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Comic-Con is far from the only convention of its kind these days but it hasn’t lost its swagger.
San Diego’s version remains the premier comics and pop culture convention in the nation though even as copycat conventions thrive.
There were fewer comics conventions like the one Comic-Con organizers had in mind when they launched in 1970. By the mid-2000s, San Diego’s Comic-Con was drawing 130,000 attendees and folks elsewhere saw an opening for conventions in other regions.
Now there are dozens of others. They include New York Comic Con and Salt Lake Comic Con, which go by similar names and more closely rival San Diego’s size and firepower. New York organizers, who put on a less Hollywood-focused conference, actually claim they’re now drawing more attendees than San Diego. San Diego Comic-Con hasn’t publicly disputed that but some fans have suggested the New York estimates are inflated.
Regardless, longtime devotees and experts alike say San Diego Comic-Con hasn’t lost its luster.
“Every year they deliver the goods,” said Rob Salkowitz, a Seattle-based digital media consultant and University of Washington lecturer who wrote a book about San Diego Comic-Con. “They don’t give anybody a reason to say, ‘Let’s check out New York next year.’”
Comic-Con’s become known for its unforgettable Hollywood appearances, like that time “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston managed to blend into the crowds donning a mask of the character he played on the show, or when Angelina Jolie flew in on a helicopter. Reporters and fans have also come to expect big reveals during the convention, including movie teasers and exclusive announcements. Then there’s the fact that downtown blocks transform into a Comic-Con village during the four-day event – and media outlets are there to cover all of it.
Salkowitz and Comic-Con fans who’ve gone to the New York convention say that event can’t compete with San Diego’s campus-like feel.
Other events offer some of the same but on a smaller scale, and often with fewer scoops and big-name appearances. Some focus more on niches like anime or host more fan-run panels. None boast as much Hollywood influence as San Diego. Some also have more exhibitors selling wares that aren’t directly tied to the entertainment industry, something San Diego Comic-Con’s nonprofit status allows it to more easily bypass.
Then there’s the business behind the show.
Artists, exhibitors and others in the comics industry can’t afford to miss the San Diego convention.
“The cost of not being here is so high,” said Salkowitz, who will appear on a Comic-Con panel this weekend.
A San Diego Comic-Con spokesman said organizers plan their conference with a variety of fan interests in mind rather than focus on a particular niche, as some others do.
“We pride ourselves in the diversity of programming and the diversity of our exhibit floor,” spokesman David Glanzer said. “We pride ourselves on having a stellar guest list that includes creators from all fields of popular arts, some of whom are international and others who may not regularly attend conventions.”
That’s not to say Comic-Con’s not concerned with its rivals – or what they’re calling themselves.
San Diego Comic-Con sued Salt Lake Comic Con last year, alleging that organizers of the Utah convention have used Comic-Con’s trademarked name to bolster their growing event.
The Utah convention, whose attendance reportedly hit more than 120,000 last year, argues Comic Con is a general descriptive term that San Diego Comic-Con organizers don’t have a right to hog. (By comparison, San Diego’s event has more than 130,000 Comic-Con attendees.)
Salt Lake City and San Diego aren’t the only U.S. cities with so-called Comic Cons, either.
Salt Lake organizers list more than 90 other events that use that moniker on their convention website.
They include a Denver one that drew a reported 101,500 attendees in May and a Seattle convention that brought in about 80,000 in March. San Diego Comic-Con’s biggest rival, New York Comic Con, says it had 151,000 at last year’s conference.
And more than a dozen other conventions across the nation are hosting similarly themed comic events with different names.
So there’s competition, and much of it goes by the same name. Some of them may have reached private agreements with San Diego Comic-Con to make that happen. (A spokesman for ReedPOP, a private company that puts on New York Comic Con and others across the globe, would not comment on whether it’s done so.)
David Lizerbram, a San Diego-based intellectual property attorney, told me Comic-Con’s lawsuit against its rival and the naming conventions of comic conventions will come down to whether Comic-Con can prove that term is exclusively tied to its brand or whether Salt Lake organizers can establish “Comic Con” has become a term fans use to describe a variety of comic conventions.
“It’s really about how the marketplace understands this term to be used,” Lizerbram said.
Yet despite that legal battle – and the explosive growth of other conventions – Salkowitz doesn’t see San Diego Comic-Con losing its reputation as the nation’s top comics and pop culture convention anytime soon.
It remains the go-to gathering, and some of the first research on the topic shows many convention attendees aren’t just going to one a year, anyway.
Salkowitz has partnered with event registration website Eventbrite the past couple years to survey more than 2,000 fan convention attendees, which include comic-focused ones, about their habits.
Last year, about 80 percent of survey participants reported attending at least two fan events a year and 17 percent said they attended at least five.
And many of those repeat customers still mark their calendars for San Diego Comic-Con every year.
“There are some people that live and die by this show,” Salkowitz said.