Comic-Con Is No Longer Just a Nerd Fest

What's in it for media types and marketers?

Meanwhile, in San Diego, something unusual is afoot! Who are these strangers walking the halls of Comic-Con? Not the 150,000 comic book collectors, sci-fi movie completists and nerdy super-fans dressed as Catwoman or Zed from Zardoz (Google it, we dare you)—they’re the ones who’ve been coming for decades now. We’re talking about the suits (whose admins did the research that told them what to wear so they don’t stick out too much)—TV programming execs, CMOs, even showrunners.

Ask any of the suits why they’re there and they will likely repeat the same phrase: “We are going to San Diego to thank the fans.” Sure you are. Publicly traded corporations rarely spend gobs of money just to say “thank you.” Rarer still do they fly across the country at significant cost to a conference jam-packed with fantasy superfans. So Adweek got in touch with a network of professionals to get to the bottom of their attendance at Comic-Con, and here’s what our heroes said.

The Marketeer

For TV execs of all stripes, the challenge has always been getting consumers to put down their phones, stop reading a book, look up from their meals or whatever else so they’ll watch their shows (and the ads that pay for them). At Comic-Con, consumers are there because of the shows.

“People go of their own free will,” says Colleen Mohan, svp of brand marketing at USA. “Our first year, they put us in the largest room, which is 4,200 people.” USA screened its long-running quirky cop show Psych, and nobody, including Mohan, could believe the room would fill. “All of us had our stomachs in knots, and then it was standing-room only! There were people outside the ballroom!”

Of course, 4,200 people isn’t even 1/300 of a ratings point. But Rick Haskins, The CW’s evp of marketing and digital programs, argues that their influence makes the difference. “The room may only be able to hold 4,200 people, but those 4,200 people are the ringleaders,” says Haskins. “They talk about it, blog about it, tweet about it, and that’s where the conversation starts many times.”

The convention also functions as something of a publicity starter pistol around prime-time shows slated to debut in the fall. Execs can gauge reactions to new material and either gear up for a hit or batten down the hatches for a flop (Comic-Con’s midsummer time frame doesn’t allow for much last-minute tinkering). “We’re going to definitely show the pilots for most of our shows … [but] the heavy lifting down there is for the cast and the executive producers,” says Haskins. “It’s all about the fan interaction with the executive producers and the cast.”

Among TV shows, the belle of the ball this year is likely to be Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., ABC’s great hope for a hit that is based on the third-highest-grossing movie in history. Here’s the rub: Given that it’s total nerd bait, the show presents a serious marketing challenge to the network, which is trying to market it also to its core audience of women. “ABC has a very female-driven audience in terms of the fan base,” says Marla Provencio, CMO and evp of the network. “The challenge for us is that the Marvel audience will be there because they love everything Marvel. This show also has humor, it has romance, and it has the emotional investment.”

Captain Showrunner

For anybody running a writers’ room, Comic-Con abounds with both ideas and talented scribes—making it an excellent place to hire or at least check out the market. J.G. Quintel, creator and exec producer of Cartoon Network’s Regular Show, says he’s always looking for young’uns with good ideas. “I really like going to the independent ‘artists’ alley’ and the independent comics vendors,” Quintel notes. “I’ve actually found a lot of talent there—I’ve read something really funny and unexpected and then reach[ed] out to the person to say, ‘Hey, are you willing to take a test for Regular Show?’”

Sometimes the comic book writers and artists can take over the daily duties on an entire series—or several series—because they know the other talent in the industry so well. “We’re in charge of writing the scripts,” explains Steven T. Seagle, one of a quartet that runs Man of Action Studios, the production company behind kids TV hits like Ben 10 on Cartoon Network and new versions of The Avengers and Spider-Man on Disney XD. Ben 10 made the company a household name (the property outdoes both Batman and Barbie in terms of licensing, to the tune of $295 million last year), but Seagle and his three colleagues—Joe Casey, Joe Kelly and Duncan Rouleau—are old-school comics pros still creating books for the newsstands on the side.

“I kind of look at it as a return to how it was before I was a professional writer,” says Casey, who writes an Image Comics series called Sex. “It was when I had a day job and did my writing at night. Except that now my day job is pretty cool, too.”

Mark Stern, president of programming at Syfy, says he always roams the halls of Comic-Con searching for interesting new ideas. “Frequently, you’ll go, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing this kind of a space show? Why isn’t anyone doing this kind of fantasy?’” he says.

There is a downside. As fans get more knowledgeable about the inner workings of TV—who wrote what episodes, and in what order they were “supposed” to air—anonymity is disappearing fast. “I used to get people who asked me why I canceled Eureka,” sighs Stern. “Now I’ll probably get people asking why I’m canceling Warehouse 13.”

The Amazing Multihyphenate

If anybody from comics has “made it” in TV, it’s Robert Kirkman. The writer of Ultimate X-Men, Marvel Zombies and his own series Invincible, Kirkman started the creator-owned series The Walking Dead in 2003, and the rest is history. The 34-year-old is one of five principals in charge of Image Comics, the fourth-largest serial comics publisher, and he’s also a producer on AMC’s adaptation of The Walking Dead (the most popular show on TV). It would be understating the case considerably to say that fans are interested in meeting him. But he’s got a lot else going on, too.

“I love being able to meet everyone in the food chain,” says Kirkman. “I meet with distributors and retailers and fans and everyone along the way. Everyone comes together in the same place, and I’m able to strategize for the new year. It’s a business meeting for the new year, and that excites me.”

Kirkman makes great use of his Comic-Con time to keep an eye on what’s up and coming in the industry, and connect in the same room with everyone who has an opinion or a dollar in every aspect of The Walking Dead. “I have a retailer breakfast and I can talk to the companies about what they’d like to see from us shipping-wise, and what kinds of products and what kinds of release schedules,” Kirkman continues. “You hang out at the bar with people who’ve been doing comics for 20 years, and people say, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done a book this way?’”

Ultimately, it’s an exhausting time. “I do dread it, a little bit,” he says ruefully. “It’s a rough week.” Kirkman keeps an eye on everything from the publication of the comic book (which he still writes) to new talent for the TV series to the hilariously gruesome action figures his partner at Image, Todd McFarlane, makes through McFarlane Toys.

Retail-Thing

For retailers and manufacturers attending Comic-Con, it’s not just about talking to the fans; it’s about using the fans as a bargaining chip. “The manufacturers will go, ‘Hey, we sculpted this awesome toy, and we might make it if we can sell enough to keep the line going,’” says one consumer products exec. Just like in the television world, this group keeps close watch on what catches on when images make it out on social media and on fan sites. When a toy is “talked about at panels [and] reblogged, retailers see this happening and expand their orders like crazy,” he adds.

Brick-and-mortar retailers have to do plenty of heavy lifting, sometimes literally. As prices rise and interest in old superhero comics wanes, businesses like Chuck Rozan-ski’s Mile High Comics have had to adapt their business tactics. Like many comics stores, Mile High has morphed into primarily an e-tailing business, but conventions offer that rare opportunity to meet prospective customers through means other than banner ads and email blasts. “I have created an entirely mobile and modular 700-square-foot comic book store that can be reassembled in any spot in about four hours,” Rozanski boasts in his newsletter. “This entire comics shop fits on only 18 pallets, weighs only 25,000 pounds and can be moved anywhere in the nation in a single semitrailer.”

“This is one of the best places to get honest fan feedback,” adds Mike Drake, who runs figurine maker Mezco Toyz. “You don’t know online if it’s coming from a 5-year-old kid or an 80-year-old woman. Many people make fun of the passionate fans, but it’s the passionate fans that are really helpful with the minutiae of the product when you’re developing something.”

Gamer Girl

Video game companies have been coming to Comic-Con for years, but they’ve become behemoths in the post-Twilight world (the film oldsters used to date the Comic-Con Explosion in ’08; video games only started making blockbuster movie money in late ’07 with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare). So newly huge game companies find themselves warring, Call of Duty-style, for floor space. “Everybody’s on a years-long waiting list,” says Cara Scharf, who handles all the marketing efforts for Bethesda Softworks, which puts out Skyrim and Dishonored. Prices for the booths are surging. At the top end, Marvel Entertainment pays about $1.5 million for its space, one source estimates.

Neither Activision nor Electronic Arts, two of the biggest gamers, is at the Con this year, though the latter’s svp of global marketing Laura Miele says she’s “certain we will be attending again in the future.” (EA has just scored the rights to make new Star Wars games.) “Historically [we] have enjoyed attending the show because our consumer crossover is so high with the fans that attend the show,” says Miele.

Bethesda is attending but not on the convention floor. It will market via a food truck branded with upcoming game The Elder Scrolls online—a swords-and-sorcery title that admittedly doesn’t exactly scream “grilled cheese.” “We did a college tour last year, and it really caught on,” Scharf explains. “And everybody likes free food.”

For her part, Scharf is there also to see the other companies’ activations to get an idea of what’s buzzy and what’s not.

Of course, the concept of buzzy remains somewhat subjective and will always be hit or miss, notes Francois Lee, group client director at SMG and a veteran of advertising to gamers. “If you figure out a secret formula for what’s going to hit and what’s going to flop, tell me, OK?” he laughs. “Even social is hard-pressed to prove that the more conversations there are around a show, the more successful it will be.”

The better metric is engagement—the reason so many more media outlets, marketers and retailers have flocked to Comic-Con. It’s ever more important as old measurements of reach become progressively more suspect. And it’s in abundant supply in San Diego.

Attendees are “lining up in these packed rooms for some of these press conferences and events,” says Lee, “and some people can’t even get in!”

These, Lee believes, are fans not just willing to buy, but also to help sell.

Illustrations: Stanley Chow