As part of my professional life, I write about fandom as a social and economic phenomenon, but I am also a fan myself. I seek out content I enjoy, I spend a lot of time reading and writing about it, and I especially enjoy getting together with like-minded people to marinate in my passions at all-encompassing events like San Diego Comic-Con.
By all metrics, I’m not alone. Fan conventions – ticketed public gatherings themed around popular culture such as comics, science fiction, fantasy, entertainment properties (Star Wars, Supernatural, The Walking Dead), and so on – generated an economic impact in excess of $5 billion worldwide in 2019.
Global companies like Disney, AT&T Warner Media, Hasbro, Reed Elsevier and Informa all invested heavily in fan events, both to cash in on the wave of enthusiasm and to direct some of that enthusiasm to their branded content.
These gatherings all went by the wayside in 2020. ReedPOP, [ref] the pop culture arm of Reed Exhibitions, managed to squeeze in their Chicago event, C2E2, under the wire, after which most of the world’s biggest shows, from Tokyo’s Comiket (est. attendance: 500,000) and France’s Festival de Bande Desinee in Angouleme (250,000) to the mighty Comic-Con International: San Diego (~140,000 fans per day over 5 days), all fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The tangible short-term impact of this was dramatic. The shows, venues and host cities all lost big on the windfall of crowds of giddy fans roaming the streets for the better part of a week. The exhibitors and creators who set up at the events lost out on the significant revenue that is commonly generated in these exhibit halls. The big entertainment properties lost the giant earned-media spotlight that shines on their efforts.
The intangible impact might be even larger. These shows are giant supercolliders of serendipity, where creative matches are made, deals are struck, talent discovered, and lifelong relationships established. They are also places where the intentional community of fans affirms and validates their identities in public.
Millions of people around the world, who have nothing in common except their shared love of imaginary worlds, have used these events to strengthen bonds made online and to put the demands of the ordinary world in softer focus, if only for a weekend. Interrupting that process is disheartening and isolating in ways that are difficult to quantify.
The good news is that the events of 2020 accelerated investments that were already underway to bring more of the in-person experience of fan events into the digital domain. Most of the large conventions moved online to offer live or pre-recorded panels, opportunities for personal meet-and-greets with celebrities, and even virtual exhibit halls and artist alleys.. Strategies were implemented quickly, sometimes failed quickly, and re-emerged stronger after a few iterations. Support for creators through crowdfunding platforms hit record highs, as did sales of the underlying content. Graphic novels sales in North America increased from 2.8 million sold April-June to over 4 million in July-September, for example [ref].
This experience helped clarify which elements of the sprawling conventions can be safely (and profitably) cordoned off from the main body of events, and which of the social elements (e.g. intimate interactions, public display of costumes) are irreplaceable and essential when it is safe to resume live shows. I think it’s likely that other intentional communities across popular culture and professional life, that depend on these regular mass meet-ups, learned similar lessons.
On balance, the cost of learning these lessons and accelerating the innovations probably exceeded the benefits. This isn’t the year any of us would have chosen. However there is hope that once we emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, the connections that were temporarily interrupted can be re-established, and the rituals that bind and identify our intentional communities can reassert themselves.
I don’t know when that will be exactly, but as soon as the all-clear sounds, I will be first in line at the first convention I can manage to attend.
Photo By Lauren Elisabeth