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Friday, July 12, 2024

At a Comic-Con Without Hollywood, Fans Show Their Allegiances

On the surface, Comic-Con International 2023 looked like it did in years past. Throngs of fans, many in costume, crowded intersections beneath glossy advertisements for television shows dozens of stories high. Inside the convention center, people inched through the packed exhibition floor, lining up for exclusive merchandise and collectibles and work from their favorite artists. Across the convention’s many panel sites, experts discussed a wide range of pop culture and genre fiction topics. Some attendees played tabletop games; others met for anime-viewing sessions. Comic artists and publishers gathered for the Eisners, their industry’s most prestigious award.

But a trip into Hall H Saturday afternoon underscored the strangeness of this year’s convention, which fell two and a half months into the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike and just a week into the parallel strike from the film and television actors of the Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). In an ordinary year, Hall H’s 6,100 seats would have been filled by people who’d literally waited all day (or night) to get inside, and networks and studios would have shown them exclusive footage accompanied by A-list talent onstage—a rare opportunity for fans and the entertainment industry to face each other directly. This year, you could simply walk into the partly empty Hall H; at the Star Trek presentation, entertainment journalist Scott Mantz stood alone at the dais, queuing up sizzle reels and calling out absent actors’ names for rounds of applause. In that room, it was glaringly obvious that this was a San Diego Comic-Con without Hollywood.

There have, of course, been many SDCCs without Hollywood—the “comic” in its name is a reminder of its origins as the Golden State Comic Book Convention, which a few hundred people first attended in 1970. Over the decades, the event’s scope steadily expanded, but the studios and big genre franchises only began to dominate the space in the past decade and a half. That dominance defined the convention’s role in the entertainment industry in turn: a place for trailer drops and major announcements, and for many industry-side people, a chance to see a physical embodiment of “fandom,” even if only a tiny slice of fan culture is represented there.

Some of Hollywood’s major players have been pulling back from SDCC since the height of the corporate saturation in the mid-2010s; Star Wars, for example, hasn’t had much of a presence in years, as Disney shifted fan-facing activity to its own events like Star Wars Celebration and D23. But this year, with the writers already striking and a SAG-AFTRA strike looming, many studios and networks began to cancel their scheduled programming; when the actors’ strike officially began and SAG-AFTRA forbade members from doing any promotional work, the SDCC schedule became a sea of cancellations. In advance of the convention, there was speculation that Hollywood’s withdrawal might mean a return to its roots—that perhaps comics could once again be the star of the show.

But even in absentia, Hollywood still hung over a good deal of the convention, which is as much an entertainment-industry event as a fan-oriented one. Many WGA and SAG-AFTRA members have spoken about this year’s strike motivations as “existential”: the feeling that this is a major inflection point, for the entertainment industry specifically and for workers broadly. 

That feeling was palpable in San Diego, and not just from the actors and writers who attended in a non-promotional capacity. Since the strikes began, the studios have seemingly worked to pit fans against the people who make the things they love, framing delays as the fault of the striking writers, rather than unwillingness from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, to give writers a deal they find fair. Online, this framing has been largely rejected by fans, and that spirit seemed to carry over to SDCC too. There was a sense that an unusual—and yes, for some, disappointing—Comic-Con was an absolutely necessary one, because the future of entertainment media on all sides of the equation was at stake.

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On Friday morning, a group wearing familiar-looking black shirts set up shop at an intersection across from the convention center that is usually occupied by network-sponsored promoters or a particularly persistent group of protestors who shout at people that they’re going to hell. This morning’s group was made up of some of the more than 1,000 San Diego-based members of SAG-AFTRA, who, in lieu of joining the picket lines outside studios and the offices of streaming services in Los Angeles, were raising awareness about the strike outside a mostly actor-free Comic-Con.

“When I was a young man, we were celebrating the superheroes in comic books. Now, because of Hollywood, they’ve leapt off the page and onto the big screen,” says Lou Slocum, who has lived in San Diego since 1972 and became a member of SAG in 1995. “Normally they would be here and they would be celebrated. The closest we can get are the superheroes in cosplay right now.”

Slocum stresses the group’s support for Comic-Con and its attendees, and he makes it clear the SAG-AFTRA gathering isn’t a picket line and is not intended to impede anyone’s access to the convention. He expresses sympathy for anyone who might have been expecting to see their favorite actor or footage from their favorite show, but he hasn’t met with resistance from fans—on the contrary, he says, they’ve been greeted with a great deal of support from passers-by. “The people that I have met today have been all thumbs-up, V for victory, hugs,” he says. “We love it, and we’re very pleasantly surprised.”

While some panels and programming didn’t acknowledge the strike at all, plenty did—and some even focused on it. Slocum began his career in voice-over, which he says is like “the canary in the coal mine” right now, a sentiment stressed in a panel on the future of artificial intelligence in entertainment hosted by the National Association of Voice Actors. Panelists described the immediate threat to not just their livelihoods, but their own personal autonomy, as companies and fans alike use AI tools to manipulate their voices without their consent. (SAG-AFTRA national executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, who’d joined the panel, got a big laugh when he compared the situation to Ursula and Ariel in The Little Mermaid.)

The WGA shares different but equally pressing worries about AI, as well as broader concerns about the future of film and television writing. The strike served as an intermittent joke during a long-running television writers’ panel Saturday morning. “We really can’t talk about anything, because of the strike, so we’re going to keep these introductions going for an hour and a half,” moderator Mark A. Altman quipped halfway through the bios of the 11 panelists—but the vast majority of the conversation focused on how deeply concerned these established writers were about younger writers starting out in the industry.

“The whole point of the strike is we’re fighting for the future, and the future of our craft,” says C. J. Hoke, a writer who attended the panel and who became a member of the WGA last summer. “Seeing experienced showrunners talking about that and really rooting for the next generation is inspiring, and just encourages me to stay on the line with everyone.” Aside from the backing of members of her own profession, Hoke observed a wide range of solidarity at the con, which she characterized as a “swelling from the ground level.” 

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“It’s been wonderful seeing people on the floor with ‘We support the WGA’ signs and buttons and shirts,” she says. “I think everyone here really cares about the storytelling, and really supports the writers.”

Karina Montgomery was one con-goer with that sort of button—hers read “This Character Wouldn’t Exist Without WGA and SAG-AFTRA Labor,” which she wore over an impeccable cosplay of Helly R. from Severance. Montgomery, who also moderates the Severance fan Discord and contributes to the Severance wiki, began the week worrying about confusing messaging from SAG-AFTRA on fan activity, particularly over whether cosplay was considered scabbing. (The organization has since clarified that its guidance on cosplay was intended only for paid influencers, not ordinary fans.) “I was very happy to get to show up,” Montgomery says. “But I wanted to still show that I was supporting, so I designed this button.”

For many cosplayers, conventions like SDCC are about both creators and fellow fans. “The whole thing is connecting with people who love the shows and support the shows and want to be seen by the creators of the shows,” says Montgomery. “To be like, ‘Look, we see what you do, and we love it.’” 

To her, solidarity for the strikes was more important than a desire to cosplay—but cosplay could be a sort of solidarity too. “I'm gonna love a show that I love regardless of whether it’s canceled,” Montgomery says. “But if, for example, it became a scab activity to cosplay, I would not. I want to support the people who make the show that I love—I’m a booster. If I’m supporting the AMPTP by dressing like this, I don’t want to dress like this.”

But many creators weren’t even at the con to see these shows of solidarity. Others felt the absence of fan-creator interactions acutely. It was veteran TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s 22nd Comic-Con, and one in which he would have, under normal circumstances, promoted his writing on the new season of The Witcher. (Full disclosure: Grillo-Marxuach is a friend of this writer.) “I would love to do that work for Netflix right now,” he says. “For a lot of us, those are the goodies. You write a show and you get to come here and meet the fans, and they’re excited, and maybe you show them the show, and they recognize who’s the person who wrote that show.”

Grillo-Marxuach described the “gaps where Hollywood should be”—for all the talk of the event potentially returning to its comics-first roots, he noted that the film and television industry has undeniably altered SDCC a great deal. And those missing pieces were noticeable. 

Because it’s in those connections between the people who love stuff and the people who make the stuff they love that so much of SDCC rests, from the fans cheering for the biggest studio presentations in Hall H to the indie comic artist signing their work on the exhibition floor. The event is at its heart a consumerist one, and in attendees’ quests for material objects, that human connection is often diminished—the relationship is often boiled down to fan and corporation, with someone to do the selling in the middle.

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In a normal year, SDCC puts live human faces on both sides of the fan-creator divide—and this year, those human faces helped contextualize the strike, giving nonstriking attendees a firsthand view on the struggles facing entertainment industry workers. Both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA have raised alarms about a future in which studio and streaming executives steadily whittle away the number of people making movies and television shows, using AI to permanently remove them from the equation. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which the fan-corporate relationship is the only one left in that chain.

Fans also understand that the writers’ and actors’ struggles are directly entwined with their own. “Genre fans tend to be very aware of the writers, very aware of what the talent does, and they’re also very aware of how much they have to pay to actually see the things they want to watch,” says Grillo-Marxuach. “That financial sting puts them in a similar place to the writers. And a lot of the time, they feel like they're getting nickel-and-dimed to death, too, on their viewing, and I think that creates a lot of solidarity with us.”

But many fans are also workers, and they can see how these strikes echo their own job concerns. SAG-AFTRA’s Slocum cites parallel labor movements brewing across the country, from fellow entertainment workers like animation artists and members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees to Starbucks baristas and UPS drivers. “I really feel we're at the beginning of a middle-class stand in this country,” he says. Grillo-Marxuach echoes those sentiments: “One of the reasons people are so sympathetic to us is that the problems of writers as labor mirror the problems of labor as labor right now.”

While the strikes seem likely to stretch on in the near term, it seems unlikely that next year’s Comic-Con will be much similar to this one. But the strikes that utterly altered this year’s event will certainly define its future—and the future of the entertainment industry on the whole. Many fans who were already invested in their favorite shows and films now care just as deeply about the labor conditions under which those shows and films were made. Their consciousness, Slocum says, has been given a raise.

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