As the reality set in last summer that for the first time since its inception in 1970, the fandom community would not be gathering in southern California for Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC), the world felt battered and beaten. The U.S. was just four months into official lockdown mode as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to spread, but still, there was a glimmer of hope that humanity might stand together against the invisible enemy like the Avengers did in the third act of Endgame.
But that type of triumph just never happened. There was no Tony Stark “snap” to put things back to how they once were. And COVID-19 — like Thanos — had taken away friends, family members, and coworkers, along with entire businesses and events that had long been taken for granted by nearly everyone involved.
For a multitude of reasons spanning fear, carelessness, stupidity, confusion, contradiction, and a simple lack of widely accepted science-based facts, the epidemic curve was never flattened, but the live events industry certainly was. In a final move that took ReedPop’s New York Comic Con (NYCC) into a virtual Metaverse, the 2020 convention scene was essentially toast.
Now, the year(s) without the cons continues as the industry explores the prospect that hybrid events composed of smaller-capacity in-person gatherings and a digital companion experience could become the new normal.
On March 1, following months of speculation, the organizers of SDCC announced the cancellation of the 2021 event. In lieu of the live event, fans can once again enjoy a free, virtual Comic-Con@Home, which will take place from July 23-25.
The cancellation, while disappointing, is hardly a surprise. At press time, the San Diego Convention Center is still being used for Operation Shelter to Home, an initiative that launched last April in an effort to contain COVID-19 among the city’s homeless population. On Jan. 28, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria won unanimous approval from the City Council to extend the program — and its use of the famed venue — through at least the end of March.
Vaccinations may hold at least a few of the keys to bringing back fan conventions, but the slow speed of the rollout coupled with low public confidence regarding being in crowds continues to push back the goalposts. The empty venues and convention centers are even playing a critical role in getting the public vaccinated.
An open letter delivered to the Biden administration from a coalition of organizations representing the live event industry offered “the full weight of the industry to support vaccine distribution.” The group, which includes Live Nation, AEG, IATSE, and more, says that nearly everything needed is standing by at the ready.
“Our industry has thousands of venues throughout America that are under mandated closures and sitting empty,” said the letter. “Event venues make ideal community vaccination sites: They are located in most urban, suburban, and rural communities, often near transit lines and with easy access to parking. Due to the nature of our business, our buildings and our workforce are accustomed to patron queuing and large crowd management.”
GOING DIGITAL AND RE-EVALUATING THE BUSINESS
Until live events are genuinely back on the schedule, most of the major players continue to evolve their businesses to connect with fans in new ways, largely by shifting to digital conventions and fan events.
“Funko had already been planning for the shift back in early 2020 when Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC) was canceled and we had our first-ever virtual con,” says Funko CEO Brian Mariotti. “After we successfully hosted several virtual cons last year, the team came together and decided to host our very first Funko Fair, which took place in mid-January. The fans look to us to create experiences that continue to foster a feeling of community, and that’s exactly what we did with Funko Fair.”
Funko Fair was launched as a virtual replacement for some of the product reveals that the company would’ve done at the canceled Toy Fair New York (TFNY). The digital event ran for nine days and engaged collectors across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and numerous retail partner’s websites, including Walmart, GameStop, Hot Topic, Target, and Entertainment Earth. At the same time, Funko revamped its own direct-to-consumer business to make up for the walk-up traffic it typically experiences at its convention booths.
“We were very fluid with our ability to drive foot traffic to various channels,” Mariotti says. “We saw this when Toys ‘R’ Us went away and again this year with redirected foot traffic from the specialty channel to the mass channel.”
With the success of the first Funko Fair behind them, the organizers made plans for Funko Virtual Con Spring 2021 to take place alongside the anniversary of last year’s ECCC event which, in essence, served as an unofficial anniversary of the pandemic.
Hasbro — which has long used SDCC, NYCC, and TFNY for elaborate fan media events to reveal collector-centric products from its Star Wars, Marvel, and Transformers brands, alongside more recent additions such as Power Rangers, Ghostbusters, and the relaunched G.I. Joe — has stayed top-of-mind with fans all year. In addition to the company’s own virtual Hasbro PulseCon event, its brand teams have been doing weekly reveals in tandem with livestreams and retail partners.
At the same time, some retailers that operated in the convention and live event space have spent the past year re-evaluating their business models to better prepare for the future.
“The biggest change for us might be in how we view the link between these events and our success,” says Jason Labowitz, president and co-founder of Entertainment Earth. The company has been known for its towering presence at SDCC and NYCC, highlighted by a two-level booth and dozens of exclusive products from a number of toymakers and licensees. “We’ve always had a hunch that participating at these events may not be as critical as we thought. Now we have proof that our survival is not tied to them. More importantly, we can grow significantly without them. That doesn’t mean we won’t support them when they return. It just means we might budget time, staffing, and resources differently going forward.”
THE FORGOTTEN WORKFORCE
At the core of the convention experience are the creatives that fuel entertainment and the fandom lifestyle that surrounds it. From comic artists and writers to cosplayers, jewelry makers, clothing companies, designers, actors, hosts, and beyond, the people of the convention “neighborhood” are turning to new avenues such as Patreon, Cameo, and Etsy to connect with fans, move their wares, and stay afloat.
CREATING NEW RETAIL PLATFORMS AND GOALS
Mattel, which had also planted an annual flag at SDCC with a massive booth space and fan shop in the convention center, was in the midst of launching its 75th anniversary celebration when the plug was pulled last year.
“There’s no doubt that some of the celebration plans we had were a bit dampened by living in a pandemic,” says Mattel President and Chief Operating Officer Richard Dickson. Instead, Mattel sold its intended SDCC exclusives — including items from Star Wars, WWE, and Halo — online prior to launching a new platform to connect with hardcore fans: Mattel Creations.
Tapping into the popularity of doing limited-edition “drops” akin to the streetwear market, Mattel Creations has been unveiling collaborations with artists and brands, including Stussy, Madsaki, The Hundreds, and Frank Kozik, paired with Mattel properties such as UNO, Masters of the Universe, and Magic 8 Ball. The platform is fueling a new revenue stream that Dickson believes will continue for years to come.
“We recognize that when we do these drops, there is significant demand,” Dickson says. “We are selling out in minutes, and sometimes seconds … but these are limited runs and we’re learning how to balance creating the collectible scarcity that some fans want while still pleasing as many people as possible. It’s quickly become a place for new and existing fans to experience the joy of collecting toys.”
Likewise, Funko completely reinvented its own digital retail business with a new website and a vastly expanded assortment. The move fueled growth that contributed to the biggest fourth quarter domestic sales in the company’s history.
As more manufacturers extend their own retail businesses, retailers like Entertainment Earth are also focusing on becoming more proactive as sellers, distributors, licensors, and makers themselves.
“Without events to work on, our team has been laser-focused on activities fully within our control, such as internal process improvements and strengthening our relationships with studios, manufacturers, and partners,” Labowitz says. “This forced break has given us a chance to sharpen our vision at becoming the most influential collectibles company in the world.”
INTO THE UNKNOWN
In February, more than 600 fans, cosplayers, exhibitors, and artists took part in a survey held on the Pop Insider Instagram in which we asked the community for thoughts regarding the future of the convention experience. Overwhelmingly, most of the responses reflected sadness over the loss of in-person connections with three words appearing over and over again when asked “What do you miss most about conventions?” The biggest answers: “cosplay,” “people,” and “everything.”
Looking ahead, all eyes are on NYCC in October and a smaller November event that the SDCC organizers are planning as the next in-person fan events. Should those not happen, the next shot will be ReedPop’s C2E2 and ECCC, both of which have been pushed back until December — a full 22 months since 95,000 fans roamed the halls of McCormick Place in Chicago for the last C2E2 in March 2020.
“We’ve moved all our live events to the second half of the year, placing bets on the calendar of when a given market will be ready for them,” said ReedPop President Lance Fensterman in a statement emailed to convention-goers. “Rest assured, we will not run events until it’s safe and will take every step to assure all participants can be there safely. Together we’ll get through this and build something new and vibrant.”
Labowitz agrees, and looks forward to the day when the human connections that live events foster will return.
“It will take some time to ramp back up to where we left off in 2019, but I am confident that the convention scene will return to pre-pandemic levels and excitement,” he says. “Now more than ever, people want to connect with each other. With the disappearance of more and more brick-and-mortar stores, I feel that conventions will continue to evolve into the new town square — being the intersection of fans, talent, artists, educators, influencers, brands, studios, content creators, manufacturers, retailers, press, and more.”
This article was originally published in Issue No. 9 of the Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue!