For at least one day, the most interesting head-to-head battle during San Diego Comic Con wasn’t between traditional Hollywood studios, but between Netflix and Amazon Prime. On Friday afternoon, it was the two streaming services commanding the con’s attention and forcing fans to choose between getting their fill of The Boys and Carnival Row, or The Witcher and the long-awaited return of the Dark Crystal saga.
That type of head-to-head would’ve been unthinkable in the past. Heading into its 50th edition this year, the story of SDCC has been one of Hollywood gradually transforming the con into more of an all-around pop-culture festival. First, it was movie studios hosting the centerpiece panels. Then, the renaissance of superhero and sci-fi fare on TV swung more attention toward networks and cable channels.
But while Marvel capped SDCC Saturday with details about Blade, Black Panther 2, Guardians of the Galaxy 3, and the new Thor, other big studios—most notably Warner Bros. and its DC Extended Universe—skipped the event entirely. That further opened the door for streaming providers to expand their footprint, whether it was through convention programming or mounting “activations”—events and immersive exhibitions—to entice would-be viewers with a taste of the worlds their shows explore.
Of course, there's more streaming services than ever, and it's hard to decide which of them are worth subscribing to and which ones will inevitably fall victim to more piracy. There are many ways to decide what to subscribe to, but one way of doing it is determining how much effort the streaming services themselves are putting into promoting their new shows, and so we booked our schedules, early morning to late night, to check out all the moves, from the panels, to the parties, to the swag. Here’s our scorecard.
Amazon Prime Video
As if Jeff Bezos’ tentacles hadn’t already disrupted commerce and the internet itself, Amazon Prime Video has been an emerging player in the SDCC ecosystem in recent years.
From the moment a con-goer opened their badge box and saw The Boys advertisement lining the lid, it was clear that the adaptation of the comic book by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson was going to be Amazon’s centerpiece offering. Starring Karl Urban, the show imagines a world where superheroes are a carefully branded and marketed private police force managed by a corrupt megacorporation that shields them accountability, and it’s up to mere humans to take them down.
The Activation: The Boys, Carnival Row, and The Expanse each had its own section in the 60,000-square-foot Amazon Prime Video Experience complex near the SDCC grounds, with visitors plunged into their respective landscapes. At the Carnival Row section, for example, visitors were asked to draw “identity cards” listing them as Creatures (aka “Critches”) or Humans and were treated accordingly; Creatures were quickly berated by the local constables while Humans were given carte blanche as they explored the marketplace setting and Carnival Row itself—“a safehouse of ill repute” that still faced its own dangers.
At the other end of the spectrum, the activation for The Boys was a literal car wreck. When we visited, we were plunged into the show’s take on a crucial early scene from the comic-book that inspired the show, and nudged into scouring a decimated auto shop looking for clues.
The activation for The Expanse—much like the show—put visitors in a more thoughtful situation, with visitors meeting with disaffected locals in one of the show’s outer planets as part of a peacekeeping mission. During our stop, we were offered tea and a heartfelt plea for peace as well as the chance to partake in an off-the-books “business proposition.” (For the record, no actual currency was offered.)
The Parties: In Amazon’s case, the activation doubled as a host site by night for soirees each night celebrating each show with DJs; live-action setpieces atop its mammoth reflective tower; photo booths; screenings for each show, and the chance to mingle with cast members. On Friday night, Amazon screened the first two episodes of The Boys, where the audience got to sit with the cast while servers walked around with milk shakes and popcorn. At the Saturday night Carnival Row bash, stars Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne first appeared incognito in their own cosplays before revealing themselves to the crowd.
The Swag: At least some of the visitors to the Amazon complex walked away with pouch of challenge coins for each of the five shows, along with bonus prizes for doing each of the three experiences. The Expanse had special, spill-proof tumblers that would function pretty well in zero-g. Carnival Row had wearable fairy wings. The Boys gave out a special pin, and if you were lucky, you got to visit a secret comic book store and take home The Boys #66 and other assorted comics, depending on how well you did playing a game of darts.
The Panels: With not much available on The Order—creator Dennis Heaton said that filming on its second season had only recently begun—the centerpiece of Netflix’s presentation this year was the Witcher/Dark Crystal double-header on Friday. Stars Henry Cavill, Freya Allan, and Anya Chalotra showed the crowd some clips showing that Lauren Schmidt Hissrich’s adaptation of the book series is set to step into the void for fans of high-concept fantasy stories.
Meanwhile, the Dark Crystal panel had an ace up its sleeve—or rather, a Joker. Mark Hamill, who voices the evil Scientist on the prequel to the 1982 Jim Henson & Frank Oz classic, shined throughout the panel, riffing with both fans and a starstruck Taron Egerton, who yelled “It’s Luke fucking Skywalker!” at one point before giving way to an advance screening of Age’s first episode. It’s not a spoiler to say that new director Louis Letterier and his crew have successfully married the original’s puppetry with modern directing tech with enough aplomb that fans shouldn’t worry about a slump.
The Activation: Two years ago, the streaming service had a lush spot at the Hilton San Diego Gaslamp Quarter Hotel promoting Bright, Stranger Things, and what we thought at the time would be a highlight of its Marvel slate in The Defenders. It had VR, set recreations, and actors in costume--the works. But this time around, with Stranger Things on hiatus and Marvel developing its own service (one firmly integrated into its film universe), Netflix held back, only promoting a small Dark Crystal walkthrough on the convention floor.
The Swag: Netflix swag was hard to come by, but a small number of attendees scored a headband with a pair of gelfling ears.
There were a couple of worthwhile surprises for fans at Hulu’s panels: fans of Veronica Mars piled into Ballroom 20 knowing they’d get to see the first episode of the show’s fourth season. What they didn’t know until star Kristen Bell announced it was that the whole eight-episode run was available that day—a week earlier than anticipated. Justin Roiland, a creator of Rick & Morty, revealed the animatics (basically animated storyboards) from his new series for Hulu, Solar Opposites, which centers on a family of aliens trying (or not) to fit into middle America life. The best news, however, was that Roiland and his team seem to have gotten their act together, promising the audience they wouldn’t have to wait for years between seasons for either of this shows.
The Activations: Last year, Hulu recreated a New England bed and breakfast that took you through an impressive multistage haunted house experience. This year, post Disney merger, Hulu was bundled unremarkably with FX and 20th Century Fox’s installation on the convention floor.
Midway through con, Seth McFarlane announced that his space comedy, The Orville, would be moving to Hulu. A few blocks from the convention center, he transformed a warehouse space into a gallery of props, costumes, and storyboards from the show’s two seasons, as well as a photo opp with one of the series’ main monsters.
The Swag: Promoters handed out The Orville hats and the new, hardbound The World of The Orville from Titan Books.
This Year’s Show: Pennyworth
The Party/Activation: Perhaps it’s fitting that one of the more unsung streaming services landed one of the most unsung characters in the DC universe: Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Stylized as a 1950s British action spy thriller, the show features a young Jack Bannon in Michael Caine’s role.
Epix rented out the basement of the upscale Oxford Social Club, transforming it into a series of scenes presumably from the series. Upon entering, party guests were served craft cocktails (e.g. The Alfred, a “mince pie old fashioned) and ushered into drag queen cabaret. In another room, there was a photo opp, where you were strapped to a torture chair and interrogated by costumed criminals who snapped a shareable picture while a metal sceptor was swung at your head. Epix was punching well above its class with this well-articulated activation, but we’re still not quite sure what the show is actually about.
The Swag: Attendees of the party received a black eagle lapel pin if they downloaded the Epix app and a collectible postcard with a poem written in front of you by a costumed poet.
CBS All Access
Star Trek has long been the butt of nerd convention jokes, but with the launch of the Discovery reboot in 2017, CBS All Access has moved the franchise up from a small ballroom into a 90-minute “Star Trek Universe” block. The Star Trek resurgence is welcomed, but CBS All Access still has a long journey ahead before it truly meets the expectations of one of the most demanding fandoms in the alpha quadrant.
The Activations: VR/AR has proven a perpetual challenge for exhibitors on the convention, both because of the external cacophony and because of the time it takes to swap people in and out of a headset. Star Trek took a different tack this year, installing “The Transporter” on the convention floor: essentially a solitary confinement-sized room with enclosed entirely by screens. Every few seconds, the transporter sounds would swish and you’d be in another scene. All the while, you were on film to produce a shareable social media video. Unfortunately, all we ended up with was a clip of ourselves looking confused and underwhelmed.
"Jean-Luc Picard: The First Duty,” a museum pop-up installed in an art gallery down the street, on the other hand was a delightful tribute to the Next Generation captain.
The Swag: Upon exiting the transporter experience, guests were handed a weighty metal com-badge style “Visitor” pin. The general consensus was that it was one of the better pins of the con.
After last year’s Comic-Con, the popular anime streaming service was acquired by AT&T’s WarnerMedia, making it kin to two other streaming services, VRV and the upcoming HBO Max. For other networks, that might be cause for worry, but Crunchyroll has put its dedicated fans (who bring cosplay to a spiritual level) at the center of its brand through anime conventions and fan documentaries. During its late Saturday night panel, the Crunchyroll team burned through its upcoming offerings, including a slew of mobile games, such as Mob Psycho 100: Psychic Battle and Attack on Titan TACTICS.
The Parties: Crunchyroll teamed up with Experience Level Entertainment for two of the weekend’s bigger parties at the swank nightclub Fluxx: Ready Party One and the Awesome Mixer Vol. 2, both of which traded on 80s and 90s style to attract fans going from the con floor to the dance floor by featuring DMC (yes, that DMC), Dan Fogler from the Fantastic Beasts film series, 80s cover specialists the Flux Capacitors, and Farscape star and singer Gigi Edgley among other acts.
The Activation: During the day, Fluxx was transformed into Crunchyroll HQ, the company’s first off-site activation. Visitors could dive into a tub of several hundred plush “bananyas,” pose with the enormous sword from Black Clover, and try out the new mobile games.
The Swag: Crunchyroll was the first to admit that its booth on the convention floor was dinky, but nevertheless it had fans coming back again and again to get one-per-day mystery pin. If you took the pin to Crunchyroll HQ, staff handed you an exclusive challenge coin.
Unsatisfied with its success with community produced content, ASMR videos, and the creation of “YouTuber” as an apparently legitimate job title, YouTube Originals is continuing to pursue scripted content. At its panel, Cobra Kai, the Karate Kid spin-off, announced a third season. The cast of the superpowered drama Impulse also met with reporters to discuss its upcoming second season.
The Party: Variety and YouTube Originals teamed up for a party, but we weren’t able to get in.
For a network with a set of shows acclaimed by fans and critics alike including the animated Young Justice: Outsiders series and the live-action Doom Patrol show, DCU had a seemingly insular approach to Comic-Con this year. Subscribers to the service received their own set of swag, including original prints; passes to a screening of a documentary on the making of Zachary Levi’s Shazam; and there was purportedly some sort of VIP boat excursion in the San Diego marina, among other items.
DC’s official presence was limited to one two-hour panel rounding up Outsiders, Doom Patrol, Titans, and the upcoming Harley Quinn animated show, which at least looks like it’ll be a gnarly romp. And the most visible sign of the channel’s footprint on the actual floor was a walk-through experience promoting the latter. They also sponsored a series of pedicabs lined up across the street. But compared to last year, when DCU had a Harley rage room and a Batman escape room, it’s tough to give the channel more than an incomplete grade for this year in the wake of Warner Bros. apparent reluctance to promote its DC film slate at the con.
The Chinese viral video app popular among Gen-Zers dabbled in Comic-Con promotions this year, but you had to squint to see the banner attached to the back of plane circling around the convention center. There were also a handful of unremarkable branded pedicabs.
Technically, NBC doesn’t have a streaming service yet. But it’s not hard to imagine that the shows represented at the convention— The Good Place, Superstore, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine—will be expected to be centerpieces when the NBCUniversal offering launches in 2021. In terms of showmanship, the Nine-Nine installation definitely brought its A-game. Visitors were treated to not only a full “mobile office” complete with officers and cosplaying perps, but they got recruited into an escape room-style puzzle game replete with geeky touches. At the very least, this effort went more smoothly for them than the Game of Thrones panel did for the future HBO Max.
But it was another digital service, Audible, that provided maybe the most bittersweet touch of all to this year’s convention, with an activation devoted to one of Stan Lee’s final works, the audio adventure Alliances: A Trick of Light. Narrated by Grown-ish’s Yara Shahidi, fans made their way through an appropriately vivid activation that included a final message from Stan himself: “What is more real? A world we are born into, or one we create ourselves? Excelsior.”