ED. NOTE: The 44th annual San Diego Comic-Con International — the granddaddy of the American comics and pop-culture conventions — kicks off this evening with Preview Night, as more than 125,000 fans will pour into the Convention Center between now and Sunday. So Comic Riffs launches its coverage today by weighing the big event’s future, especially in relation to big entertainment.
(Full disclosure: Comic Riffs is a judge for the event’s Eisner Awards — aka “comics’ Oscars” — on Friday.)
AFTER NEARLY 40 YEARS, we’ve reached the point of Peak Geek.
It was back in ‘76 when a certain hungry young filmmaker named George Lucas brought his “Star Wars” to a similarly budding San Diego Comic-Con. But it’s only been the past decade or so, since such films as “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” sparked captive fanboy interest, that Hollywood has consistently moved into the annual Con liked massive, mobilized armies — a battle plan only ratcheted up a few years later by the reception of shows like “Heroes” and “Lost.”
But where does Hollywood’s relationship with nerd culture go from here?
“Right now, we’re at what I call ‘Peak Geek,’ a moment when comics culture has taken over pop culture, including Hollywood,” futurist and Con regular Rob Salkowitz tells Comic Riffs. “When you’re at the peak of a cycle, it’s hard to imagine the future as anything but a trend-line pointing ever upward.
“But there’s a lot of fragility and uncertainty in the system.”
As the twin fathers of the summer blockbuster, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, question the fiscal sustainability of big tentpole pictures — and such budget behemoths as “Pacific Rim,” “John Carter” and “The Lone Ranger” disappoint at the box office — Salkowitz senses the winds of change.
“The entertainment industry increasingly has access to huge amounts of data that, in theory, should help them predict success and shape works to fit audience tastes. Still, year after year, there are a bunch of big-budget films that are so fundamentally ill-conceived and poorly executed that it makes you wonder how they ever got green-lighted, much less released.
“Meanwhile, the technology for doing decent films on a tiny budget keeps getting better and better,” adds Salkowitz, who co-founded the Seattle-based digital communications company MediaPlant. “I’ve seen dozens of fan-produced Star Wars shorts that run miles around the franchise’s official output. ... Spielberg and Lucas are placing what I think is a smart bet on the downside trade.”
As both futurist and fan (he currently digs “Locke and Key,” “SAGA” and the digital-first “Insufferable”), Salkowitz is author of the recent book ”Comic-Con and the Business of Comic-Con: What the World’s Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us About the Future of Entertainment.”
Comic Riffs caught up with Salkowitz before he appears on several Comic-Con panels this week to talk films, fanboys and the future of the Con:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Besides being a futurist, you have been on the ground with the Con as it's grown — can you sketch [out] your personal Con evolution for us?
ROB SALKOWITZ: I grew up ... in Philadelphia, and some of my best childhood memories are of the comic conventions that took place there in the 1970s, mostly run by a guy named Phil Seuling. I drifted away from the whole scene in the ‘80s and really didn’t think much about comics until years later.
The next summer, on a whim, [I] just bought an airline ticket, snagged a cheap hotel room and flew down to San Diego for Comic-Con. I walked up to the ticket window on Thursday morning, bought a four-day pass, and was blown away by the intensity of the place.
I think they had 45,000 people or so that year. Different times.
MC: I remember stumbling upon the Con as a San Diego-transplanted kid, and while I was wowed by the scene, I never anticipated such wild growth. ... When was [that] first Con [for you] — and as a fan and a futurist, when did you have a sense it would get huge?
RS: 1997 was my first San Diego Con. After that, I came back raving to my wife about what a great time I had and she agreed to come down the next year. She took to the hobby like she’d been bitten by a radioactive spider, and for every year since then, she’s been the driving force in getting badges, hotel rooms, etc.
I think 2001 or 2002 was the first year the exhibit hall took up the entire San Diego Convention Center — more than half-a-million square feet. Just about everyone was stunned by the scale of it.
During those years, 2002 to 2005 or so, the momentum just kept building. Bigger and bigger stars would show up for panels. More comic properties were getting scooped up and made into movies. It was just an endless upward spiral. Then people got over their shock and the whole thing became a force of nature.
I think at this point, well over two-thirds of the professionals that show up are only there because they’re afraid not to be. That, to me, indicates we’re at an inflection point, which is why I decided to do the book.
MC: A few years ago, I spoke with Tim Burton about how big the Con had got since he last attended [years earlier] — and I credited his first "Batman" with helping stoke the new Hollywood realization that there was superhero [and fanboy] gold to be mined at Comic-Con. What pop cultural events do you think have been especially pivotal in Hollywood becoming such a monster presence here?
RS: From a movie standpoint, the first X-Men movie and Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” in 2000-01 mark the start of the current cycle, where it became clear that studios could make credible movies based on superheroes that pleased fans and connected with the mass audience.
The next big moment was in 2005 or 2006, when “Lost” and “Heroes” debuted at Comic-Con, and got a bump that propelled them into surprise hits. Since then, I think everyone has been trying to capture that lightning in a bottle, but there’s still not a perfect formula for it. Thank goodness.
MC: When did you begin to have a sense that fanboys/geeks/nerds — whatever you want to call our tribe — would become such a vital, cultivated and sometimes catered-to force in pop culture? And how much did [the rise of] the Internet ... help change that equation?
RS: In times past, nerds were shunned for their intense and unself-conscious embrace of their enthusiasms: “Sure, comics are kind of cool, but what kind of dork knows every artist and issue number?” In the information age, it turns out that having deep knowledge, strong opinions and the credibility that comes with not caring what anyone else thinks about you are tremendous assets.
So here’s Comic-Con, where you have 150,000 of the most dedicated, specialized and engaged fans — who are, by the way, heroes to their whole circle of friends, followers and Tweeps just for being at Comic-Con — all in one place, looking to be delighted and entertained by cool stuff. Who wouldn’t want that audience?
The kind of cultural authenticity that comes with embrace from the Comic-Con faithful is simply not available anywhere else. And so studios, publishers, game companies and marketers of every sort spare no expense to win them over.
MC: Speaking of the Internet, you're on a panel about digital publishing, and on at least two panels featuring [the company] comiXology. What signposts do you see ahead for the future of digital comics — and do any particular publishers or developments encourage you about the format and platform's road ahead?
RS: The rise of digital comics has been one of the great inevitable surprises of the past couple of years: Inevitable, because the arrival of tablet devices presents such a natural fit with the medium of comics; and surprising, because digital has actually strengthened other aspects of the business, including print and brick-and-mortar retail — rather than cannibalizing the market as many had feared.
Now we’re seeing the emergence of digital-first imprints — publishers who create original works directly for the digital market. You’d think this style of publishing would best fit up-and-coming creators who can’t get work on the print side, but in fact, some of the top talent in the industry, from Brian K. Vaughan and Mark Waid to artists Dave Gibbons, Bill Sienkiewicz and Marcos Martin, are using digital-first as a way to get new works directly to their readers without the problematic relationship with corporate publishers.
As I wrote recently, we are in a Golden Age of digital publishing right now, and we should enjoy it while it lasts.
MC: You're also on a panel featuring the Bonfire Agency, which brands itself as harnessing geek power to drive trends. What role do you see for Bonfire — and perhaps other agencies — in the current climate?
RS: For the last few years, the battlecry in the marketing industry has been: “We want more than customers! We want fans!” Well, Comic-Con has fans. They’re opinion-leaders among their peers, they’re incredibly loyal and attentive to their interests, and they buy just about everything they can afford that ties into their obsessions.
It’s natural that big brands that don’t otherwise have anything to do with comics culture would say, “I want me some of that!” But they need guides, because fans, particularly nerd-fans, are very sharp and can spot [expletive] — marketing hype — a mile away. If you don’t know the difference between Mr. Spock and Dr. Spock, for example, you have no business trying to talk to anyone at Comic-Con about whatever it is you’re selling. You just sound like a pandering phony. And yet big companies make that kind of boneheaded mistake all the time.
Bonfire and other agencies are trying to help brands engage authentically, or at least avoid the silly missteps. It’s definitely a necessary role.
MC: “Star Wars” — like “Jaws” — helped create the modern summer blockbuster. Now the two men responsible for those films, [George] Lucas and [Steven] Spielberg, are predicting the implosion of a Hollywood system that relies on so many summer tentpoles. As a futurist and fan, do you agree with them — and what do you see ahead on this front?
RS: I talked about this at some length in [my] book. Right now, we’re at what I call “Peak Geek,” a moment when comics culture has taken over pop culture, including Hollywood. When you’re at the peak of a cycle, it’s hard to imagine the future as anything but a trend-line pointing ever upward. But there’s a lot of fragility and uncertainty in the system.
The entertainment industry increasingly has access to huge amounts of data that, in theory, should help them predict success and shape works to fit audience tastes. Still year after year, there are a bunch of big-budget films that are so fundamentally ill-conceived and poorly executed that it makes you wonder how they ever got green-lighted, much less released.
Meanwhile, the technology for doing decent films on a tiny budget keeps getting better and better. I’ve seen dozens of fan-produced Star Wars shorts that run miles around the franchise’s official output. The quality of the story more than makes up for the gap in production value, which isn’t as large as you might imagine.
That tension between consolidated corporate media and grass-roots DIY creativity is roiling under the surface, and it makes the costs of poor decisions by the studios even higher. Spielberg and Lucas are placing what I think is a smart bet on the downside trade.
MC: Do you see Comic-Con leaving San Diego any year soon — and do you predict that more studios, as with Disney, will begin to stage their own Con-like events?
RS: If Comic-Con were like every just about every other convention being run around the world today, I’d say it’s amazing it hasn’t left already. But it’s not. San Diego Comic-Con is a nonprofit run by a group of organizers who have been around for decades. That insulates them to some degree from ordinary economic pressures. They generate lots of revenue, but can stay focused on their mission rather than maximizing return for shareholders the way that shows run by entertainment corporations and tradeshow organizers do.
Having been to a bunch of shows around the country recently, many of which are very well-run and profitable, I can tell you that makes a difference in the fan experience. Underneath all the hype and glitz, Comic-Con retains a kernel of authenticity based on its heritage, which is integrally linked to its connection with San Diego. If they give that up, they’d be just another show.
Just look at the events that are Comic-Con’s only real competition, culturally speaking — Sundance and SXSW — which are both held in midsized communities that the festivals absolutely dominate.
Will Comic-Con leave San Diego? Will SXSW move to Dallas? It could happen I suppose, but if it did, they’d lose a lot of what makes them unique.
MC: Some comics fans gripe that Hollywood has swallowed much of the focus of the Con, stealing the spotlight from comics. Do you agree or disagree?
RS: I hear that, too, and sometimes I sympathize, but ultimately, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the Con. San Diego Comic-Con has always been about comics culture — the nexus of art, genre literature, cinema, fashion, music and general creativity that comes out of comics, not just the comic books themselves. Hollywood has always been a welcome guest at the table: Remember, George Lucas brought “Star Wars” to Comic-Con in 1976, more than 35 years ago.
Today, that “welcome guest” happens to have brought 100,000 of its closest friends and is eating most of the food and sucking up most of the oxygen, so the presence has increased. But fundamentally, it’s nothing new.