“You’re Gonna Love This Franchise”

Fandom, corporate media, and San Diego Comic-Con

by Elizabeth Minkel

Attendees wait to cross the street at San Diego Comic-Con.  Image credit : Shutterstock

Attendees wait to cross the street at San Diego Comic-Con. Image credit: Shutterstock

1.

I arrive in San Diego on Wednesday afternoon via a packed Pacific Surfliner. There’s a general air of weary anticipation onboard, as though we are already tired of something we actively signed up for. The crowd is wall-to-wall pop culture references, shirts and hats and bags, dotted with a handful of confused people I can only describe as Very Southern California: tan, breezy, and apparently unaware they booked a ticket on the train to Comic-Con.

Outside the annual pop culture convention, I have been to San Diego exactly once, when I was 13 and mad at the world, and I don’t remember much beyond being generally sullen, visiting the zoo, and listening to the Titanic soundtrack on my Discman. My adult impressions of San Diego are limited to five days a year of utter nonsense: a city of wide streets and palm trees and sports bars, all of which are plastered with corporate marketing material. ‘Is that public art?’ I wonder, looking at literally any random object. No, it’s an ad for a show I’ll eventually see a billboard for, then never hear about again.

This year, amongst the Marvel lamppost banners and the pedi-cabs sponsored by every TV show that could be remotely labeled “geeky,” the streets are littered with rent-as-you-go electric scooters. Genuinely “littered”—they’re everywhere, leaning against trees and dropped in the middle of sidewalks. I’m fresh from a week in LA spent mostly near the beach, where the omnipresence of these same black-and-white scooters was frankly alarming. It feels like the sort of Doctor Who episode where they return to Earth after a few months traveling through time and space to find some probably-malevolent corporate-issued device is now ubiquitous in the lives of all British people. I am nearly mowed down by no fewer than a dozen adult men in loose tank-tops and backwards baseball caps.

I often describe San Diego Comic-Con as ridiculous—using phrases like “the goofiest place on Earth”—but I do genuinely enjoy it, enough so that I am back for my fourth year, and spend an hour of the final day at the hotel pool bar making strategic plans for a fifth. As a fan, it’s hard to find myself at SDCC; I mostly read and write fanfiction, and I’ve never met a piece of pop culture that I didn’t want to critique. The distance between my own fannishness and how “fans” are constructed at Comic-Con is alienating for me, and often fairly depressing.

But as a media critic, it’s a field day. I appreciate the spectacle of it all, and how, for all its artificiality, it simultaneously feels strangely stripped of artifice, the purest distillation of the entertainment industry’s engagement with fans and ideas of corporate fandom. It is a massive space, one that’s impossible to generalize, and there are plenty of small corners, niche interests and fan-to-fan conversations. I’ve attended tons of smaller panels over the years, places where budding writers can ask established novelists for tips, or where panelists spend an hour trading delightful jokes about pop culture. But the main event, for me, is the big guys interfacing with the masses, and with what they think “fandom” is: it’s not always pretty, but it’s always interesting.

Shortly after I arrive, I trek over to the convention center to collect my badge; stepping foot inside the building evokes an enormous wave of resignation, and I remind myself that I do enjoy coming to this event—hell, I fly across the country for it—and then I think briefly about Stockholm Syndrome. I stop by the restroom, and inside the stall, the toilet seat covers are printed with the words, “This is all Fox could afford!” It’s simultaneously some of the cleverest corporate marketing I’ll see all weekend and a sort of meta joke about the current big machinations of the entertainment industry. It sets the perfect tone for the days to come.

 

2.

San Diego Comic-Con began nearly half a century ago as the Golden State Comic Book Convention, which brought together a few hundred people at a San Diego hotel in the summer of 1970. The event has grown exponentially, particularly in the 21st century, and now holds the world record for the largest annual pop culture festival in the world, filling the convention center to its 130,000-person capacity and expanding outward to dozens of offsite gathering spaces.

The distance between its origin story and what it’s become—a paean to corporatized “geek culture”—is enormous, and has been loudly grumbled about over the years. The comics industry still has a big presence at SDCC, including the Eisner Awards ceremony each year. But these days, it’s clearly one small piece of that huge pie. Some of that grumbling is ageist and some of it is sexist—has it really been a decade since “Twilight Ruined Comic-Con”?—but some of it is frustration with an event that has wildly morphed from something smaller and specific to, well, the largest annual pop culture festival in the world.

I have only known this corporate behemoth, and for me, the event in its current form is what it is: a specific shape, only growing outwards rather than truly abandoning any one of its components, a sort of massive snowball picking up more and more pop culture as it hurtles down the mountain. Even in the past few years, I’ve seen the scope expand far beyond “this has vampires” or “this is set in space”; this year, panels and activations for network sitcoms like Brooklyn 99 and The Good Place were as popular as anything that could be labeled “genre,” which previously seemed to be the only benchmark for a studio plugging something at Comic-Con.

Genre definitely still dominates, as do white men who’ve been on TV for a few decades—the grimly determined faces of John Krasinski and Scott Foley are plastered, dozens of stories tall, on neighboring high-rise hotels, probably getting ready to diffuse ticking bombs in their respective action thrillers. Conan O’Brien is plastered to the side of a hotel on the other side of the convention center, looking like he’s having a significantly better time. The Purge television show has rented out a storefront by the stadium, “Purge City,” done up like a Party City; a half-submerged car, one of the many things I suspect might be public art for at least half a minute, is actually an ad for Castle Rock, Hulu’s new show about Stephen King’s collected works.

I’ve grown frustrated over the past few years with the way that people now equate “fans” or “fandom” with certain genres or properties or the broader and relatively amorphous umbrella of “geek culture.” Fannish behaviors are not limited to things like Star Wars or Harry Potter, nor does everyone who likes those things engage with fandom in any way. But “fandom” coverage, entertainment reporting on geek-oriented media properties, has proliferated online in recent years, and the term is used by the entertainment industry as a shorthand for people interested in things like sci-fi, fantasy, comics, or superheroes. I tell people I study fans and they’ll jump right to a franchise that has a vocal fandom—and they look at me blankly when I tell them I’m not interested in the objects of fandom, but with fandom itself.

These distinctions grow harder to parse at SDCC. There is a general sense, from the language of industry-side people in big presentations or casual conversations, that the attendees are “true believers,” supernerds who love—or will love—every scrap of geeky pop culture that comes their way. Some attendees are, that’s true, but there’s often a conflation of the ways people already love certain things and the idea that they will love any old thing in the future. At SDCC, the creator side of the fan/creator divide rarely indicates that they truly understand why and how people love stuff—they only know that people do, so surely they will want more.

But then, with the view they have—thousands of people camping overnight for a seat to scream from in Hall H, masses of con-goers squeezing through the exhibition hall, buying everything in sight, a next-level vibe in literally every single corner of town—can you blame anyone for making assumptions about the crowd? These distinctions still exist—but at SDCC, do they even matter?

 

3.

My favorite place to watch fan/creator interaction at San Diego Comic-Con is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Hall H. The convention center’s biggest space, it holds close to 7,000 quiveringly enthusiastic souls, and the line to get in—which often requires camping out, all day or all night—is one of SDCC’s most legendary characters. (Its Twitter bio—13.6K followers—reads, “I am the longest, nerdiest, most demoralizing line at any convention ever made and that’s just how you like it. Come get in me.”) Other rooms do attract monstrous lines, and there are smaller spaces, especially pop-up activations, that will leave you wilting in the sun for hours. But there is a culture around Hall H and its line—and inside, talking about the effort of the line is as much a part of the show as the exclusive footage and celebrities trotted out onstange.

Some of the creator-side confusion I’ve observed begins with nature of the scheduling in these big rooms: panels are lined up in ways that clearly have everything to do with when casts and crews are available and little to do with whether a single crowd of humans would want to see all of these things in a row. Because there is no reentry—Hall H has everything you’d ever need, bathrooms and $4 bottles of water and nachos with exactly the sort of cheese you’re imagining, and if they were to let people out, you better believe many of them would be selling their reentry passes for exorbitant fees—people who want to see a presentation later in the day are forced to sit through everything that comes before it.

It’s impossible to truly tell how many people are there for any given property and how many are there for one four hours from now—and how many are there for all of it, because plenty of people are in Hall H for the spectacle itself. The resulting language choices onstage are muddled, to say the least: there’s usually an assumption that everyone in the crowd is already a fan of your thing, and, often, there’s general praise for that effort you’ve put in, with a lot of references about how much you deserve to be in the room, receiving exclusive access. Don’t record any of the footage, the crowd is repeatedly told, lest you anger the studios into never coming again by leaking their footage. But: “You can brag about it—tell your friends you were the first to see it.”

I’ve observed a fair bit of Hall H and its rhetoric over the past few years, and this year is no exception: I arrive bright and early for the first panel of the con, the revival of the Predator franchise, surely one of the more mismatched scheduling lineups Hall H has seen, since everyone around me is a young woman in a TARDIS dress, already near tears because Jodie Whittaker, the first female Doctor, will be onstage next with the rest of the new Doctor Who cast. Predator’s extreme gender imbalance, onstage and in the bits of the film we see, feel like they come from another entertainment universe entirely.

It’s in the Predator panel that I first hear the sort of language that really intrigues me at SDCC—via pre-recorded message, an actor who is physically absent tells the crowd, “You’re gonna love this franchise.” The use of “franchise,” not “film,” is really interesting, in a consumer-facing context: “franchise” foregrounds the economic structures of it all, more than just the films in a series but everything else around them, an industry-side word that has seeped into the fannish lexicon.

I will walk around over the next four days catching snippets of conversation about franchises and IPs—another industry-side term, “intellectual property,” which is in heavy use in comics and the rights to their adaptations—and I will try to figure out if these people work in the entertainment industry, or if they are just the sorts of fans who like authoritatively mansplaining to their friends how studios and publishers make decisions. I do not actually work in the entertainment industry, and 90% of the men at SDCC in any capacity are dressed in t-shirts and shorts, so it’s nearly impossible for me to tell.

It is when Doctor Who takes the stage that things start to get interesting. They lead with a beautifully-produced montage of fan reactions to the new Doctor reveal, and my friend and I clutch each other and weep throughout, because in the face of such toxicity around a female Doctor, this is a true celebration of fannish enthusiasm, given as much weight onstage as the actual cast and crew making the show. This is rare for SDCC—the actual engagement with fandom beyond shouting at or referencing some amorphous idea of “fans”—“We do this for the fans!”—from the stage is relatively hard to find from the top levels of the entertainment industry. You often get the sense that people onstage, especially directors, are fans or have once been fannish, but it’s harder to extrapolate their own personal fandom onto a crowd.

Chris Chibnall, longtime Who writer and now showrunner, pitches the new season as a perfect jumping-off point for the person in your life who’s been interested in getting into the show and doesn’t know where to start, using the words “mainstream” and “accessible.” It’s a complicated juxtaposition with a lot of the other language in the room, which so often privileges exclusivity and some vague idea of “superfandom”; for all that Hollywood is trying to sell to this crowd, they usually seem to be selling to this mythical true-believing supernerd, nary an “accessible” in sight. “I see you,” Chibnall says, and I’ve heard people say that from the Hall H stage before, but this time, I believe it.

 

4.

If Hall H is for that mythical next-level fan who has the means and the ability to camp out on a sidewalk all night, the exhibition floor is a space where nearly everyone (though not agoraphobes!) can send corporate fandom signals with their purchasing power and/or willingness to wait on line for a free photo or autograph signing. I hate being inside the room as much as anything at SDCC, with its massive crowds moving at glacial speeds and the ratio of ‘booths where I could conceivably buy something’ to everything else measuring in a roughly 100:1 ratio, but I know that’s on me, because lots of people are drawn to the con specifically for this space and everything inside it.

The same corporate-to-organic spectrum you see throughout the programming is reflected on the exhibition floor, from Artists’ Alley on one end of the room to corporate giants in the middle to indie creators on the other end. There is a similar emphasis on “exclusivity,” with cross-brand partnerships between the entertainment properties and retailers or merchandise producers. This is another space where artifice is somehow stripped away for me: coming from a world that often eschews this sort of heavily commercialized sort of fandom space, there’s something weirdly straightforward about Funko in partnership with Hot Topic selling you a small plastic (exclusive!) figurine of Ron Swanson from Parks & Rec.

When I watch the flurry of transactions in the exhibition hall, I wonder, as I do in Hall H, about the signals this room is sending to the entertainment industry. Do they know what proportion of this stuff winds up on peoples’ shelves—and what winds up on eBay? (Which, to be fair, means the stuff still winds up on peoples’ shelves.) How many things are bought in this room because the purchaser truly loves them—and how much rests on the fact that these items are exclusive to this room for these five days?

I bristle, though, at people who frame big commercial cons like SDCC as “mindless consumerism,” or maybe, if they frame “mindless consumerism” as something inherent to fans or fandom. These attitudes are widely-held outside of fan communities, when it comes to both merchandise and box office sales, and even though it’s rarely remarked upon when it comes to sports or, to some extent, musical acts, it’s a continued source of derision towards media fans of all stripes. I’ll admit there’s often a disconnect for me, personally, in rooms like this: I rarely see something corporate-sanctioned that I would choose to buy over fan-created objects and artwork; other fans do a better job tapping into and highlighting the things about my object of fandom that draw me in. Despite all this, I shell out money at the BBC America booth for both a TARDIS necklace and a set of earrings. I’m weak.

 

5.

On Thursday night, I participate in my sole true obligation of the weekend: I am on the Harry Potter fan panel, which has been running for more than a decade, as the fandom has evolved wildly—and the idea of fandom itself has evolved wildly. My relationship with Harry Potter, my one true fandom for more than a decade, has reached an aggressively ambivalent place in 2018: I’m unhappy with several of the current franchise’s choices, particularly their steadfast defense of Johnny Depp remaining in the Fantastic Beasts films. Fansplaining regularly receives messages from people in similar states of ambivalence, unable to let go of the world but let down by the franchise—and too angry or frustrated to truly enjoy engaging with the Harry Potter universe.

The entire panel passes without Johnny Depp coming up once, so I hijack my own final question—“what are you most excited about in the coming year”—to say that I think his continued involvement in the franchise will be the biggest story in the Harry Potter world in the next twelve months. I do think this, just as surely as I think all the negative attention online isn’t going to dent the box office numbers for a franchise as massive as this one. Afterwards, a stranger tweets at me to get over it, with expletives; I mute them without responding. It’s a reminder that outside my world of heavily critical media fandom, a lot of fans cannot handle critique of the thing they love.

SDCC itself is a deeply uncritical space, on the big corporate level; in the massive panels, questions are heavily screened, and the ones that make it to the microphone are generally some of the least challenging things you could ever conceivably ask a bunch of celebrities. Flourish and I attend the Riverdalepanel—an utter delight from start to finish, moderated by Kelly Ripa, clearly a true fan of the show—and when the final questioner somehow slips through the screening process to bring up queerbaiting, we clutch each other in shock. I have watched creators and casts sit blithely onstage while controversy—homophobia, racism, misogyny, extreme fandom toxicity, abuse allegations—dog every online conversation about them or their properties; at SDCC, they can generally be confident that no one will say a word about any of it, no matter what’s happening on Twitter at that very moment.

Two days after I drag Johnny Depp’s name into the Harry Potter fan panel conversation, I am watching the Warner Bros. presentation—the biggest of the convention, in Marvel’s absence this year—and my short-lived relief that they decided not to include him in their cast lineup onstage is shattered when the lights dim and he emerges, in full costume, to give a confusing speech about wizarding supremacy. The second he appears onstage I am frozen, wondering what on earth possessed them to do this—and then the crowd goes wild. “WE LOVE YOU, JOHNNY!” one person hollers. Everyone seated around me is having a crisis. “Didn’t they read the room?” I’ll see disgusted people write on Twitter afterwards. They did—and the room loved it.

It’s tricky, because I don’t necessarily think this weekend-long celebration of big, fun pop culture texts needs to be a critical jamboree, despite my own fannish inclinations (I have been to small cons that are literally this, equal parts deconstruction and squee). But the way big media properties respond to controversy, to critical discourse, to how subsets of their fanbase harass other fans or the casts and creators themselves: these are huge parts of our broad media conversation right now, and it feels a more than a little strange to turn it off for a few days, a massive elephant lurking in a 7,000-seat room.

 

6.

Even when you don’t participate in what Flourish has termed the “athletic fandom” elements of SDCC—the long-haul physical endurance stuff, where you camp out all night or don’t go to the bathroom for 8 hours because you’ll lose your spot for something—and even when you’re mostly just watching celebrities answer non-questions in an air-conditioned room and drinking at the hotel pool bar, by the final day, some degree of delirious exhaustion sets in across the board. After the final panel we’ll attend at the con, I spend a few seconds wondering if I should set foot inside the exhibition hall once more, even though there’s nothing I want to buy or see there, and then I think more abstract thoughts about Stockholm Syndrome.

There’s obviously far more to corporate engagement with fandom than San Diego Comic-Con. But it’s the biggest physical gathering, so it offers a concentrated glimpse into how the industry is thinking about us: as fans, as viewers, as consumers. In recent years, Disney, which owns nearly everything under the sun, including Star Wars and Marvel, has begun to shift some of their “big showy presentations for fans” to D23, the Disney-specific expo in the spring in Los Angeles. This fragmentation actually works to undercut some of what bothers me about SDCC: it’s the difference between thinking there’s some sort of generalized “superfan” who will love all the things and understanding that most people fall deeply for relatively specific things. Of course, when Disney buys everything else in the entertainment industry, that point will be moot.

We head to the train station Sunday afternoon, bound for Los Angeles, but someone has been struck by a train at Oceanside, and Amtrak chaos reigns, as thousands of people try to leave San Diego via a series of severely delayed trains. While we’re waiting in the ticket line, we spot a flash of white hair across the way—it is Nichelle Nichols, sitting serenely amongst the chaos, and beside me, Flourish, a diehard Star Trek fan, is quietly freaking out. We urge her to say hello, and she does, quickly and politely.

In a space where ideas about celebrity and access and exclusivity and fandom get all jumbled up throughout one long, high-octane weekend, as I watch Flourish’s quiet fandom moment of joy, I can’t help but think about the space between big spectacle and the small moments of serendipity. We somehow make it onto the next train out of town, and before long, we’re whipping along the Pacific coast.


 
A headshot of Elizabeth Minkel, wearing a leather jacket and earbuds and holding two thumbs up.

Elizabeth Minkel is one half of Fansplaining. She’s written about fan culture for the New Statesman, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Millions, The Verge, and more. She co-curates “The Rec Center,” a weekly fandom newsletter, with fellow journalist Gavia Baker-Whitelaw.

 
Elizabeth Minkel