Comic-Con organizers reveal what’s behind the curtain

Comic-Con International convention fans ride the escalator on the second day of the event at the San Diego Convention Center.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As the mania that is Comic-Con International began to wind down Sunday afternoon, the organizers who have spent decades transforming the once-small comics gathering into a global pop culture extravaganza acknowledged both the stress — and emotional rewards — of staging the event each year.

In a panel dubbed Comic-Con Now — one in a series of convention sessions celebrating 50 years of the Con — the panel of staffers and board members touched on a number of themes that frequently surface each year.

Long lines for everything: Yep, be it Hall H or buying the latest Star Wars collectible, they’re incredibly frustrating, the panelists said, but thanks to an entire Comic-Con department, colored wristbands and exceptionally patient attendees, they are manageable.

Constrained convention space: Exhibitors with no room to spread out have gone vertical with their multi-story presentations, and hotel ballrooms, the downtown library and a still evolving Comic-Con Museum in Balboa Park played host this convention to multiple events and panel discussions. Oh and by the way, reminded Comic-Con spokesman David Glanzer, there’s a measure on the March ballot next year to raise the city’s hotel room tax to pay for an expanded center.

Getting a badge: Attendance has been capped for several years but thanks to a more sophisticated computer system than in years past, the online process for securing a badge is free of the computer glitches that used to bedevil the convention.

On Sunday at Comic-Con International, Comic-Con Now panelists discuss putting on the annual show. From left: Eddie Ibrahim, David Glanzer, Maija Gates, Robin Donlan, Mark Yturralde, Justin Datta and Gary Sassaman.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Not only does the show progress and grow but all of us who are dedicated to it all started here with different roles and are developing right along with the show,” said Comic-Con International Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim. “We understand change is sometimes complicated but we are changing along with it.”

Managing the exhibit floor both leading up to and during the convention can be especially stressful, conceded Exhibits Director Justin Dutta. (At one point during the panel he had to take one of dozens of calls he gets daily to manage hiccups on the floor.)

“It keeps me up at night. Because of the way the Convention Center is, we’re landlocked now and booths can’t expand out so a lot of them go up,” he said, nothing that some exhibits are as high as 20 to 25 feet tall. “Some are like small cities down there. As comics and pop culture percolate out into the mainstream, the booths have more things to present and they have this incredible content. And I have to say, ‘OK, but you only have a 10 by 20 space to work with.”

While the Comic-Con Now panel was described in part as a discussion of where the confab is heading, much of it felt more like a trip down memory lane as organizers reminisced about memorable moments.

Maija Gates, Chief Experience Officer, recalled the challenges four years ago of moving 6,500 people out of a Hall H “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” panel to a secret location for a surprise “Star Wars” concert performed by the San Diego Symphony. (It was held at Embarcadero Marina Park South.)

“We spent months working on this and as attendees were leaving, there were just tears of joy, and people were shaking, and it made me realize that all the stress we go through makes it all worth it,” she said.

Ibrahim, though, remembered it slightly differently. He recalled the not-so-pleasant reaction of filmmaker and Comic-Con fan favorite Kevin Smith, who was leading the subsequent panel and showed up to a near-empty room.

“While everyone was excited about leaving Hall H to go see the symphony, one person wasn’t happy, and that was Kevin Smith,” Ibrahim remembered. “The empty hall took some hand-holding for Kevin, but he came out to the biggest applause he ever experienced. All the people in that room were there for him because it was the last panel and his fans let him know they were so happy.”

Smith’s name came up again when the panelists were talking about occasions when star panelists, for different reasons, were close to becoming no-shows.

“Kevin Smith thought he could leave L.A. at 2 and get here for a 3:30 panel,” said Gary Sassaman, Comic-Con’s director of print and digital media.

Comic-Con each year normally features as one of its concluding panels on Sunday a “talk-back” session where attendees both vent about and praise the convention. That panel had been led by longtime Comic-Con president John Rogers, who passed away last year. A panel to honor him was held following the Comic-Con Now session. Glanzer said the talk-back session will resume next year.

Robin Donlan, who is now serving as president, credited the “thousands and thousands and thousands” of people who both volunteer and work at the show.

“It would not happen without the community this convention has built,” she said. “It’s such a huge group effort. And many are thankless jobs, like the poor security staff who get beat up all day. They are the front lines but they do it with a smile and it’s amazing see to how this group comes together to create this event, which is just phenomenal.”