SDCC@HOME: The Pros and Cons of San Diego Comic-Con 2020

An Englishman's Opinion - Leonard casts his eye over the weekend's misadventures, the highs and lows, the plus and minuses...

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Monday 27th July was the day after SDCC 2020 and, in the aftermath, saw our last Talkin’ Con: A Cup O’ Tea with An Englishman In San Diego episode where Yours Truly gathered with fellow San Diego Comic-Con fans Carolyn Poddig (@CarolynsGeekOut), Karma Savage (@WeAreSecondU), Aaron Nabus (The Hall H Show), Brian Weis (@brainwise) to recap the online version of the event, SDCC@HOME.

The virtual convention – organised at breakneck speed by the not-for-profit charity in the wake of its cancellation, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – was held over the weekend of what would have been the physical con (Thursday 23rd – Sunday 26th July; Preview Night, Wednesday 22nd July 2020). SDCC@HOME was made up of a virtual Exhibition Floor, streamable video content, and plenty of downloadable assets including badges, room signs and announcement samples – a band-aid for what would have been the highlight of their year.

And fingers crossed, it was a temporary measure, with every hope that San Diego Comic-Con will return to full strength next year, taking up its residency at the Convention Center. But in the aftermath of this Herculean effort, the elements of that can be carried over into next years event can be argued, the merits of the choices made by CCI discussed and questions can be asked about what worked – and what didn’t.

In this post, I’m going to break down what I felt were the Pros and Cons of SDCC@HOME – and please, don’t be put off by the fact there are more Cons than Pros, a lot of the Cons are admittedly minor nitpickings on my part and can frittered away as things which can’t be improved or developed upon… because, fingers crossed, we won’t be seeing this unprecedented situation happening again. Right??


SO, BEFORE WE GET STARTED…

Let’s give an overview of my impressions of SDCC@HOME 2020: I think it worked, really, really bloody well, actually.

If the intention was to serve as a stop-gap, to give expression to many creatives who should have been representing at SDCC, and to provide some small financial support to retailers, artists and businesses that have been struck by the lack of a massive marketplace, I believe it served its purpose. It wasn’t enough, of course, but that is purely because, in lieu of an event that draws hundreds of thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue to the city for one weekend, nothing was ever going to be enough. But you have to give Comic-Con International every prop for at least trying. And it was all for free and accessible to all, which makes it even more impressive!

So, as the song goes, let’s first “ac-cent-tuhu-ate the positive…”


THE PANELS

Range Of Content:

One thing that San Diego Comic-Con prides itself on is that it is an event of many disciplines, celebrating as many branches of pop culture as it can possibly fit under one roof. While not every originally submitted panel was represented by a streamed edition, over three hundred and ninety panels covered the gamut of interests, from studio films and television to new media, from mainstream comics to independent publishing and small press, from books and literature to gaming, electronic, RPG and tabletop.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when SDCC@HOME was initially suggested but I have to admit I was blown away with the sheer depth and breadth of content presented – and I was also very impressed by how macro a number of the panels were, covering something like psychology of pop culture or voice acting or the legacy of historic creatives. These would normally get their moment in a small panel room but now, in this online format, thousands of people worldwide can experience these discussions, making Comic-Con International a truly international affair.

(And I also have to give proper attention to the amount of comics-related panels that were prepared and uploaded – the long-standing gripe of the physical event is that Comic-Con is no longer about comics, hijacked by the Hollywood machine, neglecting to recognise that a huge majority of content put on at SDCC is about comics. It’s always been there: these SDCC@HOME schedules merely reminded us of the fact. Bravo.)

Diversity:

The other element that forms a big part of what makes up Comic-Con is how inclusive the event is to minorities of race, gender and society, and this was also showcased by the listings.

Every hour of the schedule had panels which discussed and celebrated the wide range of humanity which have their stories told in pop culture – it was heartwarming to know these had their time to shine, giving more voices the platform to inform and educate which nobody can deny.

Pro-Active:

SDCC has always been a show where news and announcements would be made and, while there weren’t the full news cycle-filling headlines that would have kept the likes of Entertainment Weekly, Variety or Comicbook.com busy, there was plenty for fans to run with, from the new theatrical release date of THE NEW MUTANTS (finally!) to the confirmation of the new season of WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS and THE BOYS. New shows had cast and showrunner profiles, upcoming comics and games unveiled new content and that is something to be applauded for pre-recorded panels.

THE WILL EISNER COMIC INDUSTRY AWARDS

Reaching a bigger audience:

Traditionally held in the Indigo Ballroom of the Hilton Bayfront Hotel on the Friday evening of San Diego Comic-Con, the Eisner Awards is known as the ‘Oscars of comics’ – and often has to fight for attention beyond the hardcore comic fans in town, pulled towards the bright lights of fancy parties or next-day camp-out obligations.

Much like many panels streamed on the CCI YouTube, the audience figures that have been pulled in online have far outreached that which normally be garnered. Many of us that do sit behind the velvet rope at the Eisners have been wanting to spread the gospel for years and this panel finally gave people a window into some amazing books and creators. Always a big plus.

Putting on the ritz:

Host Phil LaMarr is always doing a great job at the physical ceremony, keeping things light and fresh with lively banter and he did himself a similarly bang-up job on this occasion. LaMarr was joined by Eisner’s Administrator Jackie Estrada and special guest host Sergio Aragones, the latter taking on the duties of delivering the Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award and also announcing who was to be inducted into the Hall Of Fame. A great job, done by one and all.

THE EXHIBITION FLOOR

Simply put, businesses and livelihoods rely on the income raised by having an audience of literally thousands passing by their booths and tables over the course of a weekend. The new virtual Exhibition Floor gave those artists and creators the opportunity to make some some kind of income – and from an international audience to boot.

One thing I found most impressive was the portals created when exploring the hundreds of listed vendors and their wares on the CCI website fed directly to the individual vendor websites, giving them the traffic and sales they so desperately need at this difficult time. I also appreciated the distinct breakdown of different vendors, very much like the IRL floor itself, making it easier to negotiate.

THE AT HOME EXPERIENCE

If, like me, you missed the unique flavour of San Diego Comic-Con – a vibe that hundreds of conventions have attempted to replicate and singularly fail to achieve – fans were given the chance to download a whole bunch of samples, backdrops, signage and even attendee badges for them to print off and get a sense of the con. While it felt a little patronising to try and get attendees into the party vibe, you can’t bemoan them the effort, at least.

THE PARTNERS

Comic-Con takes money and business relationships to put on – even a virtual one. It’s the price of being popular, I guess, and you don’t get more popular that San Diego Comic-Con, an event that almost demands the biggest platform they can garner.

Thanks to the likes of Amazon with their Virtual Con portal, along with their subsidiary Twitch, for providing some secondary content, expanding the SDCC virtual universe and replicating that city-wide aspect of the physical con (San Diego Comic-Con isn’t a convention that sets up shop just at the San Diego Convention Center, after all – it’s a convention that descends on San Diego as a whole).

And the partnerships fit naturally, too, with Twitch being a traditional home for gaming and streaming, and that’s where the related SDCC content found its place. Loads of gaming streams occurred over the entire weekend and I appreciate the thought. The Amazon Virtual Con was also well stocked with subsidiary content and even swag – and you can’t do con without swag, ammiright?


Okay – so that’s the good. But that means you also have to accept…

THE PANELS

Getting to the good stuff:

The means to watch panel content is one thing, actually watching them as they were released was another. Subscribing to the CCI YouTube channel actually meant very little, concidering that the panels were uploaded and scheduled to go from Private to Public at specific times, a process that skirted around any notifications. (Some would also say that was a good thing, seeing how many panels we’re talking about here.)

Refreshing the CCI YouTube homepage didn’t necessarily help, thanks to the niggles of the platform not presenting the listings straight away – it took a fair few clicks over a period of time for new additions to show their faces. The easier method to get to the panel straight away, in order to jump in on any revaluations and chatter online, was via the links on the MySched pages of the CCI Schedule.

And that’s where I had my first issues with accessing the content – if visiting the page for the first time, if you didn’t have the pages bookmarked or visited regularly, it took a fair amount of navigating to reach the panel descriptions. It may not sound important to be able to get to watch the videos as soon as possible but that ties into the big topic of attendee interaction – and that, believe me, we’ll get into later.

YouTube Technology:

The videos submitted were uploaded to Comic-Con International’s Programming Department, topped-and-tailed with the now-ubiquitous SDCC@HOME ident…

…and then simply uploaded to YouTube as a Private video, with timed releases and transition to Public uploads throughout the weekend. Easy peasy.

One problem. There are numerous tools that YouTube implements that CCI could have taken advantage of, to reinforce the concept of the event being a ‘live’ convention – if the team had taken the time to use the YouTube Premieres feature, panels would have had countdowns to their release, people could watch the presentation as though it was a live telly show. Viewers can rewind but not forward-wind through the upload (rather handy for something like the Eisner Awards, I suspect!) and a live Q&A session is put in place to allow for lively discussion. Moderators required? Yup, we’ll be getting into that later, too…

Thumbnails:

No further notes to be made here, really – this is a minor niggle but something that could be easily implemented. It’s a shame because an appealing thumbnail is one way to differentiate between presentations and tidies up the YouTube page, making things cleaner and more aesthetic. And there’s only so many Zoom Session screengrabs one can look at!

Ahh, yes. Zoom. Let’s get into it.

Production value:

It only took one day of wading through a number of videos to realise that very little post-production had been done on the part of CCI beyond the adding of the afore-mentioned SDCC@HOME ident, which was a shame because this meant that any effort to make the presentation visually appealing – with speaker solo-ing, titling, on-screen graphics or intros – all being done by the organisers.

It’s safe to say there are only so many Zoom Sessions a person can safely endure in one sitting with out pretty much losing their minds – and heaven knows, people have had to get their heads around the whole damned process throughout lockdown!

I feel that efforts could have been made to liven things up and make a presentation more interesting. Yes, not everyone is entirely clued up with Sony Vegas or Final Cut Pro, and not every panel organiser has access to an intern with a working knowledge of text overlays but the panels submitted could have done with a bit of basic sprucing up and camerawork. If I can do it every Talkin’ Con episode using StreamYard (the platform used by DC Comics during their sessions, as it happens, and boy you could tell), I’m sure others could.

Something for the Grown-Ups:

Yes, Comic-Con International is a show for all-ages. Yes, all panels are given the advisary that there may be kids in the audience and to keep the swears to a minimum. But c’mon, if you invite Kevin Smith or THE BOYS to your con, surely you know what to expect. And I’d think it only fair if long-time followers of these potty-mouthed shows and hosts get some kind of alternate stream with the bleeps removed and the profanity intact. No molly-coddling bubble-wrap required, please.

SITE NAVIGATION

SDCC@HOME… at home:

Returning to the topic of finding things easily and simply, this was something that was a little lacking throughout the course of the weekend. The page of the online convention was nicely laid out and had everything that an virtual attendee required but would it have killed someone to put that page at the top of the CCI site management, front and centre?

Elements of the convention were highlighted on the ever-indispensable Toucan Blog but even a number of these pages didn’t have direct links to the featured aspect of the show. A lot of hunting, picking and clicking around – it wouldn’t have taken too much in terms of asking fans and attendees for feedback on cleaning things up and making them easier to use.

THE EXHIBITION FLOOR

This was a major aspect of the con – a way to get some much-needed revenue back in the pockets of vendors and artists. And the promise of an interactive map which attendees could wander around and discover a new favourite creative was something that aounded very appealing indeed.

But when a map turns pixelated and almost unreadable when zoomed in enough to be useful, it kind of defeats the purpose of the exercise. It became impractical and very off-putting to use and I often found myself simply looking at the Exhibitor listings for inspiration. Yes, it would have been quite something to have had a Comic-Con/Animal Crossing hybrid put in place… but that might be asking for too much!

Exhibitor Showcase:

Something that one of the Comic-Con International partner conventions, the Thought Bubble Sequential Art Festival, has done exceptionally well in the past months, in the lead-up to its own now-virtual convention, is present on its social media showcases of the exhibitors that will be attending. Often overshadowed by the more headline-grabbing vendors, some of the smaller vendors could have done with more specialist attention sending their way.

(All due respect should be sent to The SDCC Unofficial Blog who has done an incredible job of highlighting small creators and artists on their site this year – interviewing and showcasing a number of brilliant talent, bravo gang. That being said, they couldn’t cover everybody, they could only list the creatives that they could officially source and it still left a lot of vendors by the way side. And it’s be honest, while they did what they could, it wasn’t exactly their job to do in the first place.)

THE PARTNERS

Due respect I’ve already given to some of Comic-Con International’s multimedia partners and sponsors, there were one or two that let the side down a bit – although this may just be minor griping on my side.

Scener is a live-streaming platform that allows viewers to watch movies and television shows in a group format, commenting and bantering as the stream progresses. I don’t know about you, and perhaps it’s me showing my age, but I don’t see the appeal of watching a movie that I’ve seen before and bantering along. If this was a feature applied to the panels themselves, or to entrants to the CCI-International Film Festival, that I could see the point of. A minor niggle.

More egregious was the shifting of the annual Masquerade Ball over to Tumblr, a platform that has seen its best days most certainly behind it. I appreciate that the Verizon-owned social media is a financially-invested sponsor of the convention but its implementation here was rather atrocious and I suspect even worsened any additional audience the Ball could have gathered.

YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, even Carolyn’s suggestion of new platform TikTok would have been preferable and, in most cases, more suited to the visually-driven spectacle. But Tumblr? Hoo boy – what a mess. And what a wasted opportunity.

THE EISNER AWARDS

Speaking of ‘wasted opportunities’, the increased audience for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards were denied a proper introduction to the proceedings, with the nominations and winners being presented at breakneck speed. Yes, the ceremony was missing the detritus of winners making their way to the stage or the long-drawn-out speeches which have famously had the Awards running way past most peoples bedtimes, but surely some middle ground could have been found.

One element of the physical Awards that is sometimes used to break up proceedings is something we could have done with this year: the In Memorium. We have lost so many amazing talents this year and they weren’t honoured and celebrated in their rightful place. a shame.

Special guest presenters? Breaking up of the categories into chunks? Maybe some submitted skits from the industries leading lights… Even some music or special effects could have been implemented, something to give the Awards a little bit of pizzazz. Didn’t help that we had that bloody awful Zoom Virtual Background pish again. I swear, I get the sneaking suspicion Zoom will be the death of me!

THE TALKBACK PANEL

This is absolutely 100% just for me, I get that! Many questions about SDCC@HOME could have been answered and a sense of continuity, between this virtual convention and the physical events, before and to come, could have been solved by a livestream featuring the likes of new President Robin Donlan or Chief Communications and Strategy Officer David Glanzer, to come on camera and talk directly to fans. Just like the actual Talkback Panel, mind, the whole thing would have had to been well moderated and policed. And that leads me to my closing thoughts, circling back to some points I made earlier…


Again, most of these issues I’ve raised are niggles that are mere pebbles in the shoe, minor aggravations that hardly derailed a mighty effort and nothing can take away from what was achieved. But that doesn’t mean they could have been addressed in the time available with the addition of one vital element.

All of the above could have been solved, or at least alleviated, by calling on the greatest resource San Diego Comic-Con has ever had: its own attendees. There are tens of thousands out there who would have been available at a moments notice to help test drive, to program, to design, to moderate… One element I railed upon during the Post-Con Wrap-Up Show is the fact the comments and Q&A chat have been completely disabled for all of the panel content – understandable, the last thing anyone wants is the grubby and grimy aspect of t’interwebs trolling up the place.

The one major complaint that I saw online throughout the entire weekend was a lack of interaction with attendees. Bar a few half-hearted draws to send in videos of people approximating the Comic-Con Experience, there was no group hug, no formal celebration of that community that comes together once a year and forms a bond that, for many of us, is even stronger than blood.

But with a call-to-arms, with one or two tweets or Facebook posts, an army of fans would have mobilised to help, I’m certain of it. Volunteers make up such a vital part of a successful convention but there currently seems to be such a protective barrier between the organisation and its fans that should have been lifted on this occasion. The one phrase that has been thrown around during this entire pandemic is: ‘We Are All In This Together’. This could have been a massive opportunity when we all – convention organisers and attendees alike – could have truly proven it.

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