Comic-Con@Home: Inside the First-Ever Virtual – and Free – San Diego Comic-Con

Comic-Con International tells TheWrap how its “great experiment” came together

Comic Con At Home
TheWrap/San Diego Comic-Con International

For fifty years, San Diego Comic-Con’s greatest superpower has been its ability to avoid any obstacle in its way — from inclement weather to recessions — that could have possibly led to its cancellation. But 2020 has brought Comic-Con a villain that nobody has been able to conquer: COVID-19.

However, any comic-book fan would tell you the hero always comes through when all hope seems lost. For Comic-Con International, that meant turning its first-ever cancellation into another first: Its first-ever virtual convention, Comic-Con@Home. And even though there won’t be 6,500 fans screaming at the top of their lungs in Hall H, Comic-Con organizers are planning an event befitting its lofty stature that will take place two weeks from now, just when the in-person con would have been held.

“Everybody is committed to trying to make something the fans can enjoy and can interact with and have that community feeling, even though it will be not in person,” Comic-Con International Chief Communications and Strategy Officer David Glanzer told TheWrap. That commitment extended to the con’s studio and network partners, as the likes of AMC, Amazon, FX, Disney, Syfy, Hulu and at least one film studio, Orion Pictures (which is bringing “Bill & Ted Face the Music”), have all jumped on board to bring their panels into viewers’ living rooms.

“I’m impressed with how many we got,” Glanzer admitted. He expects the total Comic-Con@Home panel count to be between 300 and 400 from Wednesday, July 22- Sunday, July 26, versus a normal year that would see approximately 1,000 panels hosted at the San Diego Convention Center during the five-day event. “It’s a lot. It’s a little bit daunting and also very exciting.”

It’s also free, marking another big first for the convention and a pretty sweet deal for fans who couldn’t afford the $304 price tag of a 2020 SDCC “Four-day with Preview Night” badge, let alone the cost of a flight to San Diego and hotel stay. Plus there’s that whole aspect where even if you can afford to go, you have to navigate your way through a ticket lottery system to become one of the lucky 135,000 attendees the convention center is able to house each year.

This year, everyone is invited.

“It was already a bad enough blow that we weren’t going to have Comic-Con this year, we thought this was a way to give back,” Glanzer said of the decision to not put Comic-Con@Home panels behind a paywall. “And when we started reaching out to some of our stakeholders, a lot of them were very enthusiastic about this as well.”

Comic-Con held out longer than most other large-scale events that were quickly called off in head-spinning fashion back in March. Films were delayed. Production was shut down. Late-night TV hosts were forced out of their studios. Then major gatherings including SXSW, the TV upfronts and CinemaCon were either scrapped or went virtual.

Comic-Con organizers were banking on its late-July spot on the calendar to buy them more time. “We had hoped that there might be a way to have the convention. I don’t know whether we thought it was going to be exactly like the show was in 2019, but the thought was, again, there was still a lot of information that we didn’t know,” Glanzer said.

But as the coronavirus ravaged the United States, it became clear they’d have to do the one thing they’ve avoided for the last half-century.

“When things started developing the way they did, we had to have a serious discussion that if push comes to shove, do we cancel the show? And we were having those discussions and the governor [Gavin Newsom] had announced he couldn’t foresee concerts or large events certainly at least through August. So our decision was made at that point,” Glanzer said. “We all knew in the back of our minds that this was certainly a possibility, but I think nobody wanted to really entertain it fully and when we finally made the decision and announced it to our office staff, there were a lot of tears. It was the first time in 50 years we wouldn’t be having this convention and wouldn’t be able to see and interact with the community that’s so good to us and that we love.”

WonderCon 2020, which was scheduled for April 10-12 in Anaheim, Calif., was initially postponed, then scrapped entirely. At the last minute, it was replaced with an at-home virtual edition — WonderCon@Home — which consisted of videos, a virtual cosplay contest and a few other “small-scale” activities posted to the Comic-Con website over the weekend when the convention would have taken place.

The decision to cancel San Diego Comic-Con 2020 came the following week.

“We immediately thought, we were able to pull something together for WonderCon, let’s see if we can do something for Comic-Con,” Glanzer said. “And we started in earnest trying to see, a) What is it that we could do? and b) How do we go about doing it? And that’s basically the process of how this all started.”

On May 8, Comic-Con revealed its plans for Comic-Con@Home.

For some TV studios, it was a no-brainer decision to participate in the virtual event. After all, it still provides a massive platform to promote upcoming shows and one that will come with a bigger audience than the 135,000 or so that typically cram into the San Diego Convention Center. “Why wouldn’t we do it?” one insider at a participating studio told TheWrap, who added they are treating it like any other year.

For other studios, there was more of an altruistic motive. “Comic-Con has been so great to us over the years, and knowing that their business itself was probably going to have some hardships going through this, that we felt like because they have been so supportive of us over the years, we wanted to do the same,” added an insider at another participating studio.

With Comic-Con International committed to making a virtual con work and many loyal studio, network and publishing partners behind them, the next step was figuring out how to replicate an iconic event over the internet, which Glanzer says has been a “challenge,” yes, but is “really is a matter of shifting the focus.”

“It was a different process, but everybody was dedicated to trying to make the best experience possible. So we opened up ideas, how can we make this happen? Will anybody want to attend?… It’s interesting, I’ve learned so much about Zoom and so many other types of video conferencing. The process is certainly different but I gotta tell you, I think everybody is committed to trying to make something the fans can enjoy and can interact with and have that community feeling, even though it will be not in person, but at least it will be virtually.”

As TheWrap reported earlier this week, almost all of the 300-400 Comic-Con@Home virtual panels will be prerecorded by their respective hosting studios, networks, comic-book publishers and other organizations, and given to Comic-Con in advance. Glanzer says he doesn’t “anticipate anything live” for Comic-Con@Home, but it is possible there will be “live elements to some programming,” all of which will stream on Comic-Con’s official YouTube page. A few other platforms, like Tumblr and Twitch, will also be utilized during the con.

The schedule for the Comic-Con@Home panels started rolling out yesterday (beginning with Wednesday’s “Preview Night” lineup”), two weeks ahead of the event, just as it always does for the physical convention as well.

“I think we’re gonna have a really impressive lineup of programs both from Hollywood and from comics and a whole bunch of other areas,” Glanzer said. “We’re going to have a masquerade. There will be an art show. There will be some interactive stuff you can take part in. And hopefully, as rough as the stay at home stuff has been, maybe this will give us a little bit of respite for the weekend to reconnect virtually.”

Since the panels are prerecorded, it’s up to the hosts to figure out how they want to turn their Zoom sessions into Comic-Con level events. While everyone is going about this in different ways, representatives for Disney Television Studios, AMC and Amazon told TheWrap you can expect to see new footage during some of their show’s Comic-Con@Home panels, just as is customary for ballroom presentations, with AMC promising fresh clips from “The Walking Dead,” “Fear the Walking Dead,” “The Walking Dead: World Beyond” and “NOS4A2.”

Another traditional element of a Comic-Con panel that studios tried to incorporate into their virtual events is the fan Q&A component, which is obviously not going to be the same when its not live. But individuals with knowledge of AMC and Disney’s plans say that shows used their social media accounts to solicit questions from viewers in advance to be answered during the prerecorded panels, with some presentations even including taped questions asked by the fans themselves.

“I’ll be very honest with you, we had to move on this fairly fast and that’s why I said if we have to do something like this again, we will have this experience under our belt,” he said. “The great thing about this is there is no counter-programming. If there’s two great panels you want to see at 1 o’clock, you won’t have to miss one to see one, you’ll just have to decide which one you want to see first.”

One studio rep described pulling together the Comic-Con@Home panels as a “logistical Jenga” due to cast members and showrunners being spread out across different time zones, but that ultimately it was easier in some ways because traveling to and from San Diego was a non-issue.

What was an issue was trying to make virtual panels standout from each other and also not look like those work-related Zoom conference calls we’re all too familiar with at this point.

A representative for 20th Century Fox Television, a division of Disney Television Studios, says the way they accomplished this for the virtual panel for Fox comedy “Bless the Harts” was by having the cast all drink boxed wine together while painting their animated characters in quarantine.

One notable omission from this year’s convention will be DC Comics, which decided to hold its own virtual convention next month, DC Fandome, where it will bring its roster of films and TV shows, including one that many Comic-Con fans have been clamoring for: Zack Synder’s re-do of the 2017 flop, “Justice League.”

It’s a decision that has rankled many of those involved, both inside and outside of Comic-Con. Multiple individuals expressed frustration with DC, both for going for a solo convention — Disney holds its D23 biennial convention, but still makes sure Marvel has a major Comic-Con presence those years — and for not giving much of a heads up. One individual believes that DC has been thinking of holding their own event for awhile, but said the final word from DC came with very short notice.

“Warner Bros. and DC have been — and will continue to be — longtime partners and supporters of San Diego Comic-Con,” DC and Warner Bros. said in a statement provided to TheWrap. “We are excited to participate in this year’s Comic-Con@Home with 23 virtual panels across Warner Bros. Television, Home Entertainment, Kids, Young Adults and DC publishing.”

“We have a great relationship with DC and with Warner Bros,” said Glanzer. “They’ll be participating in some way in our at-home program. So we think it will be great and the fans will really be appreciative of them being there.” 

Because of the months-long shutdown due to the pandemic, one of the hallmarks of Comic-Con, known for its exclusive footage and first looks of actors donning their superhero threads, will be less of an emphasis. “I think people have a view of Comic-Con — and it’s a realistic and an appropriate view, especially of how it’s been in the last few years — but there was a time many years ago when we would have panels that wouldn’t have footage,” said Glanzer.

One notable example: When Michael Keaton was first announced as Batman for Tim Burton’s 1989 film, the casting was met with derision. So how did Warner Bros. brass explain their reasoning for casting an actor — known more for comedies “Beetlejuice” and “Mr. Mom” — as the Dark Knight? By using a projector.

“Everybody thought, wow, Michael Keaton is a comedy actor. Tim Burton, they regarded as a comedy director — how is this going to work? And [‘Batman’ comic book artist] Gil Kane had a headshot on an opaque projector and he ended up drawing the cowl over his face,” Glanzer remembers.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t expect Comic-Con@Home to feature some eagerly anticipated trailers, just that it’s not the main focus in a time when film and TV production is halted.

“I think we all understand also that if there isn’t video, if there isn’t an asset that exists, just coming and talking to us about what they’re going to do and giving some insight is valuable also,” Glanzer said, adding: “We hope for the best, but we’ll be happy with whatever they can provide us.”

As for how this is all going to work come July 22, well, Glanzer says he’s looking forward to watching this “great experiment” unfold. And also hoping that maybe some new fans will sign up for next year, when the plan is to return to San Diego.

“We’ve never done this. It could be something that people don’t tune into — I shouldn’t say that (laughs) — but I am prepared for anything because we just don’t know,” admits Glanzer. “But I’m hoping that people will check in and be able to take part in stuff that they might not normally be able to do because they can’t get a ticket or a badge to the show.”

As of now, the organization has dates for next year’s conventions. WonderCon is set for March 26-28, 2021 and for Comic-Con it’s July 22-25, 2021. But Glanzer notes those dates are on shaky ground, given the uncertain nature of the pandemic and a potential vaccine.

“It’s unusual to be in a situation where you can’t plan. You always anticipate problems or challenges, but it’s weird to have everything be a potential problem or challenge. It’s almost like you don’t have a firm ground to stand on, because everything changes so rapidly,” he said. “So we are looking at that, but no decision has been made on anything yet. We hope that we can have our shows and have our fingers crossed.”