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.”

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