The Hollywood Strike Is Taking San Diego Comic-Con Back to Its Roots

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With WGA and SAG-AFTRA members forbidden to promote their shows and movies, expect more talk of comic books at a show once dedicated to them

Crowds at San Diego Comic-Con
Crowds at San Diego Comic-Con (Photo: Getty Images)

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This year’s San Diego Comic-Con will look very different from what people have come to expect over the last 15 years or so.

Thanks to the first double strike to hit the American entertainment industry since 1960, almost no members of the Writers Guild of America or SAG-AFTRA who work in TV or film will be attending in any official capacity. And without stars and scribes to draw in fans, TV and movie studios have mostly pulled out too.

That means, at this storied gathering of geeks, the comic book creators who are the ostensible reason the event exists will have the floor almost entirely to themselves.

Movies and television have long had a home at SDCC. There was a sparsely attended panel for the first “Star Wars” movie all the way back in 1976, when the convention was still held at the El Cortez Hotel in downtown. By the 2000s, studios were taking big swings, like bringing Angelina Jolie to Hall H in 2003 to promote “Tomb Raider.” “Batman Begins” and “Iron Man” also had huge SDCC panels in that decade.

“Twilight” in 2008 changed everything. The film’s panel drew legions of fans who had never been to SDCC, swelling attendance numbers and kicking off the now-traditional ritual of lining up for Hall H the night before. It also created multiple viral moments and made Hall H almost mandatory for the major studios looking to hype genre and superhero movies — studios seized upon the event throughout the 2010s, using it as a launchpad for their biggest franchises and flying down everyone from Steven Spielberg to Tom Cruise.

Nothing like that will be happening this year — except possibly the Hall H line, if only for tradition’s sake. (It has its own Twitter account, after all.)

Instead, what would have been star- and creator-studded discussions of movies and TV shows have now either been canceled outright or reconfigured into screenings.

For some comics creators, this comes as a welcome if bittersweet change of pace.

“On one hand I think it’s great for the focus to be more on comics, but I can’t deny the fact that part of the energy of Comic-Con comes from the film and media stuff,” artist Lee Bermejo told TheWrap. 

Bermejo is best known for his DC Comics hits like “Joker” (2008) and “Lex Luthor: Man of Steel” (2005), both in collaboration with writer Brian Azzarello. A Comic-Con veteran, he acknowledged things are unlikely to ever return to the days when Hollywood was just one of many convention pillars, but he hoped this year might prove beneficial to comics as an art and industry.

“I’ve been coming to this show since ‘93, so I remember it back before the larger media stuff took over, and I know it can never recapture that feel,” he said. “But comics need as much attention as they can get right now. So we’ll see what happens.”

F.J. DeSanto, a producer and creator who serves as head of TV and film for comics publisher The Vault, said that “any opportunity to shine a spotlight on the creators is a welcome one.” Without comic creators, he added, “this show would not exist.”

Many of the actors and writers who in the past have appeared on film and TV panels or other public appearances may share a genuine love for the event, but for them, it’s work: They are part of a studio’s hype-building apparatus.

And that’s why SAG-AFTRA handed down detailed guidelines for the strike that name-checked San Diego Comic-Con. Members, the guild wrote, “cannot participate in conventions such as Comic-Con on behalf of, or to promote, companies we are striking against — this includes appearances, panels, fan meet and greets, etc. involving struck work.”

“San Diego Comic-Con is very specifically, usually, for promotion of upcoming projects, and no one should be doing any of that this year,” actor Sean Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy, “Gilmore Girls”) told TheWrap.

“I’m as hardline about that as anybody,” he continued. “I don’t think that actors should be out promoting a single thing out there. That’s where we get our leverage. We need leverage.”

Guild members may attend SDCC and similar events “in ways that are wholly independent of characters from struck work or sponsorship by struck companies,” according to the guidelines. SAG-AFTRA leadership, for example, is participating in a panel called “AI in Entertainment: The Performer’s Perspective.

Disagreement with studios over the use of artificial intelligence is one of the single biggest reasons the actors’ and writers’ unions went on strike, making the AI panel, which will happen just over a week after the SAG-AFTRA strike began, especially timely. And among the participants will be voice actor Zeke Alton, who served on the negotiating committee, and Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the guild’s longstanding second in command who served as chief negotiator during studio talks.

There will be some actors and writers on the scene promoting projects that aren’t covered by SAG-AFTRA or WGA contracts. Oscar winner Jamie Lee Curtis will be promoting her new graphic novel, “Mother Nature.” And “Supergirl” costar Nicole Maines, who played Dreamer on the CW drama, will be signing autographs.

Despite the dearth of movie and TV stars, the rest of the show will unfold apace, with plenty of parties and other activities for the fans who show up — not to mention a lot more time to walk the main floor of the San Diego Convention Center and get yourself, maybe, some actual comics.

The pandemic shut down San Diego Comic-Con in 2020 and 2021, save for a limited event in November 2021. But SDCC came back strong in 2022, with 135,000 attendees and the return of spectacles like the announcement-heavy Marvel Studios panel.

It’s not clear how the absence of Hollywood studios will affect the show’s financials this year. Comic-Con International didn’t respond to TheWrap’s request for comments, but a 2017-2018 operating budget posted to a San Diego city website reported a little under $1.5 million in sponsorship fees and $6.2 million in booth rentals; the bulk of the $26 million in revenue for the 2018 event came from membership fees charged for attendance. That balance was likely to be the same in 2023 regardless of studio participation.

“Some people sang the death knell for Comic-Con when COVID hit, so it’s not a surprise that some misguided knee-jerk reactors are doing the same again this year,” a film producer told TheWrap. “Comic-Con will be just fine. It will adapt. There’s still plenty to do for hundreds of thousands of people who will convene there.” Next year, the producer expects the studios and actors will be back.