As San Diego Comic Con celebrates half a century, chief communication and strategy officer David Glazner looks back on its humble origins, the evolution of fan engagement and his encounter with Captain Kirk.
When San Diego Comic Con launched in 1970, the 300 comic book fans in attendance couldn’t have begun to dream what it would become 50 years later. In 1978, when a young David Glazner first attended the event as a passionate film fan, little did he know that it would be a defining feature of his life. Now the chief communication and strategy officer, he describes the aspiration behind its launch.
“When the show started it really was an effort to highlight areas of entertainment that we thought were also art,” he tells EN. “People who read science fiction and fantasy were usually considered a fringe element, not the mainstream, but we thought that these were really expressive forms of art and we wanted to shine a light on them.
“In 1970, once you saw a movie it was done, and once you read a comic book you threw it away. It’s amazing that in 2019 some of the biggest blockbuster books are fantasy and science fiction and some of the biggest movies are based on comic book properties.”
An early win for the ‘fringe’ event was the attendance of Frank Capra, director of It’s A Wonderful Life, in 1972, followed by an appearance in 1976 from a talented young man called George Lucas previewing a film called Star Wars…and nowadays who’s heard of that?
A draw of the event in the 70s was the ability to watch 24-hour screenings of films which otherwise would’ve been confined to late night television.
“The icing on the cake, or a nice side note, was the fact that I met other people who had those same passions,” says Glazner. “While film drew me in, I learned so much about costuming and about comics. I love history and found out there was this whole other movement and a group of fans who really loved World War Two comics.
In 1984 Glazner began working as a volunteer at the show and was offered a staff position in 1994. One of the most obvious changes to the show across his tenure have been the technological aspects.
“What we’ve noticed is social media and the internet has certainly made things a lot more instantaneous,” he tells EN. “But there still is a desire for people to come and have that face-to-face, one-on-one moment. They’re having an experience. People may put the information on social media and it may break in general news, but the actual experience of being at the event is still something that drives a lot of people’s attendance, and part of that is community.”
San Diego Comic Con is a not-for-profit event and organised by a big committee.
“We’re all fans, and so we try to produce the type of show we want to attend,” continues Glazner. “Back in the day we would we would decide what kind of programs we wanted to have and we’d all agree upon that. We now have the luxury of having people submit programs to us, so we can pick the best.
“We’re governed by a mission statement, which is to promote comics and popular art. We all have budgets, but we don’t look at what we can do to increase the bottom line. That’s for the accounting department and the board to worry about. In all the years I’ve worked here I’ve never had an instance of, ‘you need to sell more tickets’. So long as we meet our mission and people want to come to the show then we’re fine.
“I sat on a panel once with a gentleman who ran a competing convention and he had said, ‘the difference between David and I is that we’re for profit and I have to worry about the bottom line, so the decisions I make have a real monetary factor’. I have free will to invite someone who might not be a hugely popular guest but who has a rich history in whatever industry it is that they’re coming from.
“I’m never going to tell anyone how to run their business, but my concern is always that it never comes to a tipping point where the people who are attending feel that they are a commodity.”
By the fans, for the fans
“We’ve always had an open-door policy,” says Glazner. “Yes, we are geeks and nerds, but we always felt we had a very cool event that everybody was welcome to. There was trepidation at some point because people would say, ‘it’s a geek fest’ in a pejorative way. But we wear that as a badge of honour, because we know what it is.
“People who attend Comic Con may not hang out together any other weekend of the year but during Comic Con they have a great time and respect each other.
For the past several years, the show has been maxing out capacity in San Diego Convention Center, with tickets for the 2019 event selling out in less than an hour. While this may seem like a nice problem for an organiser to have, it presents its own set of issues. Loyal fans are prioritised, with returning registrants given first pick of tickets, and Glazner hints at a new ballot initiative on the cards for 2020.
“We’re trying to make the best of a tough situation,” he says. “We focus mostly on the people who are in the building because in many cases they’ve travelled from long distances. They want that live experience. We’ve not really put a lot of our panels online. That’s something we’re going to be doing soon, a period of time after the show. We don’t want to turn people away. We wish we had a bigger convention centre that could accommodate all the people that wanted to attend.”
While in previous years it was possible for visitors to wander around and pop into different panels at leisure, the big sessions are now often at capacity.
“One of the great things about that is that it allows people to have second, third, fourth choice things they want to do – we always tell people to expand their areas of interest,” continues Glazner. “Maybe go to a panel that you don’t have an interest in or knowledge of. Once you sit in on it, you might find out that there is something there for you.”
Another cultural change which has impacted on the show is pop culture and how it’s consumed and analysed by fans. In particular, an explosion of online blogs, publications and podcasts has changed the event’s relationship with press visitors.
“Early on one year there was a writer from a very prestigious newspaper who insisted on getting into a room which the fire marshal had closed,” recalls Glazner. “He said, ‘I’m mainstream press. I don’t think you know who I am.’
“I don’t think he was trying to be…he was very frustrated. I had to tell him, ‘I do know who you are. I’m really sorry. I can’t do anything. We appreciate you being here, but there are other people who’d like to get into this room who we consider mainstream press. They may be smaller outlets, but they write about us throughout the year.
“We’re grateful that we still have major publications and magazines that highlight the show. But the rank and file fans who do a lot of the podcasts and all that – we’re taking note of them.”
Surprise and spectacle
Anyone remotely interested in pop culture couldn’t fail to notice some of the spectacular reveals that took place at the 2019 event. From Marvel’s grand unveiling of its ‘Phase Four’ of content production, to the trailer for Tom Cruise’s Top Gun sequel to a sneak peek of Patrick Stewart in new Star Trek property Picard – the event wasn’t short of social media moments.
“There are often surprises at Comic Con, and we love that,” says Glazner. “As a fan myself, I remember going before I started volunteering and those surprises are awesome. It’s a great thing for the companies that make those things happen and the fans love it.”
As a fan, Glazner has two memories that stand out over his four decades of involvement with San Diego Comic Con.
“Before I started working at Comic Con I was at the show and ran into a comic strip artist I really loved named Matt Groening,” he recalls. “He had a strip in one of the LA papers that I was always reading, and he drew these funny rabbit characters. He looked shocked that someone was asking for his autograph and knew who he was. He was really nice and not only signed his name, but he drew a wonderful picture. And, of course, later on he would go on to create The Simpsons.
“In 2012, I was able to present him with our Icon Award, which was really moving for me.
“One of the best experiences from a working standpoint was William Shatner was coming to promote some books that he was affiliated with. He came in with a camera crew from a popular morning news programme. At one point he leaned over to me and said, ‘is there anything we can do for you to help you guys out?’
“I said, ‘if you can get our logo in there, or our name, we’d really appreciate it’, because we could never afford that. He said, ‘no problem’, and at one point the producer wanted to talk about his product and he pushed himself over in front of our logo and said, ‘I think this is a good shot’.
“I couldn’t believe it! So that morning went well. It wasn’t until he left that one of the guys I was with said, ‘there goes Captain Kirk’, and I thought, ‘oh, my God, that was Captain Kirk.’”
The rise of the comic con show genre has been astronomical, and its success can only be attributed to a true sense of understanding between organiser and attendee. As with most events, it’s both complex and very simple: know the fans, know what they want, and deliver it.