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.
  • marybluefairy

    Well, the one good thing about it is it allowed some of us who had given up on Hall H to actually attend a panel.

  • kelly k

    I think a big part of the problem is how difficult it’s been to get into Hall H the last few years. Waiting for six hours would not get you into the panels you wanted to see and camping out overnight seemed the only way you could. About eight years ago, you could still walk right into Hall H and Ballroom 20 after waiting on line only an hour or two, but things have changed. With all that goes on at Comic-Con, it’s not worth it to me or the group of friends I go with to spend that much time in line, no matter how badly I would like to see the panel. I can always watch it online later and some studios release their exclusive footage online a few days later anyway. I feel my time is better spent not in line but taking in the millions of other things to do at Comic-Con.

  • Kerry

    Very true!

  • thecocoacritic

    The new wristband policy screwed things up.

  • mig0

    I gave up plans to get into hall h or ballroom 20 panels a few years ago, and the camping out only discourages me further. So I was surprised when I saw on twitter how hall h had no line on Thursday or b20 on Saturday. And I took advantage. Aside from the respite, it was great.

  • Annoyed Canadian

    I did get a wristband for Friday, and I still didn’t get into the Walking Dead panel. I hear after that they were letting non-wristbanded people into Hall H before all the people who did have a wristband. Last year I sat in line for 6 hours to get into Hall H, and I’m not doing that anymore,. I refuse to waste half a day waiting to get into something I won’t get into as opposed to doing….anything else. I think the viewing room at the Omni is a good idea, but not being able to see the clips, and trailers makes it not worth it. I think Comic Con needs to put their foot down about this policy and tell the production companies that they allow the clips to be seen in the overflow rooms or no clips can be used.

  • Califan

    Agree! Ditch the wristbands!

  • Califan

    My pet peeve is that most of the swag is now given offsite. That kind of defeats the purpose of it, which was to be sure it’s in the hand of your core audience. Just handing stuff out randomly puts in in the hands of, well, random people who may or may not even care.

  • truthseeker_2001

    Hall H should be a TICKETED event. And if you want to put an end to the overnight camping, make it ASSIGNED SEATING. Problem solved. Next!

  • Zack Fox

    It was dumb that Paramount didn’t announce what was going to be at their panel… I walked into a half empty hallH at start time for Paramount just hoping for Interstellar which showed up…

    As for the overcrowding on Saturday I really really really think that MARVEL needs to be the first panel in HallH since thats what most people are in HallH for. If Marvel was first – people that only care about Marvel would leave after the panel – allowing others to come in and see the WB, Legendary, Boxtrolls (Yes), and etc panels.

    I think that the other studios have a love/hate relationship with Marvel being at 5pm – People are forced to watch the their panels therefore maybe people that didn’t care about a movie/panel would end up caring… but… at the same time people that do care about the studios panel simply can’t get in. Just me thoughts. Sorry to anyone who wasted time reading this…

  • Diane S

    I can’t camp over night or even get to the convention early. I have a disabled child and a father that is wheelchair bound. I have to get care for both. They could kill the lines by having a form of what panels you want to see and have them picked randomly from those that want to go. It could be done on line before the CON even starts and have a stand by like the airlines do for no shows. The way it is now a don’t even try. I would have loved to get into the walking dead. Getting the signatures is even worse. Drawing starting at 6:30 am and the doors don’t open til 9:30? I get the feeling no one cares.They did the pre sales of tickets randomly so getting online early did no good. I love living in San Diego, but standing in the hot sun in July can cause so many troubles.

  • Michael Schroeder

    Having more description for panels in Hall H might have affected our plans, but with all there is to do @ SDCC, and the memory of waiting in the Hall H line for SEVERAL hours last year and still not getting into the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Panel, we made some great decisions about what we really wanted to experience and had a glorious time camping out in Ballroom 20 on Friday and The Indigo Ballroom on Saturday. Part of the reason we chose those other ballrooms over Hall H was because of the several panels we were interested in (TV shows/stars we love) and the other part was the knowledge that we could probably find the Hall H panels online when we got back home (sans video) and would ultimately see the movies the studios were touting in the theater when they were released. Thinking back on the times that Hall H turned out to be empty (or mostly) we were too busy in other panels or touring the Exhibit Hall to even try to visit Hall H (we NEVER were looking at each other and saying, “What should we do now? Maybe Hall H is open.”) Maybe next year, if there’s more description available in the schedule to make an informed decision. :)

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  • Randy

    Can you be more specific about how the wristbands screwed things up?? I didn’t attempt to camp out for Hall H, although I did walk into the 20th Century Fox panel Thursday afternoon.

  • StarGeek

    Additional problems created.

    1) If you make it assigned seating then that means you’re going to have to clear the room each time. That will mean about an hour or more downtime between panels, significantly reducing the number of panels.

    2) People are going to want to line up anyway even with assigned seating. There isn’t space to have a line for each panel.
    3) People are going to resell their assigned seat. It already happened this year with the bathroom passes going for $50-$100 on Twitter.

    This is an idea that’s been brought up at the Comic Con Talkback panel many times over the years and those are only a few of the reasons they’ve said it won’t work.

  • Michael O

    Hall H this year was made worst by the wristband. It did some good, keeping one person holding a spot for 10 others was the idea behind the wristband. But it mostly hurt because now everyone needs to come get in line and that means getting in line earlier, missing out on other Comic Con panel/events.
    I wanted to wait in line for Saturday’s panel and my plan was getting in line at 9PM Friday night, after the Batman Animation premier. When we saw the line was already forming and its already past the Marriot, we said forget this and spent the day doing other stuff and had more fun on Saturday then we could remember.
    Comic Con needs to prioritize panels over others. Like 2013 Hall H, we wanted to see Supernatural, but because of the 50th yr of Dr Who, we had no chance at all.
    I would like to see simulcast perform, which includes the trailers. They could secure the feed and keep people from recording just as well at another location, plus increase more people to experience Hall H.
    All my comments are for Hall H only, Ballroom 20 should have simulcast and other ways to keep everyone enjoying all of its panels.
    One last comment, If I was the local hotels and business, I would want people to enjoy the local perks then camp out in line and no spend money. They should be leading the charge on this as well.

  • https://twitter.com/NoXIII13 Alberto Garcia

    what was that about the bathroom passes going 50-100 on twitter? can you give info/intel about that?

  • Todd

    @Tudec: @SD_Comic_Con I’m glad & hope it continues: it gave us a chance to attend Hall H and see Nolan, and if one chooses not to go, their risk.

    @Tudec: @SD_Comic_Con As you say: those who camp out want it the most. Well, those who don’t show and miss Nolan & MM just didn’t want it enough

  • Bobobo

    First off, the new daily badge purchase and wristband policy certainly have an impact on the panel attendances overall. Secondly, the unannounced info on the panels didn’t help either. Let’s say if Paramount announced ahead about the details of its panel like who’s coming and which movies, it would definitely helped to attract more people to attend. As fans, it would be nice to plan out in advance of which panels to attend.

  • truthseeker_2001

    1) They clear more people out of the exhibition hall in about 10 minutes at the end of each day. 20 minute max to clear and reset Hall H — anything more is staff incompetence.
    2) Why would people line up when they already have an assigned seat? Besides, people are ALREADY lined up 24/7 all over the convention center for Hall H — how would ticketed lines be any different?
    3) So what if somebody scalps their ticket? Same thing applies to the Comic Con badge itself — that doesn’t stop them from selling tickets to Comic Con.
    The current system clearly doesn’t work, I hardly think ticketing would be worse.

  • StarGeek

    It was brought up during the Comic Con Talkback as one of the complaints. I don’t have any other info and it is admittedly second hand information.

  • marybluefairy

    Seeing as how the overflow rooms are badge required, I think the studios should lift the footage restrictions in that instance. Especially since a lot of them are now posting them online anyway.

  • dianora2

    The thing is that studios get more press for surprise appearances (look who showed up at Comic Con OMG!) than for previously announced panels. I suspect that press means more to them than how many people are in Hall H.

  • Christina

    Oh yeah, it was disgusting. On Saturday, there was a lady on Twitter trying to sell her bathroom pass for $200, that way whoever bought it would be in the hall in time for the Marvel panel. She got a lot of crap for it, so I don’t know if she was successful. I guess I’m just an honest person. My group camped out all night to be in that room and I just felt it was wrong for someone to try and do that.

  • Taylor

    This was my first time at SDCC, but the wristband didn’t bother me at all, I actually liked them. I camped out Thursday for Friday in Hall H. Basically the wristband just gave you an idea of where you were in line. The other nice thing was that it required everyone to be there too get their band, and from that point on only one person had to save your spot in line so you could take turns sleeping That meant that you couldn’t have one person save a spot for a ton of their friends who never bothered to show up until the morning (which was nice!). As for the previous post saying how people were getting in without badges, the only thing I saw was in the morning they handed some out to campers who had missed it the night before who said they “didn’t know” they had needed one. I imagine that was because it was the first year for the wristbands. I’d like to note that SDCC explicitly says that having a wristband doesn’t guarantee entry, either. So if you’ve got the last color wristband (there are four colors) then you should be aware that your chances aren’t super great. They’re basically just a visual marker. I made it into all the panels, and I didn’t see anyone letting non-banded people in first (I was in the third tent, so I could see the doors).