ConShark

San Diego Comic-Con: Talk Back Recap

Have you ever seen the bit on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” called “The Most Patient Man on Television?” It’s a recurring compilation of the call-in segments on C-SPAN with host Steve Scully, who must endure the comments from the kind of people who watch C-SPAN and feel compelled to share their thoughts.

The questions and complaints lobbed at Comic-Con president John Rogers during the Talk Back sessions hosted at the end of the convention aren’t nearly as ridiculous, but they can be very repetitive and attendees are often long-winded.

Rogers continually exhibits the patience of a saint, or at least the patience of Steve Scully. He sits quietly through each person’s comment and calmly takes notes, no matter how many times an issue has already been raised.

This year, Talk Back saw the largest crowd it’s seen in years – maybe ever – thanks in part to the fact that the WonderCon Talk Back was where that show’s unexpected move to Los Angeles was a surprise announcement.

But the Comic-Con Talk Back was, for the most part, business as usual: the biggest complaints by far had to to with disability services, wristbands, lines, and parking. Hotels were barely mentioned. And there were no surprise announcements. It’s probably not shocking, then, that a large chunk of the crowd left halfway through the 90-minute session for lack of being entertained.

On the positive side, there was big applause each time the contract renewal with the San Diego Convention Center was brought up, a welcome contrast to the stunned silence we heard at the WonderCon Talk Back regarding the move to LA. And several attendees were kind enough to step up to the mic, which was once again manned by Comic-Con Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim, simply to say thank you.

The rest of the comments were polite complaints and constructive criticism. Settle in, folks. It’s a long one.

 

Hall H & Wristbands

Both disabled and general population attendees had issues with the wristband system, particularly distribution. Wednesday and Thursday night in particular, wristband distribution started late with no communication from staff. On Thursday night, one staffer finally began issuing wristbands very slowly, while others stood around without helping.

The Hall H line on Wednesday afternoon.

The Hall H line on Wednesday afternoon.

In the ADA line on Thursday night, only 65 wristbands were distributed. That’s only enough wristbands for 1% of the seats in Hall H, while it was pointed out that 19% of the US population is disabled. One percent, she argued, is not nearly enough. On Twitter and in person, the crowd reaction to this problem had been described as a “near riot,” and Fox 5 even did a live report from the ADA line on Thursday night.

Disabled attendees would have had a better chance of getting a wristband by waiting in the gen pop line, and would’ve been waiting just as long as they did in the ADA line. Staff in the line repeatedly answered questions by saying they didn’t know how many wristbands they had to give out – and why didn’t they? Rogers said there is no system (yet, anyway) to guess the number of people in line before wristband distribution – and that they would rather err on the side of caution by telling folks in line they don’t know if they’ll get a wristband. Otherwise, they could potentially encourage people to leave the line who actually would’ve gotten a wristband.

Rogers said they knew they had issues on Wednesday and Thursday, but thought they had gotten better as the weekend progressed – to which the Talk Back crowd responded with a resounding “no.”

And of course, one attendee brought up the obvious: what’s the point of the wristbands if you still have to camp out days in advance? As one astute attendee points out, spending a whole day waiting for something that’s the next day is exactly why Comic-Con removed on-site pre-registration. Rogers doesn’t want to ban people for running or for starting lines earlier than is allowed, even though Comic-Con reserves the right to do so in their legalese. But some attendees at the Talk Back encouraged him to change his mind.

Rogers responded to the camping issue with many of the same lines he used last year. Saying they are “still trying to adapt to the camping phenomenon,” he again mentioned the problem of dispersing early lines. When it’s done, the people in line simply remove themselves to an area Comic-Con doesn’t have control over, and then try to enforce their own unofficial line. Then, when Comic-Con opens an official line, there’s a stampede of several unofficial lines racing to be the first.

In theory, sleeping on the sidewalk is illegal in San Diego – they use this law to cite homeless people regularly. (And the issue of homeless people being rounded up and removed by police in days prior to Comic-Con has been exposed in the past.) But it’s considered acceptable when Comic-Con attendees, who pour an estimated $130 million into the city’s economy each year, camp out on public property.

Aside from the camping issue, Rogers points out that it is dangerous for those people to be sprinting to the official line. Comic-Con does have a responsibility to protect their attendees’ safety, as Rogers noted. He didn’t mention the ugly flip side of that responsibility: it’s also a legal liability if someone gets hurt.

The Ballroom 20 crowd on Saturday.

The Ballroom 20 crowd on Saturday.

It’s clear SDCC is still sorting out their options for dealing with the line monster they’ve created. Some even suggested pre-registration for panels online, with a lottery waiting room like there is for badge registration. Rogers says they’ve considered this and other systems. But in terms of banning people when enforcing line rules or simply trying to mitigate the mob of people in the Next Day Lines, “it’s not a good range of options.”

One attendee nearly demanded the implementation of a lottery for wristbands, which Rogers said they had considered but found that Comic-Con attendees prefer to wait and be sure of their place in line. This goes back to the old idea that Comic-Con is a convention where the currency is time, which The Verge says has made the Hall H line the “worst line in fandom.”

And on the issue of holding spots for huge groups, Rogers acknowledged that there was difficulty with this due to not announcing it well enough in advance. Some attendees asked for the policy to be changed to holding space for 3, the same number of people you can buy badges for at registration. Rogers disagreed, but said they did want to limit group size to prevent commercial line waiters (which are a thing and were promoting themselves during the con), but were still working out how best to enforce that.

If you were annoyed by people who abused Hall H re-entry passes, which are supposed to allow you to leave to use the restroom when the lines for the restrooms inside Hall H are prohibitively long, you aren’t alone: it was brought up, though Rogers didn’t comment on it.

And on a side note – does anyone remember that the wristband system is supposed to be called the Toucan Tracker? It wasn’t mentioned at the Talk Back, but we’ve since heard from first-timers who were met with blank stares from CCI staff when asking about the “Toucan Tracker.” Literally everyone, even John Rogers, calls them “wristbands.” Not a great marketing success there.

 

Parking
Traffic on Preview Night, heading into the Hilton Bayfront garage.

Traffic on Preview Night, heading into the Hilton Bayfront garage.

While the hotel lottery was hardly mentioned at all, the Ace Parking lottery was brought up several times – and Rogers did not have kind things to say about Ace.

Rogers specified that the decision to do a parking lottery was entirely up to Ace Parking – though Comic-Con had suggested Ace pre-sell parking permits several years ago, all the systems Ace has put in place have been their own creation. Rogers said CCI has seen the positive impact on traffic that comes with pre-paid permits, and they are trying to involve other parking lot companies in the system as well.

One attendee complained that the Ace lots weren’t even sold to capacity, but Rogers says Ace tells him all of their lots were sold to capacity. Other that this, communication between Ace Parking and Comic-Con is practically non-existent. Rogers said Comic-Con is not told of the plan, the date, the pricing – nothing. “It was a surprise to us what their plan was.”

While Comic-Con has put a lot of effort into getting the city to help with  discounted hotel rates, they have not done so for parking: when one fan asked that this be done, Rogers said it was much harder. Another fan complained about price gouging specifically in reference to the daily service fees Ace charges with its already pricey permits.

Regarding the lottery, it was pointed out that it was very easy to game the Ace lottery by setting up a myriad of email addresses and entering all of them. The attendee commenting even admitted he entered three email addresses. He asked Rogers to work with Ace to tie the parking lottery entries to Comic-Con member IDs, to prevent multiple entries.

Rogers’ response? “If Ace actually talked to us, some of those things might be possible.”

He also openly encouraged attendees to complain about the parking prices and lottery system directly to Ace and, preferably, to use the San Diego MTS Trolley to undercut Ace. “The Trolley is awesome,” Rogers added.

 

Problems in the Exhibit Hall: Funko and Legendary
The Sunday morning exhibit hall line.

The Sunday morning exhibit hall line.

By far, the most mentioned exhibitor at the Talk Back was Funko. But none of it was positive: huge complaints were voiced about the crowding issues at the popular toy booth. Halfway through the weekend, Funko abruptly switched to a ticketing system after being overwhelmed by the morning lines on Thursday and Friday. However, getting a ticket still required rushing to the booth first thing in the morning – which did nothing to alleviate the imitation of the running of the bulls that seems to occur in the aisles surrounding Funko each morning. Many attendees at Talk Back asked for a wristband system similar to Hasbro’s.

One attendee noted that the Funko booth closed at 4:00pm one day, well before the exhibit hall closed at 7:00pm – a practice that is not only discouraged but often explicitly banned at nearly every major convention and trade show.

Meanwhile, another attendee complained about the problem of getting an unspecified wristband from a booth on the show floor – the outside, overnight “everything but Hall H” line wasn’t let into the exhibit hall in the correct order after splitting up into the multiple exhibit hall entry lines. Rogers was clearly unhappy to hear this and asked what booth was doing their wristband distribution this way, and the attendee explained that it was Legendary. Rogers explained again that they discourage wristband distribution on the show floor for this exact reason – there’s no way to prevent exhibitors from lining up, and the flow of exhibit hall entry lines into the exhibit hall is complicated since there are at least five lines in the morning. He specifically said they would “go chat” with Legendary about this issue.

Rogers mentioned that this is a known problem that frustrates CCI, and that they have and will continue to discuss these issues with Funko. Rogers has mentioned in the past that for exactly these reasons, Comic-Con prefers to have limited autograph drawings and tickets/wristbands for exclusives distributed upstairs in the Sails Pavilion where there is more space and less distance to cover to get in line. It’s been said before that events that don’t participate in the Comic-Con sanctioned lottery draws are usually ones Comic-Con is not made aware of (like the Legendary example above), but the Funko issues illustrate that some exhibitors  simply don’t want to play by someone else’s rules.

 

Exhibitors Buying Exclusives

IMG_20150708_142237The recurring problem of exhibitors buying exclusives on the show floor was brought up again, as it is certainly far from resolved. It’s a constant issue, as exhibitors are going to be on the floor hours earlier than regular attendees and therefore have a clear advantage when racing for lines. Of course, technically exhibitors are not supposed to be in these lines – but some booths look the other way, while even more exhibitors have skirted the rule by somehow acquiring attendee badges and slipping them on in the exclusive lines.

Comic-Con knows about this problem and is constantly trying new ways to solve it: one attendee at Talk Back suggested wristbands for exhibitors, a solution that’s difficult to implement, while another proposed colored paper for exhibitor badges. He pointed out that many exhibitors who game the system like this don’t get full attendee badges for this purpose – they just borrow a friend’s plastic attendee badge holder and slip their own paper badge inside. Colored paper for exhibitors might help prevent this issue.

 

Venues

This year, Comic-Con used two new programming rooms at the Central Library. A moderator of one of those panels came to Talk Back to discuss how the new rooms worked out. While he was happy to see an educational programming track added, the library location was a problem. It’s rather far away – a 20-30 minute walk, he noted, with little to no signage along the route assuring attendees they’re going in the right direction. Inside the library, the lack of signage continued, and library staff seemed to know almost nothing about the events going on. His panel room, on the 9th floor, was even harder to find. And the room layout was problematic – the entry/exit door was right next to the panel stage, leaving attendees no way to enter without disturbing the panel. Indeed, he saw many people take a look at the situation and leave rather than disturb the panel inside – not to mention it’s a distraction to panelists. Simply flipping the room layout would have solved the problem. Still, he noted, he would rather be stuck in a late night time slot in the convention center than a prime daytime slot way out at the library.

Even the cosplayers found their way down to the Hyatt.

Even the cosplayers found their way down to the Hyatt.

Larger venues are always proposed at Talk Back, after attendees spend a weekend getting shut out of even Comic-Con’s biggest venues. This year, one attendee suggested using the San Diego Symphony’s stage, which is behind the convention center in Embarcadero Marina Park South (where the Star Wars concert was held on Friday night). Rogers said they have looked into this venue, but it is exposed to the elements and said it seats only 3,000 people. (Of course, Lucasfilm invited all of Hall H to its Friday night concert, leading one to assume they had to make use of standing-room only lawn space to fit all 6,500 people.)

One misinformed attendee mentioned Dragon*Con’s use of multiple hotels programming space, clearly forgetting that Comic-Con already does this at the Hilton Bayfront, Marriott Marquis & Marina, Manchester Grand Hyatt, Omni Hotel, and at the Horton Grand Theatre and the Central Library.

Once again attendees asked if Petco park could be used as a large programming venue, which Rogers again rejected: they have in fact looked into using Petco, but it’s very problematic and cost-prohibited. Half the seats are in the sun, and bad video quality (due to the sunlight) makes it unattractive to studios bringing footage. They could build a tent with air conditioning, but it’s very expensive – at least a million dollars. They did also look into using the San Diego Sports Arena, but were unable to figure out a way to effectively bus attendees all the way out there.

 

Disabled (ADA) Issues

Comic-Con arguably has one of the greatest Disabled Services departments and policies of any major convention. Many attendees have long praised the con’s commitment to helping disabled attendees enjoy their convention, and their efforts to make sure disable attendees have the access they need is outstanding.

That said, no system is perfect, and Disabled Services is a relatively small component of the massive event – one that security staff and other groups can easily overlook. So many of the comments at Talk Back are often focused on disabled access.

wpid-20150708_144457-01.jpegProbably the most urgent complaint at the Talk Back was made by disabled attendees who were told by Disabled Services that this would be the last year their attendants were allowed free admission. Many of these attendees can’t attend the convention without assistance. They commented at the Talk Back, saying they wouldn’t mind having to pay for their attendant’s badge, but that relying on the registration lottery is not an option for them. Rogers repeatedly reassured the disabled attendees that this was not true – the policy of allowing a disable attendee one free attendant badge would continue. But one disabled attendee said she had been told the same lie by Disabled Services last year – and it obviously wasn’t true then, since they were still allowed their free attendant this year.

In Hall H, there were problems with the general population mistakenly were sitting in the red-topped ADA reserved seats. An announcement had to be made to get people to leave the seats. Rogers noted that the Hall H loading process is supposed to be: wheelchairs, two general population chutes, then as many ambulatory disabled as there are ADA-reserved seats for.

The age-old question of the honor system for the ADA/disabled badges was raised again. Several complaints were made about people with disabled stickers who, the commenters believed, were gaming the system to wait in shorter panel lines, or to get into the exhibit hall earlier for exclusives. Unfortunately, Comic-Con can’t ask people to document or prove their disabilities – by California law, only a police officer can do that. (Last year one commenter asked if CCI would post a police officer at Disability Services to ask for documentation, a request that surely Comic-Con and the San Diego Police Department thought was not the best use of police resources, as no officer was posted in 2015.) Rogers pointed out this state law caused many problems at Disneyland too, with park guests lying about disabilities to jump lines. Rogers cracked a John Oliver-inspired joke in response, saying, “I do not write state law. I’m not FIFA.”

For the deaf, another set of issues: there was no assigned seating for the deaf in the Indigo Ballroom, and in Hall H, interpreters had no access to water during their panels. One deaf attendee also asked if they could consider adding closed captioning so he could enjoy the pilot screenings held on Preview Night. (Considering the sound quality in some programming rooms, many hearing attendees might even welcome captions as well.)

Finally, an ADA complaint that everyone can help resolve: there were several attendees who mentioned problems with other attendees not understanding how important ADA access is. Climbing over someone with a disability, even an invisible one, may not hurt you – but it may be painful enough to them that it ruins their day. Climbing over them repeatedly to take photos from the aisle in Hall H is not cool. And scooter users know they’re taller than you are in your chair in a programming room – they feel bad that they’re blocking your view, but that’s the only space that’s been made available for them. In addition, the general population is still uneducated about ADA and/or deaf seating, not understanding the difference. Deaf seating is specifically placed within view of the interpreter and is indicated with yellow-topped seats, while ADA seating has red-topped seats.

 

 

Stray observations:
  • One attendee requested directional lanes in the exhibit hall – essentially restricting aisles to one-way traffic to ease congestion, particularly in those 4000 aisles near the major exhibitors that can get extremely jammed. Rogers said that they do at times have staff directing traffic like this, but don’t have it set up permanently. It’s also worth noting that Comic-Con has refined their directional signage elsewhere quite a bit in the last few years, adding many signs upstairs outside programming rooms in particular to help with traffic flow.
  • Unlike last year, where the Playback Room (also known as the Replay Room, hosted at the Omni Hotel) was criticized for not showing the exclusive footage or trailers, this year it was all praise.
  • Some facilities complaints: a request for more water coolers around the convention center; plus, a lack of healthy food choices at the carts and cafes inside. Rogers’ suggestion? Don’t even bother buying food at the convention center – “bring your own food!”
  • One attendee had the audacity to ask if Comic-Con was hiring, and when told they usually hire through temp agencies, pressed Rogers for the name of the agency. Pro tip, readers: don’t be that guy.
  • We mentioned on Twitter the surprising lack of lines for big panels, and many other attendees have also said the crowds in the exhibit hall seems slightly more manageable this year. Rogers swears they sold the same number of tickets as they did last year.
  • The usual complaints about long-time attendees being unable to get tickets through the registration lottery was brought up again, with several suggestions (like a points-based system based on how many years someone has attended), but these went without any response from Rogers.
  • Regarding the online registration lottery, one complaint was made that it’s too easy to hack the system and get around the one-browser-instance-per-person rule. Rogers got into a surprisingly technical debate with the attendee, saying that the new system is already spread across multiple servers and has been designed to prevent all the problems the attendee claimed were issues. From the audience, one person called out that there were people with multiple member IDs used to get extra chances in the lottery. Rogers was unfazed, remaining confident in the current system and saying, “I’m sure people are trying to hack our system. People bought resources from Amazon to slam the system,” the latter in reference to the old online lottery process that pre-dated the member ID system.

 

John Rogers, the second most patient man in the world, sat at the front of the room after the 90-minute Talk Back and continued to take attendees questions and comments off the mic. Over 45 minutes after the posted 5:00pm closing time, while exhibitors were tearing down booths and fans outside said goodbye until next year, Rogers was still upstairs listening to attendees.

Comic-Con is far from perfect, and there are still plenty of problems to be solved. But more than any other world-class convention of this size, Comic-Con executives still make a huge effort to care about their attendees. So if you still have big concerns about something that happened at Comic-Con this year, take a few minutes to email them your thoughts. You might think nobody is reading those emails, but you’d be surprised.

 

What issues did you have at SDCC this year? How would you resolve some of these ongoing problems? Let us know in the comments.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Excellent coverage of the talk back. Thank you for doing that. Very interesting to hear what happened.

  • Finally read through this, wanted to add random 2 cents about parking. My husband and I arrived late on two days: 11 am and 12pm respectively and we had reserved parking at the Hilton, but we had to circle the building multiple times and eventually had to ask someone to open up the hotel guest only parking to be able to park. So at least as far as the Hilton is concerned, I felt like they oversold, not undersold their parking. Also, I absolutely despise Ace’s fees and system.

    I hope they fix the Hall H line, but I also dislike lotteries. And for a lot of us, standing in line is about getting a good seat (for photos), not getting in, which a lottery wouldn’t fix unless they lotteried off sections of the room.