San Diego: The Final Frontier
SDCC 2018 Entertainment Recap

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 Enterprise — space is no longer the final frontier. In the marketing sphere for Entertainment brands — San Diego 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 fanboy-centric activity with several highlights, hits and misses and trends that we’re bound to see continue for many years and cons to come.

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 look to Comic Con through Instagram feeds and tweets — 2018 proved once again that no pilgrimage to San Diego is complete without a ritual worshiping at the hallowed fan temple known as Hall H. Noticeably absent from the Hall H 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 also opted to forego the opportunity to showcase anything from the forthcoming 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 a 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/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 newest entry into the Wizarding World to a revamped DC Slate (see below) and 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 is that WB’s sheer scope, scale and sheer 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 it’s 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 now encompass the cinematic exploits of DC characters from Diana Prince to Arthur Curry & beyond. In addition to the official minting of “Worlds of DC” — WB also unspooled first looks at it’s cinematic universe stars including sneak peeks at December’s James Wan-helmed Aquaman and 2019’s Zachary Levi-starring Shazam, and Wonder Woman 1984 (the footage of such 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 Cinematic Universe.

Size doesn’t matter: 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 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.

But true “talk-of-the-town” honors go to Warner Bros. Home Video’s Demolition Man activation presented in partnership with Taco Bell recreating the iconic fast food destination of 2023 recreated in 2018 to the delight of attendees sporting a concept and decor ready made for Instagram. WB Home Video and Taco Bell really tapped into the modern-day zeitgeist and near-obsessive love for Taco Bell and rode that foresight to social media glory.

The best stuff is no longer on the “Floor”

For the first time in years — little if anything on the crowded and well-traveled convention floor really stood out either in-person or on social media. Besides a splashy presence for The Walking Dead’s new Mobile AR game: Our World — most of the show floor real-estate went to standbys like Funko, Weta, Hasbro, Lego and DC Comics. The show floor felt largely-ignored in 2018 and 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 (see more on this front below).

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 showcased a considerable show of strength from the streaming platforms. Netflix had to contend with Amazon Prime Video and Hulu who really turned into the lions who 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’s near blanket of available wall spaces promoting the upcoming series, Jack Ryan coupled with a stunning and at-capacity Experiential activation (more on that below) and Hulu went big in its first major experiential outing @ 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.

Premium SVOD Had it’s 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 and 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 to promote its upcoming slate of original series.

“Immersive Experiences” finally come of age

Experiential Marketing was practically birthed at San Diego Comic Con. Starting with last years’ 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 I previously covered at SXSW — Premium Experiential is now the game to beat. After years of being sort of a marketing novelty act trotted out for SDCC — Experiential marketing is finally coming of age and the studios, networks and others playing in the field have certainly honed and perfected the craft. The oft-overworn term “Immersive Experience” has finally stepped out of the shadows of nonsensical marketing jargon and is now truly “immersive” and truly an “experience.”

Comic-Con will continue to reign supreme as the ultimate marketing Thunderdome when it comes to Experiential Marketing and this won’t be fading away anytime soon. The coming years will only see Immersive Experiences grow and grow. 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 taking a short quiz to determine their earthly fate and were then treated to replications of key set pieces from the series including a swear-word-free zone and themed eatery treating fans to lite bites inspired by the heavenly world of the show.

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 Good Place wisely opted to go-for-broke at SDCC due in part to audience research showing that their viewers over-indexed and crossed-over with audiences for SDCC favorite series 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.

Castle Rock (Hulu)

To promote Hulu’s upcoming Stephen King-inspired series Castle RockHulu created a pop-up based on the titular town’s fictional Inn. Taking cues from IT’s Neibolt House activation — Hulu created a Stephen King-worthy Inn of your nightmares in a sprawling 70k square feet space that sent attendees through various hotel rooms themed after various King properties like The Shining, IT, and Stand By Me. After passing through the various terrifyingly-themed rooms — attendees were plunged most-literally head-first into various key set pieces from Castle Rock designed to prey on primal fears and jump-scares. And, hey, it worked — I was 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 it’s new slate of original series by going beyond the capes and cowls and letting fans literally step into Experiences tailor-made for it’s upcoming series Titans, Doom Patrol, Harley Quinn, and Swamp Thing to let fans see, hear, feel and touch the new series first-hand. The overall experience resembled a fun-house-style assortment of escape rooms/experience rooms/prop displays.

Purge City (USA Network)

Anyone who has seen Universal Pictures and Blumhouse’s hit horror film series The Purge knows that the world of The Purge is eerily-similar to our modern political and socio-economical landscape. USA Network certainly preyed off of this fear in the creation of Purge City — a bastard child of The Purge and Party City — creating an overly gleeful emporium of death and destruction inspired by the Purge Universe’s alternate reality future where murder and mayhem is legal for one night-a-year.
USA utilized a 12 actors spread over 3000 square feet of prime SDCC real estate to sell-in the very eerily-real world of The Purge wherein visitors were given $20 in Purge-dollars to spend on Purge-appropriate gear like ceremonial candles, t-shirts 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 propelling the activation to one of the most talked-about and buzzy activations in all of San Diego.

Star Trek Discovery (CBS All Access)

Star Trek Discovery marked its return to Comic Con following its 2017 bow at the Con with an art gallery takeover showcasing it’s 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.

But ultimately the activation was overwhelmingly milquetoast given that the upcoming season of Discovery as presented at this year’s SDCC is due to collide with the storied Original Series’ canon including appearances of the original Captain Pike-helmed USS. Enterprise and fan-favorite Mister Spock — I was a bit disappointed 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. Luckily for CBS, I am one of the initiated and will thus be tuning in to see the continued adventures of the USS Discovery and crew — however I was left wanting more and wishing that Trek had truly gone the extra mile and delivered a truly “Immersive Experience” that would have left me feeling truly Immersed and as If i 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 me, but, at least, there is always season three.

Jack Ryan (Amazon Studios)

Amazon Studios’ upcoming Tom Clancy thriller series, Jack Ryan came roaring out of the back row to dominate SDCC with a massive activation in downtown San Diego taking up more than one full city block. The activation 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 invites viewers to solve Jack Ryan-themed challenges to work their way through various situations from the series’ as-yet-unaired pilot episode. The Escape Room was truly a work of art and went beyond the over-used concept of an Escape Room by ensuring that each challenge was unique enough to ensure viewers they weren’t at some poor excuse for an Escape Room at their local mall. 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.

Entertainment Industry Consultant w/15+ years of entertainment industry experience. Voracious consumer of content and pop culture.

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