[18 August 2011]
Saturday has traditionally been the busiest day at Comic-Con. It usually brings in the largest crowds and has the biggest movie and tv panels. That has changed a bit since the convention hit capacity, and this year’s Saturday may have been the weakest in recent memory. With major movie studios like Disney, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, and Marvel all skipping the show this year, there were some… gaps in the Hall H schedule. That doesn’t mean there was nothing worth seeing in Hall H, just that the movies were much lower-profile than the event pictures that often fill up the room.
So early Saturday morning I made my way to the line to register friends for next year’s convention. It’s unknown at this point whether we’ll all be able to make it to Comic-Con 2012, but we figured it would be easier to buy tickets at the show and get a refund than to wait and take our chances with online sales later on. That line moved quickly, at least until getting into the ballroom at the Hyatt hotel. It turned out that this was a holding area to wait your turn to go up to the computer monitors and register. But as long as you made it into the room, you were guaranteed a ticket for 2012. Once the room filled up registration was closed for the day. If you didn’t arrive early enough to make it into the room, you were out of luck until the next day. After registration opened up at about 7:45 they were able to move a lot of people through quickly.
Despite the relative speed of the process, though, there were a lot of people trying to register, so I didn’t get out of the Hyatt until almost 10 am. At this point it was way too late to get into the line for Ballroom 20. With panels like Chuck, Fox’s Terra Nova, Futurama, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and The Vampire Diaries on tap for the day, the line was as long as ever. So I headed over to the Hilton Bayfront hotel, home of Comic-Con’s Indigo Ballroom. The Bayfront opened up just a few years ago, and the Indigo is a room that holds 1,800 people. It’s nice to have another big-ish room, but as usual, it’s not big enough for some of the programming that gets put in there. That was definitely the case on Saturday, as the room opened the day with panels for Attack of the Show and the SyFy series’ Sanctuary and Being Human before getting to the heavy hitters of Community, comics legend Frank Miller, and Joss Whedon.
In a way, it was interesting to be in the line from the other side. All weekend those of us on the inside of the rooms heard about the thousands of people waiting to get into Ballroom 20, and now we were worried about getting in to see the Community panel. As Attack of the Show ended, the line moved up enough for us to get inside of the hotel, to the final queue. That queue put us maybe 150 people away from the door as the Sanctuary panel started, but we didn’t get any closer at that point. Then Sanctuary ended and almost nobody left the room. I ended up at the front of the line, literally five people away from the door, and we still weren’t sure we’d make it in for Community. But it turned out that there were a few dozen fans of the American edition of Being Human in the room. Once they left, we were able to get in and find seats just before the panel started.
The Community panel was very, very good. With almost the entire cast on hand (except for Alison Brie) along with creator Dan Harmon, there was a lot of ground to cover and a lot for people to say. They all seemed happy to be there in a room full of fans, though, except for Chevy Chase, who seemed as confused as one of his characters. He was asked a couple of questions during the panel and he seemed to either not hear or not understand them. It was a little weird. Meanwhile, Harmon fielded the bulk of the questions, and his twitchy, manic behavior seemed right in line with the show’s anything-goes, slightly crazy sensibility. Clues to events on the show’s upcoming third season were few and far between, although Harmon talked a lot about having an initial four-season story arc to the show. I understand the plan is to see Jeff Winger through to his Bachelor’s Degree, but for a show as low-rated and ignored as Community (although beloved by the Comic-Con crowd), expecting a fourth season may be optimistic.
As much as I love Joss Whedon, I’ve seen him many times at Comic-Con, so I bailed out of the Indigo Ballroom and headed for other things. I made a stop off in Hall H (no line at all with the low-profile movie lineup of the day) to watch some of the panel for Knights of Badassdom. This is an upcoming horror-comedy about a group of LARP-ers (live action role-playing) who unwittingly summon a succubus during a weekend game in the woods. Mayhem ensues, of course. With a cast of geek favorites including Steve Zahn, Summer Glau (Firefly, Sarah Connor Chronicles), Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), Danny Pudi (Community), and Ryan Kwanten (True Blood), the movie has “instant cult classic” written all over it. It helps that it has a great, great trailer and looks like a lot of fun. But any seasoned box office watcher will tell you that combining the words “horror” and “comedy” usually makes for a huge flop with general audiences. Add in LARP-ing to that equation and this movie is almost a guaranteed black hole for theater operators. But it went over really well with the Comic-Con audience so maybe it has a shot at a decent-sized release next spring,
My stop at Knights of Badassdom would prove to be ill-fated for my next panel attempt, though, as I missed out on getting into The Last Airbender: The Legend of Korra by about 200-300 people. I was really looking forward at getting a sneak peek at the upcoming sequel to Nickelodeon’s great Avatar: The Last Airbender series, but it didn’t work out. Still, I stuck it out in the line in order to guarantee a spot in the Mythbusters panel a few hours later.
Getting to Mythbusters meant wading through a handful of Warner Bros. television panels, though. So we got to sit through the pilot of The Secret Circle, a new CW show from the producers and author of The Vampire Diaries. The similarities to that show, particularly in the pilot stage, are readily apparent. We have a teenage heroine, new in town, with a family history of which she’s unaware.
Instead of vampires, the town of Chance Harbor, Washington, is full of witches. The pilot episode features all the regular beats you’d expect. There’s the encounter with the mean girl, the encounter with the nice boy (played by Thomas Dekker, now on his third television series as a high school student), and the discovery of her powers. It’s all done in the overwrought, cheesy style that is a hallmark of production company Alloy Entertainment. The production values are solid but the adherence to clichés and lack of attention to detail make it far from a must-see.
Next up was the panel for Nikita, which featured season 1 highlights and a season 2 sizzle reel, and an engaging discussion from the show’s leads. The producers refused to spill many details, but at least mentioned that female leads Maggie Q and Lyndsey Fonseca would be getting into a big fight early in the season. The final Warner Bros. panel was the pilot of Person of Interest, a new drama starring Jim Caviezel and Lost’s Michael Emerson. The presence of Emerson alone would make this show worth checking out, and the premise has an intriguing, Minority Report-lite vibe. Emerson plays a mysterious billionaire who somehow knows when bad things are going to happen around certain people. He’s not sure if the person of the week is the bad guy, or if the bad things are going to happen to them. He recruits a man who appears to be a bum on the subway (Caviezel in a terrible beard), but is really a former Army Ranger with a wide variety of skills. Caviezel is the one to get his hands dirty, while Emerson sort of sits back and gives advice and direction. The pilot was intriguing, but structurally not all that different from other detective procedurals.
Then it was time for the Mythbusters. This year the panel featured all five members of the show’s cast, and they knew how to work the crowd. There was a lot of teasing of the upcoming season’s myths, including a gigantic set of Newton balls, testing if a bird can topple a precariously balanced car over a cliff, and experiments to see if duct tape can hold a plane together after a bear attack. Adam Savage was very excited to tell us that two of their upcoming experiments were also used as part of actual university-level scientific papers. That’s a big change from a couple years back, when Savage told the Comic-Con crowd that although they used a lot of science in their experiments, they didn’t consider what they did to be actual, verifiable science. Savage also revealed that his costume this year was No Face from Spirited Away, and that he was identified after about 30 minutes on the exhibit hall floor.
Sunday is traditionally Comic-Con’s lightest day. In keeping with the weak movie slate this year, the day held exactly zero film panels. However, there was plenty of television content, and most of it was in Hall H. That’s a change from the last few years, when only Ballroom 20 would be open on Sunday. I would’ve preferred to start the day in the panel for the excellent web comic-turned-comic book Axe Cop, but prudence dictated that I get into the Hall H line instead. Otherwise there was no guarantee I’d get into the Doctor Who panel at 12:30pm.
Judging from the huge line outside at 8am, I made the right call. Of course, that call meant I had to sit through the Glee panel first. I’m not a fan of the show. I gave it about six episodes back during the first season and gave up in frustration due to the cliché characters, terrible plotting, and Auto-tuned singing. And sure enough, the panel was excruciating. Fox, though, has been bringing the show to Comic-Con for three years despite the fact that it doesn’t fit Comic-Con at all. Full of second-tier actors and second-tier producers and writers, there was very little star power to be found on the panel. First we had to sit through an extended clip reel from the upcoming Glee 3D concert film, and then the Q&A began. The producers took the opportunity to vehemently contradict show creator Ryan Murphy’s recent statement that stars Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, and Chris Colfer would be leaving the show after the upcoming season because their characters will be seniors this year. That led to a question about which characters were seniors and which were juniors, and the whole panel clammed up. Apparently the show has never addressed what grade the vast majority of their cast is in, and revealing those grade levels before the season premiere would be a huge spoiler.
Other questions from the crowd gave actor Darren Criss plenty of chances to talk about how awesome he thinks he is, so he was instantly insufferable. There was also a question from a “shipper” that was impenetrable to the layperson involving about four different combinations of character names. The question also seemed to baffle most of the panel, until one of the producers stepped in and admitted he knew what the questioner was talking about. Eventually the Glee panel ended and gave way to Supernatural.
I don’t watch Supernatural, although I’ve heard good things about it. But their panel was way, way more interesting than the previous one. The show has been doing panels at Comic-Con for years, and the cast and creators were very comfortable up on stage. Stars Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki were funny and gracious to their fans and clearly having a good time. The panel was pretty tight-lipped about spoilers for the upcoming season, but they did show an intriguing extended clip featuring Sam and Firefly alum Jewel Staite as a guest star.
Finally it was time for the Doctor Who panel. The show’s current stars, Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, made their first appearance at Comic-Con, along with a handful of writers. Sadly, showrunner Stephen Moffat was not in attendance, but the discussion was still lively. The writers revealed that Smith was their immediate choice as the 11th Doctor, and that he came up with his costume on his own. They also mentioned that Moffat doesn’t like to reveal anything in advance to anyone, preferring to keep as many secrets as possible to himself. The highlight of the hour came when two different people in elaborate Dalek costumes came up to ask questions, much to the panel’s delight. They closed by showing a trailer for the upcoming second half of the season, which starts at the end of August.
Doctor Who was the last big event of the day, but the convention wasn’t quite finished yet. The last afternoon of any convention is a great time to track down deals as vendors try to get rid of product, and Comic-Con is no exception. For me, though, the best way to finish Comic-Con is sitting in at the Comic-Con Talkback, listening to attendees complain and Comic-Con President John Rogers explain. This year’s edition of Talkback featured a whole pile of complaints about the Pre-Registration process and a single explanation. The convention would’ve preferred to sell all of the badges for next year’s convention online, but after this year’s online ticket-selling debacle, they didn’t think anyone would believe that it would run smoothly. So they figured out a way to sell about 50% of the passes for 2012 on-site, even though they knew it wouldn’t satisfy everybody.
Then there were the gripes about programming vs. room size. Every single year there are valid reasons to bitch about this aspect of the convention. In 2011 the recurring complaint was, “Why, with so few big-time movies at the show this year, were all the big tv shows still in Ballroom 20?” Rogers tried very hard to politely answer this question, but it was clear he was annoyed by the implication that the Comic-Con staff doesn’t know where to schedule their panels. He explained, as always, that there is give-and-take with the studios that bring content to the show, and that the studios don’t always cooperate. In years past, he’s mentioned that studios would prefer to fill a smaller room and leave hundreds of people stuck outside than take the chance that there would be empty seats in a bigger room. The situation was similar this year; HBO had the two most popular shows at the convention, but they didn’t want to use Hall H for True Blood and Game of Thrones. Meanwhile the smaller studios were happy to let their movie panels play to a half-empty room for the prestige of being in Hall H. Rogers mentioned that using Hall H (albeit with about 1,000 seats removed) for the Sunday tv panels was an intermediate step that he hoped would allow them to get more tv programming in the big room for the future. We’ll see.
A few questioners urged the convention to “use your power” and stand up to the studios. But with all the studios absent from this year’s show, it’s a pretty clear that Comic-Con can’t bring the studios in if they don’t want to come, let alone dictate where the panels will be held. As Rogers said, if it comes down to a choice between having the panel in a room the convention knows is too small against not having it at all, they will choose to have the panel. Comic-Con may be the big kid on the block when it comes to conventions, but they aren’t big enough to throw their weight around against the movie studios. Especially not after movies like Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim proved that Comic-Con buzz doesn’t translate into box office success.
The convention is always tinkering and trying to improve. It’s taken a few years, but the actual lines ran quite smoothly this year, despite the issues with length. Queues were clearly marked and they included marker signs that let you know when you had 500 people in front of you, 1,000, 2,000, etc. The pre-registration was efficient; the problem was that pre-reg used to be something you could just stop off and do whenever during the convention. This year it became another victim of the long line syndrome, and it was a big inconvenience for people to either get up super-early or camp out overnight. Despite the frustrations, though, Comic-Con is still one of the greatest events out there for genre fans of all types.