San Diego Comic-Con 2018: The Final Frontier for Entertainment Brands
By: Dan Ortiz — Director of Global Strategy & Innovation, Think Jam
& Mandy Rodgers — Director of Publicity, Think Jam
Contrary to what you may have heard on the bridge of the starship Enterprise — space is no longer the final frontier. In the marketing sphere for entertainment brands — San Diego Comic-Con International has remained the unchallenged zenith and, at times, the nadir, of entertainment and fanboy marketing for the previous 10 years of the comic confab’s 30-year history.
With 2018 officially in the books — San Diego Comic-Con or “SDCC” to the well-initiated caps off another year of frenzied fan-centric activity with several highlights, hits and misses and trends that we’re bound to see continue for many years and cons to come. Spoiler alert: the Cinematic Universe Cold War rages on across screens big and small.
Let’s beam down to San Diego and start with some topline observations:
Hall H still rules over all
While the eyes of the world still look to SDCC through Instagram feeds and tweets — 2018 proved once again that no pilgrimage is complete without a ritual worshiping at the hallowed fan temple known as Hall H. Noticeably absent from the proceedings was HBO’s banner series Westworld and Hall H mainstay, Game of Thrones, which both took 2018 off to prepare for their upcoming seasons.
Not everyone came to play — and that was okay.
Marvel and its corporate Mothership Disney also opted to forego the opportunity to showcase anything from the on-going MCU 10-year anniversary, including long-awaited sneaks of the upcoming Captain Marvel and the Avengers: Infinity War sequel. The opened berths in Hall H allowed for smaller properties to have their moment in the sun i.e. The new season of Doctor Who featuring the franchise’s first female Doctor, and M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable sequel/film mashup Glass.
Go biggest or go home
Last but certainly not least, Warner Bros. Pictures still proved itself to be a true Hall H heavyweight delivering another monumental presentation and sneak peeks of everything from the revamped DC Slate (see below) to intriguing first looks at Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Shazam, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman 1984. Let’s not forget this is the same studio that gave life to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy on the same stage just over a decade ago. If there’s one true lesson here, it’s that WB’s sheer scope, scale and ambition in delivering what the fans want, remains unparalleled.
All’s now right with the ‘Universe’
Save for 2017’s Wonder Woman — DC has had a tough time as of late righting its cinematic universe. Long trailing behind rival Marvel’s MCU in the Cinematic Universe Cold War — DC announced during the titanic Warner Bros. Pictures Hall H presentation that the DCEU (the fan-made name given to the DC Extended Universe) was no more and instead birthed the now-official moniker “Worlds of DC” which will encompass the cinematic exploits of DC characters from Diana Prince to Arthur Curry and beyond. In addition to the official minting of “Worlds of DC,” WB also unspooled first looks at its cinematic universe’s stars including sneak peeks at December’s James Wan-helmed Aquaman, 2019’s Zachary Levi-starring Shazam, and Wonder Woman 1984. (This footage hasn’t made it online, but initial reports out of Hall H are extremely positive.) It would seem that after a shaky start, all is now right in the DC Cinematic Universe.
Size doesn’t matter: Part I — in which Home Entertainment proves it can play with the big kids
Setting the big bet theatrical films aside — 2018 also proved that Home Entertainment can still make just as much noise as their theatrical siblings. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s Deadpool 2 slyly catapulted its way back into the fanboy collective consciousness via a booth on the SDCC convention floor showcasing an animatronic Deadpool and Showbiz Pizza friends performing Dolly Parton’s seminal “9 to 5” to the delight of passersby; the logjam of attendees stopping by to take photos of the activation looked like the 405 freeway at rush hour. In addition to the floor action, Deadpool also appeared in the most unlikely of places: on toilet seat covers in the Convention Center restrooms, reminding fans that Deadpool 2 was “dropping” its Super Duper Cut on Blu-ray soon. (These covers are currently being sold on eBay in full packs and singles for anyone interested.) Ryan Reynolds and cast mates also hosted a panel in Hall H debuting a much-buzzed about ‘Baby Hitler’ deleted scene.
Everything comes around again: in which SDCC gets a case of deja vu
But true “talk-of-the-town” honors go to the collaboration between the social media savvy fast food chain Taco Bell and Warner Bros. Consumer Products’ Demolition Man (which, coincidentally, turns 25 this year). Taco Bell dutifully recreated the iconic restaurant of San Angeles 2032 as a pop-up made for Instagram in 2018 to the delight of SDCC attendees. Only open for dinner time on three nights, lines to get in wrapped around the block with fans waiting for five hours to enjoy deconstructed nachos, smoking nacho fries and to check if the bathroom really had seashells. It did. Taco Bell is always leading the industry in buzz-worthy stunts, but it was interesting that this didn’t coincide with a 25th anniversary Demolition Man Blu-ray or larger film tie-in.
Warner Home Video also managed to double dip into Ready Player One for the Ready Player One Challenge — a sort of rinse-and-repeat of the Ready Player One Challenge activation that dominated Los Angeles and social media feeds during the film’s original theatrical run. No disrespect, though — everything old is suddenly new again, and we consider it a smart re-use of a significant investment. Bringing it to the spot normally occupied by the Game of Thrones experience allowed fans another chance to enter the OASIS and with niche corners of the world, (most notably, The Shining’s iconic hallway and Shower scene). The Challenge portion was completely new and The Iron Giant stood tall at the end, so the experience still felt fresh for ‘repeat’ customers — not to mention, the space had the best AC in all of Comic-Con!
The best stuff is no longer just on the “floor”
For the first time in years , little (if anything) on the crowded and well-traveled convention floor stood out from an ‘experience’ level. Even The Walking Dead’s booth line was nonexistent with this year’s shift to focus on the franchise’s new mobile AR game: Our World. Very different from previous years where elaborate walk-throughs, scene recreations and photo opps kept the ‘line against the wall’ capped. (The annual cast signing took place in a secret location as well to help mitigate the unparalleled floor mob the security team dreads each year.)
Most of the show floor real estate went to retail standbys like Funko, Hasbro, Lego, Mattel, Marvel, Fox, Nickelodeon and DC Comics. Aside from photo opps (flying the Millennium Falcon at Stars Wars was a hit) and interactive experiences at History Channel and South Park, the show floor felt largely ignored in 2018. Instead, as we’ve seen over the last few years, the best stuff required a bit of pedestrian action beyond the doors of the Convention Center.
TV showed it can really flex its muscles
While TV has always been a big player at SDCC, 2018 was the first year in recent memory that there was a considerable show of strength from the streaming platforms. Netflix opted to sit out on the bench this year (or on the train station platform creating a small MTS stop / Stranger Things takeover only). The streaming behemoth’s absence allowed Amazon Prime Video and Hulu to morph into the lion who suddenly roared in 2018.
Part of this sudden surge in strength should be attributed to bringing buzzy properties and a sheer show of brute strength. Amazon left no opportunity on the table with tons of building wraps promoting the upcoming series, Jack Ryan coupled with a stunning and at-capacity 60k-sq ft experiential activation (more on that below), not to mention the app’s hardware — Fire Stick — getting its own pop-up activation.
Hulu went big in its first major experiential outing at SDCC, testing the waters (most literally) with the upcoming series Castle Rock proving that these streaming would-be titans can certainly run with the Kings of the Con.
TV showed it can really flex its muscles: Part II: Masters of the ‘Universe’
Aside from the eager streamers, TV remained a strong draw and in the world of fanboy TV and The CW remains its king. They staked their claim once again debuting preview after preview for upcoming seasons of Riverdale, The 100, Supergirl, Supernatural, and Vampire Diaries spinoff Legacies, and the Arrowverse — the small screen superhero universe inhabited by the dramas created by Greg Berlanti and co. teased upcoming seasons of The Flash, Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow — proving that sprawling cinematic universes aren’t just for big screens.
Premium SVOD had its day in the sun, too
Not to be outdone by the streaming brethren — Premium SVOD had its day in the sun, most literally. CBS All Access nabbed prime downtown real estate to hawk its wares in the form of a Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 prop gallery and Mirror Universe pop-up shop, while upstart service DC Universe took the route of “doin’ it for the ‘Gram” and staked its claim in the form of a massive multi-room social media-tailored Funhouse (think the DC version of 29 Rooms) to promote its upcoming slate of original series and streaming service.
How far is too far?
One major development this year at SDCC (that we are beginning to see at other cons and festivals) is the distance activations are moving from Ground Zero (aka the San Diego Convention Center). Several large activations began inching further and further away from the Convention Center into the surrounding San Diego environs.
One extreme example of this trend was Fox’s Bob’s Burgers, which promoted its partnership with burger chain Shake Shack by shuttling loyal fans over 20 minutes from downtown San Diego to a Shake Shack location in Mission Valley which had appropriately been decked in Bob’s Burgers branding. One advantage to this change of venue is that it certainly helped plant a flag for Fox away from the bigger/noisier activations and broke up the day of fans hopping from activation to activation. Based on the social media reaction fans were willing to travel proving that brands needn’t be beholden to only activating in the core downtown zone.
Getting around town is for the Birds; or, when given Limes, make Limeade
In addition to the question of “how far is too far for SDCC?” transportation has always been a challenge. Attendees have come to expect long walks, near impossible Uber/Lyft scenarios and limited public transportation options. Given this, scooter start-ups Lime and Bird seized upon the captive audience and deployed street teams to aggressively push their scooters as a viable alternative to getting around town. Next to comfortable tennis shoes, a Bird scooter is one of the new SDCC must-have accessories this year. The downside is that the crowds are often so dense that these ‘vehicles’ hinder foot traffic and pedestrian walkways.
Worth noting: there was no brand sponsor or partner for this sudden influx of Birds and Limes so this remains an untapped opportunity as of now. (Prediction: these could soon be the next ‘pedicab’ with free rides, branded vehicles, etc.)
Charge it up/Cool it down
Temperatures in San Diego during SDCC tend to creep close to 90 degrees with added humidity to boot and during this heat shade and refuge from the sun’s rays are in short supply. Therefore any brands activating in the future would be wise to add a refuge from the heat . Forget Instagram photo opps; the true Honey Pot at a place like SDCC is air conditioning.
Another thing to bear in mind for future cons: SDCC remains the “Olympics of Charging” and with all the Instagramming/tweeting and texting (not to mention your phone trying to find service to send valuable social updates or emails). Consumers’ phones are hard-pressed to keep a full day’s charge. Therefore, it was surprising to see so few charging lounges (typically a mainstay). Behind the Convention Center was Lyft Lounge, a spot that had the breeze from the ocean, charging stations, shade and food trucks, but it seemed to get lost in the SDCC mania.
It also felt like there was a missed opportunity for a charging company to build a solar charging array to power the phones of fans at SDCC. Maybe 2019?
“Immersive Experiences” finally mature
Experiential marketing was practically birthed at SDCC. Starting with last year’s buzzy marquee Blade Runner 2049 activation: Welcome to 2049, the last year has seen the premium experiential subset of the marketing world explode in the form of The Ready Player One Experience, Westworld’s Live Without Limits, and as previously covered at SXSW — Premium Experiential/Immersive Theater is now the game to beat. After years of being a marketing novelty act trotted out for SDCC, experiential marketing is finally maturing and the studios, networks and others playing in the field have certainly honed and perfected their craft. The oft-overworn term “immersive experience” has finally stepped out of the shadows of nonsensical marketing jargon and is now truly “immersive” and an “experience.” One thing that struck us this year was the importance of actors vs. technology to create the best activation. VR and AR were still prevalent, but what made fans buzz was also interaction with characters really ‘in world’ — many of these actors coming from professional improv troupes proving the talent is important to pull these events off.
Some of the standout immersive experiences on display this year included, but are, certainly, not limited to (in no particular order):
The Good Place (NBC)
Viewers of NBC’s cult favorite show were offered the opportunity to truly “immerse” themselves in the world of The Good Place by visiting a spot-on replication of the series complete with key set pieces including a swear-word-free zone, shrimp merry-go-round, free yogurt and the opportunity to meet ‘the Best Person.’ Even the intro video with Ted Danson and D’Arcy Carden in character was perfect and direct to Comic-Con fans with lines like ‘You just came from the BAD place….the Convention Center…’
The key learning here was that while The Good Place may not be the typical show one thinks of when conjuring SDCC, the team behind the sitcom wisely opted to go-for-broke at the pop culture event — especially since NBC has been a mainstay at this part of the Con for so long.
Research showed that The Good Place viewers over index with audiences for SDCC faves like Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries proving that data-driven marketing is good for more than spreadsheets and has a real place in the overall marketing funnel. And what this activation did really well was give the show’s fans everything they wanted but also intrigued those not currently watching the show to now tune in — a really difficult feat!
Castle Rock (Hulu)
To promote Hulu’s upcoming Stephen King-inspired series Castle Rock , Hulu created a pop-up based on the titular town’s fictional inn. Clearly taking cues from IT’s Neibolt House activation , Hulu created a Stephen King-worthy inn of your nightmares in a sprawling 70k square foot space that sent attendees through various hotel rooms themed after King properties like The Shining, IT, and Stand By Me. After passing through the terrifyingly-themed rooms attendees were plunged most-literally head-first into key set pieces from Castle Rock designed to prey on primal fears and jump-scares. And, hey, it worked ! We were sufficiently terrified and coincidentally pumped to watch Castle Rock’s inaugural season when it bows on July 25.
DC Universe (DCU)
DC’s new SVOD platform DC Universe went full immersive experience at SDCC offering fans a front row look at its new slate of original series (and its catalog) by going beyond the capes and cowls, letting fans literally step into experiences tailor-made for upcoming series like Titans, Doom Patrol, Harley Quinn, and Swamp Thing. Fans could see, hear, feel and touch the new series first hand. For example, the most popular exhibit was Harley Quinn’s Chaos Room (a mini ‘rage room’) allowing attendees the opportunity to break bottles and hit a dummy with a bat. Though the rage portion was fun, the commitment of the actors pumping you up while waiting were so spot on and ‘in world.’ We could have sat and listened to them banter all day.
Purge City (USA Network)
Anyone who has seen Universal Pictures and Blumhouse’s hit horror film series The Purge knows that the dystopian world is eerily-similar to our modern political and socio-economic landscape. USA Network certainly preyed off of this fear in the creation of Purge City promoting the upcoming limited series run of The Purge on USA Network— an unholy union of The Purge and Party City — forming an overly gleeful emporium of death and destruction inspired by the Purge Universe’s alternate reality future where murder, maiming and mayhem is legal for one night per year.
The Purge franchise always delivers in its marketing, but what really stood out here is abandoning the typical ‘horror’ activation (escape room, haunted house, they’ve done it all) for a tongue-in-cheek look at the other side of Purge Night — the celebration.
USA utilized a 12-actor spread over 3k square feet of prime SDCC real estate to sell-in the very eerily-real world of The Purge wherein visitors were given $20 Purge-branded dollars to spend on appropriate party mainstays like ceremonial candles, greeting cards, hats, T-shirts and balloons all gleefully declaring slogans like “Live, Laugh, Purge” and “I don’t purge but I support those who do.”
It was an oddly prescient display given the current political climate but nonetheless topical and an example of good marketing down to the hired actors who fully embodied the slightly disembodied personalities of the warped citizens of The Purge Universe. With lines all day throughout the Con, this activation was propelled to one of the most talked-about and buzzy must-sees in all of San Diego.
Star Trek Discovery (CBS All Access)
Star Trek Discovery marked its return to Comic-Con following its 2017 bow with an art gallery takeover showcasing its first season’s return to the well-known fan-favorite alternate reality known as The Mirror Universe with a standard props and concept art display highlighting key moments from the new series’ first season. Capping off the display was a photo opp allowing fans to step into the evil Philippa Georgiou’s imperial throne and a pop-up shop of in-world merchandise.
Ultimately the activation was overwhelmingly milquetoast given that the upcoming season of Discovery as presented at this year’s SDCC is set to collide with the storied Original Series’ canon including appearances of the original Captain Pike-helmed USS. Enterprise and fan-favorite Mister Spock — overall the experience was a bit disappointing considering that the activation didn’t go one step further into immersing attendees into the upcoming season’s well-worn and well-known mythology any deeper than a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-it easter eggs. And it’s truly a shame — the Mirror Universe is a wholly terrifying and exciting place and the experience was anything but.
Luckily for CBS, as one of the initiated — there is no danger of not tuning in to see the continued adventures of the USS Discovery and crew — however the experience was overall lackluster and as ultimately a missed opportunity as Trek should had truly gone the extra mile/or “light year” and delivered a truly “Immersive Experience” that would have left attendees feeling truly Immersed and as if guests had truly experienced the upcoming season first-hand. If there is ever a world that deserves to fully immerse it’s fanbase it’s Star Trek. Overall a “miss” from us, but, at least, there is always season three.
Jack Ryan (Amazon Studios)
Amazon Studios’ upcoming Tom Clancy thriller, Jack Ryan came roaring out of the back row to dominate SDCC with a sprawling 60k square foot activation in downtown San Diego. It presented attendees with recreations of key set pieces such as a middle eastern bazaar and also featured a Disneyland-worthy thrill ride in the form of a VR zip line from a helicopter literally putting viewers in the front seat of the action from the upcoming series. If that wasn’t enough, Jack Ryan also featured a themed Escape Room inviting viewers to solve challenges to work their way through situations from the series’ as-yet-unaired pilot episode. The Escape Room was truly an impressive piece of work going far beyond the over-used concept of a ‘con’ Escape Room — many times Escape Room concepts at these conventions have to be streamlined for quick solves and to get as many fans in as possible, but this one struck a nice balance of keeping the line moving while also providing ‘analysts’ as attendees were called a high-level activation. (The use of Amazon’s Alexa was also a nice touch to bring the platform back to the forefront.)
The use of thematic actors in-situ also heightened and validated the experience for more than your stock “solve-the-clues-and-escape” Escape Room experience. Bravo, Amazon for a job well done. Eager to see what Amazon Studios do next year as they are now clearly the Experience-maker to beat. The only downside to this activation was with timing — only 100 people could experience the VR zipline a day and the Escape Room lines could get up to 2 hours long — something always hard to mitigate at the Con.
SDCC will continue to reign supreme as the ultimate marketing Thunderdome when it comes to fandom and fanboy favorites and this certainly won’t be fading away anytime soon. This year, we learned that at-home viewing is king with nearly all of the large activations focusing on either a Blu-ray release, streaming platform or broadcast channel. As consumers continue to shift how they want to consume content, it will be interesting to see how this affects conventions like SDCC.
The coming years will only see trends like immersive experiential grow and grow. It’s sure to be an exciting ride, and 2019 will undoubtedly bring new trends and new surprises. Until then, it’s not farewell, just see you again in San Diego in another 11 months, 24 days, 6 hours and 21 minutes.
*All photos by Mandy Rodgers unless otherwise noted