Summertime in the comics industry means only one thing: preparing for Comic-Con International: San Diego, an annual pop culture explosion of comics, cosplay, and multimedia promotions that draws more than 130,000 people to the San Diego Convention Center. This year’s event will be held July 19–23. Excitement around the show has helped fuel a huge growth in similar pop culture events around the world, with thousands organized each year.
Indeed the biggest news coming out of San Diego Comic-Con this year is that the show has reached an agreement with the city to stay in the San Diego Convention Center until 2021. The deal was announced just weeks ahead of the upcoming event.
This allays concerns about Comic-Con leaving San Diego anytime soon, but worries over safety at large pop culture shows are growing. In May, a heavily armed man was apprehended at the Phoenix Comicon. Though no one was injured, the incident has drawn attention to security measures at cons, especially as they relate to cosplayers, who often carry realistic, elaborately designed prop weapons of all kinds. All cosplayers who enter shows must have their prop weapons inspected to verify that they aren’t real. Since many of the fictional characters in the kind of action-oriented stories that comic cons celebrate are armed, it’s a necessary step for everyone’s safety.
Though industry observers have long feared some kind of premeditated violent incident at a con, the events have been remarkably peaceful over the years. The Phoenix arrest was a close call, however. In this case, the perpetrator, Matt Sterling, was apprehended by police inside the Phoenix Convention Center on the first day of the show. Sterling had been making threats on Facebook against local police. A friend saw his posts and alerted police, who captured Sterling before anyone was injured, although he was armed with two loaded rifles, a handgun, knives, and other weaponry.
According to Phoenix Comicon founder Matt Solberg, it isn’t clear whether Sterling had passed though the show’s “weapons check” station, a security area that is a part of PCC and other large conventions. In the wake of the Sterling incident, Phoenix police requested that the event ban all cosplay weapons and limit the number of entrances. Security checks led to much longer lines to get in, and the decision also created an uproar among cosplayers. After working on their costumes for months (many cosplayers create the elaborate costumes and replica weapons themselves), not being able to present them in full was a severe disappointment to many.
“We value the contributions of the cosplay community,” Solberg says. “We’ll try to provide as complete an experience as possible for everyone, within the guidelines of our new policies and those required by the convention center and the police department. But our first priority will always be the safety of our attendees and the community.”
In the wake of the Phoenix incident, local police departments are beginning to make more safety requests at cons. Comic conventions commonly feature dealers who sell replica swords and guns, and, though these props are not real, some of the swords are heavy enough to do actual damage. Bans on certain types of purchases or displays may soon be as common as taking off your shoes to board a flight. At L.A.’s recent Anime Expo, the largest anime show in the U.S., the Los Angeles police department prohibited sales of prop weapons, although fans were allowed to place orders for them.
Attendees’ disappointment over not being allowed to wear full costumes might seem like a small price to pay for increased safety, but some observers point out that cosplay is a huge part of the comic con scene—for cosplayers and noncosplayers alike—and that some security accommodations are necessary for it. Metal detectors and security wands, procedures used at sporting events and concerts, could become standard at cons going forward, and shows could also turn to separate entrances for cosplayers or designated dressing areas as security needs change.
Security was already a huge consideration for all major cons, even before the Phoenix incident. Comic-Con International, the nonprofit that organizes and oversees the San Diego event, has long been focused on safety. David Glanzer, CCI chief communications and strategy officer, says: “We’ve always prided ourselves on security at our shows. It’s a fun playground, and our doors are always open, but people want a safe environment. Even when I started volunteering [at the show] many years ago, safety was one of the things that was drilled into me.”
The details of con security measures are understandably not revealed, but Glanzer points out that there’s a police command post in the lobby of the convention center. Organizers work very closely with the San Diego police department. “We’ve had tremendous support from the police department, but in addition we hire many private security firms,” he says. “We have so many we had to hire a management company to work with them all.”
In the cooperative atmosphere of fan culture, there’s also community policing, as seen in the actions of the friend of the Phoenix perpetrator who alerted authorities to his threats. “Our attendees are very good about ‘if you see something, say something,’ ” Glanzer says.
While San Diego has had a weapons check station for years, organizers haven’t yet installed metal detectors or equipped guards with security wands. New York Comic Con, held in the fall, installed bag checks and metal detectors several years ago, along with RFID badges. It was a necessary step, according to Lance Fensterman, a senior v-p at ReedPop who runs NYCC. He notes that the show recently hired a new director of security—a former Secret Service agent—to work directly with security agencies that are involved with the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, where NYCC is held.
At Wizard World shows, pop culture events held in more than a dozen cities across the county, metal detectors and wanding have been in place for two years, says president John Maatta. “We also hire off-duty police as security and work with local authorities at all our events.”
At the Phoenix Comiccon, future security measures are still being discussed. “We are in ongoing conversations with the Phoenix Convention Center and City of Phoenix Police Department over what improvements, enhanced screening measures, and prop weapon restrictions they will require,” Solberg says.
The security situation at SDCC is complicated by the thousands of people—no one knows exactly how many—who come to downtown San Diego during Comic-Con without entering the convention center. Tickets to Comic-Con sell out so quickly that scores of related events are now staged in the areas just outside the convention center and throughout the surrounding Gaslamp district. This allows fans to partake of the show’s atmosphere, stake out hotels for celebrity autographs, and visit the many carnival-like rides and comic con–related attractions promoting movies and TV shows that have sprung up in the surrounding areas. Though CCI isn’t responsible for everything going on outside the convention center, managing those events has become part of organizers’ working relationship with local authorities.
CCI doesn’t keep tabs on the number of visitors to the downtown area. “We try to discourage people from coming downtown who don’t have badges [to get into the show],” Glanzer says. “But we’re seeing more people who have a ticket for one day [on the exhibition floor] but stay for the whole weekend.”
CCI doesn’t sanction all of these off-site events, but in recent years, events thrown by Adult Swim, Nerdist Industries, and the Walking Dead have taken up huge swathes of nearby real estate. “It’s a challenge but we try to work with it,” Glanzer says, adding that CCI may try to quantify the economic impact of badgeless visitors in the future.
Most cons will be dealing with situations and security measures like these in the future. “There’s always a balance between customer experience and safety, and if there’s a tie we’re always going to have go with safety,” Fensterman says.
Security issues aside, the new deal between CCI and the city to keep the show in San Diego through 2021 solved many problems. The organizer and the city of San Diego chose to avoid the lengthy negotiations undertaken last time the contract was renewed. At that time, both Anaheim and Los Angeles sought to woo the con away from San Diego, but CCI and the city came to a three-year agreement. CCI was able to get hotels to limit rises in hotel rates, which can be a big sticking point at an event where only a handful of hotel rooms are under $200 a night.
But issues around the convention center remain. The building has effectively run out of space for more exhibitors, attendance is capped, and CCI is concerned about its ability to continue to grow the show. A long-planned physical expansion of the convention center—which would allow for more exhibitors and attendees—is still in limbo. A ballot measure for a new downtown stadium to host the Chargers and more exhibition space failed to pass last November, and the Chargers left San Diego after efforts to build a new stadium were rebuffed. Comic-Con is staying put for now, but the difficulty of finding new sources of revenue when the show can’t expand will continue to be an issue for CCI.
There are plans for a Comic-Con Center for Popular Culture to be housed in the Hall of Champions, a building in the middle of Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre urban cultural park several miles to the north of the convention center. The museum is still under development, and CCI is hiring a director to run it.
“It will be a separate organization and perhaps more of a center than a museum,” Glanzer says. “But we hope to make it something that’s an attractive venue for people who visit Balboa Park and San Diego.”