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Comic-Con in San Diego makes a heroic effort to party hearty

By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2010; C05

SAN DIEGO -- Trying to find a party at the Hard Rock Hotel on the opening night of the 41st San Diego Comic-Con -- the behemoth of a pop-culture convention hosting upward of 120,000 fanboys and -girls over four days -- is a challenge. Not because there aren't any, but because there are too many.

While trying to wend one's way to the entrance of the "Empire Strikes Back"-themed soiree hosted by G4 and Lucasfilm on Thursday, it was entirely possible to mistakenly check in at the adjacent, splashy shindig for the movie "The Expendables," then be rerouted to the Xbox 360 reception across the hall, then accidentally stumble into the Sony PlayStation cocktail hour next door.

It's an admittedly high-end problem at this year's event: party glut. The kind of party glut that forces a person to tell a publicist: "No. I don't want to drink free booze on your yacht."

"The number of parties to my mind has exploded, in the last two years in particular," says Sean Smith, the Los Angeles bureau chief for Entertainment Weekly. "This year, it seems even bigger than ever."

Many Comic-Con regulars say they must choose between six and seven celebratory opportunities on each night of the convention. It's a situation that presents such tough choices as: Should I watch a fireworks display from a naval aircraft carrier while rubbing elbows with William Shatner, or knock back a few drinks in a replica of the arcade from the movie "Tron"?

Many of the invites clogging e-mail inboxes have come from the corporate side of Comic-Con: TV and movie studios, video game companies and publishing houses, all trying to create buzz for their projects by plying potential fans, industry insiders and members of the media with complimentary wine, beer and mini egg rolls. The burgeoning party scene, then, is just another example of a condition that Comic-Con stalwarts have wrung their hands over for years: the slow but steady Hollywood creep that some say is overshadowing the graphic-novel and comic-book artistry and industry that have always been Comic-Con's foundation.

"It's become much more akin to a film festival like Sundance or Cannes," says Jace Lacob, a journalist who has covered several Comic-Cons for his Web site, Televisionary, and who contributes to the Daily Beast. "And I think that Sundance analogy is a good one, because that also was a much more grass-roots event that suddenly became a very Hollywood and celebrity event."

Not every party is a ritzy, L.A.-funded affair. The Comic-Con scene also features more modest gatherings like fan meet-ups that allow, say, lovers of NBC's "Chuck" to find like minds over drinks. And there are such ticketed bashes as the Tweet House, an event sponsored by the Parnassus Group, a Redmond, Wash.-based consulting firm that's made stops at Sundance and the South by Southwest festival to educate Web-savvy crowds about the power of Twitter and other social-media networks.

This year, the Tweet House is making its first party appearance at Comic-Con, aboard the aircraft carrier Midway. Steve Broback, founder of the Parnassus Group, hopes to return.

"I think there's plenty of people to go around," he says of the potential Comic-Con party-attendee pool.

But Smith isn't so sure.

"I am guessing we'll hit a peak here this year or next year and then we'll see it ebb back from this edge," he says.

"The good side is that you get all this attention to the convention that only makes it more popular and exclusive, and then the people who are there are more excited to be there," Smith says. "But I think it does get really noisy down there. You reach a tipping point where there's so much visual noise that no one can get through."

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