent Friday and Saturday in the hall and arrived between 4:30 and 5am on both days. I waited in line over five hours before the room was loaded (a process taking roughly an hour), and once admitted, I managed to find a seat towards the back of the room.
The line itself demonstrates the significant power and draw of industry promotion at Comic-Con as the spectacle (and labor) of attendees waiting in line produces an increased sense of value around studios’ promotional content. Contextualized as exclusive to Comic-Con, these advertising paratexts are distinguished from the more mundane, mediated promotion we encounter in our daily lives. The line helps to construct this distinction by providing visible evidence of attendees’ belief that this content is worth waiting for (on both days I sat in Hall H, attendees participating in Q&A sessions professed to the panelists that the wait had been well worth it). In order to participate in these kinds of exclusive opportunities, attendees must consent not only to the significant wait, but also to the maintenance of order and regulations–first, in the line, then, within the Hall. The process of queuing, then, transforms attendees into docile bodies, who wait patiently and compliantly for the panels in the hall.
Two co-existing rules inform Comic-Con’s Hall H (and overall) experience, both of which are printed directly on the Comic-Con badge . First, attendees must consent to being photographed or recorded at any time and to give “Comic-Con, its agents, licensees, or assignees” the right to use their likeness for “promotional purposes.” Second, attendees must agree not to photograph or record any prohibited material and must obtain Comic-Con’s consent for the commercial use of “permitted” photographs and recordings. I learned about both of these rules firsthand when I recorded the introduction to the Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures panel on Saturday.
The first half of this video demonstrates the interesting phrasing of piracy warnings in Hall H. Fans can record and disseminate everything but the studio’s footage. This rule works to preserve the proprietary property of the studios, while suggesting that attendees should see their experiences as similarly proprietary, an exclusive reward for their own effort and commitment after a long night in line. Optimally, attendees will “promote” their experiences in the same way that the industry promotes their products, by carefully controlling the dissemination of information. The studios, in retaining control of their footage, also get to decide where and how it will be unveiled online, which sometimes happens simultaneously or shortly after it is screened in Hall H. Effectively, the exclusive atmosphere of Hall H, both in terms of the restrictions around filming and sharing of content, and the excitement associated with being among the first to see and the first to know, makes Comic-Con attendees into an unpaid promotional army, enthusiastically reproducing their exclusive experiences for a larger collection of consumers online and on social networks.
Though it is difficult to see in the darkened room, the second half of this video captures the moment when two large curtains drop to reveal 180 degrees of screens, a Hall H technological spectacular first introduced by Warner Brothers in 2012. The video ends when a member of security approaches behind my seat and tells me not to record anything on the screens. This is, of course, absurd, as the content on the screen in that moment is a widely disseminated and familiar corporate logo. Whether this warning reflects an accurate enforcement of the regulations or an overzealous member of security, it demonstrates just how little control one has as a member of the Hall H audience. Either comply, or be ejected.
Later, during a panel for 20th Century Fox, the moderator excitedly informed the audience that we were all going to be photographed by a company called Crowdzilla, and that the photograph would be so detailed that we would be able to locate and tag ourselves on the X-Men Facebook page. Alongside the troubling and invasive implications of the Crowdzilla technology, this stunt invites the audience’s implicit consent to be photographed for promotional purposes (the first rule listed on the Comic-Con badge). Framed as a fun, novel, and innocuous addition to the Hall H experience, this stunt further exploits the spectacle of the Comic-Con crowd as a vehicle for marketing purposes. This example demonstrates a dual function of Comic-Con: on the surface, the event operates as a location for studios to market to a core audience of fans, but in the process, these same fans become part of a larger marketing paratext.
In addition to demonstrating how studios interpellate Comic-Con attendees as unpaid promotional laborers, the lines, the piracy warning, my experience with security, and the Crowdzilla stunt also suggest a deeper, ideological power imbalance in the relationship between media industries and attendees at Comic-Con. If a corporation’s logo operates as a of signifier of its identity (however problematic that identity may be), in Hall H, these kinds of identities are protected and privileged, while individual attendees must hand those same rights over to studios and Comic-Con organizers. The pleasures of consuming paratexts at Comic-Con are the pretense through which studios assemble a crowd that functions more usefully as a group of indistinct “fans” than as discreet individuals. In this way, my experiences in Hall H suggest a troubling hierarchy underpinning Hollywood’s presence at Comic-Con, a hierarchy that, as the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign suggests, extends to the relationship between media industries and fans more generally. Instead of simply playing the role of media consumers, this audience is incorporated into a hierarchy of industry production and promotion, geared towards meeting the studio’s marketing goals. The configuration of Hall H, with studio representatives elevated and isolated on a stage before a crowd of 6500 attendees, manifests these hierarchies in real space, rendering them highly material, and by extension, visible for five days a year.