A ‘Con’ is right: Why Comic-Con is destructive to film journalism and fanhood

A 'Con' is right: Why Comic-Con is destructive to film journalism and fanhoodRegular readers of Critic Speak probably realize the absence of something that nearly every other movie blog on the web is currently running: Comic-Con coverage. I figure it’s best that I clue everyone in as to why, because our reasons for avoiding the popular convention will significantly influence the site’s content from now on.

Those who have attended Comic-Con for over a decade frequently bemoan the progressively growing presence of film and television at the convention. In the late ’90s, only the absolute “geekiest” of visual entertainment appeared at Comic-Con — comic books and other niche media were still very much the focus. But over the last decade, movies and TV have overtaken everything else, as studios throw lavish panels and footage previews designed to promote their latest releases. In other words, instead of remaining about art, the convention has become about marketing. The biggest news-item thus far about this year’s gathering: A “Twilight” fan was hit by a car as she dashed into traffic, hoping to secure a good place in line—three days early—for the presentation.

For five years, from 2007-2011, I attended the bulk of the movie presentations in Hall H, the largest auditorium where the highest profile projects are showcased. Why? Because I lived in San Diego, I got in free with my press badge, and most importantly, my coverage brought my website copious page-views. On the whole, the presentations were not enjoyable or compelling (though, in the interest of fairness, I will admit that they had their moments, such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s thoughts on filmmaking last year and Kevin Smith’s annual Q&A). I attended solely because I was excited by the prospect of my Google Analytics account going haywire. When I videotaped the “Iron Man 2” panel in 2008 and posted it to YouTube, plastered with my website’s URL, I received more page-views over the course of one weekend than I did over the rest of the entire summer.

This year, I knew it wasn’t likely that I would be press accredited at Comic-Con due to my recent change of outlet. Critic Speak has done incredibly well, traffic-wise, for a site that is not yet three months old, but as the convention has grown more popular, it has become  difficult to get a brand-new outlet accredited. And indeed, we were not. Thus, I was forced to make a decision: pay $150 to attend an event I have never enjoyed or skip it all together. It was a no-brainer: all the hassles of Comic-Con—the crowds, the parking, the endless spree of advertising—were not worth paying for.

After making the above decision and shaking the feeling that I had to cover Comic-Con to remain relevant as a blogger, I realized that by covering the convention, I was actually doing something wrong: perpetuating the popularity of an institution I am intellectually opposed to. By attending an endless slew of movie panels at Comic-Con, we true film fans do not gain anything. In fact, we sacrifice quite a bit. By watching several extended trailers and clips of upcoming movies, we make the experience of actually watching said movies when they are released less enjoyable and authentic. By cheering for directors and movie stars during glorified Q&A sessions with reliably moronic audience questions, we celebrate celebrity rather than artistry. Twitter, by comparison, is a superior form of direct communication between artists and audiences — and that’s saying something.

More than anything, by attending Comic-Con (or intensely following coverage of the event), we are treating advertising (which is all that the panels are) as relevant to the craft that we love, when it fact, it is objectively not. We are allowing the studios to dictate to us what we want, rather than deciding for ourselves. Nothing is a better illustration of this than Hall H’s annual “Trailer Park” program, in which 6,000 people willingly watch previews for upcoming movies so that they can keep their seats for the day’s panels.

The realization that I supported such an anti-art event so blindly, all in the name of generating page-views, makes me rather ashamed in retrospect. The glorious thing about the Internet is that bloggers are supposedly beholden to no institution—free agents—but in reality, we have become so addicted to page-views (the only path to monetization) that, at least on movie blogs, we have become the studios’ bitches. Serious film critics whose work I respect willingly cover Comic-Con because it is a meal ticket — and a good one, at that. This is understandable, but if we truly want to be viewed as journalists and not just Internet promoters, it is not acceptable. We must collectively push back and stop treating advertising as though it is relevant to art, because this is the only way that film blogger surrogacy to the studios will end.

Some might argue that bloggers are merely seizing the free-market and responding to their audience’s desire for this type of content, which viewers want to see regardless of whether or not it is advertising. My response to this argument is that posting this material is fine if you run a “geek site,” where publicity materials are the bread-and-butter of your business and you do not practice “serious” film criticism. Though, I do have to question why any true film fan would want to spoil movies by partaking in their Comic-Con previews.) But without naming names, I will assert that it is heinous that serious film blogs that aim to be considered journalism drink the Comic-Con Kool-Aid so willingly. The day that we become more beholden to advertising and readership than the print media is the day that we have not fulfilled the promise of the Internet (that is, if the day hasn’t arrived already).

At the beginning of this column, I wrote that my realizations about Comic-Con will result in some changes to Critic Speak. Allow me to explain. Even though Comic-Con only lasts for five days in July, the “Comic-Con mentality” continues year-round, and it has unfortunately corrupted us here at Critic Speak. We have posted plenty of articles that are essentially advertising—trailers, release date shifts, etc.—just like what you see at the convention. This was done in the name of page-views. For instance, when our posting of the “This is 40” trailer caught fire on Reddit and garnered us over 40,000 new visitors, James and I couldn’t help but get excited. But I now see that this was wrong. It is our job, as aspiring journalists, to not fall into the trap of “the numbers” (which film critic David Elliott wrote about so eloquently in his recent farewell column).

As a result, effective immediately, we will no longer be posting anything that could qualify as advertising unless we have something valuable to say about it. If we post a trailer, there will be substantive commentary to go with that trailer or, at the very least, a reason that we want you to take a look at it. Page-views will no longer be a primary concern. In our first post on this site, we made a promise: “While we will post our fair share of news stories, home video release round-ups, and box office predictions, we hope to add our unique perspective to every story — to offer original content that keeps you coming back.” We lost sight of this promise for awhile, but from now on, it will be honored religiously.

Let me be clear: When I speak negatively about Comic-Con, I am not speaking about the entire convention. I am simply talking about the film and television-related events. The “original” events—primarily those that are, you know, comic book-related—have remained largely pure. There are still panels with artists, writers, and executives from that industry in which fans can learn and be illuminated. I used to wonder why comic book enthusiasts would complain about the film and television studios “taking over” their event. Now that I have removed myself from it, I understand completely. When advertising supersedes art, the true fans are the ones who suffer.

Minor changes to grammar and phrasing were made for a 2013 repost of this column.