Comic-Con is free and online this year. Will anyone watch?

The big crowds of San Diego Comic-Con are gone this year, but might be thousands attending online.
(Illustration by Michelle Guerrero)

SDCC’s 51st year was changed by the pandemic. Now the organization is in uncharted territory: Going online and making it free.


The staff of Comic-Con International knew it was coming, but that didn’t stop the tears.

In mid-April, San Diego’s prized event was called off because of COVID-19. It made sense considering 135,000 attendees jammed into the Convention Center had the potential to be an epic super-spreader event.

“We had to break the news to everybody that we wouldn’t have a show,” said Comic-Con spokesman David Glanzer about when they told employees. “I will be very honest with you, there was some crying.”

But, then something happened.

Staff members started working on a plan to move the convention to an online-only format. And it turns out, a lot of movie studios, comic book companies and wacky pop culture groups were enthusiastic about the idea — and willing to work hard to make it happen.

On July 22, Comic-Con will kick off its 51st year — re-branded as Comic-Con@Home — online for free. Around 350 panels will be viewable on YouTube with the potential for thousands of fans sitting at home all over the world tuning in.

Comic-Con is tempering expectations of attendance. On one hand, the organization has always complained it doesn’t have enough space at the Convention Center and thousands of people trying to attend are always turned away. Now there is, in a sense, no limit on attendance. But, does anyone really want to sit in front of a computer or phone instead of being in the famed Hall H?

“There’s nothing more exciting than being in the room,” said Heidi MacDonald, editor of The Beat, a comic book news website.

Like a lot of frequent attendees, she lamented missing out on the real thing, even the parts most of us would dread — the excitement of waiting in line for hours with the chance to be there when the next big film is announced to braving the oceans of people who would never have the chance to meet unless at this pop-culture extravaganza.

It is hard to forget last year’s convention when Marvel Studios stole the show with announcements of a massive film and TV slate. It was pandemonium when a fourth Thor film was announced and Natalie Portman strutted on stage to lift the mythical hero’s hammer to deafening applause among 6,500 fans in Hall H.

However, MacDonald said the online event takes away from the sting of missing out on Comic-Con this year and credited the organization for going all out to try and create something. She also said she wouldn’t be shocked if there was a big turnout for the online panels.

“I wouldn’t be surprised — especially for the entertainment panels — to see quite a bit of attendance,” MacDonald said.

Measuring success of the online Comic-Con may be difficult because it doesn’t have the same number of must-see events. At least for now, the biggest names are sitting this year out: Marvel Studios, Warner Bros. with its large DC film division, CW with its massive lineup of DC shows and Star Wars.

At least some of that can be explained by production and release schedules being disrupted by the coronavirus, and DC holding its own online convention in August, DC FanDome. It’s part of a slow creep of pop culture entities having their own conventions, such as Star Wars Celebration and Disney’s D23 event.

That’s not to say there isn’t star power at this year’s convention. Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves are confirmed for the event. And TV shows with substantial followings seem to be going all out with multiple casts and panels, including “The Walking Dead”, “The Boys” and CBS’ ever-growing crop of Star Trek shows.

Schedules can also be added to. A week after the convention schedule was announced, the highly anticipated (and often delayed) new X-Men film, “The New Mutants,” was added to the Thursday schedule — quickly becoming the most anticipated panel of the entire convention. The film was the last of the Fox era of X-Men films and not considered part of the Marvel film universe, like Captain America and Iron Man.

Comic book fan Michael Coppola, 30, of New Rochelle, New York, said it was always a bucket list item for him to attend San Diego Comic-Con.

Coppola, who also runs a website called Mike Does Movies, plans to tune into the online convention on Saturday for the “Bill & Ted” panel, although he admits he isn’t overly excited because some of the bigger names won’t be there.

“It is a bummer that Marvel Studios and DC won’t be having a panel,” he said, “but considering that their production is halted and their release schedules (are) still are up in the air, it isn’t a surprise.”

Still, Coppola is a veteran of many New York Comic Cons and thinks the SDCC online event might be a welcome break from the long lines and disappointment of not getting into big events.

Logistics for the event are fairly straight-forward: Comic-Con staff will work from home while studios are responsible for setting up their own video equipment. To avoid major glitches, most panels will be pre-recorded.

It might take away from the excitement but the potential for equipment problems across hundreds of presenters is high, said Walter Kinzie, CEO of Texas-based Encore Live, a company that has been creating drive-in concert experiences for Garth Brooks, Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani and Trace Adkins.

“Even with incredibly reliable Internet connections, what can go wrong often times does seems to go wrong,” Kinzie said.

He said success for companies dipping their toes into virtual events for the first time means not having interruptions in feeds. That’s why he said many companies are doing the “live-to-tape” model, where videos are filmed beforehand and aired as if they are live. Familiar with the Comic-Con organization, he said he was confident the event is something it can pull off and he is learning people are way more understanding with digital shows than many realized.

“People understand the difficulties that businesses and organizations, and human beings in general, are going through and they know that we’re all more or less in this new reality together,” he said.

Comic-Con will take a financial hit not charging for tickets. The nonprofit, which also runs Anaheim’s Wonder Con, brought in $24.8 million in program service revenue in 2018, according to tax returns. However, the organization received federal government assistance to pay its 80-person staff through the Paycheck Protection Program. Also, although it has nothing to announce yet, Glazner said Comic-Con is working on getting sponsorship money for the event.

The economic hit to San Diego is a different story. There’s the huge advertising loss from the banners that wrap around downtown hotels, homeowners renting out rooms on Airbnb, convention attendees buying food and numerous items in the Gaslamp Quarter, and hotels filled to the brim.

The San Diego Convention Center Corp. estimated the physical 2020 convention would have brought in $166.2 million to the region. It would have meant 61,750 hotel rooms booked and at least $3.2 million in taxes.

“There is no question that Comic-Con has a huge economic impact on the region,” said Maren Dougherty, marketing director with the Convention Center. “It is certainly one of the events in the region with the greatest impact because of the number of attendees and all of the activities that take place throughout the city.”

Miro Copic, a marketing lecturer at San Diego State University, said it was critical that San Diego’s marquee event continued in some capacity this year. He said Comic-Con goes beyond just its content, being an opportunity to showcase the city every year to the entire world.

Copic is a little more familiar with fan behavior than your typical business professor, having previously worked as a senior vice president of marketing and product management for Wizards of the Coast, which produces the Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons games. He said even with some big names missing, he said the power of niche franchises will likely mean more attendees than many people realize.

“I think from an attendance perspective, you are going to get way past 135,000 people, you might get into the millions of people that will attend worldwide,” he said.

Lesser-known TV shows sometimes surprise even Comic-Con organizers with how many people show up, so it’s possible online events might do the same. Take the “Young Justice” panel from 2018. It was a DC cartoon that lasted just two seasons (before being revived in 2019) and probably isn’t on the general public’s radar. But, the room for 638 people filled up in minutes, leaving hundreds of diehard fans to wait outside in the hopes someone would leave and they could get in. Most never did.

One thing that might come out of this event is future streaming of panels that are the hardest to get into. Glazner said what makes the event great is the vast community of fans coming together in person but there may be room for more online features.

“I think there might an online component (in future conventions),” he said. “We’ll have to see after the show is done to find out what people enjoyed, what worked, what was a challenge.”

What to Expect

Two franchises are going all out at this year’s Comic-Con: Star Trek and The Walking Dead.

The Star Trek universe is in the middle of a renaissance with new TV shows on CBS All Access and the return of its biggest star, Patrick Stewart. It will pretty much take over Thursday’s programming with three shows featured: “Picard,” “Lower Decks” and “Discovery.”

A zombie epic that has now spilled over into three shows, The Walking Dead, will take up three hours of programming on Friday. The biggest cast members, including Norman Reedus, will be in attendance.

Besides Reeves and Theron, another prominent name at the convention includes Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda will appear on a “His Dark Materials” panel Thursday, Theron will have a panel all to herself on Friday and Reeves will pull double-duty Saturday with panels about the anniversary of the “Constantine” movie and his new movie, “Bill & Ted Face the Music.”

Other big draws include an appearance by the cast of Amazon Prime’s “The Boys” on Thursday, “The New Mutants” on Thursday, HBO Max’s adult animation panel Friday, and vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” on Saturday.

How to Attend

A catch-all place to see everything happening from July 22 to July 26 will be Comic-Con’s website at

The direct YouTube channel to most panels is

You can read the San Diego Union-Tribune’s coverage at

— Phillip Molnar is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune