The Rise of the Cons

In a simpler time, a comic book convention was little more than a humble gathering of comic book fans. But in today’s age of franchises and big-budget blockbusters, the largest of these conventions have become a major destination for the Hollywood hype machine.

The modern concept of a fan convention dates back to the late 1930s, with various gatherings of science-fiction fans in Philadelphia and New York, which attracted a few dozen attendees. The 1939 World’s Fair in New York saw the first World Science Fiction Convention, an annual event now known as Worldcon.

Subsequent years saw hundreds of local and regional conventions spring up to celebrate science-fiction and, eventually, related genres. Among them was the West Coast Science Fantasy Conference (Westercon) founded in 1948.

In early September 1966, Gene Roddenberry attended the Tricon World Science Fiction Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, to promote his new series called “Star Trek” a week before its premiere on NBC. Guests were treated to a few early episodes, including the original pilot. By the time “Star Trek” was canceled in 1969, it had built up a loyal fanbase that only grew once the episodes were syndicated. While “Star Trek” had become a presence at various sci-fi conventions, typical sci-fi fans at the time were mostly focused on literature and looked down on TV and movies, which weren’t taken as seriously. As such, a group of “Star Trek” fans believed celebrating their favorite show merited its own event.

Many historians consider the first dedicated “Star Trek” convention to have taken place in March 1969 — a low-key meeting at the Newark Public Library that attracted about 300 attendees, but no one associated with the show. The first major “Star Trek” convention took place in January 1972 at New York’s Statler Hilton, a three-day affair known as “Star Trek Lives!” Guests included Roddenberry and legendary sci-fi author Isaac Asimov. Organizers anticipated about 500 attendees, but more than 3,000 fans showed up. The 1973 event had nearly 10,000 fans register to attend, and up to 14,000 in 1974.

Currently, the largest and most notable “Star Trek” conventions are staged in Las Vegas by Creation Entertainment. The first Creation “Star Trek” convention took place in 2001, and the annual events regularly draw about 15,000 fans.

The show that evolved into what’s now known as San Diego Comic-Con International has its roots in a one-day event known as San Diego’s Golden State Comic-Minicon, held March 21, 1970, in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel. About 100 people attended the event, which was organized by a comic book fan group that included Shel Dorf and bookstore owner Ken Kreuger, who was part of the earlier sci-fi fandom. The organizers used the exhibition to raise funds for a three-day event they were planning for later in the year. The first of what was then called San Diego’s Golden State Comic-Con took place Aug. 1-3, 1970, at the U.S. Grant Hotel basement and drew about 300 people to what was primarily a show for comic book and sci-fi/fantasy fans. The second show a year later at the UCSD campus in La Jolla drew 800 attendees, and the third show in 1972 drew more than 900 people to the El Cortez Hotel.

The show changed its name to San Diego Comic-Con for its fourth show in August 1973 at the Harbor Island Sheraton Hotel, which drew more than 1,000 attendees.

In 1974 San Diego Comic-Con returned to the El Cortez, where it stayed for the next five years and again in 1981, as attendance steadily grew, peaking at 5,000 in 1978. The 1974 show featured a film room and hosted a screening of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

The first “Star Wars” poster, designed by Howard Chaykin, sold at Comic-Con and other fan shows in 1976.

But it wasn’t until 1976 that the seeds were planted for Comic-Con as a promotional vehicle for major Hollywood productions. That show, held July 21-25 at the El Cortez with an attendance of more than 3,000 fans, featured an early preview of Star Wars nearly a year before the landmark sci-fi film’s May 1977 release. PR guru Charles Lippincott, fresh off an appearance at Westercon in L.A. July 2, showed photos from Star Wars to a crowd of a couple hundred people, promoted the forthcoming comic book adaptation and novelization, and set up a booth to answer fan questions and sell movie posters for $1.75 each (copies of the poster today can be found on eBay listed for more than $7,000). Lippincott’s appearance at Comic-Con and other fan gatherings, such as Worldcon, was part of a concerted effort to build buzz and recognition among the fan community for the then-unknown sci-fi property, which paid off when Star Wars became the highest-grossing film of all time up to that point.

Lippincott’s efforts to promote the original Star Wars touched off a long collaboration between the franchise and San Diego Comic-Con, as previews for The Empire Strikes Back at the 1979 Comic-Con and Return of the Jedi in 1982 would draw huge crowds as well, and the model for building brand awareness at fan conventions would eventually be used to create the Star Wars Celebrations.

For its 10th show in 1979, San Diego Comic-Con moved to a new home at the Convention and Performing Arts Center (CPAC), and attendance would grow from 6,000 to 13,000 by 1990.

The 22nd show in 1991 saw Comic-Con move to its current home at the then-new San Diego Convention Center, attracting 15,000 guests. With the new venue, attendance would quickly grow, hitting 40,000 in 1997.
In 1995, the 26th show became Comic-Con International: San Diego and unveiled the “eye” logo that is still in use today.

The 1990s would see Hollywood expanding its presence at Comic-Con. The 1994 convention hosted screenings for Natural Born Killers and The Mask. The 1996 show featured a celebration of the 30th anniversary of “Star Trek.”

Promotional efforts would increasingly include celebrity appearances at the convention. The 1997 show featured director Paul Verhoeven and Starship Troopers, and Michael Jai White and John Leguizamo promoting the live-action Spawn movie. One of the most popular attractions of the 1998 Comic-Con was the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” panel and signing featuring creator Joss Whedon and most of the cast.

Over the next few years, films such as The Blair Witch Project, The Iron Giant, Terminator 3, Hellboy, Daredevil, the “Lord of the Rings” movies, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man would take to the stage.

The 2001 convention drew 53,000 attendees, and by 2003, Comic-Con was drawing unprecedented coverage from mainstream press outlets.

As the San Diego Convention Center expanded, Comic-Con expanded with it, moving programming into new exhibit halls and even nearby venues in downtown San Diego. In 2000, Comic-Con added an Anime Showcase programming track, and devoted Sunday to children’s and family entertainment. Major panels were moved to the 4,800-seat Ballroom 20 in 2002, and the 6,500-seat Hall H in 2004.

The 2006 Comic-Con featured the first panel for Marvel Studios, which had just entered an agreement to finance its own films. The panel led by producer Kevin Feige included director Jon Favreau to discuss the upcoming Iron Man, which would be released in 2008. Marvel’s announced slate also included The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Ant-Man (eventually released in 2015). Future movies announced for what would eventually be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe included Captain America (2011), Thor (2011) and a Nick Fury standalone movie that thus far has yet to happen. Feige also teased the possibility of an “Avengers” movie should the early films perform well enough. In the 13 years since that first panel, Marvel Studios has produced 23 films (including four “Avengers” movies) with a combined worldwide box office of $22 billion.

By 2010, fans would be required to wait in long lines to see the major presentations in Hall H, Ballroom 20 and even some of the mid-size meeting rooms. Fans would even take to camping out in the long Hall H lines the night before major presentations.

Attendance grew from 95,000 in 2004 to 130,000 by 2010, peaking at 167,000 in 2015. Capacity limits have since brought attendance back into the 130,000 range.

The Bay Area of California would get its own annual convention in 1987, the Wonderful World of Comics Convention, now known as WonderCon. The show, typically held a few months prior to Comic-Con, was held at the Oakland Convention Center until 2002, before moving to San Francisco’s Moscone Center in 2003.

In 2001, the Comic-Con International group took control of WonderCon, opening it up to a wider audience and giving it greater exposure to Hollywood studios. With the Moscone Center under renovation in 2012, WonderCon moved to the Anaheim Convention Center, where it has been held every year since, with the exception of the 2016 show taking place at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

With its Southern California presence, WonderCon has taken on the flavor of a “Comic-Con lite,” drawing about 60,000 fans each year.

As scheduling conflicts hampered WonderCon’s return to the Bay Area, the void was filled by the Silicon Valley Comic Con, which began in 2016, co-founded by Apple’s Steve Wozniak.

Amid the newfound massive media attention heaped on Comic-Con, Reed Exhibitions in 2006 staged the first New York Comic Con at the Javits Convention Center. Initially held in February, the annual event moved to October in 2010. The New York event quickly became as important a venue as Comic-Con for promoting movies, TV shows and video games. In 2018, NYCC surpassed San Diego Comic-Con as the largest comic book convention in North America, with attendance passing 250,000.

In 1999, the hype surrounding the release of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace helped inspire Lucasfilm to organize its own fan event dedicated to “Star Wars.” The first Star Wars Celebration took place from April 30 to May 2, 1999, in Denver, Colo., home of the official “Star Wars” fan club. The second and third Celebration events were held in Indianapolis in 2002, timed for the release of Episode II — Attack of the Clones, and in 2005, to promote Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Subsequent Celebrations would be held semi-regularly to promote major “Star Wars” anniversaries and new films, in locations such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Orlando and Anaheim, and internationally in Japan, Germany and England. With Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012, Star Wars Celebration joined the D23 Expo as one of the studio’s key promotional tools for fan outreach.

The Walt Disney Co. in 2009 started staging its own proprietary fan convention, the D23 Expo, held every two years at the Anaheim Convention Center, across the street from Disneyland. D23 is the official fan club of The Walt Disney Co., founded in March 2009. D23 had its own booth at Comic-Con that year in advance of the first D23 Expo Sept. 10-13. Organized like a typical fan convention, the expo included panels promoting new Disney projects, retrospectives of Disney company history and classic films, an exhibit floor featuring merchandise, and prop displays. Subsequent to Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm, “Star Wars” was added to the roster of promoted brands in 2013. The 2015 Expo featured a major presence from Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar and Disney Studios. By 2017 the D23 Expo was rivaling Comic-Con in terms of attendance, drawing an estimated 100,000 fans.

In 2015, Cinedigm partnered with Wizard World, an organizer of several annual regional conventions, to launch streaming service ConTV (www.ConTV.com), which provides behind-the-scenes access to Wizard World Comic Cons, along with classic films, television series and comics.

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