The Maddening Crowd

Well, San Diego Comic-Con is only a couple of weeks away and the usual feelings of anxiety and dread well-up once more from the part of my psyche that really, truly hates crowds. Being around large groups of people exhausts me for some reason, and SDCC has crowds in spades. It’s no wonder that at the end of every day, when all I’ve really done is stand or sit most of the time and not physically exerted myself in the slightest, I am mentally and physically spent.

At Night, the Crowd Abandons the Convention Center and Goes to the Gaslamp
Ain't No Crowds At Night. They're at the Gaslamp Gettin' Their Drunk On

We usually attend preview night at the con, which is the night before the convention officially opens and the number of attendees is limited to around 15,000 people. There aren’t any panels or anything, but the floor is open to browse and buy things, if you want. The crowds are manageable and you can actually feel the convention floor’s immense 615, 701 square feet of space, unlike the following days when the crushing mass of humanity makes for a stifling, claustrophobic experience. If a sudden calamity befell the convention on preview night, I have no doubt we could make it out to safety. If we needed to make a quick escape on any other day, I think we would surely perish, if not from the emergency itself, then from being crushed or trampled to death by 125,000 panicked people trying to flee through a few exits at once.

Of the last few years we’ve attended, it seems like 2009 was the worst convention year for crowds. The number of people seemed to have jumped significantly from the previous year and the organizers appeared ill-prepared to deal with the sudden increase in volume. It seemed to be barely-organized chaos as poorly trained volunteers combined with knuckle-headed scheduling to produce a situation where the invisible hand of organization simply ceased to exist and disorder reigned supreme.

I wasn’t the only one with this impression. We escaped a few times to the quiet confines of the EA Gaming Lounge across the street from the convention center for some rest and relaxation from the ever-roiling chaos. While our son played betas of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Left for Dead 2, my wife and I sipped mixed drinks on comfortable couches in a peaceful courtyard under the sun. As we relaxed, we spoke to several people who had also found this quiet eddy amidst the turbulent torrent of humanity, many of whom were ten to twenty year veterans of the con. While many acknowledged the rapid increase in numbers over the previous few years had changed the character and tone of the convention, nearly all felt something had definitely changed between 2008 and 2009. A few dozen theories were offered, but no one could quite put their finger on what exactly had changed. These weren’t the usual suspects bitching about how the con had gotten away from it’s roots or any of that nonsense, but people genuinely perplexed by the con’s apparent takeover by its mirror-universe evil twin.

A lot of people in 2009 liked to blame that year’s terrible convention on Twilight, but that’s patently absurd. The only thing Twilight did was bring in some teeny-boppers and their creepy mothers. Oh yes, this sinister faction truly brought low a convention where pervs and unwashed sociopaths compete with each other to see who can creep-out and annoy the most people.

Batman, Well Known for His PR Skills, Addresses the Media
Batman, Well Known for His PR Skills, Addresses the Media

It wasn’t Twilight that ruined the con — it was piss poor preparation and planning. Twilight was just a single, hour-long panel in Hall H and despite what many publicists and over-caffeinated bloggers would like you to think, Hall H is not Comic-Con. It’s where the Bullshit Machine goes to peddle its wares. You could completely sever Hall H from the convention and send it into the Phantom Zone without sacrificing a single iota of the con’s character. It is essentially the Hollywood Adjunct to the convention (though that might actually change this year, we’ll see). The only real good thing about Hall H is that it keeps 6,000 suckers off the show floor and away from the other panels.

The failure of the 2009 convention can be attributed to three critical areas:

  1. Poorly trained and supervised staff/volunteers
  2. Poor scheduling
  3. Poor crowd control

The people staffing the 2009 con were some of the most uninformed, poorly prepared people I’ve seen before or since. They consistently looked lost, confused, and befuddled. Imagine if someone had plucked your mother from the mall, put her in a red polo shirt, and plopped her in the convention center with no training and a single instruction: do something with these people. I can’t blame them for how they reacted to their situation. Most fell back on the age-old strategy of simply making stuff up to get people to go away, while others succumbed to that hobgoblin of small minds and bureaucrats: strict adherence to instructions.

Please Superman Don't Hurt Them
I Just Like This Picture

A perfect example of both strategies in action occurred during the Burn Notice panel of that year. We’d just sat through a Women of Sci-Fi panel so we could see the Bruce Campbell (featuring Burn Notice) panel that immediately followed. A few of us needed to make use of the restroom during the break between panels, so we went to the exit and were handed a colored ticket for the Women of Sci-Fi panel. A few dozen people asked the woman passing out these tickets if these would be good to get back in and she said yes, the next panel didn’t start for another 10 minutes, so they would still be valid. Five minutes later, we leave the restroom and hand our tickets to the man at the entrance to Ballroom 20 and he says our tickets were for the last panel and were no longer valid. No amount of reasoning would change him from his course. He had been told by someone as clueless as him to accept only yellow tickets and by god, he would not deviate one millimeter from that instruction. So, we went around the corner to the exit and told the lady who handed us the bogus tickets about the situation and to please talk some sense into the man up front, but she quickly feigned ignorance and forswore any knowledge of the assurances she’d provided to dozens of people only minutes before. I imagine our bags and belongings enjoyed the panel immensely.

The effects of the poorly informed and supervised staff were exacerbated by the bizarre scheduling. I understand the organizers cater to the big media conglomerates, but sometimes I wonder whether the people who declare themselves the largest popular arts convention in the world are completely clueless about the relative popularity of the properties promoting themselves at the convention. For instance, last year they scheduled a Mega-Man panel attended by maybe a couple hundred people in the third largest room at the convention center, while at the same time massive crowds had to be turned away from a Walking Dead panel in a tiny room seating only 150-200 people. So, an old, cult video game series warrants a gigantic room while a highly anticipated TV adaptation of a hugely popular comic book series merits a glorified closet? You sometimes have to wonder whether the “juice” of larger companies is more important to convention organizers than fan appeal. That’s really the only way to explain how some no-name panels are able to snag larger rooms, while panels with huge fan appeal but representing smaller, indie entities are relegated to the broom closet.

Captain Bro-merica
Captain Bro-merica

Additionally, the scheduling is often so poor that they will have multiple “big draw” panels in a row, each catering to a different fan base, yet all attended in large part by people who only want to see one of the panels. Why? The convention does not clear rooms between panels, so people sit through panels they don’t care about to see the one panel that matters to them. Meanwhile, people who really want to see these panels are left out in the cold, because they didn’t go stand in a line three or four hours earlier than the people who got into the room. It’s an odd state of affairs when 3/4 of a person’s con experience is spent standing in line or sitting through boring panels just to witness one hour of programming. If the wacky scheduling wasn’t evidence enough of the organizers’ inability to keep attendee satisfaction utmost in mind, then the unwillingness to reduce the long lines — indeed, they embrace and encourage them! — should be proof enough.

It’s long past time the organizers started clearing the big rooms between panels and their stubborn refusal to do so reminds me of many Mom-and-Pop companies who experience rapid expansion, yet refuse to adapt practices and processes to accommodate their larger size simply because they don’t want to lose their peculiar culture and “go corporate.” The problem is, they’ve already gone corporate and whatever peculiar culture they once had exists only their minds. By refusing to adapt to changing conditions, they only make their employees lives’ unnecessarily difficult and screw themselves over in the long run. SDCC is in the same boat: the organizers like to boast about their size and prominence, yet at the same time they still run it like a little comics convention for 30,000 people. They refuse to change for fear of losing what they believe made them special, yet all they’ve really done is diminish everyone’s convention experience and made things worse than they really need to be. To have it within your power to make a more enjoyable experience for the attendees, yet refusing to do so out of misplaced nostalgia, is nothing more than pig-headed, selfish idiocy.

Yeah, You Know What to Say
Yeah, You Know What to Say

Finally, 2009 seemed like a year when the crowds finally overcame any serious attempt to control them. The meager resources devoted to crowd control were simply overwhelmed by the multitude. I can’t fault someone who, after running around all day plugging  little holes in the dyke, decided to pack it in after turning around and realizing that the sea had already broken through and completely flooded the countryside. I’d give up as well. The convention deployed too few resources to deal with the crowds, resulting in a situation that would have devolved into Mad Max-style, post-apocalyptic nightmare world where only the amoral and heavily-armed prevail, had not the overwhelming majority in attendance tended to avoid actual physical conflict at all costs.

These three factors were critical in the overall failure of the 2009 convention and except for the organizers’ tenacious resistance to proper scheduling and room clearing, they seemed to have been corrected in 2010. The crowds were definitely better managed due to extra security and the volunteers seemed far more prepared than the previous year. Hopefully, the gains made last year carry will over to this year and perhaps the organizers have miraculously learned how to actually compose a properly organized schedule. I guess we’ll see. If not, well, I hear the whale watching tours are a good time.

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