It has become the largest convention in America and the shot heard round the world where pop culture is concerned. For geeks, comics fans, sci-fi buffs and pop culture media, San Diego’s Comic-Con International is heaven, nirvana and The Avengers movie combined.
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But how did an event first organized in 1970 for less than 200 people become a worldwide behemoth that draws more than 125,000 guests? More importantly, what lessons can be drawn from this nontraditional topic and translated for business people facing similar challenges in other markets? To solve this riddle, futurist Rob Salkowitz combined his love for five days of madness at the Con with his acumen for business strategy to see where worlds collide.
Why is an event that originated as a fan convention such a vital part of worldwide commerce?
The rise of Comic-Con underscores the importance of fan enthusiasm and fan culture in today’s entertainment industry. Fans aren’t just motivated consumers—they want to be part of a community and, in effect, co-creators of their experience.
When Comic-Con started drawing 100,000 and more people, it reached a critical mass. Everyone wanted to be there, and everyone from movie studios to game companies to publishers to fashion designers felt like they were missing out or losing a competitive advantage if they didn’t come to Comic-Con and find a way to channel that fan energy their way.
How does the structure—walking readers through the five days of the convention—help illustrate your lessons?
The Con serves a couple of purposes. First it’s a handy metaphor and organizing principle for the swirling chaos surrounding the pop culture and entertainment industries, which are buffeted on all sides by demands from a changing audience, technology innovations, new business models and so on. But it’s more than just a literary device. As I said in the book, the Con isn’t just the pop culture industry in microcosm—it’s the industry incarnate. Everyone is there. Important announcements happen, important talent is discovered, business is done.
It’s also the subject of intense public fascination. Who are all those people? Why are they dressed in costumes? Why are they standing in mile-long lines for days at a time? It’s fun to read about and may help lighten the load in terms of the other big concepts I’m trying to address on the business side.
As a longtime participant in the circus, what do you think is the most widespread common misreading of the Con?
I think the biggest myth about the San Diego Con is that there was once this golden age where it was “just about comics” and innocent of all the transmedia hype. That may be true of some comic conventions, but because San Diego is right down the road from Hollywood, there’s been crossover since the earliest days. George Lucas debuted Star Wars there in 1976. There were always celebrity guests and movie tie-ins—just not quite as big and loud as they are today.
Did you have an intended audience for the book?
Well, I’m primarily a business writer, so it’s a business book first, with, I hope, a lot of useful insights and analysis to help people in creative industries understand the issues facing their business a little bit better.
But I think having that outside perspective also appeals to comics and pop culture fans. A lot of stuff written for the fan culture comes from deep inside the culture itself. It doesn’t get in to the economic and social externalities, and those can be enlightening. I hope a lot of fans and people with a more general interest in pop culture and Comic-Con will find my perspective unusual enough, and my attention to detail sufficient, to hold their attention.
Predicting the future has become a tricky business for the publishing industry. What changes do you anticipate in the industry of comics culture over the next five years?
We are seeing a shakeout in the digital distribution space faster than a lot of people expected. Even as the book was going to press, I was frantically doing updates and corrections to reflect new developments. Tablet devices are the future of media. They solve so many problems of distribution, convenience and consumption, while also opening the door to new possibilities. But in the long run, I think globalization of pop culture poses the biggest and most exciting opportunity.
What do you see as the most significant challenge to the pop culture industry in the current economy?
I’d say it’s balancing the intense demands of fans to make these big budget movies, games and events true to the original source material, while at the same time telling their stories gracefully for a broader audience. These superhero movie blockbusters are always a roll of the dice. The Avengers hit the jackpot; Green Lantern tanked. Both were faithful to the comics, but one worked and one looked ridiculous. And if you miss the mark too many times, eventually the mass audience will get bored and start looking for something else. Can comics hold onto the gains they’ve made? We’ll see.
Comic-Con has gotten significantly more expensive and harder to get into in recent years. Is it still a mechanism for fandom, or has it become a place where business is being done?
The San Diego Comic-Con in particular has always had a trade show aspect to it. Professionals come there to network, to do business, to discover new talent or hype their new projects. So those people have to be there, and there are more of them now that comics are so central to the entertainment industry.
At the same time, fan interest has grown. Everyone wants to come see the celebrities, or just see what all the fuss is about. And there’s only so much space. People complain about the rising hassles and costs, but you know what? The organizers do an absolutely amazing job. CCI is a nonprofit organization, a lot of the staff has outside jobs.
And yet, they’ve managed the growth in the best way they can, without moving the show away from San Diego and without making it into some kind of rich-kids club. It’s still a very egalitarian, family-oriented, middle-class place despite its elite status as an event. That’s quite remarkable and commendable, given the kind of economic polarization we’ve seen in the country.
Comic-Con San Diego takes place this week, July 12-15.