Well, it’s June, so anticipation for our annual vacation to San Diego for Comic-Con is steadily ramping-up. This will be our fourth trip and my son is wondering whether a Trek-like curse applies to the con, with odd numbered years being less enjoyable than even numbered years, since both 2008 and 2010 were a lot of fun for us. 2009? Not so much. I guess we’ll find out this year, but there’s already one bad omen: Twilight will be at the con again this year. The general consensus in 2009 was that Twilight ruined SDCC, but I doubt it. There were dozens of other factors at play, but I’ll dive into that subject in another post.
This being our fourth go-around, we’ve learned a few lessons and found out what really appeals to us at the con, so hopefully we can use those to make it more enjoyable to us this year in spite of the crowds and various setbacks we’re sure to encounter. For me, the most important lesson is that the big presentations for TV and movies in Ballroom 20 and Hall H are largely a waste of time and not nearly as enjoyable or fun as the smaller panels going on in the various rooms on the other side of the Sails Pavilion. The reasons are twofold: creators are often more interesting than actors and “sneak peaks” of footage for upcoming movies isn’t worth the time expended to see them.
Let’s take Hall H, for example. This is the 6,000 seat auditorium hosting the big event movies that the large studios are marketing for release within the next year. People will sleep outside for up to 12 hours the night before just to get a seat inside the auditorium when it opens, and then stay inside the entire day until the panel they want to see comes up (the con doesn’t clear the room between panels, so “camping” a room is common practice). No joke, people will spend the entire day seated on metal folding chairs within the musty, dark, oppressive, black-walled dungeon of an auditorium just to witness a couple of minutes of footage that’ll be on YouTube ten minutes after the panel ends.
My experience with Hall H begins and ends with Watchmen in 2008. I didn’t wait in a line to see the panel. I just walked right in and grabbed a seat. The director and actors were introduced and they played an extended trailer for the movie. There was a brief Q&A afterwards and just like that, it was over. I was not impressed, to say the least. The director, Zak Snyder, wasn’t the best conversationalist and it’s clear the actors were coached by a publicist beforehand, because they sounded like they were talking to some vapid entertainment reporter on Access Hollywood or something. They all gave very brief, forgettable answers to questions. The only highlight of the panel was Dave Gibbons, the artist for the original Watchmen comic, who provided a lot of insight into his creative process in drawing the comic, as well as his collaboration with Alan Moore, the author of the series.
I left Hall H and met up with my wife and son, who were giddy with excitement, having just left a Stargate panel in Ballroom 20. Apparently, the entire cast from Stargate SG-1 were present–even Richard Dean Anderson, who rarely does these sort of things. It was by all accounts a fun and enjoyable experience, and a good time was evidently had by all, judging by the smiles on everyone’s faces as they left Ballroom 20. I immediately kicked myself for missing it, seeing as how I was a huge fan of the series and this was likely the last ever Stargate panel since the show had been cancelled a couple months prior to the convention.
The difference between their experience and mine was striking. The cast of Stargate had a lot of experience doing cons, plus the natural rapport that comes from working together for so long lent itself to a free-wheeling, anything goes atmosphere full of jokes and funny stories, along with clever jabs at fellow cast mates. It was in stark contrast the dour, joyless panel I’d just attended for Watchmen, which upon further reflection was just a typical Hollywood marketing gimmick aimed more at the entertainment press than the fans. People were smiling and laughing as they left the Stargate panel. The people leaving the Watchmen panel looked like they’d just seen Schindler’s List.
Combined with other experiences waiting in line for panels in Ballroom 20 and other rooms over the past three cons, I’ve figured out that I’d rather have a good time than waste time. Sitting in line or in a room for hours just to get a sneak peak at footage destined for the special features section of a future Blu-Ray release is a waste of time, as is seeing the actors from the film. Unless you’re sitting in the first couple of rows and can see them up close and personal, you’re just looking at them on giant video screens anyway, so you might as well skip it and watch it on YouTube later. Plus, unless someone has written something for them to say, actors usually aren’t all that interesting. They’re far better at reciting other people’s words than speaking their own.
There are exceptions, of course. Bruce Campbell is always a guaranteed good time, as is Torchwood’s John Barrowman. Plus, actors who have done a lot of cons and who know what works and what doesn’t are usually pretty fun as well. The key difference between these folks and the actors you see for the big marketing pushes in Hall H is that the former know they are there to entertain and have a good time with their fans, while the latter just view the whole thing as a contractual obligation to publicize a movie or TV show.
Through a series of happy accidents (usually sitting through one panel to see a following panel), I’ve found that I’ve had the most fun in panels dominated by authors, artists, and other creative types. Back in 2008, we sat through a Dean Koontz panel that turned out to be one of the more interesting we attended that year. Last year, we happened into a DC Comics panel featuring Geoff Johns, J. Michael Straczynski, and Grant Morrison. I don’t even know what that panel was about, but listening to those guys BS for half an hour was worth it. They’re prolific writers, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But without a doubt, the prize for best speaker so far is Steven Moffatt, who we saw at a Doctor Who panel in 2008. In addition to possessing preternatural comedic talent, he also had some interesting insights into the character of The Doctor, many of which have found their way into the series now that he’s the showrunner for it.
So this year, I think we’ll skip Hall H and Ballroom 20 in favor of the unheralded panels featuring potentially interesting people. Even better, why not skip any panel with a line and go to the ones where we can just walk right into the room? I don’t know if that’ll even happen or not, given the organizers’ relentless pursuit of poor scheduling, but we can give it an honest go. If not, well, it’s not like there’s a shortage of things to do in San Diego.