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Comic-Con 2016: Talk Back Recap

On the last day of San Diego Comic-Con 2016, CCI president John Rogers gathered in a tiny programming room along with several other staff members to take questions, comments, and complaints from attendees at the annual Talk Back panel. Once again, Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim manned the microphone.

There were no major announcements and no major discussions of current problems – so there are no updates on the hotel space issue, whether the con will stay in San Diego past 2018.

The only important announcement is that you do not need to keep your 2016 badge to validate your Member ID for 2017 pre-registration. However, your personal information including name and address are stored in the barcode on the back – so if you do toss yours, shred it! Or as John Rogers suggests, “you might want to keep them as a souvenir.”

This year, someone set off a trend of announcing how many years each commenter has been attending Comic-Con – and there were some impressive numbers thrown around. 16, 22, even 42 year vets were on hand to express their compliments and complaints. (And yes, some first-years showed up too!)

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Disabled/Handicap Accessibility Issues

As usual, ADA accessibility issues were the number one complaint at Talk Back. Some of these problems were ones SDCC needs to finally step up and fix, but others are par for the course. Hall H was the source of most of the complaints, including problems with the line location – outside, uncovered beneath the harsh sun. Unfortunately, fire code does not allow Comic-Con to construct canopies that close to the building.

Rogers did point out that the ADA line for Hall H actually begins inside the Hall H lobby, in an effort to remove at least some from the elements. It’s usually three switchbacks for ADA inside, but many said that on the hottest days this year there were only two switchbacks open inside. Rogers noted that their ADA population has “grown by leaps and bounds” in recent years, and that there’s only so much space to work with.

Regular readers of our Talk Back recaps will recall that some ADA attendees have speculated that the increase is due to able-bodied people claiming they need ADA access. Comic-Con’s hands are tied in this regard – due to California law, they are not allowed to ask anyone to provide proof of disability.

In fact, the heat was referenced more than once by people complaining about long uncovered lines – both ADA and able-bodied alike. It was the hottest Comic-Con since 2006, with three days posting highs above 80° and high humidity never dropping below 90%.Even the Hall H line manager was out on Friday with a case of heat exhaustion. (In 2006, only Preview Night had a high below 80°; Saturday’s high was a brutal 99°.)

Another mobility-challenged attendee argued that the handicapped don’t have enough of a chance at the morning lotteries in the Sails Pavilion, and that the elevator should be opened up earlier for their access. Similarly, a woman described the exhibit hall ADA line in the Sails Pavilion on Friday as “chaotic and dangerous.” (An able-bodied attendee made a similar complaint about the Exhibit Hall line on Friday morning.) And back in Hall H, ADA attendees with A wristbands were apparently stuck outside waiting to be admitted while able-bodied attendees with C wristbands were let in.

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The deaf & hard-of-hearing community continues to have troubles, too: Hall H’s allocation of reserved seating in view of the ASL interpreter has remained the same while the number of deaf attendees has increased three times over the last year years. In the Indigo Ballroom, accessible seats were only available upon request – a marked departure from SDCC’s usual reserved seats with chair covers. Rogers took note, saying it was a mistake and that there should have been reserved seating.

The most notable request in this category was for Comic-Con to add captions for the trailers and footage shown at panels. This addition would help members of the hard-of-hearing community that do not read sign language. Rogers sounded sympathetic, but said that the footage they get is too new to have time to be captioned (a process that is expensive and can take weeks to complete). This, he said, is why they use live translators, “because they can roll with whatever’s going on and they’re necessary for the rest of the program.” A live captioning service is not a viable option right now due to the encryption of the videos sent by studios and networks.

Hall H & Other Programming

The able-bodied attendees had their own problems with the Hall H line. Saturday’s now-infamous trouble with the incorrect chute being allowed entry was one of the first problems brought up at Talk Back. A chute full of people with wristbands was left outside on Saturday with no recourse while a chute full of people without wristbands made it inside for the day’s popular programming. Rogers noted this, but had no response.

Multiple people asked why rooms are not cleared between panels. It’s a common complaint, as the current policy results in rooms that are full of people not interested in the current panel, while fans of the current panel are stuck outside. Love it or hate it, “room camping” is a way of life at SDCC. Rogers’ main problem with clearing rooms is finding the space for all the extra lines. “Because we know that people would then want to wait overnight for each program the next day.” In addition, clearing and reloading a room the size of Hall H would take an hour and a half, drastically reducing the possible number of panels that can be programmed per day. “We struggle with this and debate this endlessly, internally, and still don’t know a better answer,” Rogers said. When another person suggested clearing rooms after every second or third panel, Rogers said they have discussed that possibility.

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In lighter news, one attendee complained about the moderator of the EW Women Who Kick Ass panel, which occupies a coveted Saturday afternoon slot in Hall H. Frequently wedged between predominantly male-driven movie franchise panels, it’s often viewed as clever counter-programming. They complained that the audience can be “hostile” towards that panel and it requires a moderator who can manage that issue. Surprisingly, Rogers asked her and others to email the con with comments on moderators, “because we certainly consider that.”

Some expressed disappointment with how (comparatively) small the Sunday programming schedule is. One urged the con to make it more clear to studios that people are in a lottery for tickets and Sunday may be the only day available. Another suggested adding additional days, which Rogers shot down:

I think we’ve talked about adding more days for years, but I don’t see that being a realistic sort of thing at this point. I think the show’s really, really long. Also, a lot of the studios tend to be very focused on Saturdays – Friday or Saturday – and more days won’t spread that out because they’re all focused on Saturday.

So what you can do as fans is [send] feedback [to] the studios that were on Thursday and Friday and say that you appreciated them being on a day other than Saturday because it allows you more options to see their programming. They will react to that.

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In the same vein, another attendee complained that other cons – specifically, D23 Expo and Star Wars Celebration – have strong programming schedules on Fridays and questioned the idea that studios aren’t interested in Thursday, Friday, or Sunday panels.

In response to this, we offer a word of caution on comparing shows like D23 Expo and Star Wars Celebration to Comic-Con (and a few corrections to that attendee’s complaint).

As our analysis uncovered, Friday is actually the day with the most panels on the schedule at Comic-Con, and they’re nothing to sneeze at: Game of Thrones and Walking Dead kept Hall H packed this year, and last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens panel and subsequent offsite concert were on Friday. Ballroom 20 and the Indigo Ballroom were also at capacity for essentially the entire day.

And comparing D23 Expo and San Diego Comic-Con is really comparing apples and oranges. Both Star Wars Celebration and D23 Expo are backed by a single corporation – Disney. Though D23 Expo covers the entire Disney empire, it functions like a single-subject show similarly to Star Wars Celebration. Organizing a day of panels all presented by  your corporate host is a far easier feat than the one which Comic-Con is tasked with each year.

In response to this (wildly unfair) comparison, Rogers simply said that after the popularity of Sunday’s Pokemon Go panel in Hall H, “it might be an interesting conversation” with their studio contacts regarding Sunday panels.

Wristbands

This was the third year for the Toucan Tracker wristband system in the Hall H line, and Comic-Con is still struggling with some elements of it. However, several folks stepped up to the mic to say that while they had opposed the program when it was introduced in 2014, they now really like it.

The main issue brought up concerned the morning return deadline for wristband holders. It was asked if it was really necessary to have everyone back by 7:30am on days programming doesn’t begin until 11:30am.

Rogers said they understand people wanting more sleep on those mornings, but they kept the return time 7:30am each day to be consistent. “We’re concerned that if we’re not consistent that people are going to miss out,” he said. The attendee asked if additional panels – even something simple like Animation Show of Shows – could be added to fill that time. Rogers said they would look into it, but sometimes the room is in use for rehearsal or tech checks.

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Making the 7:30am return time worse were nights were wristbanding took upwards of five hours. This was a problem in 2015 that Comic-Con thought they had fixed this year – Thursday night wristbanding was done in two hours. As mentioned above, the staff lead for that department suffered heat exhaustion on Thursday and wasn’t able to return on Friday. This, combined with problems with cutting and line organization, meant Friday night’s wristband distribution took five hours. “The people who did it Friday night were not quite as… talented,” Rogers conceded.

In the understatement of the century, Rogers did admit that “we had some difficulties with the line” this year.

Another attendee asked why she was not allowed to rejoin the line at the break between A and B wristbands in the morning. She had stayed Thursday night to receive an A wristband and upon returning Friday morning was placed at the end of the wristband line instead of the A group. In Comic-Con’s defense, this is exactly the policy and process they had announced. Rogers said they “debated that endlessly” when developing Toucan Tracker but struggled to find the physical space to put the people who arrive in the morning.

Others saw people readmitted to the line as late as 8:20am, but there’s no way to know how long those people had been gone.

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Badges & Hotels

As mentioned above, the most important announcement in this category is that you do not need to keep your 2016 badges to verify for 2017 pre-registration.

The new hotel lottery was brought up, but didn’t get much of a response from the Comic-Con team. Several attendees complained about hotel rooms going to people who are not Comic-Con badgeholders. Most acknowledged the difficulty SDCC faces with hotels, given how severely demand outstrips supply and that the con still needs to provide for exhibitors and staff.

The main problem Rogers cited for not restricting hotel lottery access to badgeholders is that some badge types have not registered by the time the lottery is held. He specifically referenced trade professionals, but many members of the press also register much later. “We keep thinking about those things. We haven’t solved that one yet.”

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Online badge registration was again criticized for only allowing a person to purchase for three people total, creating a problem for families of four. Others requested a “back” button be added to the process, to allow people to correct mistakes in badge/date selections.

Badge mailing was widely praised at Talk Back, though international attendees still had a few problems. They requested that the online registration system no longer require a US zip code and phone number, as failing to fill this out will currently prevent you from completing your purchase and can cause people to lose the tickets in their cart.

One man said he forgot his badge at home “like a rocket scientist,” and was pleased to see that it could be re-issued once he arrived for a mere $5 fee. Since he didn’t have $5 on him at the time, a volunteer even paid the fee for him.

Another complained that the envelope the badges were shipped in looked like junk mail, which Rogers defended – the nondescript packaging was an intentional theft deterrent.

A few attendees complained of long lines for lanyard/bag/book pickup, and some disliked that the convention center didn’t open as early as it used to for lines and pickup on Preview Night. Another said registration closed too early on Preview Night.

Regarding international mailing, Rogers said it was simply a case of the con avoiding many unreliable and slow international mail carriers.

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The new RFID badges, tested earlier this year at WonderCon, were also well received. Even attendees noticed that it pushed more people out onto the sidewalk in front of the sidewalk – folks without badges who could usually worm their way into the convention center lobby before being stopped at the exhibit hall doors.

RFID does help reduce counterfeiting, but badge mailing could contribute to more scalping and resales than before. This issue was raised at Talk Back, with one attendee asking if there was a way for fellow badgeholders to help report these sales when they encounter them.

Rogers confirmed that they work with eBay, Facebook, and Craigslist to “pull down those ads as quickly as possible.” They do cancel badges and delete Member IDs when they are able to identify who is reselling their badge. They also hire SDPD vice unit detectives to cite scalpers in the downtown area during the event.

Regarding the possibility of Comic-Con releasing those cancelled badges back to the public, Rogers said, “usually that happens too late and we don’t – it’s only a couple hundred badges, which may sound like a lot from your perspective but from our perspective, it’s not.”

Finally, Rogers was asked about the number of tickets sold both at pre-reg and open online registration. He declined to give those numbers, but did confirm that “around 50%” of badges are available during pre-reg. He also did not give out numbers on how many people are denied tickets, saying multiple sessions makes it impossible to count. In addition, he clarified that badge type – adult, junior, senior, or military – does not matter. “If there’s a thousand badges, there’s a thousand badges.”

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Exclusives

The lottery draw for the Conan Funko Pop was praised, and there weren’t any complaints about trouble at the Funko booth – a far cry from previous year’s litany of problems with the exclusives there.

It was also requested that the con encourage some vendors (e.g. Lego, Fox) to post if there is a restriction on the badge types they will allow to purchase or participate in their lottery. Many people with professional or exhibitor badges were restricted from these lines, despite the fact that those people may not be exhibitors or professionals themselves. (Both exhibitors and pros have the opportunity to buy additional guest badges.)

Overall, attendees seem happy with lottery draws for exclusives, asking Rogers to make additional exhibitors use such a system. What keeps others from adopting lotteries, Rogers acknowledged, is that the exhibitor has to staff it on their end.

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Incidentally, there were complaints about the exhibit hall entry lines, some of which were mentioned above. Rogers said that this year they changed the entry point to Hall G because the previous entry point at Hall E required them to “defend the line from H to E, which required a tremendous number of people… and cause the bathroom access to be cut off the entire time that line is moving, and prevented us from loading the disabled into the Hall G lobby to stage them for Hall H.”

Rogers went on:

The other interesting thing that happened this year is a lot more people showed up early than have in the past, because everybody had their badge. So our line, which usually went on the grass… suddenly went through the chute, through the serpentine, through the four lines of H, and all the way to Seaport Village. We got hit a litter harder than we expected and a little earlier than we expected. It wasn’t because of the RFID.

Fulfillment Room

A few attendees complained about the walk to the Hyatt to redeem tickets at the Fulfillment Room, now re-named the Programming Premiums Room – despite the fact that it’s been in the Hyatt for three years now. “It seems like we have to make an Oregon Trail trek just to go pick up swag,” one attendee said.

Rogers reminded him that they are “severely space limited” right now, and farming rooms like Programming Premiums is one way they can take advantage of what space is available to them.

Director of Programming Eddie Ibrahim chimed in, saying that they do ask the presenting studio to announce what the freebie is – SDCC doesn’t want you to have to hike down to the Hyatt for something you don’t want. He said his team would emphasize that message again with the studios next year.

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Parking & Shuttles

Parking surcharges continue to be a problem, as we all know – they can often nearly double the total cost of a weekend’s worth of parking permits. Unfortunately, Comic-Con does not sell those permits themselves, so Rogers repeatedly encouraged attendees to complain directly to Ace Parking, who runs the sale. He also recommended complaining to the Port Authority, who own the convention center parking garage.

A shuttle between the convention center and the Central Library was proposed again, to help attendees get to programming in the Neil Morgan Auditorium (web programming) and the Shiley Events Center (educator’s programming). Rogers said they did look into this, but the traffic and closed streets in the area make the drive take too long.

The "everything else" line begins out front, near the shuttle stops.

Personal Recording

As some on Twitter noticed, security in certain rooms has been overzealous about stopping attendees from photographing or recording a panel. It’s common knowledge that recording of the footage, trailers, concept art, or other exclusive things shown on screen is not allowed. However, one attendee said his wife was told by Indigo Ballroom staff that she couldn’t record her husband asking a question during a panel.

On Twitter, we heard from other folks who were restricted from photographing panelists in smaller rooms. Some were told by security that only accredited press could photograph or record, even for personal use.

Rogers apologized to the attendee, saying that they “should’ve been able to record that” and that they would need to discuss that with the Indigo staff.

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Stray Observations

  • An exhibitor sent around a sign-up sheet in an unrelated panel that was apparently sanctioned by room staff, a concerned attendee reported. She offered to tell Rogers the name of the exhibitor but did so off-mic. Rogers seemed very interested in knowing the details on this one, since such a thing is specifically prohibited by SDCC.
  • A comment in support of the con staying in San Diego past 2018 was met with applause, as were those in favor of the convention center expansion and those against the opposing football stadium development plan.
  • It was requested that dedicated cosplay photography space be set up in the Sails Pavilion, since more space is available there now with the departure of registration space. Rogers seemed receptive to this.
  • There was no free WiFi this year because the sponsorship price increased by $40,000 and “nobody was willing to sponsor that.”
  • The staircases at either end of the doors are not used for access now. When asked if they could be, Rogers said one set is not viable because of where it lets out. The front staircase may be possible, but it will depend on whether a tent with power for the RFID scanners can be set up.
  • Volunteers no longer automatically get Preview Night access because there are simply too many people in attendance that night already.
  • This was the first time in years I’ve seen the Talk Back line cut off at 4:30, the scheduled end of the panel. CCI did also request people limit themselves to one comment, and they could get back in line to make an additional comment.