In cartoonist circles, the parting words "See you in San Diego," have been a tradition, as friends plan yearly reunions at the graphic novel world's biggest meeting. However, this year's headline about the annual Comic-Con International is that, after 2012, you might be seeing old colleagues not in San Diego, but somewhere else.
With its contract with the San Diego Convention Center running out in that year, the convention's board of directors has been mulling competing—and aggressive—offers from Los Angeles and Anaheim to move the world's biggest entertainment event to facilities in those cities, bringing millions in revenues with it.
Although leaving San Diego—where temperate weather and the proximity to the vibrant Gaslamp District's nightlife are as much a part of the Comic-Con experience as back issues and movie stars—seems unthinkable at first, the logistics of running the show have made the unthinkable a strong option, according to director of marketing and PR David Glanzer. With around 134,000 attendees—125,000 paying customers and another 9,000 exhibitors and press—the 41-year-old show is simply too big for the existing convention facility. Attendance has been capped for several years—this year's show has been completely sold out for months—and the show has had to look for other ways to increase revenue to pay for rising costs. And despite its high-power lineup of world-class cartoonists and movie stars, Comic-Con hasn't always had the attention from local businesses that it feels it deserved, as hotel room shortages and limited parking continue to plague Con-goers.
A planned San Diego Convention Center expansion has been approved by local officials; however, it would not be completed for many years and wouldn't help with the Con's current space crunch.
Enter Anaheim and Los Angeles. Both convention bureaus have been wooing Comic-Con for years, and their respective convention centers are in the midst of planned expansions of facilities and surrounding amenities. According to Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau, the Comic-Con board toured the Anaheim facility twice in the past decade—this year they came down during the 90,000-person NAMM show and were impressed with how it was handled.
By 2013, Anaheim will have expanded its convention center, offering one-million sq. ft. of exhibit and meeting space. There are also over 20,000 hotel rooms within a mile, a well-established family atmosphere, and the allure of Disneyland as a subsidiary destination.
L.A. has been even more aggressive in offering Comic-Con all the amenities that a Hollywood-focused environment might have, including the L.A. Live entertainment complex next door to the convention center, which includes the 7,000-seat Nokia Theater (San Diego's legendary Hall H, where big movie presentations take place, seats 6,700), and the 20,000-seat Staples Center, home of the Lakers, just up the street, according to Michael Krouse, president of L.A. Inc., which runs the complex. (The L.A. Convention Center was home to the 2008 BEA.)
Meanwhile, San Diego itself has been making more and more moves to keep the Con. The city government has a history of ambivalence toward Comic-Con and its more colorful, costumed participants.Local businesses, on the other hand, increasingly show no such reservations, and they have initiated recent efforts to keep the Con in its hometown. But there are still holdouts, notably the Manchester Grand Hyatt, the hotel mere yards from the convention center, which has scheduled a major health professional meeting featuring keynote speaker Al Gore opposite Comic-Con. The actual amount of money brought in by Comic-Con has been a matter of debate for some time. Only two years ago the Convention and Visitors Bureau's yearly report estimated the Con's impact on the local economy at $41.6 million; by contrast, an internal study by the Comic-Con board estimated economic impact at $60 million.
Both estimates were shattered by a new study commissioned by the convention center and carried out by an independent firm that showed attendees spending at least $163 million, four times more than local businesses had anticipated. This revelation has definitely helped support the idea that local government should take steps to help the show, says Steven Johnson, v-p of public affairs for the San Diego Convention Center.
He says an advisory group made up of more than 30 local businesses, from PetCo Park, the baseball stadium adjacent to the convention center, to hotels, parking concessions, and retailers, gathered to look at ways to keep the Con in the city. This has resulted in provision of more parking spaces and more shuttles from outlying hotels. Plus, over 300,000 sq. ft. of additional exhibition space has been added from nearby hotels, says Johnson, and Comic-Con's block of hotel rooms will be expanded from 7,000 to 14,000 in coming years and there will be a $300 a night cap on hotel room rates. "It's unprecedented, and it shows clearly that this city is very committed to working diligently to address the concerns of attendees and put on a good event," Johnson says.
The competition among the three convention centers has been unusually public, and Ahlers admitted to a little bit of one-upmanship. For instance, all three efforts have Facebook fan pages, but Johnson points out that the one supporting Comic-Con staying in San Diego is fan-made. "That was an authentic voice," says Johnson. The L.A. team has been blunt in criticizing its competitors, with L.A.'s Krouse even calling the Anaheim offer "chump change."
The Con board of directors is looking at all the offers. Says Glanzer, "This has been by far the most challenging thing we've ever done. Nobody thought we wouldn't have a decision by June." As we go to press, no decision has been made, but the board hopes to decide before this year's show, which kicks off on July 21. "If we don't [make an announcement], a lot of the focus is going to be on that, " Glanzer admits.
"No matter where we land we're going to have challenges," Glanzer says. "In San Diego it's hotel space. L.A. is great, but the convention center is not as big as in Anaheim. And Anaheim, although there are big hotels right around the convention center, has more distance to other hotels."
The longer the board takes to make a decision, the more perks get thrown into the pot.
And what would happen if the Con actually moved? For the creative community, despite the hotel crunch and endless lines, the familiarity and overall convenience of San Diego's facilities are appealing. Writer Mark Evanier, a long-time professional attendee who is moderating some 17 panels this year, was blunt: "I don't think Comic-Con should move. It would be an enormous mistake for all parties concerned, except maybe the L.A. Convention Center."
"I can't even imagine Comic-Con moving," says cartoonist Larry Marder, author of Beanworld. "But if it chooses to do so, like all change in the comics industry, I suppose it will be greeted with grief: denial, panic, anger, delirium, depression, and finally acceptance."
While people closer to the Hollywood scene—which has made Comic-Con the biggest entertainment event of the year—say the film studios isn't against a move, they don't think a move has many benefits, either. "There are so many dynamics to SDCC that to remove one element could have a domino effect that suddenly changes what this Con means, not just to the fans but to the industries it now embraces," says F.J. DeSanto, a writer and producer who came to the show to promote the Spirit movie several years ago.
For other attendees, the show itself has become a challenge. Howard Cruse hasn't been at the show in 14 years—when he won an Eisner Award for his pioneering graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby. This year he'll be back as an official guest, but is daunted by reports of the size of the show. "I'm still warning anyone who knows me not to take offense if I stare at them with glassy eyes when they greet me and appear prepared to bolt at any moment."
Despite the plans for an increase in civic amenities, this year will still have some familiar problems. A long-planned pedestrian bridge over the trolley tracks will not be finished in time for the show. Following a trend from last year, the Con will expand to different nearby venues, and events will be held at adjoining hotels. The Will Eisner Comics Industry Awards—essentially the National Book Awards of comics—will again be held at the new Hilton Bayfront Hotel.
Despite all the drama, this year's show promises to be jam-packed with big-time guests, such as manga legend Moto Hagio, both Lees—Stan and Jim—literary comics stars Gabrielle Bell and Jillian Tamaki, and authors Ray Bradbury and Rick Riordan. The sixth and final volume of Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim will debut and the upcoming film based on it—directed by Edgar Wright—will be promoted.
With all the changes and competition for space, there have been some calls to expand the Con even more, but that's one thing Glanzer says isn't in the cards. "We'd all drop dead," he predicts. "Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing."