Can Conventions Survive in a Virtual World?

Conventions have become one pillar of the rapidly expanding pop-culture marketplace. What began with a relative handful of science fiction and fantasy literature fans has exploded into an annual international phenomenon.

Millions gather at conventions across the globe, coming to mingle, to meet, and to rub shoulders with their pop culture heroes from the cast of classic Sci-Fi TV programs to the latest hot comic book or game creators.

More than anything, the gatherings served as solidarity opportunities for a subculture that was marginalized by popular culture at large, not that long ago. Comic Cons were not places where Hollywood’s hottest stars sat for panels. That has changed.

In recent years, “cons” in San Diego, CA, and NYC have become the place for movie announcements and other major pop culture entertainment PR, while other, smaller conventions across the country have become regional hotspots for “geek culture” to merge with popular culture in a way that shows exactly how the roles have been reversed.

Comic books, science fiction, and fantasy fans are now driving entertainment, with big-screen blockbusters and popular TV and streaming programs all being aimed at that primary market.

And, for years, this formula has worked incredibly well for producers: Debut or tease a new property or production at a con, then release it the following summer or fall season.

Then came the year of COVID. That took other, smaller cons online already. Now, organizers have announced that New York Comic Con will not be happening at the Javits Center.

Instead, the event will take place entirely online. Panels and other special events will be live-streamed beginning in October, so organizers and promoters have between now and then to convince fans this kind of con experience can be worthwhile.

That’s going to be a tough sell. Last year, more than 200,000 people bought tickets for the four-day NYC event, gathering for live panels and costume contests, browsing the vendor floor, and meeting their creative idols.

But, says ReedPop, which organizes and promotes the event, there are signs for hope.

Another ReedPop promoted event, BookCon, normally attracts 20,000 people.

This past May, nearly 400,000 viewers tuned in for the online version.

But Comic Conventions are famous for the lure of in-person interactions, so it will take a strong effort and a stronger offer to get fans to tune in for a much more stripped-down experience.

So far, organizers are promoting panels, including stars from properties including Star Trek, American Gods, Dreamworks, and Hulu.

Convention organizers are also promoting live meet-n-greets, though how that will happen is still an open question.

It’s tough to score a photo with a talking head on a computer screen, so it will be intriguing to see how promoters pull this off.