SDCC 2014: The Programming Problem

This was a very strange year for the programming schedule of San Diego Comic-Con, particularly that of Hall H. The lines were the worst we’d ever seen them for Saturday’s programming, and yet, on Thursday, which included Benedict Cumberbatch, Mathew McConaughey, and Christopher Nolan’s Comic-Con debuts, you could walk right in and get a seat in roughly the first half of the room, all day long. For 20th Century Fox’s Friday panel, which included a line-up of Channing Tatum, Guillermo del Toro, Ron Perlman, Christina Applegate, Zachary Quinto, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, and more — attendants at the Hall H line were practically begging people to come in, shouting at passer-by’s that they could walk right in.

Was this overcrowding of Saturday compared to other days due to Marvel’s growing popularity? Was it because some of Hollywood’s normal Thursday additions skipped doing convention panels entirely this year (like Disney Studios and Lionsgate, which turned to offsite events instead)? Was it because of Comic-Con International’s new policy of issuing wristbands, which allowed attendees to see roughly where in the hall they’d wind up, if they even made it in at all, before wasting an entire day standing in line for a chance at entering? Or was it part of a bigger problem?

Although the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle of all of those things, there could be an even simpler answer: Many attendees simply didn’t know what was happening in some of the biggest panels of the week.

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The good kind of Comic-Con surprise. Photo by GeekShot Photography.

It’s long been a tradition and unspoken rule of San Diego Comic-Con that in addition to what the studio announces they’re bringing to their Hall H panel, there will be some surprises. Take, for instance, Warner Bros. This year, the studio announced that it would be holding panels for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Jupiter Ascending. What it didn’t announce, though, was that it would be showing a teaser for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice before marching director Zack Snyder and stars Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, and Gal Gadot on stage. That’s the kind of surprise that gets Comic-Con attendees revved up, and it’s the reason many wait for hours just to gain entry into the panel room: to be able to say “I was there” for that iconic Comic-Con moment.

Something strange happened this year, though. More and more of the studios not only didn’t announce their surprise announcements ahead of time, but they didn’t announce anything they’d be bringing to the convention.

When the programming schedule was released starting July 10, four of the biggest studio panels offered no insights at all into what films they’d be showing on the Hall H stage: Dreamworks Animation, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century FOX, and Legendary.

This was something that had happened in 2013 as well, when 20th Century Fox’s panel schedule was similarly blank on Comic-Con International’s site. In both years, Fox chose to announce the schedule on their own through press releases, rather than placing the information on CCI’s site. DreamWorks Animation followed suit around the same time, revealing that they’d be bringing Penguins of Madagascar and Home, as well as fan-favorite Benedict Cumberbatch.

As for Paramount and Legendary, though? Not a word from either company, even through the convention.

The official San Diego Comic-Con schedule for the Paramount panel simply reads, “Paramount Pictures will provide an inside look at their upcoming films. Attendees will view exclusive footage presented by special guests and hear the latest news for some of the year’s most anticipated movies!”

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Without Googling, would you know what movies Paramount Pictures even might bring to the convention? And would you be willing to sacrifice part of your limited San Diego Comic-Con time on a chance that something cool shows up, with celebrities you may or may not like?

For a lot of attendees, the answer to those questions was “No”.

While there’s no guarantee that announcing Paramount’s line-up for the panel, which included Nolan and McConaughey for Interstellar, Megan Fox, Will Arnett, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and an appearance by The Rock for Hercules, would have filled every seat in Hall H — it likely would have gotten much more attention, and many more attendees at the event.

Paramount wasn’t the only studio guilty of showing up with unannounced properties, though. Legendary also had an equally vague description for its panel (“Legendary Pictures presents a panel featuring their upcoming slate of highly anticipated films”), but they lucked out by being placed in Hall H on Saturday, when most attendees were camped out all day long for Warner Bros., Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and Marvel. Without that time slot, would they have announced the monsters of Godzilla 2 and a new King Kong and Skull Island movie to a mostly empty room, who wasn’t sure what to expect?

We understand that determining what movies you bring to San Diego Comic-Con is a costly endeavor, and one that requires a lot of thought. The deadline to submit your official panel description falls much earlier than the July 10th schedule release, meaning that studios who have to contend with directors and producers who might not feel the footage is ready, or the wrong film for Comic-Con, or who fear spending millions of dollars bringing out cast and promotional materials for a film that might play well at SDCC and still flop (ala Scott Pilgrim or Cowboys & Aliens), may not be ready at that time.

But Paramount and Legendary surely knew what movies they were bringing at least a few days before San Diego Comic-Con. And 20th Century Fox, who announced on their own even before the official panel announcements from San Diego Comic-Con, never had their panel description updated on CCI’s site (DreamWorks Animation, however, did).

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20th Century Fox’s panel description offered no insight into what their panel would include.

Why not? There are dozens of panels who have updates to their panel descriptions even after the initial schedule release, which is why the MySched site and app offer an “Updated” option, to see just what has changed. Over 70 other panels throughout the convention updated their panel descriptions prior to Comic-Con.

We spoke to several attendees throughout the weekend who still had no idea what 20th Century Fox was bringing, even with their announcement. The problem with thinking you’re above Comic-Con International’s own (albeit somewhat limited) marketing to attendees is that when it’s only a week or two until the convention, you risk any news being lost in the onslaught of other announcements. For an average attendee wanting to know whether or not they should attend a panel they haven’t previously considered, most will turn first to the official schedule. And if they find nothing there to indicate they should attend, why should they bother?

We can only hope that the movie studios feel the same, and that this is one trend that goes away in 2015. Save the surprises for the panel, but don’t make the entire panel line-up a surprise. No one wins then.

Here’s our video of walking into Hall H on Thursday, and you can see how empty it was:

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

About Kerry Dixon

Kerry Dixon is Editor-in-Chief of The San Diego Comic-Con Unofficial Blog and the site's resident panel guru.