Over the years, San Diego Comic-Con, which kicks off its 46th year today, has become one of the premiere events on the entertainment calendar, as major film studios and TV networks have used it as an opportunity to plug their upcoming fare. But that tide is turning as more and more major film studios opt out of the four-day gathering of comic-book and pop-culture aficionados.
And with Marvel and Warner Bros. the only major studios taking part this year, that trend appears to be continuing. Is it just a temporary blip or a sign studios don't see Comic-Con as the all-important event it used to be?
"I don't think it's necessarily a long-term thing going on for the studios to avoid Comic-Con by any means," said Marty Brochstein, svp for the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association, or LIMA, for which Comic-Con is one of the biggest events of the year. "To an extent, it's how things fell, where people were with projects and such."
Comic-Con used to be a place where studios made major announcements, even if they didn't have specific projects to plug. And it's not like major studios like Sony, Lucasfilm or 20th Century Fox don't have projects to plug this year.
Last year, Lucasfilm put on a big show for the return of Star Wars, but its first attempt at a spinoff film with Rogue One will be not be making the trip to San Diego. Fox, despite having Assassin's Creed and Huge Jackman's final Wolverine movie coming out in the next 10 months—both seemingly perfect for Comic-Con's Hall H stage—is sitting out this year, too. It seems odd that Sony wouldn't look to capitalize on Tom Holland's well-received debut as Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War by bringing it to Comic-Con, but it's not.
"There are lots of other ways to reach audiences these days," said Brochstein, noting that many studios are becoming savvier. "I think they're trying to be smarter and picking their spots better."
Some, most notably those in the Disney family, have been eschewing Comic-Con in favor of their own events, over which they can have more control. Last year, Marvel sat out in favor of Disney's biannual D23 expo, and Lucasfilm just wrapped its own Star Wars Celebration in London earlier this month, where Rogue One was the sole attraction.
"The things with the big fan bases—there is enough there to stage their own events," said Brochstein. "Disney loves doing things themselves. They are big and powerful enough to pull it off for the most part."
Studios bring their films to Comic-Con hoping positive buzz from their panels leads to box office success. But it's becoming increasingly evident that just because something plays well in front of an audience of hard-core fans doesn't mean general audiences will like it. Last year, films including The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Pan and Warcraft struggled to draw average moviegoers despite getting rave reviews from Comic-Con attendees. Even Batman v Superman, one of the highlights of the event last summer, ended up disappointing this spring, which caused Warner Bros. to shuffle behind the scenes.
"[Comic-Con] is overly populated by the real hard-core fans who sometimes can have a skewed picture of what's going to be popular," said Brochstein.
Fox's reasons for sitting out this year were reportedly related to concerns over piracy. Many studios give Comic-Con audiences an exclusive look at footage from upcoming films, giving festivalgoers a reason to wait in line for hours to attend panels. For example, footage for Deadpool and X Men: Apocalypse that was intended for attendees was leaked online just a few days later. Though that didn't stop Warner Bros., which saw its own footage for Suicide Squad leaked, from pulling out.
The dearth of major films being plugged at Comic-Con could end up being television's gain. The ever-growing number of shows on TV and streaming services means networks need to find ways to break through the clutter. This year, more than 80 shows will have a presence in San Diego, including many series that have yet to debut.
"It can be harder for them to break through and get share of mind," said Brochstein. "The promotional platform of a Comic-Con can very much play towards a TV show getting people to watch."