Building Brand Con: San Diego Comic-Con as Promotional Intermediary and Geek Brand Manager
Society for Cinema and Media Studies, Seattle, WA, March 2019.
Abstract: Longtime attendees of San Diego Comic-Con assert that the event has changed considerably in recent years. Many credit the shift to increased Hollywood involvement, as studios roll out ever-more high-profile celebrities and upcoming properties to raise fan anticipation. In 2018, however, SDCC had conspicuous absences in its programming schedule. Marvel Studios, Twentieth Century Fox, HBO’s Game of Thrones and Westworld – recent mainstays in the convention’s programming – all sat the year out. The result, according to commentators, was an SDCC “like it used to be.”
Notable here is that neither the move into big name Hollywood participation nor the sudden absence of some of those players were choices made by San Diego Comic-Con itself. SDCC is a highly visible arbiter of fandom, but its own makeup is dependent on media industry marketing decisions. This presentation examines SDCC as a promotional intermediary for film and television products that builds a brand for itself that relies upon and structures the participation of attendees and industry alike.
SDCC’s effort to construct a recognizable, consistent brand requires the participation of fans: The convention maintains some degree of year-round interest and badges sell out months before programming and guest are announced, in part because prospective attendees are able to rely on their understanding of the convention, its history, and its brand to generate enthusiasm in anticipation of the event itself. SDCC’s reach likewise extends beyond the event itself, with the brand becoming increasingly synonymous with the mainstreaming of a particular fan identity.
At the same time, SDCC is a promotional intermediary, an event that is both creative and professional, acting in support of media industries and entertainment content in ways that supplement promotion of the convention itself. SDCC aims to perpetuate as much as celebrate Hollywood properties, and because its efforts are audience facing – that is, these promotions speak directly to fans – the fandom that is constructed at SDCC is a heavily commodified, branded space. The SDCC brand structures the values and constraints placed on attendees, media content, and audience behaviors, privileging particular fan identities while minimizing others. Even fans who eschew the convention must contend with the brand work being done there, as it promulgates a broad geek culture that mediates industry involvement and creates an accepted, visible fandom.