For the second year in a row, the streets of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter will be quiet this July. The immense pop culture carnival that is San Diego Comic-Con International (SDCC) is the biggest event of the year for comics publishing—and a major event for media, video games, and collectibles. But in 2021, it has again been sidelined by the Covid-19 pandemic, like nearly every other major comics event. In its place, Comic-Con International (CCI), the nonprofit group that organizes SDCC, will once again present Comic-Con@Home, an online version of the panels, exhibit hall, and exclusives so beloved by veteran SDCC fans, which this year will run July 23–25.

At the same time, with the world beginning to open up again and people tiring of endless Zoom meetings, the live, in-person convention business is slowly coming back, and CCI has plans for Comic-Con Special Edition, an in-person show to be held November 26–28 at the San Diego Convention Center. Pop culture event organizers are adapting to a world that is still full of uncertainties about the who and the how of large public gatherings as pandemic-related restrictions in the U.S. continue to ease.

Nevertheless, the main event for CCI is Comic-Con@Home, which will include more interactive events than past iterations, including an online version of the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. The show will only offer three days of programming—down from the traditional four days in 2020—due to budget constraints.

Like many event companies, CCI was forced to make cuts last year that included layoffs, reduced salaries, and shortened work weeks. “We had a large war chest, but it’s been depleted,” explains David Glanzer, chief communications and strategy officer for CCI.

The organization learned that putting on an online event is easier in some ways than an in-person show (no need for a physical venue, no parking, no on-site security staff), but large-scale virtual events also bring on their own issues, including Zoom fatigue. Organizers are looking at using several platforms to host their panels, including YouTube and Discord, a voice, text, and video chat platform. One thing hasn’t changed: programming remains under wraps until closer to the event, though Glanzer says the mix will be “similar to what Comic-Con has always had.”

Many fans and creators have been dismayed that Comic-Con Special Edition is set for Thanksgiving weekend, forcing them to choose between the beloved event and time with their loved ones—especially since many Thanksgiving gatherings were canceled last year. Glanzer acknowledges that complaints over the timing of Special Edition are valid, but the convention center is already gearing up for the return of live events. And with so many shows pushed back into the second half of the year, CCI was left with few options.

“When we made the decision to do Comic-Con@Home, we really didn’t know what July would look like,” Glanzer says. “Clearly, things have moved faster than a lot of people anticipated. But planning an in-person show in a short amount of time is just not feasible for us, so we decided to do @Home.”

As venues began to open, Glanzer says, a fall slot originally looked realistic, but some open dates were unsuitable. Either the entire convention center was not available, or the event would have had to load in on a Friday and load out on a Sunday—a logistical impossibility for a show SDCC’s size. “The only date that was really viable for us was this Thanksgiving weekend,” he adds.

Glanzer is sympathetic to those who fear missing out but cautions that Special Edition will be a smaller show—though how much smaller is still to be determined. “If people can’t make it, we totally get that,” he notes. “But we wanted to offer an opportunity to have our community again.”

Will this be a quiet collector’s show, or will Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige take the stage in Hall H to talk about phase five of the MCU? “We’re still in the process of planning now,” Glanzer says. “California is opening up, and different exhibitors and different program participants are starting to weigh whether they can go out and meet the public. We’ll have a better idea as we get closer. But so far, people seem to be excited about it.”

Despite the outcry from fans disappointed about the new show’s timing, Glanzer points out that Thanksgiving cons have a long a tradition in the science fiction fandom events from which SDCC sprang 50 years ago. “Some of the people on the CCI board remember when Thanksgiving was a great convention weekend,” he says. “When I was a kid, I would spend Thursday with my family and then couldn’t wait to spend the rest of the weekend with my ‘family of choice.’ ”

In-person events return

CCI isn’t the only show organizer gearing up for a return to live events. The pop culture event schedule is filling up as more people are getting vaccinated. New York Comic Con will take place in person at its customary time in October, as will Washington, D.C.’s Awesome Con in August. Some FanExpo events, including MegaCon in Orlando in August (which is expected to draw some 100,000 fans, according to the show’s website), will also be in person.

The rest of the once-booming pop culture convention industry is trying to reinvent itself after a year of layoffs and lockdowns. While many fans can’t wait to hit the show floors again, some continue to be wary of the health risks, including those related to new coronavirus variants.

ReedPop v-p of new initiatives Mike Armstrong says that “for the past 15 months, we’ve been trying to figure out what our business looks like, and what our business can be in the absence of events.” ReedPop has expanded its presentations into a series of online events called the Metaverse, which includes traditional panels but also more interactive events and meetups. It’s the result of a lot of user research.

“We’ve been doing our best to stay busy and talk to our fans,” Armstrong says. “All of that research and all the conversations we’ve had with partners have brought us to a place where we feel really good about what the future is going to bring.”

ReedPop’s in-person schedule kicks off with Miami’s Supercon in September, followed by New York Comic Con in October. Though NYCC is likely to have its capacity reduced somewhat, it will take place at a newly expanded Javits Center, where a long-wished-for new wing is finally open. Armstrong recently took a tour and says he was very impressed.

“The stuff that we’re going to be able to do in there is going to be incredible,” he notes. “And the space—the roof and meetings rooms—is beautiful. We’ll finally have the infrastructure that we’ve wanted for so long to be able to do the show that we’ve always wanted to do.”

But even as shows come back, questions remains about how they will evolve. Martha Donato, the owner of Mad Event Management, is on the board of several event organizers and runs a series of business and pop culture events, including the Long Beach Comic Con. “It’s an incredibly risky business to begin with,” she points out. Many shows are now unable to get pandemic insurance, and that will make canceling shows even costlier should there be new outbreaks.

Even before the pandemic, many who attended cons were concerned about health issues. “For years, we’d all joke about what we affectionately called the con crud,” Donato says. “We all got sick after we went to big shows. We just accepted it as part of doing what we do for a living.”

Some fans are going to be slow to venture back to crowded panel rooms. And having fewer fans on the floor will impact the overall con economy. “I think we’re going to see probably a 50% reduction in our audiences, but we’re still going to have exhibitors who count on the circuit to sell,” Donato predicts. Though vendors have pivoted to online sales, “the face-to-face selling experience is important to them,” she adds. “I’m already getting outreach from exhibitors in California wanting to know when are we going to start accepting exhibitor registration.”

Donato worries that lower attendance will mean less money on the floor. “What if we still have a lot of exhibitors, but we have fewer people?” she asks. “What’s our reset look like? You can call this a transition year, but it still feels like a pandemic year.”

Hybrid shows and Zoom fatigue

After more than a year of online shows, hybrid events offering both online and in-person elements look to be a permanent part of the convention landscape. CCI found that online panels brought in a whole new audience. “We discovered how many international people really loved the opportunity to see panels that they would only have seen in snippets or on television,” Glanzer says. “But if we do maintain an online element, it has to be something that isn’t there just to be there—fans need to engage with it.”

The ReedPop Metaverse has developed membership tiers that allow fans to pay to see online portions of shows they can’t attend in person, and gain access to tickets and show exclusives. It’s part of a new reality in which in-person capacity will be limited.

“We’ve worked really hard to develop the concept of what does a convention look like when you’re not physically there,” ReedPop’s Armstrong says. “Our research showed that somebody who has never attended New York Comic Con but is a big C2E2 fan will pay to engage in the New York Comic Con experience without being there. And we feel like we can deliver a lot of value.”

Many smaller shows have committed to online-only events for the rest of the year. But everyone we spoke with noted that the problem of Zoom fatigue is real.

“I think we all came to realize that a Zoom screen with five talking heads going back and forth and somebody being muted and someone else having tech issues was flawed,” Armstrong says. “It serves some people well, but it’s not the most engaging content.”

For Metaverse, he hopes to create more interactive content, such as trivia games, checkbox games, and events with voice actors. In one Metaverse event, 2,000 She-Ra fans played a trivia game with show organizer and noted comics artist Noelle Stevenson—a much more satisfying encounter than a typical Zoom interview, Armstrong says. “We hope we can give our fans a bit of engagement with talent as opposed to them just staring at a screen for a while. And the talent really likes it, too.”

Online events also are hard to monetize, says Kuo-Yu Liang, a pop culture industry consultant who works with FanExpo, among other clients. “I can go to YouTube anytime and find tons of content out there. I do appreciate these virtual event panels, and it’s good to know I can watch them later. But will I pay for them, or can the convention company monetize me watching the video by selling advertising?”

Online events also lack the prized networking opportunities of real-life events. “As a person in the industry, the main reason for me to go to conventions is to hang out with colleagues or randomly meet a new person,” Liang says. He recalls many business deals that he saw begin as chance meetings at BarCon, as post-convention-hours socializing is known. “What everyone is telling me is that it’s that chance encounter that is really missing,” he notes.

“Networking has been rough,” Donato confirms. “We’ve all tried different iterations of that, and just keep trying to make it work. It’s a big debate, because there are some companies who did quite well with virtual conferences in terms of reaching new audiences who wouldn’t have otherwise traveled. But you have to get back to your live events.”

One way that publishers and media companies are getting around the challenge of online fatigue is to throw their own branded events, which can offer more targeted fan experiences. Last year, Warner Bros. shook things up with FanDome, which showcased all things DC and wowed viewers with stars (from publishing, TV, and film) and high production values. Warner Bros. will hold a second FanDome on October 16.

Skybound, a studio imprint at Image Comics, which is owned by Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, has organized its own event, the Skybound Xpo, a quarterly online gathering for fans. Xpo started as a replacement for last year’s SDCC, says Brian Huntington, v-p, online content for Skybound. “It’s evolved from simple Zoom-style panels to trying to open it up beyond that,” he notes. “What can we do with partners that we couldn’t do at a physical convention?” Past Xpos have seen interactive events such as custom role-playing sessions for Skybound-related video games.

While Skybound looks forward to getting back to in-person events, Huntington says Xpos have been educational for fans. “A lot of people are learning more about other parts of Skybound beyond just comics or the Walking Dead,” he explains. “They’re learning about other fandoms, and they get to hear about new projects directly from the people involved in making them. The last year has been a huge learning experience for Skybound, and we’re looking forward to learning even more and growing the virtual convention space in the years to come.”

What’s ahead?

Everyone PW spoke with agrees that comics conventions will change to adapt to whatever the new new normal is, and they may include such accommodations as enhanced hygiene measures, limited attendance, wider aisles, temperature checks, and mask requirements.

CCI is working closely with San Diego authorities for Special Edition, Glanzer says. “We’re waiting for guidance from the convention center as well as from the state and city health departments, because things keep changing,” he adds.

In another challenge, many of the venues that host comics conventions have been repurposed during the pandemic. Both the San Diego Convention Center and the Long Beach Convention Center were used as homeless shelters and are currently being used to house unaccompanied, undocumented immigrant children. Glanzer notes that in San Diego, “the convention center has done a great job of making sure it is as disease free as it can be, and they’ve learned a lot in terms of what to do and how to do it. Some of that stuff will stay around.”

ReedPop is also adapting to the various local regulations in the places it operates, Armstrong says. “We’ve been having conversations weekly with the different cities that we do business in.” ReedPop has to do some guesswork to imagine what New York City will allow in October. “We’re modifying our plans every couple of weeks, and hopefully increasing our capacity numbers every couple of weeks,” he adds.

“Somebody going from Connecticut to Florida might be in for a bit of culture shock, and vice versa,” Armstrong notes. “Most of our events are local, and we plan for the local audience. So hopefully they know what they’re getting into. And for those who are traveling, they’ll do whatever they can to follow local guidelines.”

Liang says that international travel is still restricted, and there are still quarantine procedures in place in countries where vaccination is not as widespread as it is in the U.S. “And some corporations still have a travel ban,” he adds. “My perception is a lot of these things will change very soon, but it’s still being worked on.”

The pandemic has also highlighted the natural dwindling of the boom in the growth of pop culture events all around the country, Donato says. Before the pandemic, she recalls, “I felt like it was oversaturated as a market and we didn’t have enough talent to support all the events that were happening.” The pre-pandemic con market, she adds, “was creating a bubble, which burst through the most unfortunate of circumstances.”

Many of the shows that are back thus far are collector-based. “The tried-and-the-true shows are going to survive,” Donato says. “And the bigger ones are institutions, so they will survive. But there’s probably a lot of fallout at the bottom end and some fallout in the middle. This just accelerated what I thought was already on its way.”

For San Diego, there is also the eternal question of whether the San Diego Convention Center will expand. Though a ballot measure in favor of its expansion was defeated in November despite getting 65% of the vote, a court recently ruled that a two-thirds supermajority was not needed to pass the measure.

“There’s still a glimmer of hope there that we might be able to have a contiguous convention center expansion,” Glanzer says. In the meantime, he adds, “everybody’s very busy and excited” about CCI’s upcoming shows. “I always say that you can talk about Comic-Con, you can see pictures and videos, but nothing is like actually being there. While this will be a scaled-down version, we hope to have the best parts of Comic-Con at Special Edition.”