San Diego Comic Con 2011: The Rise of the Sideshows

In the last five years, San Diego Comic Con passes have sold out before the doors even open on the first day of the convention.  This year the con was sold out weeks (and really, months) in advance of the event.  Unfortunately, the planned expansion of the San Diego Convention Center is still a few years off, so the number of passes which can be sold will continue to be capped (by some estimates there are approximately 130,000 attendees, between exhibitors, press, professionals, guests and paid passholders.)  So how can more people experience the array of activities at Comic Con without actually being at Comic Con?

Some enterprising companies, organizations and even celebrities seem to have the solution.  There have always been a few outside events for convention attendees to investigate in and around the Gaslamp district adjacent to the Con, but this year, the number of offsite events exploded.  A visitor to San Diego during Comic Con this year could really experience the convention without ever setting foot in the convention center.  Granted, the experience wouldn’t be quite the same, but you could still see a lot of the personalities, get photos and autographs, and partake of swag and contests in the many venues which popped up within blocks of the main event.

Directly across the street from SDCC at the San Diego Wine and Culinary Center, a small independent comics event called Tr!ckster set up shop.  It became a place for hardcore comics fans, tired of being overshadowed by the film and TV influences on the Con and craving a return to the roots of the show to interface with some of the master storytellers and emerging artists in the comics world.  Not only could fans chat and relax with a nice glass of wine, but they could also purchase small independent titles and get autographs and photos with participating professionals.

If your focus for the Con was to see some film and TV stars in smaller, more intimate settings than the big panels at the convention center, you could buy tickets to events at NerdHQ, an event sponsored by The Nerd Machine, Zach Levi’s brainchild for nerd outreach.  All of the proceeds for these events, which included panels with Levi, the cast of Firefly and other greatly revered Nerd Idols, went to Operation Smile, a charity devoted to helping children receive surgeries to correct cleft palates and other facial disfigurements.  The NerdHQ also hosted parties and autograph signings and emphasized that it was open to all, not just the elite Hollywood types who dominate the party circuit in the evenings during the convention.  Hugh Jackman came to San Diego to promote his new film “Real Steel,” but there was no panel for the film at the convention.  Instead, Jackman participated in a presentation outside the convention and handed out some tablet PCs to lucky attendees.

There were lounges with free food and drinks, sponsored by various companies – the South Park experience, celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Comedy Central series set up in a parking lot a block away from the convention center.  SyFy took over the Hard Rock Café on Fifth Street as they have for the past three years at the convention, turning it into “Café Diem,” the hangout from their original series “Eureka.”  The food served was off the Hard Rock menu, but with names which represented the shows and characters of SyFy, like “The Strathairn” omelet or The Frakking Cylon salad.

Wired Magazine has had huge success with their Café, set up at the Omni hotel and made available for one day of the convention to readers of the magazine who sign up to attend.  Wired has for the past few years set the standard for an oasis to escape the hustle and bustle of the convention itself, bringing in shows like HBO’s “True Blood,” the History Channel’s “Top Gear,” and sponsors ranging from Budweiser to Pringles.  AMD set up a lounge two floors below at the Omni to demonstrate the remarkable 3D gaming capabilities of their processors, providing visitors with energy drinks and free t-shirts for stopping by and checking out their equipment and demonstrations.  Gaming oriented lounges were set up by Sprint, CNET and IGN for gamers looking for a place to try out new games and learn about upcoming releases.  Some of the cast of the Cirque du Soleil show “Ka” performed excerpts from their show outside Petco Park at dusk on the first day of the convention – a free show for all.  Conan O’Brien brought “Coco-MoCA,” to the con, an art show devoted to “The Fine Art of the Flaming C,” which featured artwork by professionals and fans related to Conan O’Brien’s superhero alter ego.  There were demonstrations and giveaways everywhere, set up in restaurants, parking lots and galleries, all rented out during the convention to provide spaces for fans and guests to interact with each other.

The con itself has stretched into both the Hilton Bayfront Hotel and the Marriott Marquis Hotel on either side of the massive convention hall.  The likelihood of spending the entire day in the main hall is dwindling as the exhibitors find new ways to circumvent the space limitations and the challenge of capturing the attention of the masses who shuffle through the crowded exhibit floor.

With so much going on outside of the convention, a person could justify a visit to SDCC without even having a badge to the main event – with movie screenings and all of the aforementioned events, there’s a satisfying experience to be had without waiting in the massive lines to get into Hall H or Ballroom 20, the two largest rooms for presentations and panels by Hollywood studios and television networks.  That leaves only the challenge of finding a hotel room – while the number of available rooms has grown every year they are still in very short supply.  Fortunately for convention attendees, an agreement was reached with the hotels in San Diego to cap the room rates in future years, to prevent potential abuse of hiked rates and more importantly, as an incentive to keep the convention located in San Diego.  It is widely known that the immense growth of the event in the last few years has brought other prime convention cities, like Anaheim, Los Angeles and Las Vegas to come calling to lure the event away.  Currently the convention is expected to remain in San Diego through 2013, at least.

Finally, there is another way to experience the convention without leaving home – the internet.  Videos of panels and events pop up on Youtube within hours of them happening, and some events are streamed live.  So much of the news which breaks at comic con is now available instantly on websites such as Seat42F, ready to feed an audience hungry for the latest announcements and photos of their favorite stars.  Though it can’t replicate the actual experience of wandering through the Gaslamp or hustling through the convention center to get to the next event, watching the events unfold from the comfort of your home is certainly less expensive and time consuming.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t be back next year.  The four days of Comic Con really can’t be replicated or replaced.  Despite the heat, the lines of people and the exhaustion, there is no place as exciting or alive as San Diego for four days in July.