The Future of Fandom Conventions and Studio Promotion
Much like how the pandemic has put the “neutral ground” of movie theaters in jeopardy in favor of streaming services closely tied to different studios, it’s accelerated a similar situation in how these studios announce and promote their upcoming projects. We all know the pandemic dramatically altered the 2020 pop culture con season. Most smaller cons this year were cancelled and for the biggies, the convention landscape will likely never look quite the same. That’s not to say events like SDCC, New York Comic Con, and CCXP will never be held in person again, but this year we saw a trend that was slowly rising in the convention world finally come to the forefront of the media that may take away some of the relevance and buzz of the traditional headliner events going forward.
When it became clear that the behemoth conventions wouldn’t be able to move forward as usual, they shifted online. This could have provided a great opportunity to allow fans who wouldn’t be able to travel to these events in-person to get the experience of being part of a big moment in pop culture fandom, and it did…but that opportunity didn’t come from any of the big-name cons. Instead, Warner Bros. decided to forgo their planned Hall H mega-panel for the DC movies at SDCC and host their own fully-virtual event in the form of DC Fandome.
DC Fandome was certainly not a perfectly run event; there were plenty of schedule changes – namely, the last-minute announcement of a switch from a one-day thing to a two-day one (with the second day taking place two weeks after the first) – and not every major panel was a slam-dunk (remember when most of the Shazam! Fury of the Gods panel consisted of a Sinbad casting joke which was so oddly executed that many people, myself included, believed it was a legitimate announcement even days later?). But despite a relatively short amount of time for the event to be put together, it managed to excite and please fans with a pretty cool virtual stage-like set-up and did its main job of getting hype in the media and eyeballs on DC’s new trailers and clips.
That’s more than we can say for SDCC, which occurred a month earlier to smaller-scaled panels with little fanfare or NYCC in October which was even less of a blip on the media’s radar. What some fail to realize is that in the past couple of years both of these events have been overshadowed to an extent by CCXP, a Brazillian event which has grown to about twice the attendance size of SDCC and in some years has matched or surpassed it in major announcements and exclusives, like 2018’s Spider-Man: Far From Home footage from Sony shown to attendees or 2019’s Wonder Woman 1984 trailer drop panel with an extended version played for those in the audience from Warner Bros. (Compare that to SDCC, whose only truly memorable panel in the past few years was the Marvel Studios one in 2019.) So the notion of major studios like Warner Bros. and Disney waiting to drop their goodies until the December event wasn’t out of left field.
But then CCXP 2020 happened, with only minor news from Sony, nothing from Disney, and, in a stunningly disappointing example of quantity over quality, a six-hour panel from Warner Bros. with very little new information or material of note coming out of it. What was quickly becoming one of the top events for fandom news sunk just like its peers in 2020.
Just like with DC Fandome eclipsing SDCC At Home, the disappointment of CCXP was quickly forgotten about when Disney put on their second Investor Day. The first, which was held last year, was when the company confirmed projects such as the first Marvel Disney+ shows, but this time they took the event to the next level. Clearly taking inspiration from DC Fandome’s format, Disney pretaped the entire event and made it appear to be occurring on a virtual stage. They didn’t have as detailed a schedule laid out as Fandome, but they made sure the fans knew at around what time they could expect the goods (AKA, announcements and trailers). And they truly delivered on that front, with two-and-a-half out of the four hour event being taken up by an onslaught of reveals and clips (some of these were only shown to the investors the day was said to be for, but Disney knew enough fans would be watching to make a point to mention that there would be plenty in store for them as well, even encouraging them to watch the event on the biggest screen they had available).
This may have been the second “Disney Investor Day”, but it turned out to be more like a hybrid of the spring 2019 Investor Day and a D23 Expo, Disney’s biannual event for news and celebrations covering their entire brand that would not have been held in 2020 regardless of the pandemic, but had its 2021 edition pushed back to 2022 because of it. Disney knew fans were eager for news, and took the opportunity to drop it at a time when they would have everyone’s full attention.
That last sentiment is what entertainment companies have been increasingly trying to achieve as of late. For most studios, dropping major news at an event like SDCC or CCXP where a lot of their competitors also have presentations runs them the risk of potentially being overshadowed, so it only makes sense for them to try to grab the spotlight for themselves. Disney had already jumped on this well before the pandemic with their annual Star Wars Celebration and the aforementioned biannual D23 Expo. And now others are doing the same. When E3, the biggest event in video games, was cancelled for 2020, the gaming companies simply put on their own events (which has made some question E3’s future despite plans for a 2021 edition moving ahead). Instead of presenting at SDCC, Warner Bros. took the opportunity to make their DC announcements their way, and now the DC Fandome isn’t just a single event, but a place for DC fans to “gather” for events online like the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984 virtual red carpet. And surely there will be more to come in the future.
So while online events have been the talk of 2020 (and it’s possible they may continue in some form given the success of Fandome and Investor Day) the real story is that the landscape of major conventions – whether in person or virtual – is becoming less about general geekdom and much more studio- and franchise-specific. SDCC and NYCC have been the places to go for star-studded affairs with breaking news in the fandom world, but their format is ideal for most fans but not most studios in all likelihood they will continue to decrease in buzz moving forward in favor of full weekends of Star Wars, DC, Disney, or whatever other companies decide to grab the spotlight for themselves. So short of a big Marvel Hall H panel every couple years or a trailer or two being premiered in Brazil, if you want to be in the room for the biggest announcements in Hollywood you’d be better off saving for D23 or whatever in person event Warner Bros. inevitably mounts in the next few years than a trip to San Diego.